What if "Social Justice" Demands Small Government?: Interview with Robert Sirico, Part 3
I pause to clarify that my book is not an attempt to outline a specifically Catholic approach to social and economic problems and challenges. It's a more broadly ecumenical consideration that also draws upon natural law reasoning.
With specific regard to Catholic social teaching, one must begin with a clear grasp of what it sets out to do and what it does not set out to do, along with the corresponding authority with which its speaks when addressing such issues.
The Church is not a policy making body; nor does she have or claim to promote any particular economic doctrine. What she does claim is that the constant faith of the Church demands a paramount respect and protection for the dignity of each human life, from conception until natural death, and that because man is prior to society and society is for man (and not the reverse), that prudential actions must be taken to insure that social institutions meet that moral demand. This is the teaching of the Church. The question about how to achieve that end is largely left to prudential actions that the Church speaking as the Church claims no particular competency to define.
Can you offer an example of the role of this social teaching at work?
Given Catholicism's fundamental belief in the intrinsic dignity of the person, it follows that social institutions ought to be constructed to insure people have sufficient means to sustain a dignified life. The question next arises: How is this done? Through an economy dominated by the political sphere, or one in which markets operate relatively freely? That is a question for which the Church gives us principles to think through—the dignity of the person, freedom, solidarity, subsidiarity, a preferential option for the poor, etc.—and which can yield a variety of answers. It follows that my particular argument for a free economy does not amount to saying that "free markets are the doctrine of the Church on economic issues." Rather it is that the free economy, properly understood and grounded upon the principles of Catholic social teaching, is consistent with the Church's teaching.
You are making some important distinctions here, which perhaps also have some cash-value when discussing 'social justice.' For it is often conceptualized with wealth distributionist and equalitarian notions. Why is that a mistake, and is there an older (pre-Rawlsian), more robust concept of social justice that can be recovered?
The term "social justice" originates with 19th-century Italian Catholic thinkers who were trying to apply the Church's teaching on the nature of justice and the common good to the post-Enlightenment, post-mercantilist world. In many ways, it is a synonym for "the common good," which are the conditions that must exist in a given society if people are to be able to freely pursue human flourishing. In that sense, it is not value-neutral—as Rawls more-or-less tries to be—nor can it be reduced to efforts to equalize everything by eliminating differences or vast exercises in wealth-redistribution. Indeed, if you read some of the Italian writers on this subject—Blessed Antonio Rosmini being a good example—you discover that one of the things which they were trying to do was to remind individuals and communities that they also have responsibilities to their neighbor, and that they cannot and should not expect the state to do everything in this regard.
Joseph E. Gorra is the Managing Editor of Philosophia Christi, the peer-reviewed journal of the Evangelical Philosophical Society. He has also interviewed other philosophers, theologians and other theorists on virtue, economics and the free society for EPSOCIETY.org. At Patheos.com, he recently interviewed Stanford anthropologist, Tanya Luhrmann, about her research regarding evangelical religious experiences. Follow him on Twitter @GorraResearch.