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The Catholic ethic and the spirit of corporatism: Historical and contemporary links between Church and state in social services, health care and education

Richard Louis Metafora, University of Massachusetts Amherst


The political concept of corporatism is used to analyze Catholic-sponsored organizations as providers of US welfare-state services. Corporatism nowadays characterizes a political arrangement by which professional and industrial sectors acquire state-like powers in order to coordinate social productivity. Though corporatism usually refers to nongovernmental fields which acquire government-like status, this dissertation takes a somewhat reverse perspective by focusing on the welfare state, an area which by definition already is governmental, yet by 1996 US welfare reform legislation is slated to increase its delegation of welfare delivery services to non-government practitioners. Much of early twentieth century corporatist thought was founded on the papal encyclicals Rerum Novarum (1891) and Quadragesimo Anno (1931), but the Church cut Its involvement with corporatism after disastrous coöptations by fascism. This study presents a revised formulation of Catholic corporatism by tracing its origins to the eleventh century canon law concept of the Mystical Body of Christ, whereby sacred imagery was invoked to protect religious vocations from encroachments by the newly evolving sovereign state. Today, as the devolution of the welfare state includes faith-based organizations, the largest of which are Catholic, a more complete genealogical look at Catholic corporatism provides a framework to evaluate a welfare industry increasingly run by a semi-public aggregation of professional institutions invested with the duties and resources of the state. The study uses a conjectural hypothesis, “Catholic Welfare Corporatism,” defined by three traits—organicism (unity), subsidiarity (localism), and multimodality (performance across business, government and community forums). By this measure, Catholic-sponsored organizations in the welfare service industry are found to demonstrate a “social-corporatist” orientation at odds with the “state-corporatist” authoritarian category into which Catholic corporatism is typically placed. But the public warrant of Church-sponsored operations in the US have been contingent on their adaptation to American democratic pluralist values. The balance struck between a Catholic corporate identity and its responsiveness to the culture which it serves is key to its survival. Prewar Catholic corporatist inclinations toward monopolism, institutional hubris and political naiveté must be resisted for corporatist innovations to progress.

Subject Area

Political science|Religious congregations|Welfare|Religious education

Recommended Citation

Metafora, Richard Louis, "The Catholic ethic and the spirit of corporatism: Historical and contemporary links between Church and state in social services, health care and education" (1999). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9920632.