Statement on Social Security, March 1983


A Statement Approved by the Administrative Board
of the United States Catholic Conference


March 1983

1. Social Security is the largest and one of the most successful social programs in the United States. It provides an effective and dignified way for Americans to honor their responsibility to provide basic income security and medical insurance for the elderly, the disabled and the dependent.

2. Our support for Social Security is not new. As early as 1919 in the "Program of Social Reconstruction," 1 Catholic bishops called for the State to provide comprehensive social insurance to provide protection against old age, disability, and illness. The Church through all the intervening years has been a strong supporter of the Social Security System because it provides precisely this kind of protection.

3. In recent years, however, Social Security has experienced a number of problems that have generated widespread concern. Certain current financial difficulties in the program have stimulated a broad public debate about how to ensure the ongoing soundness of Social Security. At the same time, we have witnessed within the Church a small but growing number of organizations, institutions, and individuals who are considering withdrawing from or not participating in the Social Security System.

4.   In view of these circumstances, we wish to address the subject of Social Security with three specific objectives in mind:
  1. to reaffirm our support for the Social Security System;
  2. to highlight several of the moral principles from our Catholic social tradition which can help to shape the public policy debate over Social Security;
  3. to indicate some practical implications concerning participation in Social Security by Catholic institutions and employees of the Church.

Support for the Social Security System

5.   Our general support for the Social Security System sterns from Catholic social teaching concerning basic human rights and the common good. Every person is made in the image and likeness of God and is therefore endowed with a special human dignity. This dignity is protected by a set of basic human rights which are universal and inherent in the very nature of the human person. Pope John XXIII listed some of these rights in his encyclical letter, Pacem in Terris:

Every person has the right to life, to bodily integrity, and to the means which are suitable for the proper development of life...
Therefore, a human being has the right to security in case of sickness, inability to work, widowhood, old age, unemployment... 2

6.   The concept of the common good is also an essential element of our social teaching and one that has important implications for the issue of Social Security .The human person is essentially a social being, and human rights are rights that are held in community .Therefore all persons are required to work together for the sake of the common good, for the general welfare of the entire human family.

All persons are called to establish social institutions and structures which protect basic human rights and reflect the dignity of the human person.

7.   In the case of social insurance for the aged, the widowed, and the disabled, we are dealing with a right that is essential for the effective human development of a large segment of our citizen population. It is evident that in contemporary society this right cannot be adequately protected without the active participation of government. As stated in Pacem in Terris:

It is necessary that governments make efforts to see that insurance systems are made available to the citizens. so that, in case of misfortune or increased family responsibilities, no person will be without the necessary means to maintain a decent standard of living. 3

8.   We believe that a humane social policy must include a comprehensive social insurance program that is organized through the public sector. In the United States the Social Security System provides this basic social insurance protection. It is very important, therefore, that all Americans support the system, have confidence in it, and work constructively to make it a fair and sound program. Such action will, in our view, serve the common good and help to protect human dignity.

The Public Policy Debate

9.   We firmly believe that our nation's lawmakers should make the necessary adjustments in the Social Security System to ensure its continued stability and soundness. The policy choices involved in this task, however, are not solely economic and political choices. They also include significant moral content. We believe our tradition of Catholic social teaching offers a number of moral principles that can provide insight and direction for this public policy debate.

10.   As efforts are undertaken to amend the Social Security System and assure its financial soundness, we urge the nation's decision makers to pay special attention to the principles of distributive justice and concern for the poor. Without suggesting specific technical solutions to the financial problems that face Social Security, we do wish to call attention to several aspects of the policy debate.

  1. With respect to changes in benefits, we believe that any adjustments which are made should not penalize low-income individuals and families. Those whose resources are already very limited should not be forced to suffer a decrease in benefits.
  2. With respect to the tax structure of Social Security, we believe that any changes which are to be made should be weighted in favor of the poor. Following the general principle that taxes should be assessed according to the ability to pay, we urge policy makers to amend the Social Security tax structure in ways that do not increase the share of taxes paid by lower income families and individuals.
  3. Those who are more affluent should be required to bear a greater share of the total Social Security tax burden.
  4. We believe that the principles of equity and concern for the common good also suggest the advisability of bringing employees of nonprofit institutions under the Social security program.
  5. We also wish to call attention to the fact that the present structure of Social Security contains a number of serious inequities with respect to the benefits received by some women. We urge that prompt action be taken to remedy these inequities.

Participation of Catholic Institutions and Employees

11.   The principles delineated above have important implications for Catholic institutions and employees of the Church. Just as the principles of social justice lead us to support Social Security for the nation as a whole, we are compelled to strive for that same justice within the Church's own institutions. In the words of the 1971 Synod, "While the Church is bound to give witness to justice, she recognizes that anyone who ventures to speak to people about justice must first be just in their eyes." 4

12.   In addition to the moral principles we have cited above, there are significant practical advantages to Social Security that should encourage participation. It is generally agreed that the protection provided by Social Security cannot be duplicated at a comparable cost. Social Security provides comprehensive insurance coverage: disability, survivors, retirement, and health benefits. It provides protection for one's dependents; it is indexed to protect against inflation; and its coverage is portable.

13.   In view of these moral and practical reasons, we strongly urge all Catholics to support and participate in the Social Security System. We encourage Catholic employers and employees to examine fully the moral and practical advantage of Social Security. Catholic institutions are urged to assist their employees by providing the necessary resources to promote a better understanding of these issues. Likewise, we hope that the educational structures and institutions of the Church will make a specific effort to teach students about the moral principles involved in this matter. Finally, in the interest of the common good we urge all of the clergy and religious to participate in Social Security.

14   In summary, we believe that the Social Security System in the United States is a program that is vital to the protection of human dignity for millions of Americans. It makes our society more humane and is a program that merits the full support of all Americans.


(1) Administrative Committee of the National Catholic War Council, "Program of Social Reconstruction" (1919) in Hugh I. Nolan, ed., Pastoral Letters of the American Hierarchy, 1792-1970 (Huntington, Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., 1971), p. 207.
(2) John XXIII, Pacem in Terris (1963), 11.
(3) Ibid., 64.
(4) Synod of Bishops, Justice in the World (1971), 40.

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