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Catholic Conservatives and the Common Good Print E-mail
By Stephen P. White   
Thursday, 26 May 2011

Catholics self-styled as progressive” have enjoyed a virtual monopoly on the more communal terms in Catholic social teaching: common good, solidarity, social justice, and preferential option for the poor. These principles are integral to a fully Catholic understanding of society and the role of the state. Meanwhile, Catholics of a more conservative bent have emphasized other aspects of the Church’s social doctrine: subsidiarity, the dignity of the individual, and the creative power of markets.

While these latter, personalist principles are essential to a genuine Catholic social teaching, without the communitarian dimension, the view from the Right tends to devolve into a quasi-libertarian and, often, overtly ideological imitation of Church teaching. At the same time, the Left’s approach underemphasizes subsidiarity and the rights of mediating institutions; its old statist habits tend to subsume everything under the crushing embrace of government.

Accordingly, both the communitarian and personalist elements of the Church’s social teaching have widely come to be seen through the lens of a political partisanship – i.e. the personalist and communitarian “schools” of Catholic social thought tend to reduce to quasi-libertarian and quasi-socialist positions, which closely mirror their respective political counterparts. Such stunted accounts of the principles of Catholic social teaching are unhelpful and morally inadequate.

Unlike political ideologies of the Right and Left, personalist and communitarian principles are not fundamentally opposed, but complementary. Libertarians and socialists may adhere to incompatible ideologies, but for Catholics, the common good is never “in tension with” (let alone opposed to) the dignity and proper autonomy of the individual person. Subsidiarity is not “balanced against” solidarity. The erosion of solidarity always endangers subsidiarity. In the absence of subsidiarity, solidarity is smothered by dependence upon the state. The dignity of the individual can never be sacrificed in the name of collective utility, and no true individual good can be legitimately won at the expense of the common good.

Those like President Obama, who insist that the measure – indeed, the necessary condition – of national greatness is our willingness and ability to care for the weakest among us are entirely correct. Where reasonable people of good will can and do disagree, is on the question of how our society, and thus the state, should fulfill our commitments to the poor and marginalized.

Rep. Paul Ryan and Abp. Timothy Dolan

It’s an astonishing failure of political imagination (or an extraordinary act of historical hubris) to insist that the only moral means for promoting the common good are to be found in the expansion of the massive social assistance programs devised in the middle of the twentieth century, the costs of which have put this country on the road to insolvency.

If more taxes and government spending were in fact better for society, it would be irresponsible to oppose them. If a larger, more active state with an expansive welfare apparatus constituted the social arrangement most conducive to the common good, we would, at least from a Catholic point of view, be morally bound to support it. Yet as a matter of empirical evidence and prudential judgment, not ideological preference, the current system is, to say the least, not entirely convincing.

So does this “canonize” the policies proposed by conservatives? No. But if promotion of the common good is the ultimate measure of social justice, then proposals for entitlement reform like those recently put forward by Congressman Paul Ryan and passed by the House have a strong claim over the recent proposals of President Obama – and precisely on the grounds that they better promote social justice and the common good.

Two decades ago, welfare reform succeeded, not because of some national neo-libertarian change of heart in the American polity, but because it became plain that our welfare programs, as they existed, were grossly counter-productive, indeed harmful to the very communities they had been designed to help and were harming the wider community in the process.

Many progressive Catholics worried that welfare reform would make things worse for the disadvantaged, and so would violate the Church’s preferential option for the poor. Instead, as President Clinton pointed out in 2006 writing in The New York Times, as welfare rolls fell, “child poverty dropped to 16.2 percent in 2000, the lowest rate since 1979, and in 2000, the percentage of Americans on welfare reached its lowest level in four decades.”

We have again reached, or are very near to reaching, another such tipping point. Many progressives are again warning that reform of government entitlements would be an abdication of moral responsibility, a betrayal of the common good. If the entitlement reforms this country desperately requires are going to succeed – and it seems that any such reform will have to come from conservatives – those who would lead that reform must be able to make a compelling case that entitlement reforms serve not only individuals but the common good. (The recent exchange between Congressman Ryan and Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York makes for a good start.)

Catholics genuinely interested in promoting the fullness of the Church’s social teachings must give better accounts of how their favored policies work. Policies that defend subsidiarity and free markets while promoting individual liberty and responsibility are good and necessary. But advocates of these social goods should not neglect those arguments – by far the greater, both politically and morally – that defend the good of all while working in accord with the Founders’ hope of a “more perfect Union.”

 
Stephen P. White, a new contributor to The Catholic Thing, works in the Catholic Studies Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., where he has been the coordinator of the Tertio Millennio Seminar on the Free Society since 2005. He studies philosophy at the Catholic University of America.
 

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written by Bill McCormick, May 26, 2011
This is an excellent article and elevates public discourse considerably. But I wonder whether in our own time the Christian will be able to think more prayerfully about his political decisions before he comes to realize that we spend too much time talking and thinking about politics in the first place. You would not know from even most Christian discourse on politics in our time that neither man nor politics is the highest thing. Ideas turn into ideology precisely when the intense questions and aporia that naturally occur in our communal life are not seen to implicate things greater than and prior to politics. But this doesn't (or needn't) contradict what White is saying here, because thinking hard on the common good of our community ought to lead us to reflection upon the final common good to which it is ordered: God.
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written by Manfred, May 26, 2011
While the above discussion is excellent, it will become increasingly academic as the Federal and State governments slide increasingly toward insolvency. When you realize the number of people in the Mid-West who have no insurance on their homes because they can't afford it (the tornado reports are revealing this), one knows we are in desperate straits. Even the taxing of life insurance proceeds is now being considered to shore up State revenues. These have NEVER been taxed.
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written by John McCarthy, May 26, 2011
Mr. White has given us a refreshingly distinctive and persuasive essay, the type of which we readers of the Catholic Thing could use more. Bravo!
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written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, May 26, 2011
As Talleyrand (Bishop of Autun, you recall) observed “governing has never been anything other than postponing by a thousand subterfuges the moment when the mob will string you up from the nearest lamp-post, and every act of government is nothing but a way of not losing control of the people”

If we want to curtail welfare spending, are we ready for a repetition of the June Days of 1848, following the closure of the National Workshops? Then, the Liberals secured a victory over the Radical Republicans, but at the cost of 1,500 dead in combat and thousands of summary executions of prisoners. The Assembly, one recalls, welcomed the surrender of the last barricade with cries of “Long Live the Republic!” What they got, inevitably, was Napoléon III.

Nowadays, when governments depend for their legitimacy on media coverage and the cult of personality, it is pretty generally recognised that welfare cheques, drug-dealing and cheap alcohol are indispensible guarantees of the political order.
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written by jsmitty, May 26, 2011
I'm unconvinced by Mr. White's arguments. The Ryan plan wants to cut the top marginal rate back to 25%. Since this massive tax cut will not be revenue neutral the additional revenue will be made up by massive cost shifting onto the upper middle class and middle classes, who not only will pay much more of their medicare costs but higher taxes as well. By what theory of social justice (Catholic or otherwise) does this serve the common good? I would like to see you write a piece explaining that!

I agree that we need entitlement reform but it is just dishonest to attach right-wing tax reform ideas to the whole package. That makes it a political and moral loser from where I sit.
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written by William O'Brien, May 26, 2011
A breath of balanced air! As Peter Kreeft has stated: Conservatives tend to have a hard head and a hard heart, while liberals tend to have a soft head and a soft heart; and that as followers of Christ we are all challenged to have hard heads and soft hearts. Political partisanship can often times have a clouding effect that inadvertently compromises the Church's effort to hold fast to the many Gospel paradoxes. As followers of Jesus we must be careful where we 'rest our head': "Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head" (Matt 8:20).
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written by Achilles, May 26, 2011
I wonder Jsmitty if we might have things a little out of perspective. Scientifically placing more of a tax burden on the richest may give the appearances of solving all our problems. Mistaking roots for fruits is our biggest problem here. Our problems are not money problems, they are moral problems that happen to be very expensive. Further immorality because it appears to solve our money woes will only lead to greater and more costly problems in the future.
The fact is is that we reward vice and punish virtue. It all comes back to the family and our core values, if not true Catholic Values, our society will corrode, wait, I mean corrode further. Our ideas have become so disordered because we have lost sight of the proper order of what it means to be human and our relationships have become idolatrous. We are meant to be agents of Truth and servants of Christ. We have become agents of self interest and slaves to our appetites. We will reap what we sow and these considerations of politics will remain only the signs 3 generations removed from first principles.

P.S. I thought Mr. White's essay was excellent!
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written by Billy Bean, May 26, 2011
I am absolutely impressed with the quality of the discourse here at The Catholic Thing. I have found myself in disagreement with only jsmitty, who also makes a rational argument, however flawed it might be (and I could be wrong). I especially appreciated the comments of Achilles; I think he gets to the root of the matter.
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written by jsmitty, May 26, 2011
Well IDK Achilles. We certainly have moral problems...But...if our problems are all moral rather than monetary then why are we talking about entitlement reform at all hmmm? The piece was about the conservative Catholic answer to the problem of the financial strain caused by the current shape of social insurance programs--not about the moral problems of society.

So frankly I don't see the relevance of your observation except to dodge the basic issue at hand that the Ryan plan espoused by the author is not likely to have results that square with any conception of social justice.

Granted it is a short piece, but the only argument put forth by the author at all for the Ryan plan is that a wholly different sort of reform of the AFDC program was passed in the 90's and turned out better than its critics warned. Ergo we should support the Ryan plan today which proposes totally different reforms to a totally different entitlement program that affects a much, much broader segment of the population than did AFDC..not too mention a program that is widely popular unlike welfare which the broad majority of the public knew was screwed up.

Sorry, but if conservative Catholics are going to make a play for the social justice mantle they are going to have to come up with far better arguments than these. ANd they are going to have to come up with a more concrete vision of what they have in mind that would replace the current pretty well-established social arrangements which go back to the New Deal.
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written by bob, May 27, 2011
Mr. White is, of course, completely wrong. Comparing welfare to Medicare is a bizarre use of 'evidence' since the real evidence is Medicare itself. Medicare is successful. It meets the needs of seniors, and there is NO evidence that privatizing it, as Paul Ryan suggests, will be successful at reducing costs. In fact, since his policy requires seniors to cover more and more of the cost, this amounts to seniors subsidizing insurance companies with the long term result that seniors will, eventually, not be able to meet the costs of healthcare. At the opposite end, Ryan takes the money being paid by seniors, and uses it to give ANOTHER MASSIVE (30%) tax cut to the rich. This supply side approach to the economy does not work. It was NOT 'entitlements' that bankrupted our economy, but the technical abuses (collateralized default swaps, inter alia) by Wall Street, and the other elites Mr. White implicitly defends. If Wall Street is not being asked to share in the pain of the shrinking economy, why should the middle class continue to subsidize THEM AND pay for our OWN problems? This is a form of 'entitlement' for the wealthiest, which DID lead to economic collapse.
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written by gtb, May 29, 2011
bob, Having worked within the Medicare 'system' (i use the term loosely) for 20 years, let me assure that Mr White is not "of course, completely wrong." What an arrogant statement.

The fact is that Mcare has been in the process of revamping itself for several years now. WHY? Because of the gross greed/graft and corruption that is inherent with any gov't run program. It finally reached a level that couldn't be ignored any longer.

Newsflash: the days of Entitlement Programs are waning because the 'progressives' who put them in place & support them also neglected to have enough progeny to fund them. So, instead of pointing fingers at Mr. White, you might more productively be about privatizing your own coverage. That's the way we're headed. The demographics speak for themselves.
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written by chris ramsey, May 30, 2011
The responses reflect exactly the "quasi-libertarian and quasi-socialist positions" that Stephen White mentions in his article. I definitely struggle with the "quasi-libertarian" tendency and openly admit it in discussions with friends and family. I still can't get past our current system of progressive income tax as anything other than "state-sactioned theft" - how's that for a "quasi-libertarian" position!

Jesus' said "love your neighbor as you love yourself" and went on to define "neighbor" with the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Who was neighbor to the person robbed and left for dead? The Samaritan who acted out of love. There was no government bureaucrat or functionary calling attention to the innocent person in need and demanding the Samaritan "do his fair share."

I think it was a "quasi-socialist", jsmitty, who may be pointing us in the right direction in looking for a solution (provisional at best) to our current dilemma - "go back to the New Deal" and start untangling the knot from there!
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written by Edward Maillet, May 31, 2011
The national debt that occasions this discussion is of a scale that is almost impossible to comprehend. How big is a trillion? Consider this. If we were to pay down the debt at the rate of $1 million per day it would take c. 2750 years to reduce it by only $1 trillion! But the real national debt, usually said to be c. $14.4 trillion, actually might be as much $100 trillion when the costs of interest and unfunded obligations are included. Even if it grows as it must, the economy cannot survive unless spending is curtailed and the entitlememts are restructured . In their present form Social Security , Medicare and Medicaid are demonstrably unsustainable. If we allow those entitlements to collapse and take the entire economy with them , we can predict that "the weakest among us" will surely suffer the most and the longest. Let us pray that our elected leaders ---liberals and conservatives alike---will be blessed with the honesty, political courage , wisdom and understanding required to deal effectively with this very dangerous crisis. If economic disaster is to be averted they must work together. They and the public must come to understand very soon that this crisis is almost certainly the most dangerous threat facing our nation. Will the needed political cooperation happen? It is difficult to be optimistic. But we must remind ourselves that with the Lord all things are possible.
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written by Teej, June 16, 2011
Just out of curiosity, since when is the "creative power of markets" a principle/aspect of Catholic social teaching? It may be true, but I would need some convincing that is an aspect of the social teaching in the same way that the the common good, subsidiarity, etc. are.
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written by noelle, May 02, 2012
You're completely wrong and inaccurate..try reading William F Buckley Jr.

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