Diocese of Brooklyn Jumps the Shark

Diocese of Brooklyn Jumps the Shark March 8, 2012

I’m a bit late responding to this, but I want to draw your attention (courtesy of Paul Moses) to an editorial in the Diocese of Brooklyn newspaper, which – to put it bluntly – diverges from key concepts of Catholic social teaching. The argument is that because government spending and taxation are so high, individual freedom is impinged, which affects the freedom/ liberty of religious people to donate to their Churches.

Wow! How to respond to this?

Philosophical foundations

First, by acknowledging the fallacious philosophical basis. The editorial condemns the reach of the state, noting that “We no longer live in an era of Jeffersonian democracy, where the role of the state is limited mostly to the protection of fundamental liberties and defense against foreign aggressors”.

This limited idea of the state is explicitly and strongly condemned by Catholic social teaching. The editorial is emphasizing a classical liberalism whereby the individual is paramount and the state is a purely human creation designed to enforce a social contract between individuals and whose chief function is law and order. The Church instead emphasizes the common good and the notion of a just society across all dimensions, with special attention to the rights of the poor and the worker. We are not autonomous individuals; we are social creatures bound together in a harmonious social order and we have duties and responsibilties to each other according to the laws of justice.

Consider some quick examples of papal teaching in this area:

  • Pius XI railed against the “poisoned spring” of the “evil individualist spirit”, and called for a true and effective directing principle to govern economic life.
  • Pius XII condemned the “excessive exaltation of liberty, considered as its exclusive scope the safe-guarding of liberty by the law”.
  • Paul VI condemned unbridled liberalism – which is identified with profit as the chief spur to economic progress, free competition, and private ownership as an absolute right – as a particular type of tyranny that can “never be condemned enough”. In other words, “at the very root of philosophical liberalism is an erroneous affirmation of the autonomy of the individual in his activity, his motivation and the exercise of his liberty”.
  • Benedict XVI stated clearly that “the duty to work for a just ordering of society is proper to the lay faithful”.

In the United States in particular, with the strong tendency toward the privatization of religion and emphasis on private virtue, many seek a minimal role of the state to allow private charity to flourish. This is what underpins the editorial. But this goes against Catholic teaching, which sees justice as coming first. As Paul VI put it, we should first let “the demands of justice be satisfied lest the giving of what is due in justice be represented as the offering of a charitable gift.”

Indeed, a key theme of Benedict XVI is that justice and charity are linked. He notes that charity goes beyond justice, but never lacks justice: “I cannot give what is mine to the other without first giving him what pertains to him in justice”. The institutional path of charity is “no less effective than the kind of charity which encounters the neighbor directly”. Justice must always some first.

Practical implications

What are some of the practical implications of this? It means that the political body is called upon to pursue justice. As Pope Benedict put it, “the just ordering of society and the State is a central responsibility of politics”. It is not simply about protecting liberty, but pursuing the common good, and so “it cannot, therefore, hold aloof from economic matters” (John XXIII). The state’s role is twofold – regulating economic life by appropriate oversight to facilitate the common good by the principle of subsidiarity, and helping the weakest by the principle of solidarity.

We have ample examples of what this means in practice. Leo XIII argued that the poor and the wage-earner “should be specially cared for and protected by the government”. Pius XII called upon the state to “interest itself in social welfare, taking care of the entire people and of all its members, especially the weak and the dispossessed, through a generous social programme and the creation of a labor code”. Workers have a right to a just wage, which cannot depend on market forces, but rather on the laws of justice and equity – this is one of the most important themes in Catholic social teaching.

The Church also supports social benefits and social safety nets. There is an obligation to provide unemployment benefits, which is “a duty springing from the fundamental principle of the moral order in this sphere, namely the principle of the common use of goods or, to put it in another and still simpler way, the right to life and subsistence” (John Paul II). There is also a right to pensions and insurance for old age, and a right to healthcare, which should “be easily available for workers, and that as far as possible it should be cheap or even free of charge”.

The Church has also put a lot of emphasis on a fair distribution of income, to reduce what Pope Benedict calls the “scandal of glaring inequalities”. As Benedict puts it, “the dignity of the individual and the demands of justice require, particularly today, that economic choices do not cause disparities in wealth to increase in an excessive and morally unacceptable manner”. And “grave imbalances are produced when economic action, conceived merely as an engine for wealth creation, is detached from political action, conceived as a means for pursuing justice through redistribution.”John XXIII argued that the distribution of wealth mattered more for the common good than the accumulation of wealth. The Church also supports progressive taxation, calling for the burdens to be  “proportioned to the capacity of the people contributing” (John XXIII).

The Church has spoken strongly about protecting workers and the poor during tough times. The USCCB is quite active on this issue in the United States. And Pope Benedict is very blunt about this too, condemning the “downsizing of social security systems as the price to be paid for seeking greater competitive advantage in the global market”, which can “leave citizens powerless in the face of old and new risks”.

Clearly, there is no call in Catholic social teaching for a retreat of the state in economic life along the lines of the liberal ideology, especially in today’s environment.

Factual errors and omissions

Let’s now talk about the many factual errors in the editorial. It claims that the tax burden is rising to the highest level in history. Nothing could be further from the truth. Tax rates in the United States have been on a downward trend for many years now, and the revenue-GDP ratio is among the lowest in the OECD. How can it be a valid Catholic position to argue that taxes are too high in one of the most low-tax countries?

Further, the tax take collapsed completely during the crisis, a direct result of the economic collapse. Indeed, this is by far and away the leading reason for the rising deficit. There is a great myth out there that it is somehow due to a spike in spending, but as Krugman shows based on the data – this is factually inaccurate. If you take out unemployment benefits, spending actually grew more slowly between 2007-2011 than between 2000-07. And since the Church supports protection of the unemployed during downturns, what exactly is the implication of this?

Turning to the composition, it is certainly true that social security and healthcare programs are large, each accounting for about 20 percent of spending. Of course, there are legitimate arguments about making this spending more sustainable. But the editorial is strangely silent on the other item of spending that accounts for 20 percent of the budget – military spending. For while the Church supports social spending, it tends to be far more negative on military spending, especially when it is so large (and military spending in the United States is vastly higher than elsewhere). The Catechism explicitly condemns the accumulation of arms. Paul VI called for military spending to be funneled into development, through the conduit of  world fund.

The privatization of faith

Let me try to sum up. The real problem is that this editorial looks at the situation solely through the lens of American liberalism, with heavy emphasis on negative freedom and individual autonomy. Like its critics on the secular left, it sees religion as essentially private. The secular left wants to keep religion in a box, where devotees are free to worship but have no claims on broader society. The right – influenced heavily by Protestant culture – also believes in the privatization of religion, confined to issuing general moral advice to individuals. We see this dynamic playing out in the recent contraception debate, when even the bishops are resorting to this rights-based liberal language. Patrick Dineen put it well when be noted that criticisms of the mandate are framed within the “dominant privatistic language of liberalism”. (Thanks to Mark Gordon for this reference).

Clearly, this is not how the Catholic Church sees itself. As Michael Sean Winters notes  – echoing David Schindler’s criticism of American liberalism from a communio perspective – both sides “tend to accept a dualistic approach to the relationship between faith and politics, and more deeply between grace and nature”. As he points out, in his testimony to Congress, Bishop Lori talked a lot about the liberal principles of the constitution, but didn’t mention God once.

We have a problem here. I would argue that if you take this approach to its logical conclusion, you end up with this editorial. Religion becomes trapped within the private sphere, linked to individual freedom. If religion is private, then there is no requirement to pursue justice beyond personal charity. In doing so, you have to jettison more than a century of Catholic social teaching. I believe that qualifies as jumping the shark!

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