comments powered by Disqus
July 30, 2012Kieran Raval
Pope Leo XIII articulated the foundation for Catholic Social Teaching in his 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum
There exists a curious tendency among many Catholics to think that the only way to authentically support Catholic Social Teaching is to be in favor of big government programs. This tendency recently reared its head in the self-righteous, condescending outrage of 90 Georgetown faculty and staff who wrote to Rep. Paul Ryan on the occasion of his lecturing at the same university in April. Ryan was apparently “profoundly misreading Catholic social teaching” when he invoked the principle of subsidiarity to justify his budget plan.
It is indeed possible that Ryan lacks a nuanced understanding of subsidiarity and how it fits into the whole of Catholic Social Teaching. What is clear, however, is that the typical refrain of the Catholic left, that support for government programs is the only way to authentically implement Catholic Social Teaching, is a thinly veiled political agenda based on an impoverished understanding of Church teaching and a flawed political philosophy. There are also several indications that this refrain is losing its intellectual, theological, and political credibility.
The foundation for Catholic Social Teaching is found in the encyclical Rerum Novarum, issued by Pope Leo XIII in 1891. In this letter, Leo condemns both socialism and unfettered capitalism. Over the next 100 years a number of other encyclicals would further elaborate on the themes first articulated by Leo XVIII. None of these encyclicals propose a specific political regime or policy agenda for promoting the principles of Catholic Social Teaching. Rather, much weight is given to the virtue of prudence, whereby, people of goodwill who seek to craft policy guided by these principles can legitimately debate the particular means by which the goals of Catholic Social Teaching are realized. That Catholic Social Teaching does not endorse any particular regime, but in fact levels criticism at both social and capitalism, is one of its strengths. As such, this teaching is marked by a series of “checks and balances” that, taken as a whole, lead to a prudential application of these principles. For example, the first principle of Catholic Social Teaching, from which all of the other principles flow, is the sanctity of human life and the dignity of the human person. Rights claims are balanced with the obligations of duties. Solidarity is tempered by subsidiarity.
The Catholic left would have one believe that the content of Rerum Novarum was a facsimile of the platform of the Democratic Party. For the better part of the last 50 years, following the Second Vatican Council, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB, formerly the USCC and NCCB) has at times appeared to be more of a lobbying firm or think tank for liberal social policy. Most famously, in 1983 the conference seemed to get way in over its head on the issue of nuclear proliferation, and subsequently, forfeited much credibility in the public square. At that time (the hay day of liberation theology), noted political philosopher Fr. Ernest Fortin, taking an Augustinian approach, was quick to point out the limits of “social justice” and the dangers of conflating Christianity with the modern liberal project.
George Weigel traces the USCCB’s preferential option for big government to the powerful and lasting influence of Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, a now-deceased cardinal archbishop of Chicago. Weigel sees the 2010 election of Timothy Cardinal Dolan as president of the USCCB as the turning point wherein the sun is now setting on the Bernardin era and its promotion of liberal policies as the only path to implementing Catholic Social Teaching. To be sure, the sun is still setting and there are plenty of Catholics, including not a few bishops, who still see big government as the only means of exercising Catholic Social Teaching.
A more recent development, however, may turn out to be a game changer, at least in terms of the rhetoric and agenda coming from the USCCB. Long time USCCB staffer John Carr, most recently the executive director of the USCCB’s Department of Justice, Peace, and Human Development, announced in June that he would be leaving the USCCB. Carr was widely recognized as a proponent of liberal policies, having involvement with a number of left-leaning organizations that, among other things, promoted access to abortion and the legalization of same-sex “marriage.” It is no secret that much of the tone at the USCCB is set by the staff, especially when it comes to conference’s social policy agenda. The USCCB now has an opportunity to further move away from the narrow vision of Catholic Social Teaching that has dominated for the better part of 50 years.
It is becoming clearer each day that the Church in the United States must take off the blinders of liberalism and come to a more expansive, less politically conventional view of Catholic Social Teaching. For one thing, as George Weigel points out, the social welfare state is failing fiscally and even politically. The clearest case of this is Europe. In the United States, the chickens of progressive Catholics are coming home to roost. Decades of advocacy for more and bigger social programs has yielded just that and the accompanying expansive and expensive government. The crowning achievement of the Catholic left was the passage of Obamacare. Yet now, that same law has become the basis for an unfathomable governmental violation of religious liberty in the HHS contraception mandate.
As the Leviathan has grown, and as it has been sustained by large portions of the electorate that are dependant on it, the modern liberal state has become emboldened and empowered to steamroll over the Church because she ultimately stands in the way of the secular liberal project. Ironically, in a number of instances, this has forced the Church out of providing the very social services, like adoption and care for victims of human trafficking, that liberals would seem to desire. If the HHS mandate stands, we will see not a few Catholic schools, hospitals, and other entities close their doors. Another archbishop of Chicago, Francis Cardinal George, has promised as much. After all, the Church must be herself even before she can undertake her (very important) charitable work.
Today, Catholics must face the reality that the liberal vision of Catholic Social Teaching is a narrow one that places progressive politics ahead of anything else, including the Church’s freedom. This vision has proven to be dangerous. Catholics must rediscover the place of prudence in working out policies to address issues like poverty and healthcare. Catholics must put aside the conventional wisdom that says that Catholic Social Teaching requires incalculable spending and ballooning government. An authentic re-reading of the documents that form the basis of this tradition will reveal that Catholic Social Teaching favors neither Republicans nor Democrats. Rather, it emphasizes the critical role of family, community, church, and institutions of civil society in creating a more just political and social arrangement. There is no doubt that government has a role, but it is not the role, especially in the current political climate where the secularizing and quasi-tyrannical impulses of the modern liberal state have become evident. Ultimately, a holistic view of Catholic Social Teaching recognizes that one cannot heed Christ’s call to charity by handing off that divine obligation to the government.
The Institute on Religion & Democracy
1023 15th Street NW, Suite 601, Washington, DC 20005-2601
P: (202) 682-4131 F: (202) 682-4136