|A State Church|
Many people assume that the roles of Church and State can be summed up very easily: meet people’s material needs. Of course, if that orientation is correct, then either organized religion or government is redundant. In the interests of efficiency, organized religion should take over government, or government should take over organized religion, whichever is in the best interests of the common good, or is consistent with the will of the people. And, since the State has a monopoly on the instruments of coercion, you know who is going to win.
|State Control of Religion|
We believe that is wrong. The role of the State is to enable people to meet their own needs through their own efforts — “provide a level playing field” as they say. Only in “extreme cases” can direct State aid be justified. Anything else is an unwarranted expansion of State power.
We are not, however, concerned with the State in this short series, but with organized religion. We can use the Catholic Church as an exemplar, as it appears to be the most highly organized religion today, and its social teachings are most obviously universal, or “catholic,” if you prefer.
|"There is no need to bring in the State."|
Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, “On Capital and Labor,” from 1891 is usually considered the first “social encyclical.” The pope made it clear from the very first that he considered growth of State power dangerous, especially into the area of how people are to meet their subsistence needs. As he stated,
“Man’s needs do not die out, but forever recur; although satisfied today, they demand fresh supplies for tomorrow. Nature accordingly must have given to man a source that is stable and remaining always with him, from which he might look to draw continual supplies. And this stable condition of things he finds solely in the earth and its fruits. There is no need to bring in the State. Man precedes the State, and possesses, prior to the formation of any State, the right of providing for the substance of his body.” (Rerum Novarum, § 7.)
Meeting people’s material needs is an obvious and important aspect of Catholic social teaching. No one denies that in any way. Nevertheless, while there definitely is a place for meeting people’s material needs directly by individual or State action (§ 22), an exclusive focus on meeting people’s material needs was not the point of Leo XIII, any more than it has been that of subsequent pontiffs. (Cf. John Paul II, Ecclesia in America, § 67.)
|A Second-Rate State Agency?|
The problem is that interpreting the point of Catholic social teaching as an exclusive focus on meeting people’s material needs (what the solidarist economist Franz Mueller called “meliorism”), means that the Catholic Church has failed as a religion on two levels.
One, “Not in bread alone doth man live, but in every word that proceedeth from the mouth of God.” (Matt. 4:4.)
As it is usually expressed, the Catholic Church is “in the world, but not of it.” (John, 15:19.) The material and the spiritual are both important.
Again, no one denies that. The spiritual, however, is eternal, while the material is transitory.
|The nice, warm feeling worshiping the State gives you.|
If push comes to shove (and there is nothing wrong in hoping that we are never presented with such a choice: “Lead us not into temptation”, Matt. 6:13.), the spiritual has a slight edge over the material; “And fear ye not them that kill the body, and are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him that can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matt. 10:28.) Good as the material world is, and as meritorious and virtuous as it is to provide for people materially, religiously speaking, spiritual needs and the demands of human dignity must always take precedence over material needs.
Two, at the most basic level, we must never provide for people’s material needs in a manner that offends against human dignity. This requires that there must not merely be provision for the maintenance of the body, but for the development of the soul — and that requires that we assist people in becoming more fully human, not regard them as mere consumers of material goods and services.
Simply giving people what they need may be a virtuous act for us, or politically expedient for the State, but it does nothing to help the recipient grow in virtue or even self-respect. As an ordinary thing, people should be put in the position of being able to meet their own needs through their own efforts, not forced into the position of becoming permanent dependents of either a private sector employer or the State.