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COLUMN RIGHT/ TOM BETHELL : The Church Needs a Dose of Reality : Its attack on welfare reform tells the poor that they are not responsible for their situation.

March 01, 1992|TOM BETHELL | Tom Bethell is a media fellow at the Hoover Institution

Welfare in California has been growing at 12% a year--four times the state's population growth. The rolls were soaring even when the state's economy was booming in the mid-1980s. The aid is generous and some people come here to get it; 7% of current recipients did not live in California a year before going on welfare.

Gov. Pete Wilson is trying to address these problems with an initiative that is expected to be on the November ballot. If it becomes law, monthly payments under the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program will be cut by as much as 25%. In addition, benefit increases for women who have additional children while on welfare will be eliminated.

Now Wilson finds himself under criticism from Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles and Archbishop John Quinn of San Francisco. In coordinated press conferences, the prelates accused the governor of making "war on the poor," playing on our "prevailing fears" and so on. Quinn claimed that the measures would "force poor women to have abortions and to make cruel choices in order to take care of their already born children." Mahony attacked the "myth" that the poor "are somehow responsible" for their situation.

The poor are responsible for their lives, however. They are also responsible for the children they conceive. Pregnancy involves an antecedent consensual act, and to represent it (and abortion) as unavoidable is implicitly to dismiss the poor as lacking free will. Nothing could be more condescending than that.

The modern tendency of American Catholics to view the poor in a sentimental, exculpatory light has surely done more harm to the poor than any political reform. The poor do not constitute a moral elite, nor does their economic status exempt them from moral rules. Telling the poor that they are not responsible for their "situation" only undermines their inclination to improve it.

Quinn and Mahony seem not to grasp the morally degrading effects of welfare dependency (one in five of AFDC recipients has been on aid for eight years or more), nor do they recognize that when benefits are high, welfare is rationally chosen as an alternative to an entry-level job. Health-care benefits come with the welfare package, and for recipients, a low-paying job involves the prospect not merely of going to work every day but also the loss of those services. Hence the welfare trap. The only way to correct this is to reduce the overall value of welfare benefits.

Asked if he had any alternative suggestions, Quinn replied: "I'm not a politician. That's not my line." Notice that he advances a political agenda without having to accept the politicians' responsibility. At the same time, of course, the Catholic hierarchy avoids the taxing obligations imposed by the political system itself: Church property and collections at the the plate are free from all taxes.

It's ungracious of an institution to argue that Californians should accept a burden of taxation from which it is exempt. The bishops are nonetheless so imbued with statist presumptions that they see the state (and therefore taxpayers) as having obligations that individual kindness and Christian charity are apparently unable to meet.

Mahony explicitly refers to "the obligation of counties to provide general assistance," and his reinterpretation of Jesus' message of "good news to the poor," found in St. Luke's gospel, is almost a parody of the progressive sermon so often heard in recent decades. "Today," he insists, in a timely update of St. Luke, the "good news must include" affordable and accessible health care, housing "that working families can afford in neighborhoods that are safe and clean," schools "with facilities conducive to learning," and so on. Mahony also approaches the line separating church and state in urging "people to register and vote this election year," and "to look carefully at the issues which confront us, not the sound bites we are fed."

The Catholic Church does many good deeds in the community, particularly with its parish schools. But the intensely political worldview of its spiritual leaders raises questions about the tax-exempt status of the church. The law is not about to be changed any time soon. But the bishops of California might want to do their bit for the political institutions they find so indispensable by making voluntary contributions to the various welfare agencies.

May I suggest 10% of gross receipts for starters? Tithing to the state, rather than receiving tithes, would reassure those of us who feel the bishops should at least back up their statist rhetoric with concrete support for the state. If our bishops seem excessively worldly, perhaps a dose of the real world will cure them.

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