The Catholic Thing
Catholic Social Teaching – Without Fear Print E-mail
By Joseph Wood   
Saturday, 16 March 2013

Since I entered the Church, three words in Scripture have often caught my attention:  “Be not afraid.”  But three other words, deployed by both left and right, still strike fear: “Catholic social teaching.”

This teaching comprises a very large body of material, on which I am no expert.  But its primary source lies in Scripture.

In the Old and New Testaments, charity towards the poor is important. Christ tells the rich young man that he must sell all he has and come follow if he desires eternal life. But Zacchaeus gains salvation by giving up only 50 percent of his goods.

Does this support high marginal tax rates? This wealth redistribution does not aim at a particular percentage, but to repentance and conversion of the heart, forsaking the shiny things of the world that please the self for the things above. 

Taxation to help the disadvantaged, rendering to Caesar his own, is coerced giving to meet the priorities of the state.  It corresponds to the prayers of the Pharisee, offered formally and legally.  Those on the left forget that Christ told the rich to give to the poor.  He did not command that governments be in the middle.

But conservatives must remember that Catholic social teaching seeks to reduce inequality, at least in needs if not in wants.  The poor will always be with us – we should not demand absolute equality – but we are obligated to ameliorate their plight out of solidarity.  Government can be one means, at times the only means, to achieve ends the Church teaches as right, when government serves citizens rather than itself.

The American left-right divide over Catholic social teaching often the size and scope of government, supported by taxes and debt.  This is a debate over means and their consequences, not basic ends.  And any means – big government programs, small government constitutions – can become idols if they are confused with the ends they should serve. 

Catholic social teaching is practical.  It would generally exclude the far reaches of this debate, a government-free libertarianism on one hand, and a total government control of all resources – socialism or communism – on the other. Pope Francis, with his life of direct service to the poor while rejecting Marxist liberation theology, embodies this practical approach.

This middling tendency has its source partly in Aristotle who, as Fr. James V. Schall points out, is highly relevant to American politics today and remains, through St Thomas Aquinas, influential in Catholic social teaching.

       The Tribute Money by Titian, 1516

To oversimplify, Aristotle provided a scheme of possible governments: rule by the one, the few, or the many.  For each type, there is a good variant: monarchy or a good king, aristocracy or a good few, and polity or the many when they rule well.  And there are bad variants: tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy. 

For Aristotle, the defining characteristic of the good type of government, as opposed to the deviant forms, is that good government rules for the common good rather than the interests of the rulers.  “Tyranny” can be applied more generally to any state ruled by the one, few, or many who govern selfishly.

The journal First Things has, over the last few months, carried a debate over the future of the liberal political philosophy that we associate with the American political system at its founding.  Here, liberal means not leftist but the original sense of favoring individual rights and duties, and responsible market economics.  Has this liberal philosophy of the Founders yielded some form of tyranny?

In the April issue, Robert George of Princeton invokes John Finnis to define the common good that distinguishes good government from bad: the common good is “a set of conditions which enables the members of a community to attain for themselves reasonable objectives, or to realize reasonably for themselves the value(s), for the sake of which they have reason to collaborate with each other in a community.”  That’s not Aristotle’s definition, but it works.

Limited government is more likely to support the common good.  Such government leaves greater room for family and local community to take responsibilities that, when assumed by government, reduce the virtue of the citizenry, speeding the deterioration of representative government into the kind of regime that does not truly serve its people.

The choice of whether to turn to government as a means to reach good ends is a matter for prudential decisions in particular circumstances.  We can disagree – we can argue about Paul Ryan’s latest budget plan – while remaining faithful to Catholic teaching.

The harder question involves the political culture in America today. We know that in the last presidential election, the winner used highly sophisticated internet-based “data analytics” on a massive scale to identify precisely which message would appeal to which households, to get supporters out to vote on the narrowest of self-interests. 

This kind of “micro-populism” has little to do with the common good, and everything to do with power. It yields a form of widely enfranchised tyranny that ignores the common good as anything other than the sum of individual preferences.

It appears that we have “progressed” from the imperfect mix of self-interest and larger perspective that obtained in much of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, to a rejection of limited government in favor of a state that seeks to meet as many needs and wants as it takes to stay in power.  

The heart of Catholic (and traditional Protestant) social teaching – a conversion in community to the generosity flowing from the love of God and neighbor – has been replaced with the “forced conversion” of redistribution of goods by the state. 

Whether this was an inevitable result of the Founders ideas (which I doubt), it seriously fails to uphold the ends of Catholic social teaching – a failure that is unlikely to be remedied in any political platform.  It requires conversion of hearts and culture.

Joseph Wood teaches at the Institute of World Politics in Washington.
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Comments (8)Add Comment
written by Micha Elyi, March 16, 2013
Nowhere can I find the Scripture passage or anything in Sacred Tradition instructing us to render the poor unto Caesar.
written by Grump, March 16, 2013
It seems these days that we have only a choice between tyranny and anarchy. And given that choice many in America would prefer the latter.
written by petebrown, March 16, 2013
Many things I liked about this article. First, it did not adopt the tired tactic of equating redistribution with socialism. All governments redistribute things...always have always will..the question is not "whether" but rather "how" and "to what extent." Second, it did not try to assert that the opposition to secular government that many traditionalist Catholics hold is in fact the correct understanding of Catholic social teaching. Third, it did not argue that the existence of a social safety net (i.e. social security, medicare, medicaid et. al.) is but one step in a process that can only lead to some sort of fascist tyranny.

But there are many questions I would ask Mr. Wood. But let me ask the most important one from a Catholic perspective. Does your piece not ignore the elephant in the room: modern capitalism and its effects. Didn't the welfare state grow up precisely at a time when advanced capitalism was driving people out of farming and into cities while at the same time eroding the old guilds and friendly societies and church based charities, that people depended on in an age that was much less socially mobile? When businesses come and go as with the jobs they create, when people move from city to city in search of better jobs, when the most talented kids move out of small towns and into large cities to develop (and cash in on) their talents, doesn't this render the old community and family based approaches to social welfare a bit hard to put into practice? Capitalism makes the country as a whole much richer, but inevitably less community and family oriented, since these things are less stable. But human beings did not lose their desire for security just because capitalism made them richer. They simply developed new governmental institutions to replace the old ones.

To my way of thinking, the welfare state is part of the bargain in exchange for unfettered capitalism. Maybe this is a Faustian bargain, but we need to be conscious that this is one we've implicitly struck. It's no accident that government has grown up side by side with the modern economy, not only in the US but in all advanced countries. This is why I am not sure the world of the Founders is of immediate relevance. The process of democratic capitalism supported by a strong central government that they set in motion lead us to this place. More to the point, given the existence of a safety net that is not going away, the challenge for Catholics is to find a way for authentic Christian charity to work, and not be completely coopted and crowded out by the state. I don't think we've found the balance yet.

Alternatively, maybe we need a different form of capitalism something along the distributivist model of Chesterton and Belloc, where we actively try to limit the destabilizing effects of the market on families and communities. But even if we could do this, we'd just be exchanging one form of state intervention for another. You need tightly regulated markets if you want to ensure that few people lose their livelihood and families find it easier to stay in one place!

In other words, I think this is a much harder problem than talking about "limited government" in the abstract.

But nice, thoughtful and thought-provoking piece. Thanks!
written by Athanasius, March 16, 2013
Excellent article. Catholic social teaching does often point to a "middle" solution rather than an extreme. In fact, American federalism provides a good framework for this approach. It can accommodate solidarity and subsidiarity if the right balance between local, state, federal, and private solutions is used. Of course, we will never find the perfect balance this side of heaven.

The necessary ingredient is virtue, which helps us go beyond our selfish needs and work willingly towards the common good. And as far as I know, religion is the way to develop virtue.

The pendulum does swing, but right now I think we need to swing towards less federal government and more local and private solutions. And we need to become a more prayerful and devotional people. Prayer leads to God, the source of all love and virtue.

There is a place for government. But it has its limits, too. Federal bureaucrats are less likely to be motivated by love than local volunteers are.
written by Gian, March 18, 2013
The Finnis definition is libertarian and I do not see how it differs from the definition of liberty provided by Justice Kennedy.
Let's examine it-
"the common good is “a set of conditions which enables the members of a community to attain for themselves reasonable objectives, or to realize reasonably for themselves the value(s), for the sake of which they have reason to collaborate with each other in a community."

And how are these values and objectives are to be set?. By individual choice and preference? or by having reference to the continuing culture of the community?

The error here is of disregarding Aristotle's three irreducibles-the State, and Family and the Individual.
The Finnis definition refers only to individual objectives and values and for whose sake the individuals colloborate.

Man is a visionary animal and all politics is a struggle to realize individual visions. But the individual vision is largely formed by the vision of the community as such. That is so otherwise there would not be any continuity in the culture. The community vision in turn derives from the struggle among individual visions.

So common good as defined by Finnis is very inedequate picture of the dynamics of the community.
written by Miriam, March 18, 2013
We should stop quoting Aristotle, whose vision of the State is diametrically opposed to Jesus' vision of the kingdom of GOD.

Aristotle mistakenly assumed the following:
1) That it is possible for people to be 'good' without GOD.
2) That there is such a thing as a 'common good' without reference to GOD's LOVE for all HIS creation.
3) That the State will protect the lives, liberty and property of its citizenry without regard to its own self-interest.

Jesus teaches the following:
1) Only GOD is good.
2) GOD saw all His creation as 'good'.
3) LOVE others all you want (i.e. family, church and/or country if so desired). But LOVE GOD FIRST.

In Matthew 22:19-21, Jesus said "Show me the coin that pays the census tax.” Then they handed him the Roman coin. He said to them, “Whose image is this and whose inscription?” They replied, “Caesar’s.” At that he said to them, “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”

If we truly followed the teachings of Christ with regard to the separation of Church and State, the following would NOT be subject to state governance:

1) Policing Sexual Practices --- It is NOT the State's business to legislate morality or to criminalize sin. There should be NO such thing as a 'civil marriage contract' or crimes of prostitution or of adultery. The separation of Church and State is NOT possible in a theocracy.
2) Standardizing Education --- Language is a human invention. The TRUTH (i.e. GOD) is NOT. Therefore, an education can only occur 'in context' --- i.e. with the use of religious language or without. The decision to raise one's child in FAITH (or not) properly belongs to the parents and NOT to the State. 'Public Education' is a direct assault on religious liberty.
3) Regulating 'Free Markets' --- The ugly truth about 'capitalism' is that it is a race to the bottom with regard to the price of goods and services. BUT any intervention on the part of the State will only serve to distort these prices. If an honest solution to poverty and human suffering is to be found, one must begin with the TRUTH (i.e. God). So while 'Free Markets' are painful realities; the alternatives ('price supports', 'liberation theology', ‘population controls’, etc.) only serve to distort the TRUTH (i.e. God).
4) Administering Social Services --- The State cannot create wealth; therefore, 'social services' can only be funded with the use of force --- i.e. threats to a citizen's life, liberty and/or property. This is 'extortion' by definition and cannot be justified. LOVE GOD FIRST, not the neighbor who is more to be pitied (or envied).

If we LOVE GOD FIRST, the State becomes unnecessary.

If we consider the State a 'necessary evil'; then we must LIMIT State powers (limit the size of police and military forces; limit the number of prisons; limit taxes; insist on the primacy of individual rights to limit State power under ALL circumstances).

The State will inevitably self-destruct. The Roman Catholic Church will inevitably fill the vacuum left behind. The cycle will inevitably repeat itself. Temporal power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Jesus, as always, is correct. Church and State should be kept separate.

So, until such time as the 'need' for the State disappears, LOVE GOD FIRST.
written by Gian, March 19, 2013
The Catholic teaching recognizes the role of state in policing morals, in education and taking care of the poor.
Dante held the Empire to be divinely ordained and co-equal to the Pope in their own spheres.
Aristotle has been baptized and the Church has not condemned his political writings.

The American understanding of Church and State is derived from particular circumstances of American history and is not universally binding.

The State must be informed by something. If it is not to be informed by the Church, then the State would be anti-Church necessarily. Thus in Catholic countries, the public education has been handled by the Church. The State and the Church are not kept at arm's length but the Church informs the State, i.e. the Church forms the soul of the State.
written by Joe, March 20, 2013
Some of these comments seem to be influenced more the atheistic libertarian Ayn Rand and the Tea Party than Catholic Social Teaching (CST).

There is a permissible spectrum within CST, but is there a default or middle position?

This is the view of someone who is more immersed in Catholic Teaching than any of us here - Pope Benedict XVI writing as a theologian:

"... In many respects, democratic socialism was and is close to Catholic social doctrine and has in any case made a remarkable contribution to the formation of a social consciousness."

"Europe and its Discontents"

Before someone quotes Pope Leo XIII's alleged condemnation of 'socialism', note that Benedict distinguishes "democratic socialism" with "totalitarian atheistic socialism" - Leo criticized the latter aka atheistic Marxism.

Be a fearless Catholic (rather than a Republican or Democrat) and explore CST without the filter of American Exceptionalism.

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