On Endorsements, Subsidiarity, and Prudential Questions
I would like to join Michael Denton in his critique of Catholic Vote’s endorsements (here and here). For the record, I am still technically a guest blogger for Catholic Vote, although I rarely find the time to blog there these days (the life of a Theology grad student isn’t always conducive to the 24-hour news cycle). I also would like to state that I very much support the work of Catholic Vote and I have the utmost respect for Thomas Peters and Josh Mercer (CV’s Communications Director). I have not had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Burch, but I am sure we would get along quite well.
First, I agree with Mr. Denton’s critique of Catholic Vote’s endorsement criteria, but I also think their very practice of making endorsements hurts their overall credibility. By engaging in elections they sully the wonderfully non-partisan creditability they gained via their Life: Imagine the Potential Campaign. What attracted me to their mission initially is their advancement of Catholic beliefs in the public square in a way that was educational rather than political. Perhaps, my fears will be proven wrong (I hope they are). Kudos to CV though for endorsing a Democrat, at a time when endorsing Democrats is almost an anathema in the social conservative world this is downright courageous.
Secondly, as a theologian-in-training, I feel I need to speak out against two common misunderstandings of Catholic Social Teaching, which Catholic Vote and countless others seem to be making. Before I go into this, I would like to say that I am trying to “think with the Church” on this. I ask that anyone responding to this post, likewise, try to think with the Church and not impose your political biases onto our attempt to better understand the teachings of the Church.
Misunderstanding One: The Principle of Subsidiarity- To begin with, the Catechism of the Catholic Church’s definition of subsidiarity:
The teaching of the Church has elaborated the principle of subsidiarity, according to 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 co- ordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good.” (1883)
The CCC quotes from Pius XI’s encyclical Quadragesimo anno for its definition. First of all, we should not limit the application of subsidiarity to government (see CCC 1882). Subsidiarity applies to all organizations. Secondly, subsidiarity does not necessarily imply a federated system, although at first glance it seems the two ideas might work well together. Thirdly, what is implicit in the principle is the assumed competency of the “lower orders”. Lastly, like many of the Church’s teachings, the CCC’s definition of the principle of subsidiarity is quite abstract, which means that forthcoming generations of theologians will have to unpack and extrapolate the principle (for this reason, Catholic Vote and others should refrain from dogmatically invoking the principle). I might add that CCC quotes three sources regarding the principle of subsidiarity: John XXIII, Vatican II’s Pastoral Constitution on the Modern World, and Pius XI. None of these sources date past 1931, which make this principle, as currently defined, 80 years old. This barely makes it embryonic in the thinking of the Church.
Subsidiarity merely defines the relationship of a higher order and lower order (i.e. one of cooperation and aid, rather than interference). Subsidiarity promotes the idea of local communities and organizations working together to solve their own problems. The principle does not necessarily make a value judgement on the higher or lower order, except to say that “excessive” intervention in the lower order can threaten personal freedom and initiative. The CCC also does not define the legitimate ends of higher or lower orders, as such. In other words, they do not say that a, b, and c are duties of the higher order and x, y, and z are duties belong to the lower order. Rather it is assumed that both orders are subject to the principles of authority laid out in CCC 1897-1904 and they are bound to seek the common good as defined by CCC 1906 and following.
Lastly, the principle of subsidiarity must be understood in continuity with the rest of Catholic Social Teaching. This includes the principle of solidarity, which is defined as:
Solidarity is manifested in the first place by the distribution of goods and remuneration for work. It also presupposes the effort for a more just social order where tensions are better able to be reduced and conflicts more readily settled by negotiation. (1940)
In light of these observations, I don’t think it is prudent to casually define subsidiarity in light of our political situation in American in 2010. The principle needs more profound reflection and application than modern political discourse allows for. In this vein, I would plead with Catholic Vote and others political groups, politicians, and individuals to be discerning and clear when we apply this principle and always strive to unpack its significance in light of the Church’s 2000-year history.
Misunderstanding Two: Prudential questions- This is a far less complex question. Many Republican politicians will often tell you that they are in good-standing with the Church’s Social Teaching, despite discrepancies with Church teaching on issues like the environmental, health care, etc., because these are prudential questions. This is true, they are prudential questions…kind of. What is prudential about these issues is in the realm of policy. The principles (where clearly stated) are not prudential. Thus, Catholics are bound to respect the integrity of the family in any and all immigration legislation, it’s not prudential. In other words, the Church does not propose specific policy in this regard and that is the prudential element of these things. I have checked with several orthodox and respected moral theologians on this issue and they have agreed with this distinction. If you are unsure what the Church’s principles are, it is always wise to consult the relevant sections of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It is the duty of every legislator and voter to inform their consciences on the Social Teaching of the Church and enact it at every level of society. However, the Church does not bind us to enact these policies in any one way (i.e. policy).
P.S. Didn’t mean to Catholic Vote out per se, but Mr. Denton has raised the issue and I wanted to follow it up.