Catholic Social Teaching – Without Fear Print
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.
 
 
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

 

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