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Catholic Social Teaching And My Friend Tommy

My friend Tommy recently spent a week with my family and me in Colorado.  I met Tommy 10 years ago when we were neighbors in the Del Ray section of Alexandria, VA, when he was just out of prison, on the wagon and off of drugs.  As we sat together last month on my front porch, he told me his whole story.  He grew up in a tough part of D.C. with his four brothers and two sisters (from one mother and three fathers).  Abusive dad; fearfully compliant mom; left home at 14; no college; drugs, gang loyalties, guns, gunshot wounds and prison.  The story is familiar.  But it’s not my story.  I grew up in the lily-white suburbs of northern N.J.; big homes, acre lots, ‘good’ schools, etc. Yes, discontent and divorce everywhere; but lots of options.  Tommy had very few.

When Catholic Social Teaching (CST) assesses social phenomena and prescribes principles for securing and maintaining the common good, it has both Tommy’s and my ‘world’ in view (and every ‘world’ in between).  Each and every person’s good, contextualized within a realistic assessment of his or her limitations and opportunities, must be factored in.  At the same time, it is obvious that people’s abilities, propensities and options are not equal.  Consequently, its efforts to assess and prescribe a just “distribution” of benefits and burdens throughout the members of a community can only be equal in a proportionate sense, not a material sense.  If someone through no fault of his own has fewer options available for living a dignified life, the community, if it’s capable of doing so, has a duty to facilitate access to reasonable options.  This is the logic behind the “preferential option for the poor.”

In principle this sounds good, but in practice, as we all know, it is very difficult to apply.  What are “reasonable options”?  What “community” should do the facilitating? The political community? Or civic and religious communities, or both?  What types of assistance are more likely to inculcate a habit of self-reliance and so contribute to stronger citizenship in the long run?  When does it become immoral for a community to tolerate the privations of its citizens?

In a large diverse polity, especially one like our own that’s lost a unified value system, the complications are amplified and social disorders can seem or even become intractable.

The so-called “principles” of CST are meant to assist us in our efforts to secure and maintain the common good.  They are all unified around the concept of justice.  Each expresses a different aspect of or requirement for a just social order.  They are not cut and paste solutions to complex social problems.  Rather they are moral norms (norms of justice).

Insofar as they prohibit actions that are intrinsically unjust, their application is fairly black and white.

But that’s about where the black/white clarity ends.  Inasmuch as the principles of CST explain or enjoin positive aspects of justice (e.g., solidarity, fair access to employment, participation, priority of labor over capital, right to emigrate, option for the poor, universal destination of the world’s resources), their application can be bafflingly complex.

The “principle of subsidiarity” (from the Lt. subsidium, “help” or “assistance”) is surely one of the most important but difficult principles to put into concrete application today.  It posits the primacy of the civil community (society with its smaller communities of families, neighborhoods, churches, professional associations, fraternal, cultural, and charitable organizations) over the State.

Subsidiarity prescribes that the State should guarantee that the civil community, with its smaller intermediate communities, is left free to carry out those functions and responsibilities which it can reasonably fulfill on its own.

Another way to say this is that higher level communities should not interfere in the activities of lower level communities unless and until those lower level communities cannot reasonably fulfill the duties on their own; and then by way of assisting them to carry out their vital social functions, never destroying or absorbing them.

Pope Pius XI refers to subsidiarity as “that most weighty principle, which cannot be set aside or changed”; and he refers to its violation as “an injustice”, “grave evil” and “disturbance of right order” (Quadragesimo 79).  This is for two reasons.

First, to quote Fr. Robert Sirico, “needs are best met locally.”  Families, neighbors and coreligionists—i.e., those who are closest to people spiritually and physically—can usually understand and satisfy needs better than persons who are far away, unconnected and often unsympathetic.  The second is that too much assistance can undermine motivation and initiative, which are essential for human flourishing.  Samuel Gregg explains this well: “Our capacity to act freely on the basis of reasoned choices is central to our identity as the only beings in this world capable of actualizing moral good.  In rendering any assistance to others, the person being assisted must be helped to act for himself, not to become passive.  Assistance that leads to dependence or passivity is contrary to the ends of encouraging people to become free and responsible moral agents” (Economic Thinking for the Theologically Minded [2001], p. 43).  Gregg is just repeating what John Paul II taught ten years earlier (see Centesimus Annus, no. 48.5; also Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno, 79-80).

This does not deny or minimize the necessary role of the State as guarantor of the common good; John Paul II was no libertarian.  But the utopia that the “nanny state” promises is a fiction.  Too much intervention makes many people unnecessarily into lifelong dependents thereby diminishing their capacity to make choices; and it makes others angry.

So how much is too much intervention?  It would be hubris for me to claim that I can draw you the precise line.  But it’s clear to me that we’ve crossed it in several areas; certainly in education and medicine.

Why did I open with Tommy’s story?  Because he faces challenges that I don’t and vice versa.  The political community, both federal and state, needs to secure conditions in which both of our goods can flourish.  No easy answers.

But CST doesn’t offer easy answers.  It offers a worldview and value system that, if accepted and worked towards, guarantees a seedbed for salutary change towards a free and just society.

This article was first published in Legatus Magazine (http://www.legatus.org/magazine [1]) and is reproduced here with permission.