Monday, November 19, 2012

Fix It Now: What About Catholic Social Teaching?

Comments and concerns from fellows Catholics about my plan for fiscal reform prompted me to add to my book some material on Catholic social teaching.

Here it is:

Some leading Catholic voices have cited the social teaching of the Catholic Church to slam Congressman Ryan from Wisconsin, and the Republican Party in general, for trying to reform the welfare/entitlement system. It wasn’t always this way. 

The modern social teaching of the Catholic Church began with the 1891 papal encyclical Rerum Novarum (On New Things), which established the principle of “subsidiarity.” It means that human activity, including functions of government, should be pushed down to the local level as much as possible. 

As a conservative, I like the way the Church evaluates systems of government by how they treat the individual. Subsidiarity holds that individuals are likely to be treated best by systems that operate, and are held accountable, at the local level. It’s a religious version of the political principle of federalism that American conservatives have advocated since the founding of the country. 

Rerum Novarum said in paragraph 37:

The mass of the poor have no resources of their own to fall back upon, and must chiefly depend upon the assistance of the State. And it is for this reason that wage-earners, since they mostly belong in the mass of the needy, should be specially cared for and protected by the government.

The Church identified a role for government in providing assistance, on the condition that assistance is provided at the lowest level possible.

Rerum Novarum was a reaction to communism gaining ground in Europe. An absolute laissez-faire (hands off) capitalism that ignored the struggling masses was not acceptable, but the Church was nervous about a swing to the opposite extreme of dehumanizing control of society by a central government under communism. Open a current edition of the Catholic Catechism to paragraph 1885 and you will see that “the principle of subsidiarity is opposed to all forms of collectivism” and “sets limits for state intervention.” The goal is a balance that “aims at harmonizing the relationships between individuals and societies.”

In 1931, four decades after Rerum Novarum, with totalitarian systems on the march in Europe and Asia and liberal/progressive pressure building in the United States for a more assertive federal government, the papal encyclical Quadragesimo Anno (In the 40th Year) said in paragraph 79: 

That most weighty principle, which cannot be set aside or changed, remains fixed and unshaken in social philosophy: Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do.

Papal encyclical Mater et Magistra (Mother and Teacher) in 1961 softened the Church’s position on wariness toward big government solutions to social problems. Since then, the American bishops have swung left on the political spectrum, endorsing the shred-the-Constitution unlimited power of federal government characterized by the New Deal and the Great Society. As a college student in the early 1980s, I took a theology class in which we studied a draft of what would become Economic Justice for All, a 1986 statement by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops attacking the Reagan administration for trying to reform the federal welfare/entitlement system. 

The 1991 papal encyclical Centesimus Annus (The 100th Year), written to commemorate the centennial of Rerum Novarum, said in section 11 of its introduction:

If Pope Leo XIII [author of Rerum Novarum] calls upon the State to remedy the condition of the poor in accordance with justice, he does so because of his timely awareness that the State has the duty of watching over the common good and of ensuring that every sector of social life, not excluding the economic one, contributes to achieving that good, while respecting the rightful autonomy of each sector. This should not, however, lead us to think that Pope Leo expected the State to solve every social problem. On the contrary, he frequently insists on necessary limits to the State’s intervention and on its instrumental character, inasmuch as the individual, the family and society are prior to the State, and inasmuch as the State exists in order to protect their rights and not stifle them.

Those cautionary words written by Pope John Paul II did little to slow the leftward movement of the Catholic Church in America, especially on health care, right up to endorsing Obamacare in 2009. Obamacare’s panels to ration health care, indirect subsidizing of abortion, and mandate forcing the Church to help provide birth control for employees finally has some American bishops questioning decades of support for unlimited federal power.

It brings us back to my fundamental question: What produces the best for the most? 

Here’s an excerpt from a Q&A in the Health Care Reform section of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops website:

Question: Are the bishops promoting socialized medicine by advocating for universal access?

Answer: All people need and should have access to comprehensive, quality health care that they can afford, and it should not depend on their stage in life, where or whether they or their parents work, how much they earn, where they live, or where they were born. There may be different ways to accomplish this, but the Bishops’ Conference believes health care reform should be truly universal and genuinely affordable.


I was surprised. I expected the answer to be no, of course not. But by putting it out there and not refuting it, the bishops are saying a veiled yes. Or they are saying, “We don’t care what you call it, just make sure the government is providing health care for everyone.” 

I probably should not have been surprised. For decades the American bishops have called for socialized medicine, calling it universal access or health care for all or whatever avoids hinting at socialism. But the barrage of evidence from the last 80 years of American experience shows that the more the federal government gets involved in social services, the more dehumanizing poverty and misery we get, as evidenced by the record number of people on food stamps. Big government produces more dysfunctional poverty, and thus more people in need of help to obtain health care – more such people than Catholic and other charitable institutions and programs can handle. Yet the Catholic Church argues for bigger government as the answer. 

I pray that the bishops rediscover the principle of subsidiarity and stop hammering politicians who are trying to restore the kind of health care system and overall system of government that produces the best for the most, a system that reduces the number of people in need and maximizes the number of people doing well enough to help the Church care for those not doing well. 

Deep down the Church knows this. The Church is not shy about tapping wealth produced by capitalism to fund its many worthy missions. Lots of left-wing educators in Catholic institutions have a good life because of good old American capitalism. That wealth is going to dry up if the Church keeps contributing to the leftward push in national fiscal policy.

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