The overall vision of the corpus of magisterial documents known as Catholic Social Teaching (CST) has become a hotly debated subject in the context of this year’s US election melodrama, both within and outside of the Catholic Church, especially since Mitt Romney’s selection of Paul Ryan as a running mate (and much is now being made of the fact that both vice-presidential candidates are Catholic). As a result of this, two dramatically different versions of CST are being portrayed. On the one hand, Ryan and his devotees claim that CST’s principle of subsidiarity is consistent with the current Republican obsession, under tea party sway, with minimizing government at all costs – even at the cost of benefits to the poor, seeming to prefer that the common good be hindered rather than that it be in any way aided by the “big government” bogeyman. Reacting to this, Catholic Democrats are articulating the principles of CST in a way that emphasizes the legitimate and necessary role that CST grants governments in serving the common good while downplaying the limits and cautions that the social encyclicals repeatedly raise in this regard – an understandable reaction in a way, but still an oversimplified one, especially when it succumbs to the partisan reflex that if Republicans say government intervention is bad, then more of it must always and automatically be good.
In this tug of war over CST, both sides ultimately fail to do it justice. This is inevitably the case because CST does not, nor was it ever meant to, fit the political binary that prevails in the United States. The USCCB said as much in its 2007 document Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship (the remainder of which demonstrates well the truth of this statement):
55. These themes from Catholic social teaching provide a moral framework that does not easily fit ideologies of “right” or “left,” “liberal” or “conservative,” or the platform of any political party. They are not partisan or sectarian, but reflect fundamental ethical principles that are common to all people.
The encyclicals and other documents collectively known as modern CST (though, to be sure, the Church has always had something to say on social issues) were written in the contexts of shifting global situations from the late 19th century to the present, which were often notably different from the current US political scene. This is not by any means to suggest that the principles articulated in these documents cannot be applied to our present context; indeed, their genius lies in being both contextual and broadly applicable, speaking to specific situations out of timeless values. It is all too easy to lose sight of this catholicity when bringing CST into the debates at hand. We must constantly be reminded that America is not the whole world, and still less is it the whole Church. To cherry-pick passages from the social encyclicals as proof-texts to show that CST echoes the current Republican or Democratic party line is to miss the message, telling half the story at best.
Take, first of all, Rerum Novarum, the 1891 encyclical widely considered the foundational document of CST in its modern form, in which Pope Leo XIII strongly rejected socialism while at the same time maintaining that the State itself has a duty to the common good, favoring government intervention when necessary to combat social ills (especially labor injustice) as well as clear limitations which governments should not overstep. He succinctly combines these concerns in RN 29:
If by a strike, or other combination of workmen, there should be imminent danger of disturbance to the public peace; or if circumstances were such that among the laboring population the ties of family life were relaxed; if religion were found to suffer through the workmen not having time and opportunity to practice it; if in workshops and factories there were danger to morals through the mixing of the sexes or from any occasion of evil; or if employers laid burdens upon the workmen which were unjust, or degraded them with conditions that were repugnant to their dignity as human beings; finally, if health were endangered by excessive labor, or by work unsuited to sex or age – in these cases there can be no question that, within certain limits, it would be right to call in the help and authority of the law. The limits must be determined by the nature of the occasion which calls for the law’s interference – the principle being this, that the law must not undertake more, nor go further, than is required for the remedy of the evil or the removal of the danger.
Throughout the encyclical, Leo demonstrates a strong concern for the protection of both private property and the rights of the working class. In more negative terms, he sees a danger in too great a concentration of wealth and power, whether in the hands of the State (as in socialism) or a wealthy elite (as in economic liberalism). This point in particular helps to explain why, while having grave moral concerns about Paul Ryan’s infamous budget proposal, I also cannot adopt the “more government is better (as long as Republicans are saying the opposite)” line that has become the knee-jerk reaction of the left, for reasons that have as much to do with my formative Mennonite background as with Catholic identity. Mennonites, while widely known in modern times for their commitment to social activism and service, have also historically been deeply suspicious of State power, often with good reason. This dual concern finds an interesting parallel in CST’s principle of subsidiarity, which is always connected to the common good. The documents articulate this connection better than I could, so I will allow them to speak for themselves with a few examples, which demonstrate a balance that neither major US party has managed to achieve.
Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno (1931):
79. It is indeed true, as history clearly shows, that owing to the change in social conditions, much that was formerly done by small bodies can nowadays be accomplished only by large organizations. Nevertheless, it is a fundamental principle of social philosophy, fixed and unchangeable, that one should not withdraw from individuals and commit to the community what they can accomplish by their own enterprise and industry. So, too, it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and a disturbance of right order to transfer to the larger and higher collectivity functions which can be performed and provided for by lesser and subordiante bodies. Inasumuch as every social activity should, by its very nature, prove a help to members of the body social, it should never destroy or absorb them.
80. The State authorities should leave to other bodies the care and expediting of business and activities of lesser moment, which otherwise become for it a source of great distraction. It then will preform with greater freedom, vigor and effectiveness, the tasks belonging properly to it, and which it alone can accomplish, directing, supervisin, encouraging, restraining, as circumstances suggest or necessity demands. Let those in power, therefore, be convinced that the more faithfully this principle of “subsidiarity” is followed and a hierarchical order prevails among the various organizations, the more excellent will be the authority and efficiency of societ, and the happier and more prosperous the condition of the commonwealth.
John XXIII, Mater et Magistra (1961):
54. Indeed, as is easily perceived, recent developments of science and technology provide additional reasons why, to a greater extent than heretofore, it is within the power of public authorities to reduce imbalances, whether these be between various sectors of economic life, or between different regions of the same nation, or even between different peoples of the world as a whole. These same developments make it possible to keep fluctuations in the economy within bounds, and to provide effective measures for avoiding mass unemployment. Consequently, it is requested again and again of public authorities responsible for the common good, that they intervene in a wide variety of economic affairs, and that, in a more extensive and organized way than heretofore, they adapt institutions, tasks, means, and procedures to this end.
55. Nevertheless, it remains true that precautionary activities of public authorities in the economic field, although widespread and penetrating, should be such that they not only avoid restricting the freedom of private citizens, but also increase it, so long as the basic rights of each individual person are preserved inviolate. Included among these is the right and duty of each individual normally to provide the necessities of life for himself and his dependents. This implies that whatever be the economic system, it allow and facilitate for every individual the opportunity to engage in productive activity.
56. Furthermore, the course of events thus far makes it clear that there cannot be a prosperous and well-ordered society unless both private citizens and public authorities work together in economic affairs. Their activity should be characterized by mutual and amicable efforts, so that the roles assigned to each fit in with requirements of the common good as changing times and customs suggest.
57. Experience, in fact, shows that where private initiative of individuals is lacking, political tyrrany prevails. Moreover, much stagnation occurs in various sectors of the economy, and hence all sorts of consumer goods and services, closely connected with needs of the body and more especially of the spirit, are in short supply. Beyond doubt, the attainment of such goods and services provides remarkable opportunity and stimulus for individuals to exercise initiative and industry.
58. Where, on the other hand, appropriate activity of the State is lacking or defective, commonwealths are apt to experience incurable disorders, and there occurs exploitation of the weak by the unscrupulous strong, who flourish, unfortunately, like cockle among the wheat, in all times and places.
116. Obviously, what we have said above [that the right to private property should be distributed justly] does not preclude ownership of goods pertaining to wealth by States and public agencies, especially “if these carry with them power too great to be left in private hands, without injury to the community at large.”117. It seems characteristic of our times to vest more and more ownership of goods in the State and in other public bodies. This is partially explained by the fact that the common good requires public authorities to exercise ever greater responsibilities. However, in this matter, the principle of subsidiarity, already mentioned above, is to be strictly observed. For it is lawful for States and public corporations to expand their domain of ownership only when manifest and genuine requirements of the common good so require, and then with safeguards, lest the possession of private citizens be diminished beyond measure, or, what is worse, destroyed.
118. Finally, we cannot pass over in silence the fact that economic enterprises undertaken by the State or by public corporations should be entrusted to citizens outstanding in skill and integrity, who will carry out their responsibilities to the commonwealth with a deep sense of devotion. Moreover, the activity of these men should be subjected to careful and continuing supervision, lest, in the administration of the State itself, there develop an economic imperialism in the hands of a few. For such a development is in conflict with the highest good of the commonwealth.
150. It often happens that in one and the same country citizens enjoy different degrees of wealth and social advancement. This especially happens because they dwell in areas which, economically speaking, have grown at different rates. Where such is the case, justice and equity demand that the government make efforts either to remove or to minimize imbalances of this sort. Toward this end, efforts should be made, in areas where there has been less economic progress, to supply the principal public services, as indicated by circumstances of time and place and in accord with the general level of living. But in bringing this about, it is necessary to have very competent administration and organization to take careful account of the following: labor supply, internal migration, wages, taxes, interest rates, and investments in industries that foster other skills and developments – all of which will further not merely the useful employment of workers and the stimulation of initiative, but also the exploitation of resources locally available.
151. But it is precisely the measures for advancement of the general welfare which civil authorities must undertake. Hence, they should take steps, having regard for the needs of the whole community, that progress in agriculture, industry, and services be made at the same time and in a balanced manner so far as possible. They should have this goal in mind, that citizens in less developed countries – in giving attention to economic and social affairs, as well as to cultural matters – feel themselves to be the ones chiefly responsible for their own progress. For a citizen has a sense of his own dignity when he contributes the major share to progress in his own affairs.
152. Hence, those also who rely on their own resources and initiative should contribute as best they can to the equitable adjustment of economic life in their own community. Nay, more, those in authority should favor and help private enterprise in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, in order to allow private citizens themselves to accomplish as much as is feasible.
John Paul II, Centesimus Annus (1991):
15. Rerum Novarum is opposed to state control of the means of production, which would reduce every citizen to being a “cog” in the state machine. It is no less forceful in criticizing a concept of the state which completely excludes the economic sector from the state’s range of interest and action. There is certainly a legitimate sphere of autonomy in economic life which the state should not enter. The state, however, has the task of determining the juridical framework within which economic affairs are to be conducted, and thus of safeguarding the prerequisites of a free economy, which presumes a certain equality between the parties, such that one party would not be so powerful as practically to reduce the other to subservience….
The state must contribute to the achievement of these goals [of just working conditions] both directly and indirectly. Indirectly and according to the principle of subsidiarity by creating favorable conditions for the free exercise of economic activity, which will lead to abundant opportunities for employment and sources of wealth. Directly and according to the principle of solidarity, by defending the weakest, by placing certain limits on the autonomy of the parties who determine working conditions, and by ensuring in every case the necessary minimum support for the unemployed worker.
Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate (2009):
57. … A particular manifestation of charity and a guiding criterion for fraternal cooperation between believers and nonbelievers is undoubtedly the principle of subsidiarity, an expression of inalienable human freedom. Subsidiarity is first and foremost a form of assistance to the human person via the autonomy of intermediate bodies. Such assistance is offered when individuals or groups are unable to accomplish something on their own, and it is always designed to achieve their emancipation, because it fosters freedom and participation through assumption of responsibility. Subsidiarity respects personal dignity by recognizing in the person a subject who is always capable of giving something to others. By considering reciprocity as the heart of what it is to be a human being, subsidiarity is the most effective antidote against any form of all-encompassing welfare state. It is able to take account both of the manifold articulation of plans – and therefore of the plurality of subjects – as well as the coordination of those plans. Hence the principle of subsidiarity is particularly well-suited to managing globalization and directing it towards authentic human development. In order not to produce a dangerous universal power of a tyrannical nature, the governance of globalization must be marked by subsidiarity, articulated into several layers and involving different levels that can work together. Globalization certainly requires authority, insofar as it poses the problem of a global common good that needs to be pursued. This authority, however, must be organized in a subsidiary and stratified way, if it is not to infringe upon freedom and if it is to yield effective results in practice.
58. The principle of subsidiarity must remain closely linked to the principle of solidarity and vice versa, since the former without the latter gives way to social privatism, while the latter without the former gives way to paternalist social assistance that is demeaning to those in need.
Finally, a bit closer to home, the USCCB pastoral Economic Justice for All (1986):
100. This principle [subsidiarity] guarantees institutional pluralism. It provides space for freedom, initiative, and creativity on the part of many social agents. At the same time, it insists that all these agents should work in ways that help build up the social body. Therefore, in all their activities these groups should be working in ways that express their distinctive capacities for action, that help meet human needs, and that make true contributions to the common good of the human community. The task of creating a more just U.S. economy is the vocation of all and depends on strengthening the virtues of public service and responsible citizenship in personal life and on all levels of institutional life.
121. The traditional distinction between society and the state in Catholic social teaching provides the basic framework for such organized public efforts [for justice]. The Church opposes all statist and totalitarian approaches to socioeconomic questions. Social life is richer than governmental power can encompass. All groups that compose society have responsibilities to respond to the demands of justice. We have just outlined some of the duties of labor unions and business and financial enterprises. These must be supplemented by initiatives by local community groups, professional associations, educational institutions, churches, and synagogues. All the groups that give life to this society have important roles to play in the pursuit of economic justice.
122. For this reason, it is all the more significant that the teachings of the Church insist that government has a moral function: protecting human rights and securing basic justice for all members of the commonwealth. Society as a whole and in all its diversity is responsible for building up the common good. But it is government’s role to guarantee the minimum conditions that make this rich social activity possible, namely, human rights and justice. This obligation also falls on individual citizens as they choose their representatives and participate in shaping public opinion.
123. More specifically, it is the responsibility of all citizens, acting through their government, to assist and empower the poor, the disadvantaged, the handicapped, and the unemployed. Government should assume a positive role in generating employment and establishing fair labor practices, in guaranteeing the provision and maintenance of the economy’s infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, harbors, public means of communication, and transport. It should regulate trade and commerce in the interest of fairness. Government may levy the taxes necessary to meet these responsibilities, and citizens have a moral obligation to pay those taxes. The way society responds to the needs of the poor through its public policies is the litmus test of its justice or injustice. The political debate about these policies is the indispensable forum for dealing with the conflicts and tradeoffs that will always be present in the pursuit of a more just economy.
124. The primary norm for determining the scope and limits of governmental intervention is the “principle of subsidiarity” cited above. This principle states that, in order to protect basic justice, government should undertake only those initiatives which exceed the capacity of individuals or private groups acting independently. Government should not replace or destroy smaller communities and individual initiative. Rather it should help them to contribute more effectively to social well-being and supplement their activity when the demands of justice exceed their capacities. This does not mean, however, that the government that governs least governs best. Rather it defines good government intervention as that which truly “helps” other social groups contribute to the common good by directing, urging, restraining, and regulating economic activity as “the occasion requires and necessity demands.” This calls for cooperation and consensus-building among the diverse agents in our economic life, including government. The precise form of government involvement in this process cannot be determined in the abstract. It will depend on an assessment of specific needs and the most effective ways to address them.
I have cited the above documents at some length in order to keep them in a broad enough context to demonstrate their transcendence of the dichotomous size-of-government debates presently occuring in the US political sphere. Rather than attempting to conform CST to one or the other end of this polemic, which cannot be done without seriously distorting it, let’s keep our heads when the arguments flare up and follow our Church’s social tradition by daring to articulate a radically moderate view of government, too much or too little of which can both lead to forms of tyranny. This does not mean diluting any of the key principles of CST, whether subsidiarity or the common good or the preferential option for the poor. On the contrary, this is their strongest and most complete expression.