Posts tagged with: catholic social teaching

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.

Choosing the Common Good from Catholic Westminster on Vimeo.

In today’s Acton Commentary, I review a new statement titled Choosing the Common Good (download it here) from the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales. In the introductory video linked above, The Most Rev. Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, introduces Choosing the Common Good and discusses the key themes in Catholic Social Teaching “as a contribution to the wide-ranging debate about the values and vision that underpin our society.”

Here is the text of my commentary:

Two Cheers for the Bishops of England and Wales

What a difference 15 years can make.

Back in 1996, the Catholic bishops of England and Wales issued a document, The Common Good and Catholic Social Teaching, to address political issues facing Britain at the time. Leaving aside the incoherence that characterized much of that text, a distinctly skeptical tone about market economies pervaded the document – almost to the point of being an anti-Thatcherite screed.

The 1996 document was written with a view to informing Catholics’ consciences before Britain’s 1997 General Election. Shaping Catholic consciences is, after all, part of a Catholic bishop’s job. But it was very difficult to read the 1996 text as anything other than a less-than-subtle appeal to vote for the then-opposition Labour Party.

Fast-forward to 2010. With a General Election imminent in Britain, the Catholic bishops of England and Wales have issued a new document, titled Choosing the Common Good. To the joy of many, it is a remarkably sound text. Characterized by a focus on principles, sobriety of expression, and avoidance of tedious policy-wonkery, the English and Welsh bishops have authored a document that repays careful reading. (more…)

In a February 10 wire story by ANSA, it was reported that Benedict XVI has once again exhorted economists and leaders to place “people at the center of [their] economic decision-making” and reminded them that the “global financial crisis has impoverished no small number of people.”

For those who follow Benedict closely in Rome, one might wonder why the Holy Father’s words, delivered during his February 10 general audience, even made national headlines. To be sure, it is not the first time we hear the Holy Father expressing his views on the price the world is still paying for not placing the human person, along with and our God-given freedom, innovation and basic dignity, at the core of economic models and financial choices.

The pope is perhaps sounding like a broken record, criticizing and admonishing the “same-o, same-o” regarding the global financial crisis and the Church’s social teachings. Why so?

No doubt, a wave of recent woes in the European financial news have caused Benedict grave concern.

The robust euro currency has experienced a precipitous fall since January 1, and especially so since emergency meetings were held in Brussels last week to save Greece — one of Europe’s most corrupt nations and lowest-ranking economic performers — from Euro-zone fall out; while earlier this week, in an unprecedented move, Germany and France threw on their red capes to rescue the cradle of Western civilization from the brink of financial disaster. Then there were the corrupt public officials in Spain who finally received severe sentencing for illegally boosting a once-thriving Spanish housing market. And the local financial reports became even more bleak in Italy, when in late January two of the country’s “too-big-too-fail” production plants (at Fiat and Alcoa) announced imminent closure, and thousands of their incensed employees rallied in union-led strikes to save their jobs in early February.

It was these same very worried plant workers who appeared under Benedict’s apartment window during a January 31 Angelus and heard the pope’s anger: “The financial crisis is causing the loss of many jobs and this situation requires a great sense of responsibility on the part of all: entrepreneurs and government leaders [alike].”

hard-of-hearing1Hence the pope’s sermonizing against the continued causes and effects of the financial market’s moral failings certainly still do have concrete realities to draw upon. The aftermath of corporate and political leadership’s deafness to the Church’s basic social teachings seems endless and with no sign of turning around.

So we should rightly ask ourselves whether we have become a little too hard of hearing, rather than thinking the Holy Father is not saying anything new.

The Holy Father, a patient and loving university professor at heart, knows that he should not worry about the needle skipping on his turntable of teaching: After all, he knows all too well that repetition is the best form of learning.

Sooner or later, our human hearts are bound to embrace the repeated Truth that continues to call us home during this dark period. Its final acceptance and application will be our only way out.

This week’s Acton Commentary:

Healthcare reform – it’s one of those causes almost everyone favors, but which almost automatically produces sharp arguments when we ask what it means and how it might be realized. You would have had to be living in a cave for the past eight months to be unaware that Americans are deeply divided on this matter, and that the division runs clean through the middle of many communities. That includes Catholic America.

Of course, there are a small number of non-negotiables for Catholics, whatever their politics, when it comes to healthcare reform. These principally concern any provisions that facilitate or encourage the intentional termination of innocent human life, or which diminish existing conscience exemptions.

Without question, these are the primary issues for Catholics who take their Church’s teaching seriously when it comes to healthcare legislation. They dwarf everything else.

No matter how good the rest of the legislation might be in, for example, widening access to affordable healthcare, it is a stable principle of Catholic faith – and natural law – that you cannot do evil in order that good may come from it. St Paul insisted upon this almost 2000 years ago (Romans 3:8), and it is constantly affirmed by Scripture, Tradition, and centuries of magisterial teaching. Try as they may, no amount of rationalization by the usual suspects can get around this point.

For this reason, much of the Catholic contribution to the healthcare debate, especially that of Catholic bishops, has focused on these issues. We’ve yet to see what impact this might have on whatever eventually arrives on the floor of Congress.

But let’s hypothesize. Imagine the healthcare legislation submitted to Congress involved a massive expansion of government involvement in healthcare. Let’s also suppose that the same legislation was stripped of any provisions that violated non-negotiables for Catholics. Would Catholics be obliged to support passage of such legislation? (more…)

A Caritas in Veritate Reader

In response to the ongoing interest in Pope Benedict’s new encyclical, the Acton Institute is readying the publication of Caritas in Veritate — A Reader.

This encyclical, in all of its remarkable depth, will no doubt be the subject of thoughtful analysis for a long time to come. Later this summer, Acton will gather the best of its own commentary on Caritas and selected articles from other observers in a single volume that will be available in hard copy and in a digital format. We trust that this Reader will serve as a guide to understanding the encyclical and the thinking of Pope Benedict on important social questions. We’ll update you with information on how to purchase or download the Reader as we get closer to the publication date.