Catholic Social Teaching and Political Conservatism
Posted by Tony Listi on January 1, 2008
I consider myself a very devout Catholic, vigorously defending not only “mere Christianity” but the Catholic brand of Christianity so to speak. But I am also a very passionate political conservative, perhaps even libertarian with regard to some issues. I find no contradiction between these two fundamental identities and thought systems; on the contrary, I find them very compatible.
However, there is one specific area of Catholic teaching that paricularly provides an apparent conflict, if not contradiction. Catholic social teaching promotes “social justice” or “economic justice” and “worker’s rights.” It says society and its institutions should have a preferential concern for the poor. Importantly, it specifically promotes what has been called the “living wage,” which is merely a religious version of the minimum wage. The principles of subsidiarity and solidarity must be applied in forming all public policy. Lastly, we all have a duty to protect the environment as good stewards of God’s creation.
Now, what can be reconciled between Catholic social teaching and conservatism? Well, in my view, everything except the very specific policy proposal of the living wage. The very basic principles can be reconciled with conservatism, at least to some extent, though perhaps not perfectly. But it seems like most Catholics and much of the Catholic leadership (clergy) interpret and apply these principles incorrectly. I think this is due to a widespread ignorance of economic mechanisms (and the terrible consequences for the poor if interfered with by government) and the nature of solidarity. I would like to focus on the twin pillars of subsidiarity and solidarity to argue my position. I pray that I may not fall into heresy.
The principle of subsidiarity is a wonderful principle. It is basically equivalent to what the American Founding Fathers called and today’s conservatives call “federalism.” The best government is that which is closest to the people and that which does ONLY what cannot be done effectively through non-governmental institutions such as the family, private charities and associations, and the Church (this last one often seems to be ignored or forgotten). Therefore, the leviathan size and continual growth of the federal/national government in Washington, D.C., as decried by conservatives and libertarians, is in direct contradiction with the principle of subsidiarity as taught by Catholic social teaching. Therefore, if government is to have any role as a tool of Christian charity, it MUST be done on the local level, i.e. cities, municipalities, and counties. Moreover, the failure, waste, and inefficiency that characterize our national government clearly indicate that this level of government has overstepped its moral (as well as constitutional) authority. When the government is not merely doing worse than private groups could have done, it is actually making problems worse.
It is important to keep in mind that we know that poverty, no less than sin itself (the ultimate cause of poverty), cannot be eliminated through human effort and will not be until the 2nd Coming (Our Lord tells us that “The poor you will always have with you.”) . If Christians (or at least Catholics) believe that their own spiritual poverty will not be eliminated until after their death and entrance into the Kingdom of God (Heaven), what reason could they have to believe material poverty can be eliminated here on earth? There is no reason.
With all this in mind and with a careful comparison of economic and political systems, free market capitalism combined with constitutional republicanism seems to be the ideal system, at least for a society of Christians. Private philanthropy and charity not only do better than government policies with similar intentions and not only thrive under this system of ordered liberty (an empirical observation, thus making capitalism the “preferential option for the poor”); they cannot even exist where there is no liberty, no exercise of the free will. All Christian virtue requires voluntary action. Voluntary charity is a redundancy; government charity is a contradiction. Government social welfare is NOT philanthropy or charity or virtue of any kind because it is coerced. In fact, it is legalized plunder. It is a violation of God’s commandments not to steal or covet what belongs to another.
Because government charity is such a violation (and thus a sin), it CANNOT breed solidarity among citizens. Liberals think that taxation and redistribution solves and prevents competition and inequality, which is essential to capitalism. They are wrong on both counts: it merely shifts the competition from the economic realm to the political realm, and the equalizers are certainly not equal to those whom they equalize. This shift is for the worse, for the “cure” is worse than the disease. Wealth is no longer something gained through voluntary exchange, by providing a service or good to another person; it is now a pile of spoils and loot, coerced from others by the state, and distributed by the political Robin Hoods through a bitter and contentious political process. Moreover, these Robin Hoods, or equalizers, are given unequal power and privilege over everyone else in order to execute their functions successfully. Because of the natural and inevitable resistance to the injustice of redistribution, for equalization to be successful, political power will have to be concentrated and centralized. Thus comes fresh tyranny and slavery.
People commonly and blindly ask: why is the nation so polarized politically? But isn’t it obvious? It is the growth of the federal government that has made politics so bitter and divisive: with so much of other people’s money up for grabs, Americans and their representatives succumb to the temptation to commit other evils such as slander, dishonesty, mean-spiritedness, and hate. These evils are rationalized in order to consummate the evil of legalized plunder.
While my previous comments demonstrate the supremacy of subsidiarity (in so far as it directly affects, if not determines, the level of political solidarity in a nation), there is value in considering the principle of solidarity in itself. This is a very unreasonable principle as it is interpretted and applied by many liberal Catholics. Within this liberal context, it nothing more or less than the secular Enlightenment and French Revolutionary principle of “fraternity.” The whole slogan went “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.” But of course Frederic Bastiat, a French economist and philosopher, keenly observed that the last of the three undermined the first two and that the second undermined the first. Fraternity could only become reality through coercion, thus eliminating liberty directly and equality indirectly (those who enforce equality are by definition never equal to everyone else and thus become the new elite, the new tyranny). And the enforcement of equality inevitably requires the concentration of power, and thus the death of liberty, in order to be achieved in the face of natural resistance. Catholic liberals follow a secular doctrine of solidarity, not a Christian one.
The problem with solidarity, liberally conceived, and Enlightenment fraternity is that they both entail government-coerced affection or good will. But as with charity and other virtues, what good is state-enforced solidarity? No good. Is there even such a kind of solidarity? I don’t see one devoid of inherent contradiction. What is the (im)moral difference between arranged marriages by a father and coerced solidarity by the paternalistic state? None, it is a difference of scale only.
The issue of coercion aside, the fact of the matter is that solidarity is by nature a narrow and provincial concept, at least in practice. Secular and Catholic liberals dream and wish for an “international community” or that we could all learn to be “citizens of the world.” Many social and political philosophers, such as Kant (“Perpetual Peace”), have created systems and theories around this dream, or, more appropriately, this mirage. There can be no universal solidarity. People are naturally attached to their own families, churches, communities, nations, cultures, religions, and ideas. This is not even bad or evil in most circumstances. There will always be tribes, broadly defined, of human beings. There will always be an “us” and a “them.” The Self will always face an Other. But again, when I say “always,” I mean “until the 2nd Coming.” The consequences of the Fall disrupted Paradisal Solidarity and continue unceasingly to this day.
Now the Catholic Church, the possessor of the fullness of truth and grace of Our Lord, also rightly strives to be a universal and unified Church, as Christ wished it to be. And Christ commands unity and solidarity within local church communities (the sharing of possessions in common in the book of Acts) and within the global, universal Church (Paul actually carried charitable relief from one local church to another; 2 Cor 8; Gal 2:6-10; Acts 11:27-30; 1 Cor 16:1-4) that includes all its members regardless of family, local church, local community, or national affiliations. But do you see how this solidarity mentioned in Scripture is different from the principle of solidarity, as interpretted by liberal Christians? There was NO government involvement in such charity and solidarity! That charity and and solidarity was not coerced! Christianity has political implications, but its essential practices, from what Scripture tells us, are distinctively apolitical.
This entry was posted on January 1, 2008 at 3:15 am and is filed under American Culture, Catholicism, Christianity and Politics, Moral Philosophy, Political Philosophy, Politics and Religion, Written by Me. Tagged: Catholic social teaching, commandments, conservatism, covet, economic justice, legalized plunder, principle of solidarity, principle of subsidiarity, social justice, solidarity, steal, subsidiarity. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.