“A coarsening of attitudes” toward the young, the old and the poor

America (the Jesuit weekly magazine, not the country) has published an excellent editorial on the current budget debate. Though it is couched in Catholic terms, and appeals to Catholic tradition, I suspect it will speak to Christians of many denominations:

Worst of all has been a noticeable coarsening of attitudes among some Catholics toward those who have come to rely on government aid to sustain themselves in these difficult times. This emerging resentment forgets that the nation’s modest social services are directed primarily at supporting children, the elderly, the disabled and those hurt by the recent recession.

It is not surprising that the most powerful currents of a cultural mainstream should influence the course of its tributaries. In 1997 then Archbishop Francis George remarked that U.S. citizens “are culturally Calvinist, even those who profess the Catholic faith.” Over time many U.S. Catholics have internalized some unacceptable American conceits, like the primacy of the individual and the free market and the inherent inefficiency of government. They have come to view with suspicion mediating structures, like unions and advocacy groups, that challenge America’s understanding of itself or its role in the world.

Some Catholics make an idol out of ideology or a fierce faith out of nationalism, elevating personal responsibility while diminishing communal obligations. Their “Americanism” pretends that personal charity can adequately replace the need for social justice and distorts the meaning of subsidiarity into nearly unrecognizable form. Unlike his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI has not directly addressed this modern mutation of Americanism, but he has called for better education among laypeople about church social doctrine and reminded them that it is their responsibility to bring the church’s social justice concerns into civic discourse.

Counter to mainstream American culture, the church teaches that a society should be judged by how well it addresses the needs of its poor and vulnerable members. It demands a preferential option for the poor, not the Pentagon, when moral documents like the federal budget are prepared, a point frequently noted by the U.S. bishops. The church does not accept the peculiar American premise that the poor are generally better off left to their own devices, lest their dignity be degraded by paternalism—a high-sounding slogan that can be used to abdicate collective responsibility.

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