A Political Antidote for Our Day

A Political Antidote for Our Day October 29, 2012

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.”

The second element of our CST-influenced political antidote comes from the communitarian personalism of Dorothy Day, who, similarly to John Ryan and Pope Leo, forged a radical middle ground between individualist and collectivist pitfalls.  An excerpt from a May 1947 issue of The Catholic Worker shows Day’s deep concern for the poor (echoing the epistle of James and the early Church Fathers) along with her deep suspicion of the state:

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.  Theologiansbishops 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.

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  • Kurt

    Leo’s social vision falls squarely into the gap between the current Democratic and Republican parties in the United States.

    I don’t see how that can be asserted, even though the post otherwise is very well written.
    Leo rightly objected to certain features of 19th century Socialism. Yet Pius XI told Cardinal Bourne, Archbishop of Westminster, that there is nothing in the program and policy of the British Labour Party that is in conflict with papal social teaching. In 1951, the Socialist International issued the Frankfurt Declaration, which certainly put Socialism in conformity with the principles of its UK affiliate. Catholic officials advised in the drafting of the Frankfurt Declaration. Objecting to Socialism because of statements since abandoned has the same legitimacy as objecting to the Republican Party because of their 19th century condemnation of rum and Romanism.

    So, if even actually existing Socialism is not outside papal social teaching, given the Democratic Party stands closer to private market principles than Socialism does, what is the basis for saying papal social teaching falls in between the two American parties? The Democratic Party has a policy, program and history of supporting limited market interventions. It does not hold the state as the source of natural rights by an actor that should help make real those rights that come from Nature. Democrats do not believe that the State is our source of hope.

    While the Democratic Party has its faults, it does not seem to me that there is much of an argument that papal teaching on economic justice falls between the two.

    • Julia Smucker

      Democrats do not believe that the State is our source of hope.

      Perhaps not, but some at least seem tempted in that direction as a reaction to anti-government sentiments within the Republican Party. As I said in my previous post (linked above), the reaction is somewhat understandable, but in our polarized political climate it can too easily become a knee-jerk dismissal of any cautions raised against a pollyannish praise of the State. Compared to this growing ideological entrenchment (yes, that is happening in both parties), Leo’s emphasis on limited government and reserving top-down intervention for cases of true necessity does have him sounding like a moderate Republican at times, although this is of course balanced out by a recognition of the moral responsibility of the State. This is why I said his social vision falls between the two major US parties in their present self-expressions.

      Of course, I’ve also said that in the conventional sense of these terms (although I generally find them unhelpful), one might reasonably say that Church teaching is “liberal” on social ethics and “conservative” on sexual ethics – so in that respect you have a point. At least, it is telling that the magisterium gets criticized from the left when it speaks on sexuality and from the right when it speaks on economics.

      • Kurt

        Julia, I can tell you as an officer of the Democratic Party, we absolutely do not see the State as our source of hope. I think basic human decency allows organizations to speak for themselves and not be told they are some characterization that their opponents create.

        Yes, because of the unrelenting GOP attacks on the idea of any role for government, Democrats generally find ourselves defending the limited role for government that we advocate. And in almost every social program we supported, it was enacted with the clear endorsement of the Catholic episcopacy (in fact, with the Episcopacy often recommending an even larger role for government than the Democratic Party called for, i.e. TANF).

        Further, almost every intervention supported by the Democratic Party has been on a matter of what the Church has called a “true necessity” — health care, industrial safety, unemployment insurance, food security, etc.

        An examination of real world examples of CST inspired programs does show that there could be less of a role for government in some programs as they are structured in the USA. For example, in countries where the old age insurance system was designed by social Catholics, rather than a government program like our Social Security it is a mandatory program run by equal number of worker and employer representatives. But that Catholic vision does not fall between the two parties, but to the left of the Democratic Party. The Republican Party would react as if Red Bolshevikism was being proposed at the idea of enough worker organization in that we could elect trustees to a national pension fund. Left Democrats like me would support it, but I am not so sure about the more moderate wing of our party.

        Maybe you have some actual examples in mind of the social initiatives supported by Democrats that call for an excessive role for the State, but I am having trouble envisioning any, even while suffering through the constant but vaporous accusations that Democrats are the party of excessive social government from a Catholic perspective.

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

        I would not call Dorothy Day either a cynic nor a realist: I think she was a utopian idealist. She saw in Catholic teaching a 3rd way that did not attempt to split the difference between capitalism and socialism, but rather moved in a different direction entirely by questioning the role of power in both government and economics. She never fleshed out her ideas but from hints in her writing I think she had moved beyond Peter Maurin’s somewhat naive agrarian communalism.

        So, building on what Kurt said above: why should we see Catholic teaching as striking a balance between two poles and not trying to establish its own proper direction?

        • Julia Smucker

          I’m not talking about splitting the difference, exactly, but something more transcendent. The genius of CST is that it critiques capitalism and socialism while weaving together the strengths of both, for example calling for redistribution of resources for the sake of universal private ownership (which is my impression of what Distributism does as a political philosophy inspired by CST). Hence the popes can push pretty strongly a point about the limitations of government or the natural right to private property, and then seamlessly connect this to a preferential option for the poor and/or to redistribution (at which point someone inevitably says, “OMG! The pope is left of Nancy Pelosi!”). CST is really about a holistic vision of human development and society, which cannot be pinned onto a one-dimensional left-right spectrum. Any attempts to do so can only demean it. I apologize if I have given the impression that that’s what I was trying to do.

        • Kurt


          I appreciate your last comment. Both CST and the Democratic Party critique capitalism and socialism while weaving together the strengths of both, the Democratic Party leaning a little closer to the free market side and CST a little more to what the secular world considers the Left.

          CST, being a teaching and a philosophy, has the opportunity to speak more towards the transcendent and visionary while the Democratic Party has the charge of actually developing and enacting legislation. But where social Catholics performed the same duties, their actually existing social policies have little in common with the Republican Party but rather resemble the programs of the US Democrats or of Social Democracy.

          Could both the Republican and Democratic parties benefit from the transcendence and holistic vision of human development and society of CST? Yes, I think so. When we look at actually existing social polices of CST, the Democratic Party and the GOP, does CST fall in the middle? No. It has almost nothing in common with the GOP, shares much with the Democratic Party and those to the Party’s Left (as seen by the secular world).

        • wj

          I want to hear more about this part:

          “She never fleshed out her ideas but from hints in her writing I think she had moved beyond Peter Maurin’s somewhat naive agrarian communalism.”

        • Mark Gordon

          I think that consigning Dorothy Day to the ranks of utopian idealists is a way of dismissing her work, her insights into both Catholic teaching and the modern corporate state, and even her concrete example as someone who tried to “build a new civilization within the shell of the old.” In a famous episode, someone once suggested that Day was a saint. Her reply? “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.” The same might be said for calling her a “utopian idealist.” Yes, she refused to compromise with the spirit of the age, but that didn’t make her a wild-eyed dreamer. It made her a Christian par excellence.

      • Julia Smucker

        I guess what I’m trying to say is that Church teaching is profoundly illiberal, in a more classical sense, whether sexually or economically or whatever, which is why it sounds “liberal” (in the conventional sense) when it speaks about economic justice.

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

    Julia, I understand why you quote Dorothy Day in your essay, but it is worth remembering that she was suggesting that the government had no role to play, since government itself was suspect if not illegitimate. Day was above all a Christian anarchist, and viewed the state (or, I suspect, any political grouping larger than could be managed by a “town meeting” or board of syndics) as something to be distrusted. So while she respected John Ryan immensely, she was more extreme in her views than him.

    • Julia Smucker

      Well, I would not go as far with my political cynicism as she does, but her combined distrust of the state and deep social concern and love for the poor all strike a chord with the Mennonite in me. Having inherited from my Anabaptist ancestry a deeply and historically ingrained suspicion of state power is a major reason for my discomfort with reactions (see my response to Kurt above) that veer into singing the praises of Holy Mother State.

      • Mark Gordon

        One man’s cynicism is another man’s realism.

    • Mark Gordon

      I don’t agree with David on Dorothy Day. Her concern about the state was that Christians would fob off their own responsibilities for the poor on the government, which would leave the poor worse off (since the bureaucratization of compassion is a contradiction in terms), leave the state so strong that counterbalancing institutions wouldn’t survive (since their fundamental duties had been absorbed by the government), and leave Christians bereft of their essential mission in the world: caring for their brothers and sisters, at a personal cost and risk. And she was right.

      As president of a homeless shelter and soup kitchen, I can’t tell you how many people, almost all Christians, refuse to provide direct help on the grounds that they’ve already paid their taxes for welfare, food stamps, housing programs, Medicaid, etc. I live in the bluest of blue states, and also the most Catholic of all states. Charitable giving to the poor on a per capita basis here is a disaster, as is the contribution of per capita volunteer hours, in-kind donations, and so on. People will give to the arts, recreation, education, the environment, and so on, but when it comes to the poor the presumption is almost entirely in favor of state action.

      The state certainly has a role in ensuring a minimum standard of living for all citizens, as well as vital services like healthcare and education. And I don’t find anything in Dorothy Day’s writing that contradicts that conviction. Her indictment of “Holy Mother State” had less to do with the provision of basic services and more to do with the attitude of Christians who would prefer to outsource the corporal works of mercy to a remote and impersonal bureaucracy.

      • Kurt

        Her indictment of “Holy Mother State” had less to do with the provision of basic services and more to do with the attitude of Christians who would prefer to outsource the corporal works of mercy to a remote and impersonal bureaucracy.

        be that bureaucracy the public sector or Catholic Charities.

  • Lindsay

    I really like your phrase “we can only denounce one idol by praising the other.” It seems to me so silly that we think there are only two options in front of us – in politics, economics, you name it. If I question capitalism, I am pegged as a socialist; if I dislike a Republican, I’m called a Democrat. Can’t we be a little more creative?

    I would like to hear others’ thoughts on how we can find, promote and create alternatives to these limited bifurcations – especially in economics and politics. If anyone has thoughts on the work of Focolare or the movement Free and Equal (freeandequal.org), I welcome those.

  • Agellius

    “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.”

    To me that sounds basically like what we have: Limited government yet with regulation and intervention to protect private property and provide for the poor. Some may want more of one and less of the other, or vice versa, but that’s just a question of specifically where to draw the line.