Catholic Social Teaching
(Originally published at InsideCatholic.com)
It might surprise some to learn that the basic idea behind the “welfare state” did not originate with either Marxist revolutionaries or bleeding-heart liberals, but rather with a head of state usually identified with conservatism: Otto von Bismarck. Faced with a growing threat from the German socialist movement, in the 1880s Bismarck established four programs that were essentially the minimum of the socialist program: health insurance, accident insurance (or workmen’s compensation), disability insurance, and a retirement fund for the elderly. By implementing these programs, the German leader hoped to steal some of the thunder from the socialists and prevent a revolutionary uprising.
In the United States, a similar motivation guided the architects of the New Deal, Social Security, and other programs now grouped under the broad heading “welfare state.” One might never know, based on today’s heated political rhetoric, that the idea behind the welfare state was to prevent, not bring about, socialism. Yet since the 2008 campaign, welfare, along with regulation and redistribution, have become synonymous with “socialism” in America.
Catholics have been as divided over these issues as the nation at large, with nearly everyone interested in the political debate combing the social doctrines of the Church to support one theory at the expense of another. So where precisely does the Church stand on the issue of welfare?
When looking at the economic crater which is the US auto industry, liberals have a tendency to blame “big business” while conservatives tend to blame the UAW’s stranglehold on the big three. Both are right to an extent. Detroit’s current straights are the result of bad strategic decisions, bad design, bad regulation and the immense financial drag of pension and health benefit promises made to its workers back in the 60s and 70s when the US auto industry reigned supreme in the world, and promising future payouts seemed no object. In this last regard, the unions had quite a hand in planting the seeds of their own fall. And although they’re striven to be more flexible in recent years, union work rules still provide major obstacles to change in union plants.
The problem, he argues, is not just the high level of benefits that the United Auto Workers has secured for its members but the work rules—some 5,000 pages of them—it has imposed on the automakers. As Kaus points out, unionism as established by the Wagner Act is inherently adversarial. The union once certified as bargaining agent has a duty not only to negotiate wages and fringe benefits but also to negotiate work rules and to represent workers in constant disputes about work procedures.
The plight of the Detroit Three auto companies raises the question of why people ever thought this was a good idea.
The answer to that question which he provides is interesting, and I think illustrative for those seeking a proper understanding of the dignity of work in its relationship to unionism and good business practices:
One of the difficult balances to achieve in the area of politics dealing with “social services”, and with bringing a proper Catholic understanding to how we as Christians should strive to shape such policies, is knowing how we should balance efficiency with proper concern for human dignity and human pride. I see this as being particularly the case when it comes to some of the large scale assistance programs which form part of our “social safety net” in the United States. Many of these are, it seems to me, essentially welfare of “assistance programs”, yet are cloaked in the form of all-encompassing “savings” or “insurance” programs.
For example, the purpose of Social Security was clearly to assure that the aged are not relegated to poverty once they are no longer able to work. In the past, this was done through private savings, the help of one’s children, and the help of one’s community. However, these mechanisms often fell through, and so people often found themselves in poverty in their old age. Thus was created the Social Security system, which collected money via a payroll tax and “saved” it to fund retirement payouts after age 65. Medicare, which is designed to assure that the elderly can afford medicare care is much the same.
Even before Slumdog Millionaire won the Oscar for Best Picture last weekend, the popular/artsy/Bollywood crossover flick had created a strange new tourist trade: People traveling to Mumbai to visit the vast slums which are home to 10 million people and the setting for the movie. I must admit, the idea strikes me as fulfilling every negative stereotype of self-indulgent Western patronization towards the world’s poor. “Oh, let’s go tour these slums and see how the little people of the world live! How caring of us to spend our vacation there, and then we’ll hit the beach afterward.” Still, I’m sure that everyone means well, and according to the article the tours are being conducted by some locals who insist on small groups, no cameras, and return 80% of the profits to help people in the slums.
Still, I was particularly struck by a passing reference near the end of the article, which struck me as showing exactly the sort of difficult balance that good intentioned Westerners seeking to regulate the third world for their own good often fail to take into account:
In the American election cycles 2004 and following, there has been an increased visibility of Catholic influence in the political process and a public debate amongst Catholic voters. It is a great gift to the American people that the Catholic Church may offer the clarity of moral truth to the country’s political discourse.
However, this participation on the part of Catholics presents a variety of challenges. How is the teaching found in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church to be expressed within the American political tradition? The answer is not so clear-cut and is inevitably the subject of much debate. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issues a document before every election called Faithful Citizenship, which presents “Catholic Social Teaching” to the laity, in summary form, an authentic Catholic view of the natural moral law grounded in the inherent dignity of each human person and how it can and should be lived out within the political process.
We have a very strong tendency to throw around certain Bible passages when we feel they suit our needs. First and foremost of these in dialogue about Catholic Social Teaching and the proper role of government in aiding the needy is Matthew 26:11, in which Jesus states: “The poor you will always have with you.” (NAB)
The most unfortunate tendency in using this quote is to justify doing very little to help the poor. In arguments, it is used to excoriate any governmental welfare program, noting that since the poor will always be with us, the governmental efforts will not succeed, and therefore that justifies doing nothing at all. We all know, of course, that Jesus never meant this statement to be an acknowledgement of futility, or an advocation of doing nothing. But certainly the context of the quote seems telling.
In response to a prior post in which I expressed some support for higher taxes and more wealth distribution, a commenter suggested that “no thinking Catholic can support socialistic solutions to the problems of our fallen world,” on the grounds that such solutions limit “authentic freedom.” Darwin has already ably addressed the comment as it pertains to freedom. The Catholic understanding of freedom (i.e. freedom to do the good), is very different than freedom understood as the absence of government interference with individual choice. The former describes the freedom to be virtuous; the latter the freedom to do as we wish with private property.
But I think the commenter was correct in noting that the Church recognizes a right to private property. And this suggests that there is a tension between socialism and Catholic thought.
To be honest, I feel inadequate to deal with the topic of homosexuality. Eric has a remarkable, stunning, and moving post on homosexuality in general, focused predominantly on the human aspect of those struggling with homosexuality. What I have to say—how homosexual acts fit in the pattern of pitting body against soul, the topic of my series on human sexuality—seems flat and insipid in comparison. Nevertheless, and at the risk of sounding like I’m endless repeating the same message, I intend to complete this series with a discussion of where homosexuality fits in our discussions thus far.
Before we proceed, we should clarify one matter, a necessary distinction. First, I am not condemning any person with homosexual tendencies. My focus is entirely on the action. Whether or not homosexuality is a matter of nature or nurture, same-sex attraction is not in and of itself sinful. I would certainly argue that at least some people train themselves (not deliberately, for the most part) into same-sex attraction, but that is neither here nor there. Every person, no matter how grave his sins be, no matter how unrepentant he is, deserves our love and prayers. As a corollary, every person with same-sex attraction still deserves charity and welcome. The sins we denounce, not because we despise the person, but exactly the opposite. Indeed, if we cared nothing for the person, we would simply say, “Go ahead and do whatever you want,” as though his eternal destination was of no importance to us.
The case against adultery seems clearly spelled out in the sixth commandment: “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” Even if that does not prove sufficient, we can always quote Jesus Himself: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Mt 5:27-28)” For Catholics, as for any who profess that the Bible is the inerrant word of God, this seems to rest the case. What more is there to say?
This is the third post in a series of four on sexuality, Catholic teaching—especially the theology of the body—and the pitting of body against soul and soul against body that sexual immorality naturally entails. I discussed general sexuality here and masturbation here. Now we turn our attention to fornication, especially premarital sex.
I mentioned before that masturbation is the primordial sexual sin, the precursor of most sexual sin, and in fact that most immoral sexual acts are just thinly disguised masturbation. As regards fornication, this is most obvious in the treatment of sex as just a recreation tool, and in the behavior of people who are just looking to “score” for one night. Perhaps the most offensive example of masturbation disguised as sex comes from the comparison between having premarital sex and test driving a car.
I can’t speak for any other guy out there, but if I ever suggested to my wife that I was treating her like a vehicle—something to be used while it works, and then traded it once it had exceeded its usefulness—I would have found myself in the ER hoping that the doctors could salvage a portion of the brain matter leaking out of my ears. Certainly I hope that anyone would receive such a wake-up call from whatever Chevy Nova or Toyota Corolla he happens to be dating at the time.
The production and consumption of energy is a fundamental human practice. Energy is the cornerstone of industrialized civilization. Energy powers everything—machinery in factories, transportation, communications, utilities systems, as well as things that provide the comforts of daily living from television, air conditioning, kitchen appliances, etc. The whole of the economy is contingent on the production of energy; hardly any good or service would be available—at least not as it is now—without the energy put forth toward its production or energy necessary in stores (especially megastores) that enable commerce. It even takes energy to move goods from one place to another.
America has become so accustomed to the conveniences provided by abundant and seemingly unlimited energy that we have taken them for granted. No matter how many air conditions are plugged in on a given day, the local electric company could supply enough energy to run them all. No matter how many cars are on the road, there will be enough gasoline to fuel them all. The American economy in recent decades boomed on energy. From coal to oil, Americans exploited these resources and without really noticing became energy gluttons. Accounting for less than 10% of the global population, the United States consumes about one third of all energy consumed globally. Continue reading
No set of issues reflects the heart of Catholic Social Teaching than the “life issues.” Over twenty years ago, Joseph Cardinal Bernardin coined the consistent life ethic using the New Testament image of a seamless garment to describe the cloaking of the image of God in humanity from conception to natural death — in criminals, in the unborn, in the marginalized and forgotten, and even our very enemies. This comprehensive ethical system seeks to link many different issues together by focusing attention on the basic value of life.
Today, talk of a consistent life ethic is practically a joke—arguably this is especially true among pro-life Democratic voters. Nevertheless, no one would argue against the assertion that neither side of the political spectrum fully embraces a comprehensive Culture of Life. The predominant liberalism of the Democratic Party and conservatism of the Republican Party reject the Catholic view on key “life issues”, while embracing it on others. This leaves faithful Catholics in two positions: we feel politically homeless and we cast our ballots with some sort of hesitation, reflecting our desire for better candidates. As if matters could be any worse, the “life issues” are used by political strategists and Catholics who are strong partisans for one party or the other as grounds to vehemently and divisively attack each other for political gain. They all quote from the same Catholic documents emphasizing different aspects of church teaching and appealing to certain basic Christian ethics while slyly or blatantly, but always conveniently, ignoring others; the latter incredibly undermines Catholic witness in the American political sphere.
The debate within the church over the past two elections has been this very issue and while one might agree wholeheartedly with one side or the other, the heated emotions embedded in our dialogue with the other side has damaged attempts toward real debate. Perhaps, at times, Catholics on both sides of the argument forget how much we all have in common. In John 17, we are given a beautiful image of the Lord praying to His Father for Christian unity for his disciples and all those that would come to believe through them. Thus, when our passions and partisanship allows division to win out, the only real victor is the devil. This is not even to suggest that the only solution is a “middle road” option of compromise, but perhaps there is a correct way, or better yet, a Christian way to be right in regard to a controversial matter and a charitable way of addressing the matter without brushing aside counter concerns or being “divisive” in the process.
As a new year approaches, as well as a new presidential administration with a significant party control in Congress, it appears to be as an appropriate time as any to ask the question: can we rediscover the seamless garment of life? I think we can and I think it’s necessary. Despite its terrible misuse, the seamless garment challenges us every day. 1) It encourages consistency in our approach to a great variety of issues that affect human life and dignity. 2) It challenges us to reflect on our basic values and convictions which give direction to our lives. 3) Most importantly, it challenges us to express our commitment to the sanctity of life in civil debate and public policy toward the ends of peace and justice.
There remains a host of challenges for the Culture of Life movement. The “life issues” for many minds refers simply to bioethical issues of abortion, euthanasia, physician-assisted suicide, embryo-destructive medical research, and other such evils condoned as necessary medical care. Others argue for the inclusion of age-old scourges like war, capital punishment, genocide, torture, poverty and hunger, disease, violent crime, a lack of quality health care, and working toward a just economy, i.e. a more adequate distribution of domestic and global resources. All of these as well are “life issues” according to this view. No attack on human life and dignity in the fabric of human activity is an isolated incidence—they all are fundamentally related.
Catholic social doctrine embraces all of these issues as Christian concerns; whereas there is little debate over the former, there is now much heated debate over the priority each issue should have. There are two temptations that seem to exist: to emphasize certain issues and downplay, or even ignore, the importance of others, or to simply equalize them all across the board. Both have severe flaws. No Catholic, or anyone for that matter, has the luxury of attending only to one or two challenges. It is a clear misapplication of humanitarian principles. On the other hand, while modern threats to the sanctity of life are many, it still remains that the scope and gravity of some issues reflect a greater lacking of good, i.e. a greater injustice and thus, not all issues are on the same moral plane—prioritizing cannot be relative. This is ever more difficult to address when these two temptations are manifest on either side of the political spectrum with one side emphasizing opposition to abortion and “family values” and the other side seeking to find “common ground” on abortion behind pro-choice rhetoric and emphasizing Christian influence on all the “other issues.”
It is clear that these challenges are deeply entrenched in contemporary culture; this is especially true in American culture and the evident fruit of the sexual revolution. All of these matters require daily commitment, particularly in family relations which is the broken institution at the heart of all these moral crises. The mission of the Catholic laity is to build a “Culture of Life” by living a good moral life, promoting family values, living out one’s personal vocation in the service of the common good, engaging the political sphere, performing corporal and spiritual works of mercy, and dialoguing with people of other religious and political perspectives. As Pope John Paul II so rightfully declared:
“It is your task to reveal the true meaning of life where hatred, neglect or selfishness threaten to take over the world. Faced with today’s problems and disappointments, many people will try to escape from their responsibility. Escape in selfishness, escape in sexual pleasure, escape in drugs, escape in violence, escape in indifference and cynical attitudes. I propose to you the option of love, which is opposite of escape.”
The more I personally engage my non-Catholic neighbors, the more I notice the profound philosophical differences that exist between us. I made note of this in an earlier post on the state of the pro-life movement on the political left—where all issues are morally equal and the cultural acceptance of moral relativism hindered more substantial progress. This philosophic difference has been hammered by Ryan Harkins in his analysis of American cultural perspective on sexuality in comparison to Catholic anthropology and sexual morality in his latest posts. “As long no one gets hurts” is a prevalent attitude that is irreconcilable with Christianity. There is yet another disturbing mentality in America that asserts that a life that would require greater acceptance, love, and care is considered useless, or seen as an intolerable burden that is rejected in one way or another. This is truly manifest in the acceptance of killing to solve social problems is increasingly characteristic of American society and our public policy—from the unborn, to criminals, or someone of ill health or old age.
We forget that our policies are shaped by our culture and that ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ are terms in need of redemption. We live in a culture that in many ways lacks God. There is neither justice nor hope without God. The world needs God. Pope Benedict XVI so beautifully put the Catholic understanding of this God:
“‘He will come with vengeance’ (Isaiah 35:4). We can easily suppose how the people imagined that vengeance. But the prophet himself goes on to reveal what it really is: the healing goodness of God. The definitive explanation of the prophet’s word is to be found in the one who died on the cross: in Jesus, the Son of God incarnate. His ‘vengeance’ is the cross: a ‘no’ to violence and a ‘love to the end.’ This is the God we need.”
How are we, as American Catholics, to understand our Second Amendment rights? As the Constitution of the United States is a document made by man, it is subject to errors, and has contained notable ones in the past. Could it possibly be that the “right to bear arms” itself is a mistake? Certainly gun ownership has come under heavy fire in the past few decades, and while this issue hasn’t been as loud as others, it remains a divisive issue (especially since, once again, it is a polarized issue, with the loudest proponents on the Right, and the loudest opponents on the Left). Recently we on the Right celebrated what we viewed as a great victory in the battle for gun rights, as the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional the ban on guns in Washington D.C. But should we, as Catholics, see this in the same way?
One of the big criticisms of free market economics is that markets are driven by greed. “Why would you want to allow markets to set the price of [health care, wages, basic housing, food, education, etc.],” the argument goes, “when that means subjecting a basic humanitarian necessity of the dictates of unfettered greed?” I think this represents a basic misunderstanding of how markets work, and I’m going to try to address that in this post — though I approach the attempt with some trepidation given the difficulties of the subject matter and the limits of the medium.
I’m going to start by conceding a point which those making the assertion I describe above may consider to prove their case: The economic view of market dynamics tends to view individual actors within a market as value maximizing agents. In other words, a market consists of a number of actors each trying to get the most possible value for the least possible expense.
Doesn’t this mean that markets are driven by greed? Don’t we need to encourage people to be something other than value maximizing agents?
Well, certainly, there is much more to life than what you can buy and sell,
Eric wrote what I think is a very good and heartfelt post about Catholic Social Teaching and Health Care Reform. Because this is exactly the sort of substantive discussion that American Catholic was intended to foster, I’d like to see if I can pick up some of the themes which he brought up and explore them specifically from a small government conservative and free market angle.
To start with, I’d like to make a distinction between levels of care, though such things are always slippery because medical science advances so rapidly in our modern world. First, there is basic health care. This includes most of the healthcare which goes on most of the time in the US — unless you’re well outside the norm it’s probably all that you’ve needed within the last year.