Individualism and community are the opposite halves of the American character. For every myth of the self-made man, there is the image of the closely knit New England small town. For every lone cowboy on the frontier, there are the social, political, and cultural groups that Americans have formed since the beginning of the Republic. Yet while individualism remains as ingrained as ever, the impulse toward community has weakened. As Robert Putnam has pointed out in his influential book Bowling Alone, participation in groups of all sorts has dropped dramatically. The informal social capital that develops from community life and that is critical to democracy is in danger of dissipating.

The Catholic principle of subsidiarity, first set forth in its modern form by Pope Leo XIII in his social encyclicals, provides a political template for reinterpreting the balance between community and individual. Subsidiarity proposes a series of nested communities, beginning with the family and extending up through the national state; it encompasses not just “public” or governmental institutions but also private institutions, such as churches, corporations, and civic groups, that make up society. Social problems should be addressed at the most local level able to solve them, which has the result of increasing community attachments. More generally, Catholic social thought is grounded in a conception of the human person that is relational rather than individualistic. That is to say, Catholicism emphasizes the bonds persons have with one another as created beings and asserts that these bonds create reciprocal duties and responsibilities.

In The Catholic Ethic and the Spirit of Community, John E. Tropman, a professor of social welfare and business at the University of Michigan, asks whether this Catholic ethic exists as more than an intellectual ideal. Taking his title, of course, from Max Weber’s famous book on the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism, Tropman’s thesis is that something called “the Catholic ethic” conditions attitudes on subjects ranging from community to forgiveness, and that this ethic differs from a “Protestant” ethic in significant ways.

The book is divided into five parts. The first introduces the concept of a Catholic ethic in contrast to a “Protestant” ethic. Part 2 lays out what Tropman calls the “Pillars of the Catholic Ethic.” These include assumptions about what the Catholic ethic teaches about work, money, family, forgiveness, and the otherworldly focus of life, which Tropman summarizes as a “helping ethic.” Part 3 supplies a “Cultural and Structural History of the Catholic Ethic and Community Helping,” in which Tropman examines both values and institutions that have shaped the Catholic ethic, from monasteries to Catholic Charities USA. Part 4 focuses on America. Here Tropman uses surveys and other sociological data to discover whether the principles described earlier have contemporary resonance. The final part, “The Long View,” offers concluding observations about possible applications of the Catholic ethic.

Tropman finds, generally, that Catholics are different. The available surveys of members of particular religious groups show that Catholics come to different conclusions about economics, the family, social life, and politics than their Protestant counterparts. In general, the Catholic ethic stresses family more than work, community more than the individual, other values rather than wealth, and takes a more favorable attitude toward the poor. Catholics also have a more favorable view of government, in general, than Protestants (with the exception of African-American Protestants, whose views on some issues are closely aligned with those of Catholics).

The “helping ethic” Tropman finds at the heart of Catholicism, however, is not without problems. He arbitrarily separates his Catholic ethic into “dominant” and “subdominant” strands.  In most cases, Tropman simply equates a pro-welfare state attitude with the Catholic social ethic. Indeed, Tropman concludes that the “helping elements” of the Catholic ethic “were politically important…in establishing the social acceptance necessary for the New Deal and the Social Security Act to succeed” and that “the Catholic ethic directly supports welfare state activities.” Any approach that diverges from this pro-welfare position—such as that of Michael Novak, whom he mentions only in passing—is presented as a Protestant intrusion into “mainstream” Catholic social thought.

This dichotomy is too simplistic; it distorts important nuances of the Catholic ethic. While Catholics may not as a matter of principle oppose the concept of government aid to the needy, a secular welfare state that usurps rather than supports the role of family and local communities is not the same thing as a social welfare system animated by Christian charity and operated through local communities. And while Catholics may not stigmatize the poor because of their poverty—as Tropman finds characteristic of a Protestant ethic—that does not mean that Catholicism absolves individuals of responsibility as persons. It means only that Catholicism does not assign a theological status to anyone on the basis of his economic position.

The connections between the theological understanding of humanity and the duties flowing from that understanding are lost in Tropman’s interpretation of the data. Too often, Tropman simply assumes that the   welfare state is derived from a watered-down Catholicism or that the Catholic ethic is a sacralized New Deal. (Tellingly, Tropman offers no sustained discussion of subsidiarity.) This conclusion makes the Catholic ethic merely the praeparatio evangelium of the liberal welfare state and does not further any discussion of Catholicism’s unique contribution to social thought.

These problems aside, Tropman is generally a fair-minded scholar, and The Catholic Ethic performs the valuable service of showing that Catholics do think differently. More work needs to be done on the question of what Catholics think the role of private welfare institutions should be and on their attitudes toward poverty. Nevertheless, Tropman sheds needed light on the present expression of some of the values that have shaped Catholics for two millennia.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative BookstoreThis article originally appeared in Crisis Magazine and is republished here by permission.

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5 replies to this post
  1. Pope Bennedict XVI gave an excellent summary of Catholic political thought in his discussion of the meaning of the Kingdom of God and juxtaposition of Jesus to Barabas. This can be found in the first tome of his ‘Jesus of Nazareth’.

    As seems typical of Bennedict, he manages in a few short, eloquent sentences to illustrate a powerful idea, and this idea runs contrary to what appears to be Mr. Tropman’s thesis regarding Catholicism and government aid.

    Using Bennedict’s imagery, one may say that those who choose the welfare state choose Barabas, who was not merely some criminal, but who by action and name was an implied symbol of the Kingdom of God as understood in opposition to Jesus’ view, that is to say Heaven actualized here on Earth.

    • Mr. Rieth: are you referring to the well-known horrors of immanentizing the eschaton? I can’t speak to what Barabas did or didn’t symbolize, but as someone who has in the past received benefits from the welfare state, and who has known plenty of other people who did so as well, I can assure you that no one confuses being on welfare with “Heaven actualized here on Earth”. If trying to help people survive is now considered Utopian, then Utopia ain’t what it used to be.

  2. I am glad that ‘Protestant’ is put in quotes, because the position so portrayed has much more to do with Darwinism than with Protestant social thought. Abraham Kuyper and associates, who worked together with Catholics in the Netherlands a hundred years ago presented perhaps the most developed form of Protestant social thought. In addition to the vertical subsidiarity of Leo XIII, there is a horizontal division into separate ‘spheres’, each with its own characteristics and domains, all deriving from the family as the foundational society, being in the image of the Blessed Trinity. Thus the school is not a business is not the church is not a volunteer fire department, etc. Charity is in fact to be done, but the civil government, that sphere with the ius gladii, is not the correct sphere for that commanded undertaking.

    The Protestant view takes a more radical view of the Fall, and is in agreement with Lord Acton’s dictum that power tends to corrupt, and absolute power, absolutely. Thus a totalizing State, even if under the suzerainty of the Pope, as was Roman Catholic perspective prior to the loss of the Papal States to Garibaldi, is rejected as far too dangerous to entrust human beings with.

  3. Mr. Shifflett, I invite you to read Thomas Jefferson’s. Draft of a Bill for the Support of the Poor:

    You will note how the entire program is organized with the goal of finding work for the idle, rather than supporting their idleness. I think this kind of system is far preferable to what we have today.

    I disagree that welfare “helps people survive”. Evidence demonstrates that it creates a culture of dependence in place of a culture of thrift and enterpreneurship. (Evidence being the present state of the US economy). Welfare entrenches poverty, making it harder to survive.

    I think the Catholic Church and private Charity are better means of helping the poor. My fiance sent 1 ton of clothing to poor people in Zimbabwe, and her sister spent a year as a nurse there in a Catholic mission.One of the priests at the mission was even murdered during their time there. Zimbabwe is full of poor people, America is not. No American ever really has a good reason for being on welfare. Finally, my fiance annually collects hundreds of articles of toys, clothing and other items for an orphanage. I have been known to carry the boxes.

    I give all these examples because often it is assumed that if one is against welfare, one is against the poor or selfish.

    My Parish has a policy of no cash handouts to “poor” people, instead offering food, shelter, and the chance to work helping others. I have seen the “poor” turn my Priest down when he offered them these things rather than a handout. Everyone I have ever met who was on welfare was an alcoholic. In the United States, I worked for a time in a grocery store and witnessed people buying normal food for money and then junk food for foodstamps. I also am aware of “poor” people who inflict wounds on themselves to elicit pity and money. Most people who are working poor are too proud to collect welfare, preffering to tighten their belt in times of need.

    Welfare is one of the main reasons America is a second rate economy now. It has killed the spirit of enterprise.

    As for Barabas, in short Bennedict notes that his name means Son of the Father and that most likely he was imprisoned for political murder against the Roman occupation. In this sense, the Jews’ choice to free Barabas, not Jesus, is interpretted by Bennedict XVI as symbolizing their preference for the political rather than personal salvation of their souls.

    • Mr. Rieth: Thank you for your reply, and for your kind invitation for me to read the Jefferson document; I’ll get to it just as soon as I can. In the meantime, I’ll note a few points of disagreement between us about “welfare”.

      You say that welfare doesn’t “help people survive,” but your actual criticism is that it creates “a culture of dependency.” That strikes me as a non sequitur; clearly, welfare could meet people’s survival needs while also debilitating their spirit and undermining their work ethic. The same applies to your claim that “Welfare entrenches poverty, making it harder to survive.” If welfare “entrenches poverty,” then one could argue that welfare makes it harder to escape poverty or to thrive or to prosper; but that’s not the same as saying welfare makes it harder to survive.

      You seem unaware of, or uninterested in, the welfare reforms enacted in the 1990’s which reduced welfare rolls nationwide, set time limits on receiving benefits, strengthened work/education requirements, etc. None of which matters to you, apparently, because according to you “No American ever really has a good reason for being on welfare,” an assertion you don’t attempt to support (probably because it’s insupportable) but instead follow with a paean to your fiancé’s charity and your own willingness to carry boxes for her. God bless you both.

      The fact that “Everyone I ever met who was on welfare was an alcoholic” proves, as you know, exactly nothing; and I don’t quite get your indignation about seeing people use food stamps to buy junk food—was it the junk food that outraged you, or the fact that those people were in possession of cash, too? And then this: “I also am aware of ‘poor’ people who inflict wounds on themselves to elicit pity and money.’” You don’t specify how you came to be “aware of” those people; my guess is you probably learned about them by watching a John Stossel segment. In any case, I assume you’re not talking in this instance about welfare (for which people don’t qualify by displaying self-inflicted wounds) but about beggarly handouts—so, different topic.

      And on you go. “Most people who are working poor are too proud to collect welfare…” If that’s the case, then I guess welfare doesn’t create such a culture of dependency after all, does it? The work ethic survives! “Welfare is one of the main reasons America is a second-rate economy now.” Is it really? In comparison to what other nation(s) is our economy “second-rate”? This charge echoes your earlier statement about the “culture of dependence”—“Evidence,” you wrote, “being the present state of the U.S. economy.” The present state of the U.S. economy is a direct and continuing result of the financial markets’ meltdown in 2008, and has not one thing to do with welfare or the “culture of dependence.” Then you pronounce that welfare “has killed the spirit of enterprise,” right after you asserted that most of the working poor won’t even take welfare!

      At a time when we have 8% national unemployment—a figure that, depending on how you choose to measure, may in truth be as much as twice that—you seem to think that anyone on welfare could just go out and get a job if they wanted, even though it’s been documented that even recent college graduates are having trouble finding work. I guess you figure that American employers are eager to hire alcoholics and people who inflict wounds on themselves: yes, that’s definitely the workforce of our future.

      I apologize for going on at such length. Your fiancé is no doubt a saint, and I’ve personally benefited from the kindness and compassion of Catholic Charities, none of whose workers ever (to my knowledge at least) presumed to judge my circumstances, my needs, or my motives in seeking help. Your willingness to generalize, to label, and to disparage so many people is, frankly, breathtaking.

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