A balancing act between church and government

June 25, 2011 in Question of the Week, What is government's role in caring for the poor? Should churches and civic groups do more? by Albert Kirk

On Monday, the Shelby County Commission restored funding for the Office of Early Childhood and Youth this week after first voting to cut the program, which works to reduce infant deaths and teen pregnancies.

Commissioners Wyatt Bunker and Terry Roland spoke against funding the program, arguing that churches and civic organizations — not government — should care for the poor.

“These type social programs should not and should never have existed in government,” Bunker said.

“I’m like my friend, Commissioner Bunker: This should be taken care of through the churches,” Roland said.

What is government’s role in caring for the poor in Memphis and Shelby County? Should churches and civic groups do more?

The origin of what we think of today as social programs began with the church. Even when life was simpler, and people generally knew their neighbors and were aware when a family was in need, the religious orders and great saints started hospitals, orphanages and other institutions to ensure that all were well cared for.

Today most would probably agree that churches and civic groups do a better job. Their care is more personal, and, in the case of churches, they can bring the enormous power of prayer to the situation.

However, just as in the Middle Ages, institutions were necessary to do the job adequately, so today some government involvement is necessary so that people don’t “fall through the cracks.” Discussion about the best proportion of public/private involvement needs to continue. But the Catholic Church considers that some government is not only legitimate but warranted.