How Not to Discuss Catholic Social Teaching with the Bishops
I know that a current popular notion is that the bishops have no special or particular authority to say anything about economic policy or justice because they’re not economists. Only economists apparently have the right to say anything about budgets and societal economic issues. (Of course, by this specious line of reasoning, I can wonder, too, why the bishops have any right to say anything about abortion or euthanasia, since they’re not medical doctors or professional biologists, either, and therefore not qualified to make any kind of statement about the beginning or end of life…. Why, for example, would a Catholic bishop be able to say something about there being a difference between giving palliative care and carrying out euthanasia?)
Even if I were to go along with that reasoning, apparently now the bishops aren’t even qualified to make statements regarding Catholic social teaching. The Wall Street Journal recently published an op-ed in which its authors (an economist and his wife) suggest:
Someone is twisting the Catholic Church’s teachings on caring for the poor, but it isn’t Paul Ryan. His controversial budgetary ideas demonstrate that he has a better grasp of Catholic social thought than do many of the American Catholic bishops.
What I find curious about this op-ed piece is that for all their attempt to argue that Paul Ryan has a better grasp of Catholic social thought, they don’t themselves actually cite anything directly from Catholic social teaching, nor do they themselves exhibit awareness about CST or suggest any specific ways in which Paul Ryan best supports CST.
Indeed, I suspect the reason they think the bishops are twisting the church’s teachings on caring for the poor is that they themselves seem to be unaware of what the church does teach.
Instead, they go on to suggest:
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has long supported government interference in the economy as a means to help the poor. But we suspect the bishops haven’t fully thought this through: If God really did favor a top-down approach to poverty reduction, why wouldn’t He establish a government with the power to wipe away poverty on demand instead of leaving things to chance and the possibility that someone like Mr. Ryan would come along and mess up His plans?
Of course. No one has ever had that kind of question in 2000 years until Mr. Davies and Ms Antolin wrote this essay. “If God really did desire peace on earth, why wouldn’t he create puppets instead of leaving things to chance and the possibility that someone like Franco would come along and mess up His plans?” “If God really did want for us not to have abortions, why wouldn’t he establish a health care system with the automatic knowledge that abortions are evil, rather than leaving things to chance and the possibility that someone like SCOTUS would come along and mess up His plans?”
But aside from this sort of thinking that is insulting to the bishops and which smacks of arrogance about their own apparently superior knowledge about God and God’s purposes, it is not the case that the US Conference of Catholic Bishops has “long supported government interference in the economy.”
What the bishops support is the authority of the church and its magisterium, past and present, which has time and time again stated the importance of the role of the nation state in advocating for the dignity of humans, especially the poor, weak and vulnerable, in our economic and political life. That necessarily means observing economic and political life and making exhortations toward those ends in line with seeking the truth and love of God. It is this kind of authority that the bishops exercise when they offer cautions about economic and political situations. Thus, Pope Paul VI wrote in Populorum Progressio:
No one may appropriate surplus goods solely for his own private use when others lack the bare necessities of life. In short, “as the Fathers of the Church and other eminent theologians tell us, the right of private property may never be exercised to the detriment of the common good.” When “private gain and basic community needs conflict with one another,” it is for the public authorities “to seek a solution to these questions, with the active involvement of individual citizens and social groups.” (23)
But Pope Paul VI represents a long line of bishops, popes, clergy and other theologians observing and offering concerns about political and economic life – which is simply to say, they’re concerned about human life in general, of which government and economic systems are a part.
The Compendium states:
389. The political community pursues the common good when it seeks to create a human environment that offers citizens the possibility of truly exercising their human rights and of fulfilling completely their corresponding duties.
Economic conservatives will likely emphasize the focus in this passage on respecting the individual and his or her ability to love freely. For example, the op-ed authors argue (though again, without the benefit of a church document):
Government is not community. Government is one of community’s tools, a coercive one we use when it is necessary to force people to behave in ways they would not otherwise behave voluntarily. But that word—voluntarily—is key, and it’s where Mr. Ryan’s religious detractors go awry: Charity can only be charity when it is voluntary. Coerced acts, no matter how beneficial or well-intentioned, cannot be moral. If we force people to give to the poor, we have stripped away the moral component, reducing charity to mere income redistribution.
The authors here equate individual charity with the distinctive functions of government, and they seem to conclude that therefore via the principle of subsidiarity, the individual takes precedence over the state. Individual charity is to be preferred over the supposed coercion of government.
Never mind that in his latest social encyclical, Pope Benedict XVI writes:
To take a stand for the common good is on the one hand to be solicitous for, and on the other hand to avail oneself of, that complex of institutions that give structure to the life of society, juridically, civilly, politically and culturally, making it the pólis, or “city”. The more we strive to secure a common good corresponding to the real needs of our neighbours, the more effectively we love them. Every Christian is called to practise this charity, in a manner corresponding to his vocation and according to the degree of influence he wields in the pólis. This is the institutional path — we might also call it the political path — of charity, no less excellent and effective than the kind of charity which encounters the neighbour directly, outside the institutional mediation of the pólis. (emphasis mine)
The pope means a variety of institutions there, and one of them is clearly government, which is also an “excellent and effective” kind of charity. While Pope Benedict does write: “Solidarity is first and foremost a sense of responsibility on the part of everyone with regard to everyone , and it cannot therefore be merely delegated to the State”, it is also clear that for him the role of government is integral. He suggests:
The integrated economy of the present day does not make the role of States redundant, but rather it commits governments to greater collaboration with one another. Both wisdom and prudence suggest not being too precipitous in declaring the demise of the State. In terms of the resolution of the current crisis, the State’s role seems destined to grow, as it regains many of its competences. Globalization certainly requires authority, insofar as it poses the problem of a global common good that needs to be pursued. (emphasis mine)
But perhaps the authors think that the pope, too, along with the US Conference of Bishops, ought to take some lessons from Paul Ryan in Catholic social teaching.
Against what the authors have written, individual charity cannot and should not, in fact, be equated with government taxation structures or other government programs, nor should one come at the expense of the other. Individual charity is essential, and Pope Benedict clearly acknowledges and supports that. But when governments are acting on behalf of the poor in society, they are not doing so out of a notion of the virtue of charity primarily, but rather the virtue of justice. Justice is a social virtue, one that focuses on the community and the collective, common good of the people. (Meghan Clark has carefully discussed that point further in this post on subsidiarity.)
That is to say, in Catholic social teaching it is recognized that quite simply there are some things we can do better together than we can separately. Individual charity is great – like donating the $5 to the mother next door who needs some Tylenol for her crying baby. But an individual can’t offer something even close to approximating SNAP or the VA hospital system, even if you think those programs are run poorly.
So, the Compendium reminds us:
391. A community has solid foundations when it tends toward the integral promotion of the person and of the common good. In such cases, law is defined, respected and lived according to the manner of solidarity and dedication towards one’s neighbour. Justice requires that everyone should be able to enjoy their own goods and rights; this can be considered the minimum measure of love. Social life becomes more human the more it is characterized by efforts to bring about a more mature awareness of the ideal towards which it should be oriented, which is the “civilization of love”.
There is an integral relationship between the individual and the common good, in part because the individual needs the common good in order to thrive, and in part because society needs its individuals in order to thrive.
I wish that the Wall Street Journal had been more careful before it came out with an op-ed piece that is insulting to church authorities (as well as other Catholics of good will), that never deigns to use the very Catholic social teaching it purports to uphold, and that misunderstands and conflates the notion of individual charity and the role of government.
Indeed, it seems that just as often happens on the left, the authority of the Catholic bishops is used on the right only when it serves convenience and furthers a particular ideological position. Paul Ryan’s ideas about how to carry out Catholic social teaching can and should be taken seriously, and debated (for all the reasons Julie Rubio mentions here) – but NOT at the expense of pretending that Paul Ryan can stand in for the bishops and the magisterial authority of the church. We Catholics – all of us – ought instead be allowing the teachings to challenge us, whether right or left.