Catholic Social Teaching and America

Hidden among the numerous documents found on the Vatican website, there lies what I consider to be a great gem, namely the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church.  In fact no Catholic should enter into discussion in the public square without first reading this document. Because only the Church has a correct vision of the human person, only she can offer a correct vision of society (Centesimus Annus, 64).    In many ways then, all of Catholic Social Doctrine is an attempt to articulate the ethical implications of what it means to be a human person in community.  To that end, the Compendium puts forth four principles which “constitute the very heart of Catholic social teaching,” namely, the dignity of the human person, the common good, subsidiarity, and solidarity.  Two of them in particular, the common good and subsidiarity, bear special mention because of their relevance to our situation in America today.

The Compendium defines the common good in its broadest sense as “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily” (CSD, 164).

The Catechism of the Catholic Church points to three elements of the common good which help to illuminate the twofold focus in the definition that is placed on both the individual and the community.  The common good, first and foremost, must recognize the dignity of the person.  This means creating societal “conditions for the exercise of the natural freedoms indispensable for the development of the human vocation, such as “the right to act according to a sound norm of conscience and to safeguard. . . privacy, and rightful freedom also in matters of religion” (CCC 1907).  Second, the common good requires “the social well-being and development of the group itself” (CCC1908).  This however must never be done at the expense of the dignity of the person.  Finally, the common good requires an atmosphere of peace founded upon a just order in which the mutual fulfillment of members may occur (CCC 1909).

This fulfillment is not merely on a material level.  Seeking the common good is not just about a flourishing economy, protection of rights, etc. but requires special attention to truth, justice, love, virtue and duty in the social order.

If one could restore a proper understanding of the common good, then we would go a long way in fixing many social ills.  There is the notion that the common good refers simply to a sum of individual goods.  Politicians then seek to perform a calculus in developing legislation to benefit the most amount of people regardless of who it harms.  But the common good is a good everyone shares in.  If one person in the society is omitted from it then it is not a common good.

An example might help.  Suppose there is soldier who must leave his family to go off to war.  His family would obviously suffer great hardship in his doing so.  So even though it is a hardship on them, it is done for the common good.  How so?  Because the freedom that he protects is part of the common good and it flows back over him and his family.  It is a higher good because everyone in the community participates in it.  In other words, the common good may be achieved at the cost of great personal sacrifice, but it is always for a good that the sacrificing party also participates in.

The common good depends on contributions not just from the State but from everyone.  Furthermore, everyone, either individually or as a member of a family or intermediate group, “has something to offer to the community” (CSD, 187).  This is the reason that a Nanny State is always contrary to the common good.  It hampers the growth of its members by usurping their right to contribute to the community.

Begging Alms

In a country where we put a great emphasis on personal rights, how come this one is not emphasized?  If each member has a right to contribute to the common good then this means that the rest of Society has an obligation to aid that person is exercising this right.

This is also why the Nanny State always tends towards despotism.  Every time that something that a man can do himself is taken away from him, his freedom is diminished because he loses the skills he once had (or would need to learn) and becomes more dependent.  This “Helpful Caesar” is probably more despotic than the “Tyrant Caesar” because we grow so accustomed to sacrificing our freedoms that we no longer know how to defend them.

One might think that based on this that the State ought to do very little in the way of welfare.  But this is true only up to a certain extent.  All State action ought to be governed by the principle of subsidiarity.  This is the principle by which “a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good” (CCC 1883).

Subsidiarity is a guard against collectivism by setting limits on state intervention.  It is certainly the case that government has many necessary and indispensable functions to play, roles that cannot be accomplished by individuals acting alone or even by smaller groups in society.  Nevertheless, governments often exceed their legitimate role by absorbing individuals and groups in society in order to control them.  This leads to “a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending” (CA, 48).

What this looks like in practice is that needs should always be met locally.  This is for two reasons.  The first is that those closest to the problem are the ones that are best suited to diagnose the problem and fix it.  If they do not have the means to fix it then certainly they could rely on a local government agency to assist them.  But, notice the government agency should assist those people in solving the problem themselves, not in solving it for them.

So for example, a man may be having difficulty feeding his family. He might visit the local food bank that is privately run.  The local government could then offer subsidies to the food bank (if necessary) to help them perform this service for the community but would not be involved in the actual distribution of the food.

The second reason is even more important and that is because only those who are close to the situation can give love.  Pope Benedict captures this in his first Encyclical when he said, “[T]he State which would provide everything, absorbing everything into itself, would ultimately become a mere bureaucracy incapable of guaranteeing the very thing which the suffering person—every person—needs: namely, loving personal concern. We do not need a State which regulates and controls everything, but a State which, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, generously acknowledges and supports initiatives arising from the different social forces and combines spontaneity with closeness to those in need” (Deus Caritas Est, 28).

Because it is a local food bank, the members of the man’s own community are the ones helping him.  He encounters a real person who is showing personal concern and love for him by helping him feed his family.  There is no anonymity that is inherent in a bureaucracy.  This means that every member of the community in turn feels some responsibility for those in need because they might someday need it as well (solidarity).  They aren’t simply paying their taxes assuming their obligations to the poor are taken care of.  It also adds a layer of accountability to the recipient because he knows that he is taking handouts from real people and also may be taking from others in his community who need more than he does.  This means he will take only as much as he needs and strive for an increasing level of independence.

We spend so much time discussing politics in our country that we miss the fact that the government is meant to be at the service of society as a whole.  Certainly any society in which the common good is not properly understood and subsidiarity is not practiced will suffer regardless of how good their ruler is.

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