Catholic Social Teaching
Brace yourselves, everyone. I am about to announce one of those major shifts in thinking that causes everyone I know to recoil in shock and horror, or, if they’ve been paying attention to what I say and write, simply shrug because they saw it coming. Most people do not change their thinking as drastically in a lifetime as many times as I do in a decade. I am hoping that I will eventually reach an equilibrium. I can’t help it that new facts require a reexamination of old logic.
For the last few years, I have been a pretty consistent advocate for a particular interpretation of Catholic social teaching. The central argument was that, contra all forms of libertarianism, the state had a right and a duty to intervene in the economy in particular, and social life in general, short of establishing a command economy, in order to promote the common good.
Before continuing, I should make clear that I still believe this ought to be the case in principle. Should the right conditions arise, I would be the first in line to support everything that follows from this political and moral premise. But I have come to understand that the conditions for this project do not exist. For the premise that a just socio-economic order will arise from the intervention of the state presupposes that the people who are in charge of the state are themselves just.
This presupposition, in the United States of America, in 2010 Anno Domini, is entirely false.
The so-called American conservative movement is not conservative in the sense that many of its proponents would suggest. In reality, American conservatism, in many ways seeks to preserve and reassert classical liberalism. In fact, the entirety of the American political spectrum is liberal in different ways and varying degrees—but it is unmistakably and manifestly liberal.
This should come as no surprise since many of the Founding Fathers were men of the Enlightenment and there is no more obvious case than that of Thomas Jefferson, the author of that quintessential Enlightenment masterpiece The Declaration of Independence. The philosophical paradigm by 1776 had already shifted—anthropology was evolving toward an increasingly false view of man and the natural law (because the philosophical concept of “nature” was changing) was something different than that articulated by classical philosophers, which had been incorporated into the Christian tradition.
The American legal tradition seeking to adhere to the letter of the social contract, i.e. The Constitution of the United States of America, seems to have individual liberty at issue in every question of law. This, to be sure, is not something to be regarded as a problem in and of itself, insofar as the operative definition of liberty is not philosophically false and the norms of justice, in the classical sense, are not contradicted.
To the learned mind, it is patently clear that the predominant philosophical paradigm, anthropological assumptions on human nature, concept of the nation-state, view of society, of freedom, of responsibility, and so forth found in the Western world is undoubtedly borne of Enlightenment thinking. The United States is most certainly no exception. In America, across the political spectrum, there is a dubious philosophical premise, that of an abstract ideal of autonomy, which, no matter how admirable or attractive it may seem, is radically incomplete. Indeed, man does possess a free will, but the form of freedom requires content. Continue reading
At times looking at an example of someone getting an idea wrong is actually the most helpful thing in formulating a better understanding of the topic. That’s how I felt, some while back, when I ran into this post descriptively entitled, “Love Never Ends, So How Could A Just Society Bring An End To Charity?” which argues:
I have heard it said by many people that if the government provides for the needs of society through its social services, there will no longer be any need for charity. Yet, we are called to charity, and therefore, we must not allow governments to interfere in our acts of charity. There is something very mixed up with this notion. It is perverting the very nature of charity, twisting it in a way to make sure there will be people who are suffering, so that they can be the objects of our good will. We are being told we cannot wish for a more just society because if such a society exists, charity will vanish.
But this cannot be the case, can it?
What exactly is the aim of charity but love? Love can be manifest in many ways; when someone is in dire straights, love seeks to help them out of it. But that is not all love seeks for them. Indeed, does a husband or wife love their family less after they have provided for their family’s needs? Certainly not! If we would not look at our family relationship in this way, why do we look at the world in this fashion?
Charity is caritas, love; to act in charity is to follow the dictates of love. Charity seeks for the betterment of others; in doing so, it recognizes that the most immediate need should be taken care of first (food, shelter, clothing, health, quality of life, etc). If these are taken care of, this does not diminish the need for charity: it provides room for greater forms of charity, for greater forms of love.
Now, I don’t think that, “Where will that leave charity,” is a universally good answer to suggestions of instituting social services. In a society which is already weak and uncohesive, there’s clearly a need for some minimal level of social services. The legitimate question to be argued between political factions is what the appropriate extent and form of social services should be — not whether there should be any at all. (If you’re unsure of this, ask yourself if you’d really support closing government homeless shelters and food assistance, abolishing unemployment, or eliminating the federal deposit insurance that assures that if your bank runs into problems your saving account doesn’t vanish over night. The sight of people literally dying in the street was not uncommon 150 years ago in many parts of what is now the developed world, and the fact that we’ve largely eliminated that — though social programs as well as through charity — is certainly not a bad thing.)
One of the many unfortunate aspects of “cafeteria Catholicism” in our country today is that the Church’s social teaching has become virtually synonymous with liberal, quasi- or outright-heterodox forms of our faith. This should not be. The social doctrine of the Church is part and parcel of the deposit of faith, and those of us who embrace the truth of Catholicism must stop ourselves from assigning guilt by association with regard to social doctrine merely because its loudest proponents are very picky in the cafeteria line.
What strikes me as a fair critique of Moore’s documentary, which draws, howbeit with some misrepresentation, from Catholic social teaching in addressing the current financial crisis. (Via Carl Olson).
As you can clearly see, I have been bitten by the writing bug. This will be my last post for a little while, so I wanted to make it a good one. Starting Monday my contributions to the discussion will be sporadic at best for at least a week.
Consider it yet another fulfillment of my promise to certain commentators here to get back to economic issues so we can continue our disagreements after so much agreement on life issues and the liturgy
Having at times been a bit critical of my co-contributor Joe’s enthusiasm for Employee Owned Companies (EOCs) and “economic democracy” in general, it seems only fair that I spend a moment looking at the good sides — and there do definitely seem to be good sides to the employee owned company model.
Being entrepreneurially-minded, employee ownership is certainly not something that I’m in principle opposed to, it’s more that I think it probably works well in certain situations, but is not a panacea.
Where It Doesn’t Work
It seems to me that certain business characteristics will make it particularly hard for EOCs to prosper. This does not mean that employees at such companies should not have company issued stock, but the amount of stock distributed to employees by the company should probably be limited to the traditional 10-20% maximum.
Companies which require large amounts of capital investment (early stage startups which are trying to grow very fast, research-intensive companies) are generally not going to be good candidates. The traditional return for investment is stock — either by the general investing public through a public stock offering, or through specific investors in a privately held company. Such companies often reserve a portion of stock for issue to employees as an incentive (or sell to them at a discount via stock options) and have company performance based compensation, but their need for capital makes it impossible for them to reserve 50%+ of company stock for employees.
I have not seen Michael Moore’s latest film Capitalism: A Love Story. Therefore this is certainly not a movie review, for those who might have been expecting one. After what I have read recently, however, about the content of the movie – particularly it’s Catholic content, it is something I think I am going to have to see for myself. An article in The Guardian (for which I tip my hat to Facebook friend Brennan Hartley for) explores the presence of Catholic social teaching in Moore’s latest film, and in what may be a shock to at least some folks, Moore’s professed Catholicism.
Many of the readers here at TAC, however, will probably not be so surprised; we are all familiar enough with the specter of the liberal Catholic. There is a good aspect, a bad aspect, and a downright ugly aspect to what I typically encounter on the Catholic left, and Moore is the epitome of this trend.
Health care reform has been at the forefront of the American political discourse in the past few months. One of the most difficult tasks in this debate is to discern an authentically Catholic approach to reform efforts. The Catholic Church takes no official position as to how a health care system ought to be structured, but rather presents enduring moral principles that must be present in public policy.
Adhering to the richness of Catholic social teaching, the ultimate goal for Catholics must be to establish a system that is capable of universal access and coverage for all American citizens, one way or another. Any number of schemes might achieve universal health insurance and preferences will differ based on political philosophy, but the end result seems to be a Catholic moral obligation. In this sense, no Catholic ought to oppose universal health care, if it means achieving coverage for all Americans citizens either through market schemes, government assistance, “third sector” non-profit organizations, co-operatives efforts (co-ops), or some combination of these depending on the social need, the ethical principles at stake, and the resources each solution offers.
Catholic social teaching treats health care as a profound social interest and essential for the common good. Health care, because of this, ought not to be viewed as a mere commodity. The poor and vulnerable, by default, are immediately disadvantaged as health care costs increase. The United States, we are told, has the most technologically advanced and best quality medical care. But, one must inquire: at what cost? Other consumer “goods” are not essential safeguards to the indispensable good of human life in the same way as medical care.
Health care markets that are laissez-faire, an inherently utilitarian mechanism, do not necessarily yield nor are they ordered toward natural justice. Natural law theory is alien to such a mechanism— it is not intrinsic to it, neither is solidarity or preferential option for the poor, though these things are not necessarily excluded by it.
It is self-evident that different spheres of society appropriately employ different standards of distribution. College professors assign grades based on merits of achievement; athletic competition employs the same principle. Parents might distribute slices of cake at a birthday party to strict equality. In the same way, numerical equality governs votes in a democratic society. Food, clothing, shelter, electronic goods, clothing, automobiles, jewelry, etc, receive unequal distribution by market mechanisms—sometimes justly, sometimes not.
Need is one of those principles of distribution (and one of those things often argued about) recognized in some spheres, but not others. Need is terrible for distributing grades, but the proper principle for distributing emergency food supplies. Need, arguably, is a proper principle for the distribution of health care. Health is necessary for a community’s proper functioning. Justice, in terms of health care, will require a redeveloped way of distributing health care based on personal responsibility, collective interest, and legitimate need—the weakest and most vulnerable among us first and foremost.
Many important areas of life must resist “commodification,” at least in the same sense as dispensable goods. This could not be more evident than by the fact that people are becoming commodities to other people. Children are the prime example of this, from abortion to assisted reproduction. Fundamentally, justice demands that we re-examine our consumerism for it is the heart of the issue and I believe, the life-source of the “Culture of Death.” Continue reading
Whole Foods CEO John Mackey attracted quite a bit of ire a few months back when he wrote an editorial for the Wall Street Journal in which he advocated that Obama and the congress consider an approach to health care reform similar to the health benefits which Whole Foods provides its employees (centered around high deductible coverage and health savings accounts.) Within days, several progressive sites were calling for boycotts of Whole Foods, seeing Mackey as giving aid to anti-Obama forces. Mackey himself is somewhat bemused by the firestorm his editorial caused.
“President Obama called for constructive suggestions for health-care reform,” he explains. “I took him at his word.” Mr. Mackey continues: “It just seems to me there are some fundamental reforms that we’ve adopted at Whole Foods that would make health care much more affordable for the uninsured.”
Though he’s not gunning to cause any more controversies, Mackey has an interesting weekend interview in the Journal where he talks, among other things, about his philosophy regarding capitalism and business, and how it’s changed over the years since he founded Whole Foods with $45,000 in friends and family-raised seed funding in 1978.
“Before I started my business, my political philosophy was that business is evil and government is good. I think I just breathed it in with the culture. Businesses, they’re selfish because they’re trying to make money.”
With the media participating in adulation of Ted Kennedy, Ross Douthat calls our attention to “a different kind of liberal”, the late Eunice Kennedy Shriver (New York Times August 30, 2009):
Liberalism’s most important legislator probably merited a more extended send-off than his sister. But there’s a sense in which his life’s work and Eunice’s deserve to be remembered together — for what their legacies had in common, and for what ultimately separated them.
What the siblings shared — in addition to the grace, rare among Kennedys, of a ripe old age and a peaceful death — was a passionate liberalism and an abiding Roman Catholic faith. These two commitments were intertwined: Ted Kennedy’s tireless efforts on issues like health care, education and immigration were explicitly rooted in Catholic social teaching, and so was his sister’s lifelong labor on behalf of the physically and mentally impaired.
What separated them was abortion.
Read the rest. (HT: Alan Phipps).
To say that Sen. Kennedy was flawed is to say that he was a human being. To dismiss his career because of his stance on abortion is to be ignorant of the complicated way the issue of abortion manifested itself in the early 1970s: I think Kennedy got it wrong but I do not find it difficult to understand why and how he got it wrong. If the pro-life leaders would stop ranting for a second and study that history they might become more effective at advancing their cause. Besides, Ted Kennedy got many more things right than he got wrong.
Honestly, what does it mean to say that Kennedy “got many more things right than he got wrong”? I cannot tell that it means anything other than, “Kennedy is one of my political tribe, and so I find it easy to forgive his faults.” What, surely Winters does not propose something so trivializing as a weighted check list: “Kennedy was in favor of expanding welfare, and we’ll weight that at an 8. He was in favor of increased immigration, and we’ll give that a 10. Unfortunately, he was in favor of abortion, we’ll weight that at a 4. So far a +14 total, what next?”