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welfare stateIn June of 1979, the recently elected pope, John Paul II, passed through the Iron Curtain, to his homeland of Poland. Over the course of nine days, the world witnessed a profound display of distinctly Christian rhetoric that ignited the moral imaginations of a people bound under the yoke of communism and atheistic materialism, sparking a mass movement of liberation that swept over Eastern Europe in the course of a decade. It was called the ‘summer of hope’.

Unfortunately, such a profound and precise apologetic from the church has yet to surface when it comes to Western welfare states. Indeed, it appears that the church in the West, particularly in America, is responding to the social evolutions specific to the modern welfare state with an intellectually incoherent message.

The latest example of this intellectual incoherence was the interview of Timothy Cardinal Dolan by “Meet the Press” moderator David Gregory. On the December 1st show, Gregory asked the Cardinal why he thought the church was “losing” the argument over gay-marriage: “Well, I think maybe we’ve been out-marketed,” he replied. “We’ve been caricatured as being anti-gay. And as much as we’d say, Wait a minute, we’re pro-marriage, we’re pro-traditional marriage, we’re not ‘anti’ anybody. I don’t know. When you have forces like Hollywood, when you have forces like politicians, when you have forces like some opinion-molders that are behind it, it’s a tough battle.” But in the same interview, Cardinal Dolan went on to say that the Catholic Church would have been one of the “biggest cheerleaders” for Obamacare, had the legislation not mandated that health insurance plans contain coverage for contraception. “We, the bishops of the United States, can you believe it, in 1919 came out for more affordable, more comprehensive, more universal health care. That’s how far back we go in this battle.”

Dolan is rightly concerned over the redefinition of marriage and the family, and he is rightly concerned over the issue of universal philanthropy and social care. However, what appears to escape Dolan’s notice is that his goal of restoring the moral order for marriage is radically at odds with his acceptance of the expansion of the welfare state. In short, by affirming both traditional marriage and the expansion of the welfare state, Dolan affirms two mutually exclusive goals.

What we know today as the welfare state (and its key staples in the U.S.—social security, medicare, unemployment insurance) is part of a historical trajectory where what economic historian Lars Magnusson calls a ‘particularist’ state transformed into a ‘territorial’ state; the state that was once but one of a plurality of mediating institutions that organized and governed social order transformed into a territorial monopolist of regulation, taxation, and arbitration over the public square.[1] It was in the context of the particularist state that a conception of universalized social care first appeared, but it was the church, not the state, that initiated such care. As Patristic scholar John McGuckin has observed, the emerging Christian society refashioned the social visions of Athens and Jerusalem in a way that gave “a newly universalized priority to the underlying rationale of why mercy ought to be shown to others.”[2] The church overcame successfully the ancient conception of the ubiquity and irreversibility of Fate, such that charity in response to sickness and wretchedness could be interpreted as interfering with the punishment of the gods, with a Trinitarian theology manifested in the derelict form of the crucified one. Furthermore, while Greek social care was limited to kinship ties, the Christian expansion of universal kinship in Christ entailed an expansion of universal social compassion. Hence, by the fourth-century, figures such as Ephraim the Syrian and Basil the Great established hospitals for those ravaged by plagues or leprosy. St. Benedict made caring for the sick a priority for his developing monastic order, and by the twelfth-century the Benedictines had established over 2,000 hospitals in Western Christendom. Furthermore, all of the hospitals were centers for food, clothing, and shelter for the poor, widows, and orphans.

With the rise of the secular state in the seventeenth-century, however, it became increasingly plausible for the state to take over institutions such as the hospital. This was due in no small part to the re-appropriation of the church as an organ of the state in the Treaties of Westphalia in 1648. With the rise of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment and its increasingly hostile orientation toward faith as a form of knowledge, the church was pushed incrementally to the periphery of social importance and consigned solely to the sphere of one’s private life. Against this backdrop, the expansion of the welfare state over health care perpetuates the reconstitution of public life around a monopolizing state, which protects its monopoly by expelling the church from the public square. By expelling the church from the public square, secularization in effect removes the institutional frames of reference by which the moral order characteristic of a Christian society is nourished and sustained. Without institutional support, such a moral order cannot but wither away; it dies; it simply can’t be sustained by secularized frames of reference.

Thus, with these social permutations, why are we surprised to witness the erosion of traditional marriage? Indeed, the rise of the territorial state has in effect rendered the family superfluous. The family functioned as the most important social constituent of economic production in the Greco-Roman world. With the advent of the Gregorian Revolution in the late eleventh- and twelfth-centuries, the family was bound up with the church, not only in the development of the sacramental nature of marriage, but also in terms of the church’s jurisdiction over laws of inheritance and property law. However, with legislation such as the 1836 Act for Marriages in England, the modern state increasingly replaced the church’s legal jurisdiction over the family. And with the rise of the industrial revolution, which involved the reconstitution of society around an emerging territorial state in Europe and the United States, the family, along with the church, found little accommodation within this redefined public square. Acts of production moved from the family to the factory, from marriages to machines, which in turn introduced mass domestic transience and migration, effectively amputating the family from community.

Thus, both the contemporary church and family find themselves repositioned to the private sphere in the social arrangements specific to the modern state, and have both experienced profound mutations. It is crucial to observe that the public and private fields of life operate according to incommensurable social dynamics and metrics; what belongs to one does not necessarily belong to the other. Public life consists of the objective, while private life consists of the subjective. Public life is marked by significant degrees of unambiguous definiteness, invariance, and formality, while private life is characterized by the optional, preferential, and informal. It is perfectly acceptable for one not to know what he will have for dinner later in the evening; it is not acceptable for one to be ignorant of what he will say in front of the board of directors. I have many options for what time I go to the park; I don’t have many options for what time I have to be at work.

This distinction between the incompatible metrics that govern the public and the private is foundational for both the contemporary transformation of marriage and the incoherent response from the church. Situated within private life, marriage and family are now defined in highly recreational, optional, and preferential terms; in short, the family is now whatever one wants it to be. In our modern statist context, romantic relationships are interpreted by the marketplace, not monastics; by pop-artists, not priests. And when representatives of the church, like Cardinal Dolan, speak out in defense of traditional marriage and against its subjectivized reduction, they appear to have forgotten that the church has also been privatized in modern society. And having been privatized, her moral claims can no longer be sustained. This is because morality requires the highly unambiguous, definite, invariant, and formal frames of reference that constitute public life. In order for something to be either right or wrong, it cannot be placed in a both/and institutional context that operates according to recreational, optional, and preferential dynamics. Hence, the church’s failure to ‘win’ (whatever that means) the gay-marriage debate was not a matter of being ‘out-marketed’, it was a matter of being ‘out-moralized’, cast out from the social field in which moral statements can be intelligibly pronounced; the church has been stripped of the public frames of reference by which her moral claims can be received as obligatory, as having a right to make demands upon the public. Indeed, having been relocated approximate to strip malls, the church can no more make definitive moral pronouncements than can pizzerias or dry cleaners.

If there is a marketing failure to all of this, it is Dolan’s concern that the message of the church was lost, having been unfairly portrayed as homophobic or ‘anti-gay’. But, again, if the church has been stripped of the public frames of reference that render intelligible the practice and perception of morality and law, then the church’s moral affirmations and denunciations fall flat; they fail to make sense in a subjectivist context. In fact, morally denouncing same-sex privatized relationships formalized in marriage makes about as much sense as morally denouncing all patrons who eat at Arby’s rather than Suki Hana, or defending those who shop in the afternoon over against those who shop in the evening. When the church has been consigned to the food courts of society, she should not be surprised when some of her moral pronouncements are reinterpreted as irrational phobias and neuroses.

Furthermore, Cardinal Dolan is simply inconsistent in his concern over the contraception mandate as one of the qualifications that keeps him from ‘cheerleading’ on behalf of Obamacare. The transformation from church-based to state-based health care increasingly transforms the calculus from one constituted by charity and virtue to entitlement and taxation. The classical Christian concept of philanthropia is replaced with the modern statist concept of penalty-backed mandates. And this new social order redefines the very concept of humanity itself. While the cultivation of love and virtue was at the heart of the Christian social order, litigation and regulation constitute the life blood of the modern welfare state. And as a mechanistic humanism replaces sanctity and virtue, institutions dependent on such sanctity and virtue, such as the family, begin to loose their relevance. It is in such a world that abortion and contraception appear highly plausible and desirable. The statistics bear this out. Before the rise of the secular state, birth rates in the West were on average 30-40 per 1,000 people; they have since declined to 15-20 per 1,000 people. All of this is to say, simply, that the executive mandate on contraception was fairly predictable. So Cardinal Dolan can claim to be a sympathetic cheerleader for statist health care, but he shouldn’t feign shock when the coercive mandates don’t go his way.

It is unfortunate that representatives of the church fail to recognize the relationship between the rise of the welfare state and the privatization and subjectification of both marriage and the church. We can have the modern welfare state only by giving up traditional marriage, or, we can defend traditional marriage by rejecting the kind of public constituted by the modern welfare state. That’s the reason why the vast majority of supporters of Obamacare support gay marriage. If there is to be a remedy for all this, the church must once again assert her role as the primary public agency by which both health care and family remain sacred, and confidently affirm that the church, not the state, has the frames of reference that can provide a truly charitable and humane society. Perhaps that’s something we could market; but more so, it may be what gives many of us hope.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.


1. Lars Magnusson, Nation, State and the Industrial Revolution: The visible hand (London: Routledge, 2009).

2. John A. McGuckin, “Embodying the New Society: The Byzantine Christian Instinct in Philanthropy,” in Philanthropy and Social Compassion in Eastern Orthodox Tradition (New York: Theotokos Press, 2010), 50-71, 50.

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1 reply to this post
  1. Thanks for the erudite article. You wrote:

    “The classical Christian concept of philanthropia is replaced with the modern statist concept of penalty-backed mandates. And this new social order redefines the very concept of humanity itself. While the cultivation of love and virtue was at the heart of the Christian social order, litigation and regulation constitute the life blood of the modern welfare state. And as a mechanistic humanism replaces sanctity and virtue, institutions dependent on such sanctity and virtue, such as the family, begin to loose their relevance.”

    Is it possible this omits the effect of economic liberty, a force which since JS Mill’s “On Liberty” has unleashed constant evolution in the public sphere? There seems no way for the church to out-market market forces themselves! Christianity must simply adopt an entirely new form while the old one’s slowly dies over the next few hundred years. Inevitable, right?

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