What Would Pope Leo XIII Think?

Hanna Dinkel HB

In Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical, Rerum Novarum, he states that the “foremost duty, therefore, of the rulers of the State should be to make sure that the laws and institutions, the general character and administration of the commonwealth, shall be such as of themselves to realize public well-being and private prosperity.”[1] Basically, he is saying that all countries should have some sort of welfare system in place for its citizens. More specifically, the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church details many of the working class rights including “the right to appropriate subsidies necessary for the subsistence of unemployed workers and their families,” as well as the right to a pension and social security.[2] While it can be challenging for a country to provide an effective welfare system, it is the duty of every country to take care of its citizens. “The effort to create and carry out social and economic projects that are capable of encouraging a more equitable society and a more human world represents a difficult challenge, but also a stimulating duty for all who work in the economic sector and are involved with the economic sciences.”[3] Fortunately, 125 years later, after Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical, most all developed countries do have a welfare system in place with Norway being the most developed of the countries with a “strongly integrated welfare system.”[4] But, what would Pope Leo XIII who specifically says that the state should “play [a role] in the work of remedy and relief” for its citizens think of the United States’ welfare programs?[5]

While the United States does have many welfare programs in place, unfortunately, the United States does not do too well in this department relative to other developed countries. According to Jana Kasperkevic, “America has a dismal record on poverty for an advanced nation. Already, over 14% of U.S. households have experienced food insecurity. One in seven Americans live in poverty, including one in five U.S. children. Of all the millions of unemployed people in the country, fully one-third have been out of work for 27 weeks or more.”[6] Secondly, the United States’ welfare programs for unemployed workers are substandard as well. According to Mary O’Hara from The Guardian, “Americans who find themselves out of work must contend with some of the least generous unemployment benefits of all advanced economies. Just over one in four unemployed workers in the U.S. meets the strict eligibility criteria for the primary out-of-work benefit, unemployment insurance.”[7] Thirdly, the U.S. is doing poorly in the area of disability benefits. According to Rebecca Vallas from the Centre for American Progress, “the definition of what qualifies as a disability in the U.S. for benefits purposes ‘is basically the most stringent in the entire developed world.’”[8] Obviously, there is no perfect system when it comes to welfare programs. However, relative to other countries, the United States seems to be lacking in welfare program effectiveness. Basically, while I think Pope Leo XIII would be glad that the United States does have many welfare programs in place to “provide for the welfare and the comfort of the working classes,” I believe that he would be disappointed in the overall success of them and would say that we could do a much better job for a country of our size, wealth, and intelligence.[9] Every U.S. taxpayer whose dollars go toward funding these programs would most likely agree as well.

[1] Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum, Encyclical Letter on Capital and Labor, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, (May 15, 1891), Accessed December 1, 2016, http://w2.vatican.va/content/leo-xiii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_l-xiii_enc_15051891_rerum-novarum.html, sec. 32.

[2] “Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church.” Libreria Editrice Vaticana, (April 2005), Accessed December 1, 2016, http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/justpeace/documents/rc_pc_justpeace_doc_20060526_compendio-dott-soc_en.html.

[3] “Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church.” Libreria Editrice Vaticana, (April 2005), Accessed December 3, 2016, http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/justpeace/documents/rc_pc_justpeace_doc_20060526_compendio-dott-soc_en.html.

[4] Aashima Singh, “Top 15 Most Developed Countries in the World,” Listovative, (2014), Accessed December 1, 2016, http://listovative.com/top-15-most-highly-developed-countries-in-the-world.

[5] Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum, 31.

[6] Jana Kasperkevic, “Welfare Programs Shown to Reduce Poverty in America,” The Guardian, (November 12, 2014), Accessed December 3, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/money/us-money-blog/2014/nov/12/social-welfare-programs-food-stamps-reduce-poverty-america.

[7] Mary O’Hara, “Which Are the Best Countries in the World to Live in if You Are Unemployed or Disabled?” The Guardian, (April 15, 2015), Accessed December 1, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/apr/15/which-best-countries-live-unemployed-disabled-benefits.

[8] Mary O’Hara, “Which Are the Best Countries in the World to Live in if You Are Unemployed or Disabled?” The Guardian, (April 15, 2015), Accessed December 3, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/apr/15/which-best-countries-live-unemployed-disabled-benefits.

[9] Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum, 33.

Image:  Pope Leo XIII, Wikimedia Commons, Accessed December 4, 2016, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Leo_XIII.jpg.




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