The Catholic condemnation of abortion and the death penalty is well known and understood. But Catholic doctrine also condemns unfettered capitalism. We offer here a list of principles of Catholic social doctrine – not to argue their priority over others – but because we judge these to be the most in danger of being ignored or distorted in contemporary public debate.
The Catholic view of the human person is social not individual. Congressman Paul Ryan has stated that he learned from Ayn 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".
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 action 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 defenceless as "an elementary principle of sound political organisation" 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".
The doctrine of subsidiarity both limits government and demands that it act when local communities cannot solve problems on their own. Subsidiarity has both negative and positive dimensions. Negatively, it limits overreach by government (as well as other large organisations, including corporations). Positively, the concept (which means "help" or "assistance") requires that government act when problems cannot be solved on the local level.
Ryan has invoked subsidiarity to justify devolving management of Medicaid to states thereby ending centralisation "in the hands of federal bureaucrats". At the same time, his budget cuts Medicaid by $750bn over 10 years, a policy that will cut healthcare for an estimated 14 to 27 million Medicaid recipients.
The broader outlines of the budget plan will radically reduce the size of government and consequently cut funding for private and religious safety net providers such as Catholic charities who depend upon federal grants and contracts for much of their funding. This fails the positive obligation under subsidiarity to render needed assistance.
The "preferential option for the poor" demands both individual and collective action, including the acts of the state. In the words of John Paul II, the preferential option for the poor affects "our daily life as well as our decisions in the political and economic fields"; placing demands upon individuals as well as "leaders of nations".
The portrayal of the Last Judgment in the Gospel of Matthew is a judgment of the nations based on how they treat the "least of these". This was the "central moral measure" applied by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in its evaluation of the Ryan budget. "The needs of those who are hungry and homeless, without work or in poverty should come first."
Ryan, like Rand, sees "dependency" as our most serious problem. Thus, he describes his understanding of preferential option as "don't keep people poor, don't make people dependent on government so that they stay stuck at their station in life".
It should go without saying that poverty is not caused primarily by a too generous government safety net that becomes, in Ryan's words, "a hammock that lulls able-bodied citizens into lives of complacency and dependency". It is much easier to cut government programmes than to help people out of long-term poverty as the very mixed results of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act prove. Ryan's 2012 budget achieves 62% of its designated savings from cuts to programmes for low-income families and individuals while cutting the top marginal tax rate and the corporate tax rate. It is impossible to justify this as a serious exercise of the preferential option for the poor.
Economic forces must be reckoned among any serious account of the threats to society and human dignity. Ryan's budget resolutions speak mainly of overbearing government and free individuals acting in a private sector whose justice is never questioned. It is hard to reconcile this vision with the history of the past 40 years, in which globalisation has deindustrialised America and deregulation has increased the power of private corporations. At the same time, unions, which official Catholic teaching has long recognised as indispensible to the rights of workers and the common good, have been severely weakened. Whatever the threat of government power, any adequate response to our challenges must address the facts of economic power as well. Modern papal social doctrine has addressed both threats since its inception.
In Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict XVI has offered an analysis more probing than that offered by either political party. Benedict speaks of the loss of state power in the face of globalisation and calls for the development of new forms of government engagement:
"In our own day, the state finds itself having to address the limitations to its sovereignty imposed by the new context of international trade and finance, which … has altered the political power of states… [T]heir powers … need to be prudently reviewed and remodelled so as to enable them, perhaps through new forms of engagement, to address the challenges of today's world.
Benedict continues the century-long papal teaching that the market alone cannot address the needs of the common good:
"Economic activity cannot solve all social problems through the simple application of commercial logic. This needs to be directed towards the pursuit of the common good, for which the political community in particular must also take responsibility. Therefore, it must be borne in mind that grave imbalances are produced when economic action, conceived merely as an engine for wealth creation, is detached from political action, conceived as a means for pursuing justice through redistribution."
Benedict offers a description of the temptation to reduce the social safety net that reads like an analysis of the Ryan budget:
"From the social point of view, systems of protection and welfare … are finding it hard and could find it even harder in the future to pursue their goals of true social justice in today's profoundly changed environment … [T]he market has prompted new forms of competition between states as they seek to attract foreign businesses… These processes have led to a downsizing of social security systems as the price to be paid for seeking greater competitive advantage in the global market, with consequent grave danger for the rights of workers, for fundamental human rights and for the solidarity associated with the traditional forms of the social state. Systems of social security can lose the capacity to carry out their task, both in emerging countries and in those that were among the earliest to develop, as well as in poor countries. Here budgetary policies, with cuts in social spending often made under pressure from international financial institutions, can leave citizens powerless in the face of old and new risks."
The momentous challenges facing our nation cry out for the full wisdom of the church's social doctrine. We live at time when the social indifference of libertarian thought is achieving broad cultural legitimacy and political power. This vision of the human person and society are fundamentally at odds with the Gospel and the principles of Catholic social doctrine. Legitimate disagreements with the Obama administration must not lead the church to edit the fullness of its teachings for political expediency. Our political obligations as Catholics go beyond choosing a candidate for which to vote. To be truly prophetic, the church – bishops, clergy and lay faithful – must proclaim the fullness of its message to all parties, movements, and powers.