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Catholic Social Teaching: Let's Review
Back in November, Robert Stackpole, STD, director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, gave an address in the nation's capital on the principles of Catholic social teaching. With a new administration taking the reins in Washington, his talk serves as a reminder of the Church's guideposts for effective and sensible public policy. You can read the full text of Dr. Stackpole's talk here. The following is a summery:
At the very heart of what we call Catholic social teaching is Christ Himself. While the Church never puts forth a detailed set of economic and social policies (much less a political platform), she does leave little doubt that the world would be a vastly better place than it is now if it followed His command to love our neighbors as ourselves.
Unfortunately, "Divine Mercy" and "social justice" are two phrases that are rarely coupled. They are also rarely propagated by the same people. I'm often dismayed by the self-defeating division of the faithful between those convinced that cultivating spirituality and piety (including through the Divine Mercy devotion) is what's most important, and those who claim that the fight for justice and peace is what's most important. In truth, the two are inseparable. Authentic love for God should lead us to care for the wellbeing of all His children. And authentic love for our neighbors must be rooted in God's revealed truth.
Over the last century, the Catholic Church has repeatedly called upon her members to address — through prayer and action — the social and economic injustices that define the crumbling civilization in which we live. In other words, we mustn't become mere "bunker Catholics," so convinced that the world is irreversibly going to hell that all we focus on is going to Mass, saying our Rosaries, and looking after our own families. Indeed, we have an obligation to contribute to the common good.
The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church (sections 105-117) teaches that the first and most fundamental social principle is the God-given dignity and worth of every human person. As there are no "throwaway" people, so there are no throwaway kinds or classes of people.
This Church teaching should not sound strange to the ears of Americans. Our Declaration of Independence established that all human beings are "endowed by their Creator" with certain "unalienable rights." Chief among these are the rights to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" — in that order. Without a secure right to "life," all other human rights are in jeopardy.
In our own time, the Church has repeatedly spoken out against threats to the dignity of the human person, threats that include poverty and political tyranny. However, a more subtle and insidious threat to human dignity is the pervasive stripping away of the fundamental right to life of the unborn and the terminally ill through the legalization and social acceptance of abortion and euthanasia. Out of His infinite love for every human being, our Lord is still calling out to us today through His Body, the Church, to become faithful and fervent defenders of the gift of life. As Jesus said, it extends especially "to the least of my brethren" (Mt 25:40).
Solidarity and subsidiarity
Now, when we Catholics start to address social issues and public policy, there are two principles we need to have at our disposal. Both principles contribute to a better understanding of the second great commandment, to love our neighbors as ourselves, and how this commandment should be applied.
1. Solidarity — This involves a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good. The answer to Cain's question after he killed his brother Abel, "Am I my brother's keeper?" is simply, "Yes, to some extent you are your brother's keeper, and your neighbor's keeper, at least in the sense of helping insure that they have access to the basic goods needed for human survival and the pursuit of happiness, such as adequate food, clothing, shelter, and medical care — and, of course, access to the truth of the gospel."
As Catholic citizens, we need to ask how the policies pursued by our leaders will impact the most vulnerable members of our society.
2. Subsidiarity — This principle basically states that our authorities, especially central governmental authorities, are only our brother's keeper of last resort. The main work of practicing solidarity is to be accomplished by individuals, families, churches, voluntary organizations, private charities, and even local levels of government.
Of course, the interplay of these two principles and their application in the complex realities of the day is what leads to legitimate debate among Catholics; while we may embrace the same principles, we can come to very different conclusions as to how and when to apply them.
Thinking 'out of the box'
To me, one of the exciting and challenging things about Catholic social teaching is that it often directs us to think unconventionally about matters of politics. Ever since the 19th century, the western world has been polarized between two equally unpalatable options.
First, there is Socialism in its various forms, which gives vast powers to a centralized government. No doubt government, at various levels, does have a legitimately significant role to play in matters such as funding and insuring a dignified "safety net" for the sick, elderly, and unemployed; the protection of workers from gross exploitation; the prevention of concentrated economic power; and the protection of the environment from reckless exploitation and pollution.
Nevertheless, the Church has repeatedly condemned socialism, communism, and even democratic socialism, as systematic violations of the principle of subsidiarity.
At the opposite extreme is free-market capitalism and libertarianism, which basically hold that "government is best that governs least," and that the unfettered production and exchange of goods and services will lead to liberty and prosperity for all, or mostly all.
No doubt, the market is indeed an extraordinarily efficient mechanism for the overall production of wealth, but as our most recent popes have been careful to point out, free-market capitalism also leaves many people behind (such as those lacking good educational and job opportunities, as well as the elderly and the chronically ill). As someone once wisely said, the trouble with laissez-faire "trickle-down economics" is that it works: What makes it "all the way down" to the poor is not more than a "trickle"!
That said, it would be false to say that the Church merely recommends a kind of "golden mean" between these two extreme ideologies. Rather, she calls us to utilize to the full the three main social principles that we have already discussed: the dignity of every human life, solidarity, and subsidiarity. Suffice it to say, the gross neglect of any of these three main Catholic social principles will lead to all sorts of miseries (and already has). Catholics have a responsibility to pray, petition, and vote to prevent these social ills from spreading.
The preferential option for peace
Let's be clear: The Church's position on the promotion of peace is not "peace at any price." The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that if non-violent means prove insufficient to stop an aggressor from spreading grievous injustice and attacks on the dignity of human life, then states can and should intervene (see 2302-2317).
Recourse to arms, however, must always be a last resort, because even when it succeeds in stopping a grievous and unjust aggression, it still leaves in its wake sufferings and miseries of all kinds, sometimes even sufferings that can sow the seeds of future conflicts.
Let's give St. Luke the last word
Perhaps the story of the Nativity of our Lord is the best place to conclude.
Saint Luke makes it clear that the true Lord and Savior of the world is not Caesar Augustus, who was called "Savior of the World" in his day. Rather, as the angels sang, we shall find the One who is truly "the Savior, Christ the Lord ... wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger."
And the armies that bring about the dawning of God's Kingdom are the armies of angels serving and praising the birth of the Messiah — not the violent, world-conquering Roman legions. And the Messiah was sent first to the poor, to a young peasant woman and a carpenter, and to shepherds abiding in the rural backwater of Bethlehem, not to the powerful in the palaces of the Roman Empire.
As Mary sang: "He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their heart. He hath put down princes from their thrones, and hath exalted them of low degree. The hungry he hath filled with good things ..." (51-54) — and He has done so, not by leading a violent revolution, or by putting forward a social utopian ideal, but among other things, by honoring the dignity of every human life, solidarity, and subsidiarity, and by calling His followers to do the same.
Read the full text of Dr. Stackpole's talk.