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Part 11: Thinking 'Out of the Box'

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By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Feb 26, 2015)
The following is the eleventh installment of a 15-part series on Divine Mercy and Divine Justice. Read the series to date.

In part 9 of this series we began our survey of the relationship between Divine Mercy and Social Justice by exploring the first and most fundamental Catholic social teaching: the dignity of every human life. Last week we applied that teaching to the issue of so-called mercy-killing. Now we need to press on and consider two additional and essential Catholic social principles: "solidarity" and "subsidiarity."

That's a mouthful, to be sure. But bear with me, because these principles are not really hard to understand.

2. Solidarity
The principle of "solidarity" means "a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good. That is to say, to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all" (Compendium of The Social Doctrine of the Church, entry 1953). In other words, in answer to Cain's question after he killed his brother Abel, "Am I my brother's keeper?" (Gen 4:9), the answer is simply "Yes, in some ways you are indeed your brother's keeper — at least in the sense of upholding your brother's right to life and legitimate liberty and his access to the most basic goods necessary for human flourishing, such as food, clothing, shelter, medical care, and opportunities to work and make a dignified living."

Solidarity finds one of its key expressions in the Catholic principle of "the preferential option for the poor" (Compendium, entry 449) — a preferential concern for the plight of the poor, after the example of Jesus our Lord.

Anyone who has read the Gospels will be well aware that Jesus of Nazareth had a special concern for the poor and the sick — not because they are necessarily "better" than others, but because they often suffer more than others. It is reflected in one of His most famous teachings: "For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me. ... Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me" (Mt 25:35-40). Jesus showed compassion for the sick and the suffering wherever He went: healing the leper by the roadside, raising up from death the daughter of Jairus and the son of the widow of Nain, enabling the lame to walk and the blind to see.

Above all, Jesus pointed to His miracles of compassion for the innocent and helpless as a sign that the Kingdom of God was dawning upon the world through His ministry:

He came to Nazareth, where he had grown up, and went according to his custom into the synagogue on the sabbath day. He stood up to read and was handed a scroll of the prophet Isaiah. He unrolled the scroll and found the passage where it was written:

"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring glad tidings to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord."

Rolling up the scroll, he handed it back to the attendant and sat down, and the eyes of all in the synagogue looked intently at him. He said to them, "Today this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing" (Lk 4:16-21).

When the men came to him, they said, "John the Baptist has sent us to you to ask, 'Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?'" At that time he cured many of their diseases, sufferings, and evil spirits; he also granted sight to many who were blind. And he said to them in reply, "Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have the good news proclaimed to them. And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me" (Lk 7:20-23).

The preferential option for the poor applies in a special way to the fight against poverty. As Catholics, we are required to ask, above all, how the policies being pursued by our government, corporations, and unions are affecting the poorest, most helpless, and most vulnerable members of society. And we are not to limit ourselves to public advocacy. Remember the words of our Lord to St. Faustina when she fed the poor who came to her convent gate (including Jesus Himself, incognito!):

My daughter, the blessings of the poor who bless Me as they leave this gate have reached My ears. And your compassion, within the bounds of obedience, has pleased Me, and this is why I came down from my throne — to taste the fruits of your mercy (Diary of Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska, 1312).

3. Subsidiarity
At the same time, the preferential option for the poor must always be coupled with the principle of "subsidiarity." According to the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (entry 449), subsidiarity means that the higher and more central authorities in society — such as central government, mega-corporate and mega-union authorities — must never usurp the role of "the original expressions of social life," especially the role of the family and of voluntary and local social groupings of all kinds. We might even call this "the preferential option for the local, for the voluntary, and the family."

During the Great Depression, back in 1931, at a time when there was a huge push for central governments to take over social and economic life in order to set things right, Pope Pius XI explained things this way in his encyclical Quadragesimo Anno (Fortieth Year):

Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own industry and initiative 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.

In other words, we are our brother's keeper, but central and distant authorities — especially central government authorities — are only our brother's keeper of last resort. The main work of solidarity is to be done primarily by individuals, families, voluntary organizations, churches, and charities, small businesses, local unions, and local governments — not by the most central bureaucracies of the state. Central authority may step in and intervene in what the Church calls "exceptional situations" (Compendium, 188) to rectify a grave social injustice. But in general, central government authority is too distant and impersonal effectively to address local conditions and needs. Central authorities are to serve and strengthen the role of families and local communities to meet these needs, not to supplant, absorb, or tyrannize over them.

The Church also teaches that it is wrong to practice the principle of solidarity and preferential concern for the poor in a way that robs the poor of "the spirit of initiative, the fundamental basis of all economic and social development in poor countries" (Compendium, 195). In other words, except in cases of emergency aid, helping the poor does not consist of leaving them dependent on an ongoing basis on mere handouts. To use the common metaphor, in many cases what is needed is not to keep giving them fish, but to teach them how to fish, and provide them with rods and reels so they can catch their own fish (e.g., job training, educational opportunities, low-interest loans to start small businesses, etc.). This is what promotes the human dignity of the poor and enables them to climb out of the poverty trap.

Of course, the interplay of these two principles, solidarity and subsidiarity, leaves plenty of room for vigorous debate among Catholics over the supper table about which one should be emphasized, for the common good, at any given time. For example, in present economic circumstances, should we focus more on government intervention to try to lift the poor directly out of poverty or more on encouraging private investment and growth of the market to try to "lift all boats," so to speak? What is best for the common good today: tax cuts to stimulate growth and job creation in the private sector, or government jobs and anti-poverty programs in the public sector? These are difficult judgments to make, and Catholics applying the same social principles of the Church may find themselves in honest disagreement about the best way forward. For these are what the Church calls "prudential judgments": judgments that involve not only adherence to Catholic social principles, but also "doing your homework," learning the facts of the present situation, so you can apply those social principles wisely to present realities.

To me, one of the things that makes Catholic social teaching so exciting is that it often encourages us to think "out of the box" on so many issues related to poverty and social justice.

Ever since the early 19th century, the western world has been polarized between two equally unpalatable options.

First, there is socialism, in all its varied forms. Socialism basically tells us to rely on government authority to establish a fair and just society and to overcome poverty. The socialists turn to government bureaucracies to run industries, create jobs, invest in new technologies, secure the health and safety of workers, protect the environment, educate our children, and care for the sick and the poor. No doubt government does have a significant role to play in some of these areas — above all, in providing a dignified "safety-net" to keep the poor, the sick, the elderly, and the unemployed from falling into destitution. Nevertheless, the Church has repeatedly condemned communism, and even democratic socialism, as a gross violation of the principle of subsidiarity and usually a stifling of the "spirit of initiative" needed to create wealth. Moreover, the sad experience of socialist countries is that in almost every case, central and extensive control of economic life by the government has resulted in widespread violation of human rights too (it is bound to happen when so much social power and control is concentrated in government hands).

Second, there is capitalism in all its various forms. Free-market capitalism basically tells us that the unfettered practice of the exchange of goods and services, with everyone free to pursue their own self-interest, will generally lead to liberty and prosperity for all. In particular, free-market investment by the rich leads to productivity and jobs for everyone else. No doubt the market is, indeed, an extraordinarily efficient mechanism for producing wealth (St. John Paul II admitted as much in his encyclical Centesimus Annus (Hundredth Year). But it still leaves many vulnerable people behind in the distribution of wealth: all those who are not gifted or able to be great wealth producers. As someone once wisely said, "the trouble with 'trickle-down economics' is that it works: what ultimately makes it down to the elderly and the sick, the under-skilled and unemployed, is barely a trickle."

The Catholic Church has never been willing to settle for either of these options. The modern world has bounced back and forth between them for more than a century. As soon as the ills of socialist economic policies become apparent, the pendulum swings back to capitalism, until the ills of that system are felt — and then the pendulum swings back again.

Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, however, strongly encouraged Catholics to think "out of the box" on these issues, in the light of Catholic social principles. Why not explore new ways to organize our economic lives that do not rely so much on stifling government bureaucratic control, on the one hand, or cut-throat corporate competition and greed, on the other? For example, in his encyclical Laborem Exercens (On Human Work), John Paul II called for wider exploration of such ideas as worker share-ownership (that is, employees owning shares in the companies for which they work), worker-representation on company governing boards, and profit-sharing arrangements. Pope Benedict called on large corporations to take responsibility for tackling some of the social ills in areas of the world in which they operate. In other words, we need to explore ideas that build up an "economy of communion" — that is, an economy of the communion of dignified and free persons — rather than an economy of public, state control or private, corporate greed.

Suffice it to say that gross neglect of any of the three social principles we have covered so far in this series — the dignity of every human life, solidarity, or subsidiarity — will sink our society today into gross injustices of all kinds. How can a God of mercy be unconcerned about this? If divine "mercy" means the love of God, seeking to "meet the needs and overcome the miseries of his creatures" (see part 1 in this series), then how can He not be concerned about violations of human dignity and social injustices that spread so much misery in our world?

Catholics can and must pray, petition, and vote in ways that promote the common good by faithful adherence to all three of these basic social principles. As Pope John Paul II once wrote in his apostolic letter on the role of the laity, Christifideles Laici, the lay faithful "should take an active, conscientious and responsible part in the mission of the Church in this great moment of history." In particular, he wrote:

A new state of affairs today, both in the Church and in social, economic, political and cultural life, calls with a particular urgency for the action of the lay faithful. If lack of commitment is always unacceptable, the present time renders it even more so. It is not permissible for anyone to remain idle.

Next week: "The Preferential Option for Peace"

Read the series to date.

Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception.

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