Catholic Social Teaching, as I’ve said before, does not fit the current U.S. political binary. To name one foundational example, Pope Leo XIII’s groundbreaking encyclical Rerum Novarum is sharply critical of both socialism and laissez-faire capitalism while in a sense straining out the best principles of both, arguing for the State’s responsibility to provide for the common good which necessarily includes private ownership for all. By advocating limited government while allowing for some necessary regulation and intervention to protect the right to private property especially for the poor, Leo’s social vision falls squarely into the gap between the current Democratic and Republican parties in the United States. We would do well to recall two 20th-century American applications of this vision, which may provide a much-needed antidote to today’s poisonous political dichotomy that tempts us to make idols of government or market.
Msgr. John Ryan’s advocacy of a living wage based on the concept of natural rights has Rerum Novarum all over it. Ryan’s natural rights theory, as put forth in his 1906 book A Living Wage, cuts to the heart of Pope Leo’s double-edged social critique:
The doctrine of natural rights … insists that the individual is endowed by nature, or rather, by God, with the rights that are requisite to a reasonable development of his personality, and that these rights are, within due limits, sacred against the power even of the state; but it insists that no individual’s rights extend so far as to prevent the state from adjusting the conflicting claims of individuals and safeguarding the just welfare of all its citizens.
Here, in one fell swoop, Ryan has hit on the overarching reason for Leo’s suspicion of socialism and capitalism: too high a concentration of wealth, whether in the hands of the state or an aristocratic elite, creates an injustice by depriving some people of their right to possess the necessities of a decent life. Ryan goes on to unpack the ramifications of these twin tyrannies, beginning with the unbridled market:
In other words, man’s natural rights must not be so widely interpreted that the strong, and the cunning, and the unscrupulous will be able, under the pretext of individual liberty, to exploit and overreach the weak, and simple, and honest majority. The formula that correctly describes the limits of individual rights is not the one enounced by Kant and Fichte, namely, that a person has a right to do everything that does not interfere with the equal liberty of others. Interpreted in one way, this formula is utterly incapable of application, since the doing of an action by one man means the limitation to that degree of the liberty of all other men. Understood in a completely subjective sense, it would justify and legalize theft, adultery and murder; for I may claim the right to steal if I am willing that others should enjoy the same liberty. The true formula is, that the individual has a right to all things that are essential to the reasonable development of his personality, consistently with the rights of others and the complete observance of the moral law. Where this rule is enforced the rights of individuals, and of society as well, are amply and resonably protected.
He then turns to the injustice of totalitarian socialism:
On the other hand, if the individual’s rights are given a narrower interpretation, if on any plea of public welfare they are treated by the state as non-existent, there is an end to the dignity of personality and the sacredness of human life. Man becomes merely an instrument of the State’s aggrandizement, instead of the final end of its solicitude and the justification of its existence. If all rights are derived from the state, and determined by the needs of the state, the laborer has no such thing as a natural right to a living wage, nor any kind of right to any measure of wages, except in so far as the community would thereby be benefitted. President Hadley tells us that some workers are more profitable at a low wage than at a high one, that the “economy of high wages” is not a universal law. “There are some men whose maximum efficiency per unit of food is obtained with small consumption and small output. These go into lines requiring neither exceptional strength nor exceptional skill, and remain poor because the best commercial economy in such lines is obtained by a combination of low output and low consumption.” Those who would measure the rights of the individual by the social weal must logically conclude that whenever “the best commercial economy” is secured by “low consumption,” in other words, by low wages, the underpaid worker, let him be never so cruelly “sweated,” is not treated unjustly and has no right to a larger remuneration. Hence the importance of the doctrine of rights to the subject of this volume; for it cannot be shown that every laborer has an ethical claim to a living wage unless the teaching of Christianity be accepted, to-wit: “That every individual by virtue of his eternal destination is at the core somewhat holy and indestructible; that the smallest part has a value of its own, and not merely because it is part of a whole: that every man is to be regarded by the community, never as a mere instrument, but also as an end.”
Every house should have a Christ’s room. The coat which hangs in your closet belongs to the poor. If your brother comes to you hungry and you say, Go thou be filled, what kind of hospitality is that? It is no use turning people away to an agency, to the city or the state or the Catholic Charities. It is you yourself who must perform the works of mercy. Often you can only give the price of a meal, or a bed on the Bowery. Often you can only hope that it will be spent for that. Often you can literally take off a garment if it only be a scarf and warm some shivering brother. But personally, at a personal sacrifice, these were the ways. Peter [Maurin] used to insist, to combat the growing tendency on the part of the state to take over. The great danger was the state taking over the job which our Lord himself gave us to do, “Inasmuch as you did it unto one of the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto me” [Mt 25:40].
By quoting Day in this way I do not mean to suggest that the government has no role to play in promoting justice, but only that we cannot presume it to be the sole arbiter of the common good. Theologians, bishops and other church leaders have rightly denounced policy proposals in which the poor are the first to bear the brunt of any budget cuts as morally problematic. At the same time, a danger in today’s polarized political climate is that these critiques, as well-placed as they are, may tempt us to flee into the arms of what Day would sardonically refer to as “Holy Mother State.” We can and must hold the state accountable to the vulnerable among us, and yet it can never become the source of our hope. In the midst of a political culture that tells us we can only denounce one idol by praising the other, this can be difficult to remember. Yet as Catholics, we have within our tradition a social vision that splits the horns of America’s political dichotomy. Retreiving it may be the best civic contribution we can make.