Today, a group of Catholic theologians and scholars released a statement  raising concerns about a profound and ongoing problem: the absence of a clear understanding of Catholic Social Teaching in American political discourse. The statement, “On All of Our Shoulders,” rather than criticizing any particular policy proposal, instead is meant to underline the fundamental principles of modern CST that “are profoundly relevant to the challenges our nation faces at this moment in history, yet are in danger of being ignored.”

Such a statement runs the same risk as statements about abortion or same-sex marriage: it appears to be using Catholic doctrine for partisan purposes. The statement tries to make clear that this is not its purpose:

We do not write to oppose Ryan’s candidacy or to argue there are not legitimate reasons for Catholics to vote for him. Our concern is that Ryan and his Catholic supporters, must be informed—as prochoice candidates and Catholics who vote for them are perennially and appropriately reminded—that some of his positions are fundamentally at odds with the teachings of the Catholic Church.

In other words, the statement seeks to do what is already done – rightly – on issues like abortion, where positions at odds with the fundamental principles of the Church are flagged as such.

The statement highlights five key principles, found in magisterial documents, which are obscured by particular aspects of the present political discourse. These may be of the most direct interest to the readers of this blog. One could say that the primary concern boils down to the first two principles:

1. The Catholic view of the human person is social not individual. Congressman Ryan has stated that he learned from Rand to view all policy questions as a “fight of individualism versus collectivism.” The Catholic Church does not espouse “individualism,” but rather sees it as an error as destructive as collectivism. Blessed John Paul II described “individualism” as a dimension of the “Culture of Death” arising from an “eclipse of the sense of God.” The human person is “by its innermost nature, a social being.” We are radically dependent upon and responsible for one another. Again, in the words of John Paul II, “We are all really responsible for all.” This truth of the human person is tied to the central doctrines of the Church. It reflects the very “intimate life of God, one God in three Persons.”

2. Government has an essential role to play in protecting and promoting the common good. The error of individualism leads to a mistaken understanding of the role of government. For too long politicians have echoed Ronald Reagan’s misleading mantra “Government is the Problem.” The Catholic Church, on the contrary, because of its social understanding of the human person, considers government to be as “necessary” for human nature as the family. The state exists to “defend and promote the common good of civil society, its citizens, and intermediate bodies.” Thus, while the Church does not offer a specific blueprint for policy, it does view our government’s actions on behalf of the common good a positive good in itself.

Catholic apologists for small government repeatedly invoke a single paragraph from John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus which cautions against the excesses of a “social assistance state” ignoring the decades-long papal consensus supporting social insurance and welfare systems. In the same document, John Paul described the “intervention of governmental authority” on behalf of the defenseless as “an elementary principle of sound political organization” taught by the Church for a century. John Paul later stated “One can only rejoice” that “States set up social welfare systems to assist families…and pension funds for retirees.” These express a sense of national “responsibility” and “solidarity.”

CST has long condemned both pure socialism and laissez-faire individualism, as imprudent and contrary to natural law. The Catechism (#2425) states this clearly and succinctly:

The Church has rejected the totalitarian and atheistic ideologies associated in modem times with “communism” or “socialism.” She has likewise refused to accept, in the practice of “capitalism,” individualism and the absolute primacy of the law of the marketplace over human labor. Regulating the economy solely by centralized planning perverts the basis of social bonds; regulating it solely by the law of the marketplace fails social justice, for “there are many human needs which cannot be satisfied by the market.”

CST takes a resolutely both/and approach: both government and individual initiative, both public action and private charity. In practice, the American system epitomizes this approach – it does not provide the kind of cradle-to-grave support systems characteristic of some European countries, while at the same time, it does not simply leave everyone to fend for themselves. Even our system of charity depends (quite heavily) on things like government grants and charitable tax deductions. Our health care system tries to balance (precariously) private and public activity.

So, today’s statement does not say anything particularly novel or profound. What is novel and profound is the extent to which a particular party attacks these fundamentals. Even conservative commentators like David Brooks have lamented this problem, noting that a strain of “economic conservatism” has swamped any “traditional conservative” language about communities and society:

The economic conservatives were in charge of the daring ventures that produced economic growth. The traditionalists were in charge of establishing the secure base — a society in which families are intact, self-discipline is the rule, children are secure and government provides a subtle hand. Ronald Reagan embodied both sides of this fusion, and George W. Bush tried to recreate it with his compassionate conservatism. But that effort was doomed because in the ensuing years, conservatism changed.

In the polarized political conflict with liberalism, shrinking government has become the organizing conservative principle. Economic conservatives have the money and the institutions. They have taken control. Traditional conservatism has gone into eclipse. These days, speakers at Republican gatherings almost always use the language of market conservatism — getting government off our backs, enhancing economic freedom. Even Mitt Romney, who subscribes to a faith that knows a lot about social capital, relies exclusively on the language of market conservatism.

Brooks may not be right about everything here, but he’s right to say what today’s statement is recognizing: that the language of economic libertarianism has trumped everything else. The point is not to say that the both/and balance is not up for negotiation. Can there be too much government? Yes. Can there be too little government? Yes. The discussion is not furthered when one side takes up, relentlessly, an either-or, dualistic position: individuals good, government bad.

And, to be fair, Mitt Romney, in last week’s debate, actually came out as a moderate. David Brooks wrote in joy:

Far from being an individualistic, social Darwinist, Romney spoke comfortably about compassion and shared destinies: “We’re a nation that believes that we’re all children of the same God, and we care for those that have difficulties, those that are elderly and have problems and challenges, those that are disabled.” Far from wanting to eviscerate government and railing about government dependency, Romney talked about how to make government programs work better. “I’m not going to cut education funding,” he vowed. He praised government job-training efforts and said he wanted to consolidate them. … Far from being an unthinking deregulator, Romney declared, “Regulation is essential. … I mean, you have to have regulations so that you can have an economy work.” Instead of championing unfettered capitalism, he said he wanted predictable and workable rules. He criticized housing regulations that can’t give a clear idea of what a qualified mortgage is. He criticized financial regulations that favor big banks over small ones.

It would be no small victory to hope that this language is not opportunistic, but actually trumps the libertarian language. At the very least, all could recognize that it outright rejects the market-state dichotomy, suggesting instead numerous possibilities for much richer ways of proceeding. It would be nice to think, as one Church, we Catholics could work together, in both parties, to bring about an economic consensus that would promote human flourishing for all. It would be nice to think that Paul Ryan and John Boehner could sit down with Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi (and Cardinal Dolan?), and say to each other, hey, we are all Catholics and our Church says some basic things that might help us move beyond complete partisan gridlock. (Heck, Romney and Obama are both saying it already!) Let’s at least try to figure out what the Church says, so we can try to think about policy options in those terms – instead of simply in terms of misguided either/or dichotomies.

I personally am not holding my breath on this one. But I would never discount the power of the Holy Spirit to bring about things I’m unable to foresee.

UPDATE: Rick Garnett, at Mirror of Justice, has posted what I would describe as the model of the kind of dialogue that Catholics ought to be having about these issues. It is clear in its statement of agreements (on principles) and disagreements. Indeed, it mirrors some of the discussions had amongst the drafters of the document! Garnett cites three problems with the statement. One is its failure to call the Democratic vice-presidential candidate to task at sugfficient length for his anti-life positions. Fair enough – the statement (and my post above) acknowledges these problems, but it does not go into them at great length. But Garnett is right that there are real problems (even if the Republican position on this is less clear than sometimes portrayed) on the Democratic side. His other two concerns both focus on whether there is an overly-hysterical alarm at supposed “Randianism” and the extent to which it really infects the public discourse or the (achievable) policy agenda of Romney/Ryan. Garnett writes:

More common, though, and more influential in reality (David Brooks’ complaints notwithstanding), is a “libertarianism” (if it can be called that) that worries about the sustainability of our current practices, that is concerned about the liberal state’s tendency and present-day efforts to crowd out civil society and illiberally impose a certain understanding of liberalism on mediating and religious institutions, that thinks its important to have judges and administrators who are faithful to the Constitution and appropriately respectful of the limits on their power, and that is entirely compatible “the Gospel and the principles of Catholic Social Doctrine.”

Here, I have to admit I am uncertain. Garnett is certainly right that there are very entrenched forces and attitudes that would push against any kind of radically libertarian (i.e. Ron Paul) policy agenda. On the other hand, the public framing of the issue  – a framing which is analogous to the Democratic attempt to frame a “war on women” – really does drive a destructive resistance to reasonable policy reforms, e.g., perhaps some tax increases. It also obscures the real reasons why, for example, government spending has increased significantly in the past few years – the beginning of the retirement of the Baby Boomers, for example. What you get is a complicated set of issues that is framed in a simplified, and very influential, way, with destructive results for governing. Were the Democratic party digging in on, say, socialism (e.g. extremely high tax rates on the very wealthy, socialization of banks), one could rightly be concerned that their frame would be destructive. That is, if the Democratic Party straightforwardly adopted the framing of “the 1% percent,” it could potentially be worthy of criticism. But of course that’s not the framing Democrats adopt now. Maybe in the past or in the future, the Democratic patrty could wieldly genuinely politically influential framings in these non-Catholic directions. But that is not our problem. We don’t have Democrats whose favorite writers are Karl Marx. So, while I agree with Garnett that some of this is rhetorical, the rhetorical excesses (just as in the case of the Democratic “war on women” framing) themselves suggest principles about economic freedom (Dems: reproductive autonomy) that really are “effective” in influencing the public realm AND really are in contradiction to Catholic views of the person and property (Dems: in contradiction to Catholic views of the person and their sexuality). As a teacher, I must admit that students find the Catechism’s basic statements on property to be far more stunning and surprising than they do reading the Catechism on sex or life. The ideas of a universal destination of goods and of a “social mortgage” on the right use of their private property are complete surprises to almost all of them… and I suspect, to many Catholics.