Bishops Can Make a Difference in Welfare Debate

National Catholic Reporter, March 31, 1995 | Go to article overview

Bishops Can Make a Difference in Welfare Debate


As Congress took up sweeping legislation that would dismantle many elements of the social welfare system put in place by the federal government over the past 60 years, the U.S. bishops attempted to slow the runaway train.

Not that they could. What was going on in Congress had more to do with politics and ideology than with common sense.

There is little doubt about the outcome of it all. The Republican bill within a week or two would be approved along a party-line vote. Less certain is whether President Clinton in conscience will be able to sign it.

The Republicans say they are fulfilling their "Contract with America" although increasingly few Americans, it appears, can remember agreeing to the contract. The Republicans claim the welfare bill brings needed reform and begins to dismantle dependency. They denied it would hurt the poor.

"Based on the hysterical cries of those who seek to defend the failed welfare state, you would have thought Republicans were eliminating welfare in its entirety," rather than just slowing its growth, said Rep. Bill Archer, R-Texas.

The Democrats, of course, saw it otherwise. They claimed the GOP bill was taking modest aid from the neediest to feed the greed of the rich. Rep. Harold L. Volkmer. D-Mo., called the Republican bill "very mean-spirited, very radical."

Enter the U.S. bishops who said they opposed many elements of the plan, including proposals to end payments to legal immigrants and to the children of unmarried women. The bishops said they would support "genuine welfare reform that strengthens families, encourages productive work and protects vulnerable children," but opposed "abandonment of the federal government's necessary role in helping families overcome poverty and meet their children's basic needs."

The bishops made it clear they did not like the Republican legislation. For weeks Catholics running church agencies nationwide had been sending out distress signals, warning that they would not be able to handle the dislocation that could be caused by the Republican initiatives.

In and outside of Congress, the talk last week was welfare reform. It was good that the bishops spoke up when they did. It was even better that they laced their comments in values for the long haul. Before addressing specifics, the bishops said their remarks were guided by values that grow out of a century of Catholic social teaching and have been at the heart of their social agenda for two decades. These values include: respect for human life and human dignity; the importance of the family and the value of work; an option for the poor and a call to participation; and finally the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity. It is a solid, much needed, value-packed blueprint for rebuilding the nation.

Unfortunately, at century's end, poverty still characterizes much of the nation. It is a poverty that goes well beyond unemployment and hunger, although it most often starts there. This poverty is spawned by the breakdown of family and communal values. It is fostered by a national ethic that often sees production as a measure of human worth. It is fueled by excessive individualism and competitiveness and economic beliefs that celebrate both.

Late 20th century capitalism has worked miracles raising living standards worldwide.

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