Posts tagged with: catholic social teaching

I’ve just returned to Rome following our Lisbon conference on Catholic Social Teaching, Free Enterprise and Poverty. Judging from the crowded auditorium and the lively comments from the audience, it was a very successful event. Here I’ll mention a few of my personal highlights from the event:

– Bishop Filippo Santoro gave an excellent presentation on the errors of using income transfers to achieve a more equal society, and especially the dependency the poor develop on the state.

– Professor Raúl Diniz reminded us that there is no particularly “Catholic” model of economics and that more Catholics should heed the advice of free-market or “liberal” economics in our time.

– Fr. João Seabra offered a spirited defense of Pope Pius XI’s anti-communism, which sadly still needs to be recalled twenty years after the fall of the Soviet Union.

– Paul Atkins explained to our Portuguese audience how decades of well-intentioned policies carried out by the US government to promote home ownership lead to the recent financial crisis and the lessons concerning regulation that should be drawn by developing countries.

– Samuel Grottis spoke about how successful businesses are not just profit-making but transformational.

– Professor João César das Neves exploded the myths surrounding the Chinese economy, calling it a seductive form of Marxism. (Apparently his PowerPoint presentation was quite a hit as well, but I couldn’t see it from where I was seated as the moderator of his panel. Perhaps the good professor will kindly share it with us on the PowerBlog.

There were many other intriguing points raised by the speakers and during the Q&A session about the challenges of capitalism to Christianity and the conference could have easily lasted another day or two. The viewing of the Poverty Cure trailer was especially well received.

On a side note, the Saturday before the conference, there was a large protest of public-sector employees against the Portuguese government’s austerity plans. From what I could tell from my meanderings through the streets of Lisbon that day, even the slightest reduction in benefits will meet with stiff resistance from the public-sector unions, which should put paid to the idea that government workers are somehow more concerned with the common good than private-sector workers.

All in all, it was an auspicious beginning for what many hope will be a continuing fruitful relationship between the Institute for Political Studies at the Catholic University of Portugal and the Acton Institute. Mui obrigrado to all who made this a great conference.

I’m currently in Lisbon ahead of Acton’s fourth conference in the seven-part series Poverty, Entrepreneurship, and Integral Development. Entitled “Catholic Social Teaching, Free Enterprise, and Poverty”, it will take place on Tuesday, November 9 at the Catholic University of Portugal. Click here for more information or if you happen to be in the Lisbon area and want to join us.

Tuesday’s conference was designed to focus on the Portuguese-speaking world, primarily because of its inter-continental scope and close connection to the Catholic faith, and to discuss the challenges posed by extreme poverty in developing countries and what can be done to address them. As often happens with our conferences, the reality of current events has a way of stressing the importance of principles that support a free and virtuous society.

I was still reeling from the news that the U.S. Federal Reserve will print $600 billion of new money upon my arrival yesterday when I read that the Portuguese prime minister criticized “speculative movements” for the country’s high bond yields.

Later in the day, I learned of the recent election of the left-wing Dilma Rousseff in Brazil, and her desires to continue her predecessor Lula’s economic reforms towards an environment of inflation targeting and broad fiscal responsibility. Rather surprising coming from a former guerilla fighter whose tendencies should be to distrust markets and increase the size and scope of the state.

And finally, the United Nations published its 2010 Human Development Report, which shows that developing countries have become much wealthier and healthier in the last 40 years, which not coincidentally is more or less when many of these countries have opened themselves up to the benefits of free markets, both domestically and internationally. The UNDP report’s central thesis that “people are the real wealth of a nation” echoes, of course, Pope John Paul II’s 1991 social encyclical Centesimus Annus and its proclamation that “man’s greatest resource is man himself” (n. 32).

What current events such as these are telling me is that while poorer countries have adopted free markets in order to improve the living conditions of their people, it is the developed world that has forgotten the lessons of wealth creation and free enterprise. The former colonials now have much to teach their former masters! Quite a remarkable shift that, in my mind, looks poised to stand for some time to come.

These and other delicious ironies of the day will certainly make for a stimulating event on Tuesday.

Dr. Paul Oslington, professor of economics at Australian Catholic University, has a piece up today that examines the scope of social encyclicals, beginning with Rerum Novarum in 1891 and focusing especially on the similarities and differences between John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus and Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate.

Comparing this tradition with that of ecclesiastical statements from other church traditions, Oslington judges (and I think quite rightly), “On the whole, statements of the Roman Catholic Church since the landmark papal encyclical Rerum Novarum, issued in 1891, have been of higher theological quality than most church statements, and more reticent when dealing with specific economic questions.”

He points especially to the 2004 Accra Confession of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC) as a negative example. I make a substantive criticism of the Accra Confession within the broader context of ecumenical social statements of the last decade in my recent book, Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church’s Social Witness.

I also point in that book to some of the things that the mainline ecumenical movement can learn from the tradition of Roman Catholic social thought. As Oslington rightly notes, the quality of the encyclical tradition makes it the natural starting point for broader dialogues about the role of faith and theology in relation to economics, politics, and social life. He points to the way in which Benedict’s encyclical has occasioned important discussion from all kinds of quarters, both in the secular media as well as by other Christian traditions.

Oslington is especially hopeful about the work of Benedict XVI, and says, “With these theological resources, there is hope for a much-needed deep theological engagement with economics. It is hard to image a Pope better equipped theologically to undertake this task.”

One of the most important things that Protestant social thought can learn from the encyclical tradition is the importance of the principle of prudence. This is manifested in a bias against making strict policy prescriptions in favor of articulating the broad principles that must be applied in various concrete circumstances.

As Oslington concludes, this is a fundamental element of the social encyclicals, including Benedict’s:

I don’t know what Benedict XVI’s theological engagement with economics will end up looking like. He indicates in the unfinished state of his reflections a call for “further and deeper reflection on the meaning of the economy and its goals” in the light of the “explosion of worldwide interdependence.”

Could this turn out something like the Augustinian theodicy of markets that Anthony Waterman saw in Adam Smith? Waterman argued that just as for Augustine government restrains sin in a fallen world until the time of a final judgment and renewal, so markets restrain the effects of human sin.

Will it include elements of the vision of economic life of early modern Franciscan thinkers favoured by Benedict and some of his advisors such as Stefano Zamagni?

Whatever direction it goes, it will be some kind of theological reframing of economics that orients economic enquiry without detailed prescription on matters of economic theory and policy.

Incidentally, Dr. Oslington was kind enough to endorse my book, and I pass along his comments here in full.

Jordan Ballor has written a useful guide for those wishing to venture into the smelly swamps of ecumenical social and economic thought. Why should non-swamp dwellers care what goes on there? Ballor’s quite reasonable answer is that ecumenical bodies claim to speak on behalf of churches, churches which many of us are part. Whether anyone outside is listening is another question—one which Ballor doesn’t address but which others such as Anthony Waterman have considered—that being less and less so. Ballor’s book is distinguished by considering not just the content of ecumenical statements on economic matters (which have given grief to a long line of professional economists), but also the theological self-understanding of the various bodies when they speak. He asks the deeper question of whether the bodies are adequately constituted to be the (or even a) Christian voice on economic matters, as well as the not irrelevant questions of their actual theological and economic competence. Fundamental questions are raised about the relationship between theological and economic discourse, and the sorts of institutions that support helpful discourse. Christian faith certainly bears on economic matters—the briefest acquaintance with the Scriptures is enough to dispel any doubts. Ballor’s book is part of the movement towards a better discussion of the links in our churches, universities and political forums.

I should note too that some serious work has been done in bringing the various traditions of Protestant and Catholic social thinking into dialogue.

This includes the proceedings of the conference commemorating Leo XIII and Abraham Kuyper in the Journal of Markets & Morality. I’m also pleased to announce that in the next issue of the journal we’ll be including an introduction to and translation of Herman Bavinck’s “General Biblical Principles and the Relevance of Concrete Mosaic Law for the Social Question Today,” prepared for the Christian Social Congress held in Amsterdam, November 9-12, 1891 (you can subscribe to the journal here).

Blog author: jcouretas
posted by on Wednesday, October 13, 2010

A good give-and-take on the tea party movement on Our Sunday Visitor. Rev. Robert A. Sirico, president and co-founder of the Acton Institute, weighs in:

Many of the stances tea party activists have taken on political issues also would resonate with Catholic voters, Father Sirico said. For example, many practicing Catholics would likely agree with the tea party’s concern about the overreaching involvement of government in schools and health care, he said, and though the movement has hesitated to identify itself as pro-life, the majority of tea party activists appear to be in agreement with the Church’s stance on abortion.

But while he doesn’t feel that there is a conflict for Catholics to join the tea party, Father Sirico said, he does think tea party advocates could benefit from a greater understanding of Catholic teaching.

“The thing Catholics could teach the tea party is that not every social obligation needs to be viewed with suspicion,” he said. “We recognize that human nature is social as well as individual, and we balance these things out. To say I have an obligation to the poor is [to say] society has an obligation to the poor.”

Read “Is the tea party movement in sync with Catholic teaching?” on the website of Our Sunday Visitor.

Acton University faculty member Jeffrey Tucker has an insightful essay over at InsideCatholic.com, “Why Catholics Don’t Understand Economics.”

Throughout the piece, Mr. Tucker employs a distinction between scarce, economic goods, and non-scarce, infinitely distributable, spiritual goods:

I have what I think is a new theory about why this situation persists. People who live and work primarily within the Catholic milieu are dealing mainly with goods of an infinite nature. These are goods like salvation, the intercession of saints, prayers of an infinitely replicable nature, texts, images, and songs that constitute non-scarce goods, the nature of which requires no rationing, allocation, and choices regarding their distribution.

None of these goods take up physical space. One can make infinite numbers of copies of them. They can be used without displacing other instances of the good. They do not depreciate with time. Their integrity remains intact no matter how many times they are used. Thus they require no economization. For that reason, there need to be no property norms concerning their use. They need not be priced. There is no problem associated with their rational allocation. They are what economists call “free goods.”

[...] This is completely different from the way things work in the realm of scarce goods. Let’s say that you like my shoes and want them. If you take them from me, I do not have them anymore. If I want them again, I have to take them back from you. There is a zero-sum rivalry between the goods. That means there must be some kind of system for deciding who can own them. It means absolutely nothing to declare that there should be something called socialism for my shoes so that the whole of society can somehow own them. It is factually impossible for this to happen, because shoes are a scarce good. This is why socialism is sheer fantasy, a meaningless dreamland as regards scarce goods

The whole article is worth reading (there is even a good St. Augustine reference)

Thomas Jefferson’s long-forgotten theory of state nullification may have  found an ideal time for a resurgence, as the Tea Party and other groups advocate limited government as a solution to many of our current problems in health care, the economic crisis, our broken educational system, and the relentless expansion of government. The concept of nullification is simple, yet powerful: That individual states can and should refuse to enforce unconstitutional federal laws; and that the states, not the federal government, should have the final word on constitutional interpretation. The return of this “forbidden idea” (as its contemporary advocates sometimes describe it) represents not only an opportunity for small-government groups like the Tea Party to enact substantial change, but it also provides a unique opportunity those who are serious about a Christian social witness in public life to implement the principle of subsidiarity.

It is in this spirit that Dr. Thomas E. Woods, Jr. writes his newest book, Nullification: How to Resist Federal Tyranny in the 21st Century. Dr. Woods, who has authored two publications for the Acton Institute (the award-winning The Church and the Market and the monograph Beyond Distributism), as well as two New York Times bestsellers, now brings back the tradition of nullification into the public eye.

The seemingly radical idea of nullification flies in the face of nearly everything we have learned about the federal government and the Constitution: that federal authority always supersedes that of the states, that the Supreme Court has the final say on interpreting the Constitution, and that the only way to get rid of undesirable federal laws is to either have Congress repeal them or the Supreme Court overturn them.

However, Thomas Jefferson was convinced that if the federal government had a monopoly on interpreting the meaning of the Constitution, then there would be no certain way to constrain an unconstitutional expansion of its power. What if the constitutional system of checks and balances were to fail? What if, counter to the wishes of James Madison, ambition fails to counteract ambition, and the different branches of the federal government are able to cooperate in increasing the central government’s reach? Rather than wait two, four, or six years until the next election cycle, Jefferson thought, a more “rightful remedy” would be for states to simply declare that the laws in question violated the Constitution, and would not be enforced in said states.

He was not alone in this belief, as one can find the practice of nullification in the earliest years of the Republic. Kentucky and Virginia famously nullified the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. During Jefferson’s own presidency, northern states employed nullification against the total trade embargo imposed by the federal government. During the War of 1812, northern states once more passed resolutions nullifying any potential federal conscription acts. South Carolina passed resolutions nullifying the 1832 “tariff of abominations.” And in the 1850’s, free states frequently invoked nullification in an effort to combat unconstitutional aspects of the fugitive slave laws. Also interesting to note is that southern states did not invoke nullification to defend slavery.

To some extent, this practice continues today. As the Tenth Amendment Center thoroughly documents, dozens of states seek to propose legislation that would prohibit the federal government from enacting health insurance mandates, enforcing some federal gun lawsabusing the interstate commerce clause, and imposing cap-and-trade regulations, among other things. And though these efforts are still underway, supporters of nullification can already point to one success story: over two dozen states openly defied the Real ID Act of 2005, which imposed federal standards on state drivers’ licenses. Though the law is still “on the books,” so to speak, the federal government has given up on enforcement, due to the widespread and extremely overt opposition.

But what does all of this have to do with subsidiarity? At their core, the ideas of nullification and federalism that Dr. Woods invokes echo many of the same concerns that the Church raises in speaking of subsidiarity and the role of the state in society: that there needs to be a just division of responsibilities between different social orders. Social problems should be addressed at their lowest possible level. An unnecessary usurpation of power by, for example, the federal government, undermines the role that state governments should play in resolving some of their own domestic problems.

This principle is often invoked in religious discussion of public policy. The Catholic Church places such great emphasis on the principle of subsidiarity that the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church lists subsidiarity as one of the four foundational principles of social teaching. The Church not only exhorts us to respect human dignity, respect the common good, and have solidarity with the poor, but also teaches that we should pursue these social goals in the proper context of subsidiarity:

It is impossible to promote the dignity of the person without showing concern for the family, groups, associations, local territorial realities; in short, for that aggregate of economic, social, cultural, sports-oriented, recreational, professional, and political expressions to which people spontaneously give life and which make it possible for them to achieve effective social growth [....]

On the basis of this principle, all societies of a superior order must adopt attitudes of help (“subsidium”) – therefore of support, promotion, development – with respect to lower-order societies. In this way, intermediate social entities can properly perform the functions that fall to them without being required to hand them over unjustly to other social entities of a higher level, by which they would end up being absorbed and substituted, in the end seeing themselves denied their dignity and essential place. (185-186)

One can certainly see a similar spirit in the intentions of the framers of the Constitution: the purpose of this founding document was not to provide a new kind of all-powerful entity lording over the states; rather, the states created the federal government in order to serve them as an instrument for promoting the common good – as the Compendium says, to provide “support, promotion, and development.” To discover this, one need look no further than the preamble of the Constitution:

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

In the same way, subsidiarity dictates that higher orders (e.g. the federal government) exist to promote and assist lower orders (e.g. states) in developing and protecting the common good. But a political system in keeping with the principle of subsidiarity should have appropriate mechanisms to ensure that the abuse and usurpation of power does not take place. This makes the need for a revival of nullification all the more urgent.

Today’s Tea Party-ers eye with skepticism the intrusions of the federal government into all sorts of matters: guns, education, charity, health care, business regulation, etc. They clamor for change, and will certainly have a substantial impact on the coming electoral cycle. But advocates of limited government should also reflect on which strategies are most effective at introducing real and substantial change. Both Thomas Woods and Thomas Jefferson contend that waiting for a benevolent Supreme Court, President, or Congress is not the right way. States cannot trust the federal government to police itself. They must take a direct role in reeling back federal power. Nullification is the best way to concretely implement the principle of subsidiarity, restore true federalism, and strengthen a truly Constitutional rule of law.

Acton Institute Research Director Samuel Gregg joins guest host Paul G. Kengor on Ave Maria Radio’s Kresta in the Afternoon. In this June 28 segment, Kengor asks, “When we talk as Catholics about elevation of the poor and service to those who are less fortunate, we often talk about subsidiarity and social justice. What do those terms mean in the context of Catholic social teaching?”

Listen to “Subsidiarity and Social Justice. What do those terms really mean?” by clicking on the audio player icon below.

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Samuel Gregg has authored several books including On Ordered Liberty, his prize-winning The Commercial Society, and Wilhelm Röpke’s Political Economy.

Read his Acton commentaries here. And his PowerBlog post: “What is the USCCB’s problem with subsidiarity?”

Paul Kengor, Ph.D., is professor of political science at Grove City College, a four-year, private Christian liberal arts college in Grove City, Pennsylvania. He is executive director of the Center for Vision & Values, a Grove City College think-tank/policy center, and a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace at Stanford University.

On his blog Koinonia, Rev. Gregory Jensen thoughtfully reviews a 2008 lecture given at Acton University by Kishore Jayabalan. (One of the neat things about downloading AU lectures is that you can then listen to them just about anywhere, including the car.) Rev. Jensen, who also blogs and writes for Acton, notes how Jayabalan’s talk contrasts “the sectarian approach with a catholic one.”

Another long drive last week gave me a chance to listen to an excellent lecture on the tradition of Catholic social encyclicals. The lecturer, Kishore Jayabalan (director of the Acton Institute’s Rome office) made a distinction between a Catholic and a sectarian approach to the surrounding culture.

While it is important for us as Christian to distinguish truth from error, Jayabalan argues that a sectarian approach limits itself to what is wrong with others. Whether from the right or the left, sectarianism is an ideology masquerading as Christian theology. Again this is not to say that Christians ought should refrain from pointing out where we disagree with the culture–we should but a purely negative approach is not only insufficient it contradicts the very tradition that we would defend. Let me explain.

Life as a disciple of Christ necessarily places us in a tension with not only the fallen world, but also with ourselves. As the late Fr Alexander Schmemmann never tired of repeating, it is this fallen world that God loves and for which His Son suffered and died on the Cross. And it is this fallen world that rises with Christ and will at the end of time not be obliterated but transfigured into the New Heaven and the New Earth.

Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. Also there was no more sea. Then I, John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.” Then He who sat on the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.” And He said to me, “Write, for these words are true and faithful” (Rev 21:1-5)

To be sure, Jesus condemns “the cowardly, unbelieving, abominable, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars” to “the lake which burns with fire and brimstone” and so to “the second death” (v.8 j) but this does not undo the eschatological fulfillment of creation that is described at length in subsequent verses (vv. 9-27; 22:1-5). Indeed it is those who, because of their works (see, Rev 22:12) are unwilling to say Maranatha! “Come Lord Jesus!” and so will not “take the water of life freely” that are condemned (see, Rev 22:17). To borrow from one of the more obscure writers of the early Church the sixth century Latin father, Apringius of Beja, “The Holy Spirit and the Church call all to come to salvation” (Tractate on the Apocalypse, 22:17 quoted on ACCS, NT vol XII: Revelation, p. 406).

The pastoral–and spiritual–failure of sectarianism is that, unlike Christ, it fails to balance “harsh sayings…with the easy and appealing words so that watchfulness is encouraged” (Venerable Bede, Commentary on the Apocalypse, 21.8 quoted on ACCS, NT vol XII: Revelation, p. 361). Underneath this, indeed underneath all my willingness to judge, to condemn, to withhold forgiveness, is a watchfulness that is not encouraging but suspicious and distrustful. If in the immediate this is directed toward my neighbor it ultimately finds its roots in my own lack of faith in God and trust in the providential working of His grace in your life and mine.

We can, as Jayabalan did, contrast the sectarian approach with a catholic one. While sectarianism often takes a negative tone, what is central is not negativity as such. The sectarian Christian seeks to limit God’s grace to an elite group. That this elite group is eventually a group of one person–the sectarian himself–is ignored or overlooked.

A catholic approach, on the other hand, does not simply criticize what is wrong, it affirms what is good, and true, and just, and beautiful. If sectarianism seeks to tear down, a catholic approach seeks to build up. Sectarianism seeks an ever narrow “purity,” the catholic an ever more expansive wholeness. Again, this doesn’t mean that a catholic approach refrains from pointing out error, but it does so in a way that is both charitable and fearless.

For the sectarian mind, life presents no real dilemmas–only an unending series of enemies, of dragons who can never, quite, be slain. Put another way, sectarianism is a mode of despair.

Read Fr. Gregory’s entire post, “Sectarian or Catholic? Thoughts From Another Long Drive” on his blog, Koinonia.

On May 21, 2010, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops released a media statement which sought to identify the way forward for Catholic engagement in the healthcare debate in light of the passage of healthcare legislation. The USCCB stresses that at the core of the bishops’ advocacy throughout the debate was a concern for three principles: (1) the protection of innocent life from the use of lethal force from conception to natural death; (2) the maintenance of conscience protections; and (3) the realization of universal access to healthcare for all, especially the poor and migrants. These, the USCCB stresses, will remain at the forefront of its contributions to the healthcare discussion. The USCCB consequently asks America’s “Catholic community to come together in defense of human life, rights of conscience and fairness to immigrants so we will have a health care system that truly respects the life, dignity, health and consciences of all.”

All this is well and good. Unfortunately, there is no mention in this text of a concern voiced by a good number of Catholic bishops throughout the debate: an assessment of whether the recent healthcare legislation can truly be said to reflect adherence to the principle of subsidiarity. For anyone who needs a reminder of what this principle means, here’s what the Catechism of the Catholic Church says (CCC 1883):

Excessive intervention by the state can threaten personal freedom and initiative. The teaching of the Church has elaborated the principle of subsidiarity, according to which ‘a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to co- ordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good’.

It’s important to note that subsidiarity is not an “anti-government” or “anti-state” principle. Indeed it affirms that there is a role for government because (1) there are some things that only governments can and should do and (2) sometimes the state does need to intervene when other communities are unable to cope temporarily with their particular responsibilities. Nor, it should be added, does subsidiarity always translate into the very same policy-positions, precisely because some elements of the common good are in a constant state of flux.

That said, it’s puzzling to say the least that the USCCB, both during and after the healthcare debate, is not in the habit of referencing subsidiarity as a vital principle for Catholics to reflect upon as they consider the implications of what few now question amounts to the massive expansion of Federal government control over healthcare in the United States. Contrary to what some Catholics imagine (especially the professional social justice activists who dissent from fundamental church dogmas and doctrines while casting anathemas against anyone who disagrees with their own prudential judgments on any number of economic issues), striving to widen access to healthcare need not automatically translate into the state assuming a dominant role.

In their important joint pastoral letter of August 22, 2009, Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas, and Bishop Robert W. Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph listed subsidiarity as a vital principle upon which Catholics should reflect when thinking about health care reform. They even described subsidiarity as “the preamble to the Work of Reform”. Elsewhere in the document the bishops spelt out what this means for healthcare reform:

The right of every individual to access health care does not necessarily suppose an obligation on the part of the government to provide it. Yet in our American culture, Catholic teaching about the ‘right’ to healthcare is sometimes confused with the structures of ‘entitlement.’ The teaching of the Universal Church has never been to suggest a government socialization of medical services. Rather, the Church has asserted the rights of every individual to have access to those things most necessary for sustaining and caring for human life, while at the same time insisting on the personal responsibility of each individual to care properly for his or her own health.

During the healthcare debate, a considerable number of Catholic bishops expressed similar views. Bishops Walker Nickless of Sioux City, for example, was very specific:

… the Catholic Church does not teach that ‘health care’ as such, without distinction, is a natural right. The ‘natural right’ of health care is the divine bounty of food, water, and air without which all of us quickly die. This bounty comes from God directly. None of us own it, and none of us can morally withhold it from others. The remainder of health care is a political, not a natural, right, because it comes from our human efforts, creativity, and compassion. As a political right, health care should be apportioned according to need, not ability to pay or to benefit from the care. We reject the rationing of care. Those who are sickest should get the most care, regardless of age, status, or wealth. But how to do this is not self-evident. The decisions that we must collectively make about how to administer health care therefore fall under ‘prudential judgment.’ [I]n that category of prudential judgment, the Catholic Church does not teach that government should directly provide health care. Unlike a prudential concern like national defense, for which government monopolization is objectively good – it both limits violence overall and prevents the obvious abuses to which private armies are susceptible – health care should not be subject to federal monopolization.

Preserving patient choice (through a flourishing private sector) is the only way to prevent a health care monopoly from denying care arbitrarily, as we learned from HMOs in the recent past. While a government monopoly would not be motivated by profit, it would be motivated by such bureaucratic standards as quotas and defined ‘best procedures,’ which are equally beyond the influence of most citizens. The proper role of the government is to regulate the private sector, in order to foster healthy competition and to curtail abuses. Therefore any legislation that undermines the viability of the private sector is suspect. Private, religious hospitals and nursing homes, in particular, should be protected, because these are the ones most vigorously offering actual health care to the poorest of the poor.

These and similar views expressed by many bishops were dismissed as “libertarian” by whatever’s left these days of the Catholic left – as if only libertarians could possibly believe that limiting government power and encouraging private sector and civil society solutions to genuine social and economic problems are good things.

The truth, however, is that the USCCB’s professional social justice bureaucrats have a long history of playing down or even ignoring the implications of the principle of subsidiarity. Subsidiarity isn’t, for example, even listed as one of the “Themes of Catholic Teaching” on the Justice, Peace and Development section of the USCCB’s website. It is long past the time for that to change.

Acton Institute President and Co-Founder Rev. Robert A. Sirico recently delivered a talk on social justice and socialism at St. Thomas More Academy in Raleigh, N.C. The school’s mission is “dedicated to continuing the vital tradition of Catholic education by integrating the very best academic curriculum with the deepest spiritual wisdom of Catholic Christianity.” Rev. Sirico’s talk was part of the school’s Robert L. Luddy Speaker’s Series.

Father Sirico at STMA from Randy Luddy on Vimeo.