Catholic social teaching and my friend Tommy
CHRISTIAN BRUGGER writes that Catholic social teaching doesn’t offer easy answers to the political, social and economic disparities in our world today. However, it does offer norms of justice that make a complex world more workable and equitable. The challenge, he writes, is finding the political will to make it happen so all may flourish . . . .
My friend Tommy recently spent a week with my family and me in Colorado. I met him 10 years ago in Virginia right after he got 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, gangs, 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 New Jersey — 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’s 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.”
This sounds good in principle, but in practice it’s difficult to apply. What are “reasonable options”? What “community” should do the facilitating? The political community? Civic and religious communities? What types of assistance are more likely to instill self-reliance and so contribute to stronger citizenship? When does it become immoral for a community to tolerate citizens’ poverty?
In a large, diverse polity — especially one like our own that’s lost a unified values system — the complications are amplified and social disorders can become difficult. CST’s principles 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 CST’s principles explain or enjoin positive aspects of justice, their application can be bafflingly complex.
The “principle of subsidiarity” is surely one of the most important but difficult principles to put into concrete application. It posits the primacy of the civil community (society with its smaller communities of families, neighborhoods, churches, and organizations) over the State. Subsidiarity prescribes that the State should guarantee that the civil community is left 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.” He refers to its violation as “an injustice,” “grave evil” and “disturbance of right order” (Quadragesimo Anno, #79).
This does not deny or minimize the necessary role of the State as guarantor of the common good. But the utopia that the “nanny state” promises is a fiction. Too much intervention turns many people unnecessarily into lifelong dependents, thereby diminishing their capacity to make choices. 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 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 toward, guarantees a seedbed for salutary change in the direction of a free and just society.
CHRISTIAN BRUGGER, PH.D., is the J. Francis Cardinal Stafford Chair of Moral Theology at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver, Colo.