At the Republican National Convention two weeks ago, Texas senatorial candidate Ted Cruz, after outlining some of the problems faced by our country, said, “Government is not the answer. You are not doing anyone a favor by creating dependency, destroying individual responsibility.” Having earlier described how his father fled Cuba to Texas “not speaking English, with $100 sewn into his underwear,” Cruz continued, “Fifty-five years ago, when my dad was a penniless teenage immigrant, thank God some well-meaning bureaucrat didn’t put his arm around him and say let me take care of you. Let me give you a government check and make you dependent on government.”
The sharp contrast between self-reliance and dependence drawn by Cruz was echoed throughout the convention. As New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote in response, “Speaker after speaker celebrated the solitary and heroic individual,” illustrating the “rampant hyperindividualism” he sees ascendant in the Republican Party. The Republicans are not alone, however. According to the 2012 Atlantic/Aspen Institute American Values Survey, seventy percent of Americans agreed with the statement that “with hard work I can accomplish anything,” and forty-four percent agreed that “the ability to pull oneself up by the bootstraps” is an important factor contributing to America’s success relative to other countries.
As Brooks points out, however, “The fact is our destinies are shaped by social forces much more than the current G.O.P. is willing to admit. The skills that enable people to flourish are not innate but constructed by circumstances.” In other words, we are dependent on our parents, not only for the way they raise us but for the genetic code we inherit from them. We are dependent on circumstance, including the country in which we are born and the time in which we live. We are dependent on our culture for the language in which we think and the ideals and values that motivate us. We are dependent on friends, family, teachers, and neighbors in myriad ways. And yes, we are dependent on the government, for providing infrastructure, law and order, currency, schools, and material assistance of various kinds.
Most importantly, however, we are dependent on God. As the Apostle Paul says in Acts 17:28, “In Him we live and move and have our being.” All of creation is absolutely dependent on God’s creative will, as creation’s existence is only a mere participation in God’s own. Every skill, aptitude, and talent we possess as individuals is ultimately dependent on God’s good grace. All of the people and circumstances that make us who we are serve as mediations of God’s graciousness.
It is startling to note what the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church considers the starting point for its exposition Catholic social teaching. The Compendium does not begin with a discussion of human dignity or the common good, but rather with the “authentic religious experience” that “God is seen as the origin of what exists.” “The dimension of gift and gratuitousness” is “an underlying element of the experience that human beings have of their existence together with others in the world” (#20). Dependence is therefore fundamental to human experience and the starting point for reflection on social life.
With all of this talk of dependence, what of individual responsibility and initiative? A proper understanding of human dependence does not eliminate these things, but rather gives them proper perspective. As we receive our existence as a gift, we are called in return to live our life as a gift to others. As the Compendium notes in the paragraph already cited, God is not only the source of all that is, but “the measure of what should be, as the presence that challenges human action — both at the personal and at the social levels — regarding the use of those very goods in relation to other people.” Dependence does not diminish responsibility, but rather spurs it.
The problem arises when we think of individual responsibility and initiative in terms of an autonomous self seeking to avoid any taint of dependence. If we take what the Compendium says seriously, then this quest for autonomy is in a fundamental sense sin, envisioning the self without God, in essence making the self its own creator. In reality, as Stanley Hauerwas claims in his book The Peaceable Kingdom, it is impossible to disentangle what we do from what happens to us, the ways in which we are in control and the ways we are determined. He writes, “I am not an agent because I can ‘cause’ certain things to happen, but because certain things that happen, whether through the result of my decision or not, can be made mine through my power of attention and intention. . . . My act is mine . . . because I am able to ‘fit’ it into my ongoing story.” (p. 42). The measure of character is whether the stories we tell about ourselves are true.
The story of the autonomous self is false because it is fundamentally about entitlement, which is the opposite of the acceptance of gratuitousness. The autonomous self feels entitled to what it has, believing it is responsible for their possession, while ignoring what it has received. Likewise, the autonomous self resents the claims of the less fortunate other, believing the latter’s misfortune stems from its own failures. The autonomous self can be ingenious in devising rationales for its advantages over others; the Pharisees believed that a man was blind because of his sin, implying that their own ability to see was the result of their purity (Jn. 9:34).
But the mindset of entitlement is not limited to those who share Ted Cruz’s bootstraps ideology. The deprived or aggrieved self feels entitled to that which it desires but does not have. The deprived self accumulates thousands of dollars of credit card debt and takes on a mortgage it cannot possibly afford, feeling entitled to the possessions that it believes will make it happy. The deprived self supports Sandra Fluke in her demand for taxpayer-funded contraception and the Chicago Teachers Union in demanding a nineteen-percent pay raise for teachers paid on average $76,000 (the median household income in Chicago, according to the 2010 census, is $38,625), paid for by taxpayers who in many cases have experienced pay cuts or freezes in recent years. Sadly, often the autonomous self and the deprived self co-exist in the same person. Certainly people are owed what is due to them; “I cannot ‘give’ what is mine to the other, without first giving him what pertains to him in justice” (Pope Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate, #6). Yet the truth about the human person, and not personal desire, is the measure of justice.
The political implications of the gracious acceptance of dependence do not easily fit into partisan categories. We are called to be neither the self seeking control of its own destiny or the self demanding personal fulfillment from society. We are called beyond ourselves, to build a society in which every human life is received as a gift, in which families, communities, and government work to provide the conditions for human flourishing, and in which we give gratitude to God for our existence.