Entitlement Is Not a Swear Word

The issue of entitlements, and entitlement reform, is inexorably gaining prominence, yet I fear greatly that the Democrats, and specifically President Obama, are letting the Republicans, and specifically Cong. Paul Ryan, define the debate. And, this is an issue on which the USCCB should, I believe, be front and center articulating a foundational article of Catholic social teaching that has implications for both our commitment to social justice and our commitment to the dignity of every human life.

At issue is the future of programs like Social Security and Medicare, and to a lesser extent Medicaid and Unemployment Insurance benefits. These last two differ from the first two because they are means-tested, but all four programs stand for a core proposition: That in any society, but certainly a society as rich as ours, human beings qua human beings are entitled certain things. Social Security is premised on the belief that all Americans are entitled to live out their golden years free from the threat of abject poverty. Medicare is premised on the belief that all Americans are entitled to health care without having to consider the costs. Medicaid is premised on the belief that the poor are entitled to health care they otherwise couldn’t afford. Unemployment Insurance is premised on the belief that workers’ ability to care for their families should not be subject to the vagaries of the market or the caprice of their employers.

Entitlement programs are statements about what we conceive as the common good. Entitlement programs also are profound statements about what we believe human dignity demands. Everyone is entitled to the necessities of life: food, shelter, health care. This belief is not only central to Catholic social teaching as it has developed in the last 120 years since the publication of Rerum Novarum in 1891, it is quite explicit in Scripture. In the letter of James, we read: “If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit?” In the First Letter of John, we read: “But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or speech, but in deed and in truth.” And, of course, the Gospels contain not only the Ur-text of Catholic social teaching, Matthew 25, but as well the story of Lazarus and the rich man in the Gospel of Luke, and Jesus’ explicit warning, also in Luke, “Take heed and beware of all covetousness; for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions,” which precedes the story of the man who stored his riches and laid up his treasure in his barns but not in heaven. And, of course, the Hebrew Scriptures are filled with requirements for justice to the poor and the migrant.

Jesus – and Pope Leo XIII for that matter – was not an economist to be sure. And, he spoke before the advent of our capitalist, consumerist society. But, he did not mince words. Nor did Jesus, nor the Law of Moses, conceive of these moral precepts as somehow confined to individual charity, despite the claims of some modern day neo-cons. I have called attention previously to a telling statement by Charles Krauthammer, which was originally called to my attention by Mark Silk. Krauthammer wrote:

Now, I’m no theologian, but I’m fairly certain that neither Jesus nor his rabbinic forebears, when speaking of giving, meant some obligation to the state. You tithe the priest, not the tax man.
The Judeo-Christian tradition commands personal generosity as represented, for example, by the biblical injunction against retrieving any sheaf left behind while harvesting one’s own field. That is for the gleaners — “the poor and the alien” (Leviticus 19:10). Like Ruth in the field of Boaz. As far as I can tell, that charitable transaction involved no mediation by the IRS.

Silk replied:
Now, I'm no theologian, but you don't have to be one to apprehend that Leviticus 19:9-10 has to do with a legal obligation, not "personal generosity." That's to say, when God spake unto Moses, He was, like, laying down the law, as in Public Policy for the Promised Land. As Josephus noted, Ancient Israel was not a monarchy, oligarchy, or democracy but a theocracy. And under God's rule, there was a mandate to redistribute wealth, from the owners of the vineyards and the fields to those who had not.
I call that an obligation to the state.

Sign up for Copy Desk Daily to receive a daily email with our latest news stories.

Of course, Catholics can, and probably should, disagree about how we, as a society, fulfill the demands of justice in our day. I do not doubt that there are different policy approached to caring for the elderly and the infirm. In Europe, all the countires have some form of universal health care, but they employ a wide variety of means for achieving it – and they pay a lot less than we do in the U.S. and get health outcomes as good or better than those our bloated, capitalized health care system manages. But, what the President and the Democrats should be saying loud and clear is that, yes, human beings precisely because they are human beings, are entitled to certain basic necessities in life. Entitlement is not a bad word, it is a just word, a word rich with import for what we believe about the dignity of each and every human person. And, Catholic commentators, and the USCCB too, should be stating as clearly as possible that entitlement is not a bad word, and that when people like Cong. Ryan speak it as if it were a swear word, they are not merely disagreeing with an application of Catholic social teaching, they have missed the bus.

I am sometimes shocked that what seems obvious to me is often opaque to others, so let me point out the clear inferences of such an embrace of entitlements as constituitive of a just and humane society. Obviously, out polity has reached no concensus on such basic issues as the right to life and how that right to life applies to abortion. Ask yourself this question: Is a society that recognizes the inherent human dignity of its citizens, their right to the basic necessities of life simply because they are human beings, is that a society more likely to come to the conclusion that abortion is wrong than a society that says, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled”? Put differently, once people begin to learn again, implicitly, that there is such a thing as human dignity and that it cannot be ignored for budgetary or other reasons, might not that implicit faith lead them, eventually, to consider what it means to share a common humanity, and that all human beings must be given a place at the social table, and how such considerations will impact our culture’s views on abortion, immigration and a host of issues?

I invite my fellow leftie Catholics to encourage the Democratic Party to be more open to finding innovative ways to preserve entitlements. (Hint: Until we figure out how to control health care costs, nothing else matters!) I also urge those of us on the left to be clear in our moral statement of the case for entitlements, not to shy away from explicitly moral and religious language. I should like to hear the President quote the story of Lazarus and the rich man at some point this campaign season. (I understand our Protestant friends still have some troubles with the Book of James!) I urge my right-leaning fellow Catholics to ask their political leaders to reconsider what it means to be entitled, and if the brave new world of competition and opportunity they celebrate, for all its allure, must not also take heed of the unconditional moral obligations we have to provide the basic necessities of life to all. We can all disagree about the means, but we cannot disagree about the goal: a society in which every human person qua human person is entitled to food, shelter and health care.

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts and reactions to Letters to the Editor. Learn more here