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Can Christian ethics and the welfare state be reconciled? Dr. Chodakiewicz weighs in

Speaking at a conference organized by the Polish-American Foundation for Economic Research and Education (PAFERE) at in Kraków (Poland), Prof. Marek Jan Chodakiewicz interrogated the concept of “social justice” and the welfare state from the perspective of Christianity.

An abridged summary of the remarks follows:                   

Christianity, Social Justice, and the Welfare State: Some Thoughts on Ideas and Practice
Remarks at the PAFERE conference, “Welfare State and Christianity,” Kraków, 8 September 2012

“Social justice” to justice is as an electric chair to a chair, to paraphrase an old anti-Communist joke about “people’s democracy” and democracy. For some, however, “social justice” demands a welfare state. So-called “progressive Christians,” in particular, justify their experiments in socialism by grounding “social justice” in the Christian tradition. According to this interpretation, Christianity itself dictates “social justice” which is to be fulfilled by the welfare state.

Yet, Jesus said: “My kingdom is not of this world.” This denotes the limitations of the Christian project: no utopia is possible here on earth. St. Augustine further elaborated on the Christian practice by positing the division between the Church and state. Whereas the Christian in the public square had every duty to infuse his actions with his faith, there was to remain a strict division between the sacred and the profane spheres of our lives. That implied no state institution building that would attempt to bring about the messianic message of Christianity. This has not only protected us from utopia imposed in a mistaken belief of fulfilling Christian duties by taking over the state for the project, but also created an asylum for the faith, shielding it from the interference by the secular world. 

In fact, even at its peak, the Church was adamantly opposed to constructing what would amount to a theocracy in Western Christendom. According to Christopher Dawson, after the fall of the Roman Empire, the Church rebuilt civilization in the West. It gradually established and reestablished a variety of institutions. The infrastructure of the monasteries and churches were also schools, hospitals, orphanages, old age homes, economic units, and travel centers. The Church provided the talent, the framework, and the spirit. But, once again, the West did not become a theocracy. No medieval welfare state existed. The state was limited.

Christianity has infused the West with many sentiments which allow for freedom to flourish gradually. Free will is the principal force here. It has endowed our actions with individual liberty and responsibility. Next, “Thou shall not steal” safeguards against excessive taxation which is indispensable for the avaricious appetite of the welfare state, even while “Render onto Ceasar” firmly sets the limits of what the state may justly request, including for the purpose of charity services. Another important belief is that of our equality before God, which stems from the conviction about the innate dignity of each individual human soul. The idea of Christian justice draws heavily on this. This is the source of the religious admonition that depraving the laborers of just wages is “a sin screaming to Heavens for vengeance.” Equality of souls also entails compassion. We are further encouraged to dispense charity voluntarily. If God blessed us more than others, we have an obligation to help less fortunate ones. Even the custom of fasting introduced to emulate Christ reflected the desire to help the rich to empathize with the poor by obligating the former to experience voluntarily and periodically hunger that the latter knew unwillingly and frequently.

The stress is on the individual, voluntary action. In other words, Christianity has fostered freedom, but freedom with responsibility. This mechanism functioned on a variety of levels. It has ensured that no utopia subverted the Christian project. And it has guarded us lest freedom turned to license.

Since a Christian is individually held responsible for his deeds, a system that allows an individual to thrive best is most just. Presently, that is free market democratic capitalism. But, as Alberto Piedra argues, capitalism must be restrained by the salubrious context of Christianity. Without the voluntary civilizational restraints of Natural Law, the vaunted Invisible Hand begins to tyrannize the weak. A Randian system comes into being in its nefarious, social Darwinist form.

The question now is: how should Natural Law shape our system? How to obtain social justice while preserving individual freedom and the socio-political system that guarantees it? History shows that, usually, we can neither obtain a “pure” free market, nor “pure” social justice. Instead, an uneasy compromise ensues which attempts to accommodate current politics and timeless traditions. But even on the Right, there are various ways to deal with freedom and its challenges, including the welfare state.

Let us look at conservative counter-revolutionaries and reactionaries of the late 18th and 19th century. They were very wary of freedom, free markets in particular. De Maistre and de Bonald preferred an agrarian, natural economy, and were paternalists. The second wave of French reactionaries remained paternalistic, but they also became corporatists. They viewed individualist capitalism as an acid dissolving Christian tradition and organic institutions. Further, the reactionaries feared that the exploitation of industrial workers would unleash a socialist revolution. Some, such as Metternich or Bismarck, even employed a tactic of introducing limited state socialism to stave off more radical socialism and protect absolutism.

During the 20th century, Communism-an extreme variety of socialism-assailed both Christian tradition and private property. Conceptions previously considered radical, such as an expansive welfare state, became increasingly mainstream. Conservative Catholic leaders in various European countries-from Salazar’s Portugal through Franco’s Spain to Adenauer’s West Germany-strove to reconcile Christian ethics and property rights with a degree of state involvement and social security.

Yet, as the failures of communism and socialism became increasingly evident, so did the benefits of the free market. An increasing number of conservatives came to realize that Christian ethics were reconcilable with economic liberty, while the welfare state was largely incompatible with Christian morality. Ultimately, after all, embracing progressive, welfarist solutions by the Right only paves the way for more socialism. Justice demands that charity be practiced voluntarily and locally. No utopia is possible on earth, not even its ersatz in the form of the welfare state as the Greeks and other PIIGS are finding out as we speak.

Marek Jan Chodakiewicz