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Many of the current economic problems in the United States have their roots in a pressing moral malaise. In these times of moral turmoil, many have mistakenly equivocated government-sponsored welfare with the virtue of compassion. Compassion is frequently cited as a reason to justify state-supported social programs, so an important question needs to be raised: Is governmental welfare truly compassionate? Are the human needs of the people really served with governmental handouts?

The theory behind the welfare state is that people need material provision. While no one can argue with that, likewise no one should forget the other aspects of human life. It seems that many consider material giving to be the sole way a person can give. One result of this materialism is the belief that the more money that is allocated for specific programs the more compassionate and person-centered a nation’s citizens become. This is a fallacy. Material provision apart from spiritual values is insufficient, empty, and not truly compassionate.

For example, if faced with a single woman with children who is experiencing severe financial difficulty, is it right and truly person-centered for our collective response to be sending her to an impersonal government building, having her stand in line, fill out forms in triplicate, and then wait for the processing of a check? Does anyone in this process address the woman’s fear? Has anyone really reached out to her? Where is the broader concern for her family’s genuine welfare? Giving her a check and sending her on her way is hardly a humane response. Compassion literally means to share in someone’s passion, to stand with someone in their time of crisis. Are we really standing with this woman who needs more than our dollars?

More often than not there is a deeper story to someone’s economic difficulties. Economic poverty is often accompanied by other forms of deprivation. Is this woman experiencing economic hardship due to a recent divorce? Does she have an adequate education or job skills? Does she have anyone other than a civil service clerk behind a government counter to stand with her in her difficulty?

Large government agencies are simply not equipped for the exercise of human compassion. Neither is it plausible to determine that our obligation to Christian charity is fulfilled by instituting a welfare state administered by the central government. Real charity reflects the diversity of the needy. Congressional committees and sprawling offices are not capable of adequately meeting the human needs of real people experiencing poverty.

True compassion requires the formation of private charities that can provide assistance to individuals right in their own communities. Smaller, less bureaucratic initiatives have a better chance of personalizing the aid given. Such groups would not be limited to merely issuing checks but could tailor their efforts to individual cases. The American people’s charitable impulses provide a firmer foundation for compassion than the impersonal, Kafkaesque bureaucracy of the federal government.

Rev. Robert A. Sirico received his Master of Divinity degree from the Catholic University of America following undergraduate study at the University of Southern California and the University of London.  During his studies and early ministry, he experienced a growing concern over the lack of training religious studies students receive in fundamental economic principles, leaving them poorly equipped to understand and address today's social problems.  As a result of these concerns, Fr. Sirico co-founded the Acton Institute with Kris Alan Mauren in 1990.

As president of the Acton Institute, Fr.