Senator Marco Rubio’s interest in Catholic social teaching is exciting even if confused in its economic analysis and public policy recommendations. On the Acton Line Podcast released today I discuss with Fr. Robert Sirico the promise and peril of politicians looking to Catholic social teaching for guidance. The promise is in grounding questions of politics in the true nature of the human person and society while the peril is in reducing Catholic social teaching to a mere set of public policy prescriptions.
Russell Hittinger, Professor Emeritus of Religion at the University of Tulsa, in his article “Social Pluralism and Subsidiarity in Catholic Social Doctrine,” points out that since the middle of the 19th century Catholic social teaching has, like the liberal tradition, focused on the need to limit the powers of the modern state:
Once the popes came to grips with the new state-making regimes which emerged after the Napoleonic Wars, they vigorously defended a principle of social pluralism. To this extent, and by virtue of having a common enemy, Catholic social thought and (what used to be called) Liberalism both called attention to the importance of civil society vis-à-vis the state; both developed rights-based arguments in defense of civil society.
The reason for this interest in civil society beyond the state is not merely grounded in its power to limit the state but because:
In the first place… Catholic social thought emphasized the intrinsic value of social forms like the family, the private school, churches, and labor unions. In the second place, Catholic social thought has always been suspicious of the market model of social pluralism. Though Catholic thinkers would have no difficulty defending the economic market against Socialism, they remained wary of any effort to make society itself conform to a market.
When discussing the common good it is not enough merely to orient public policy towards it:
Let us recall that at the time of Pius XI’s pontificate, the overriding issue of social doctrine was not merely whether man is a social animal, naturally ordered to the common good, but more exactly, the status of societies and social roles other than the state… In fact, arguments to the common good can prove counter-productive in the face of the modern state, which is more than happy to make common the entire range of goods.
Various institutions, both formal and informal, including the family, the church, business, and community groups exercise a particular social function (munus). The roles, duties, and gifts of the various spheres of human life (munera) are all necessary for the attainment of social justice:
According to Pius XI, social justice ensues «when each individual member is given what it needs for the exercise of its proper function….all that is necessary for the exercise of his social munus…» Social justice, therefore, should not be confused with distributive justice. On the assumption that men and women already have munera, indeed, that they are already performing acts which redound to the common good, the role of the political community is facilitative. All issues of social justice encounter munera already established in and ordered to a common good.
According to Catholic social teaching the reign of social and divine justice is then not merely a question of politics or economics but of human persons carrying out their vocations in all avenues of life:
This social doctrine interweaves social theory, anthropology, political and moral philosophy, and several branches of theology with the ancient metaphysical theme of participation. It is extraordinarily synthetic. But there is a reason for the synthetic approach. By the time of the Second Vatican Council it was clear that Catholicism and Liberalism provided converging lines of support for the external organization of liberty: constitutionally limited government, human rights, and the role of free markets (provided that the market be subject to considerations of the common good).
The broad political outlines of Catholic social teaching regarding the best institutional context for human virtue largely overlap with the liberal tradition. This is a necessary but not sufficient condition for social justice which must be the pursuit of every human person and the orientation of all the various forms of our social life. This involves grounding ourselves in a Christian understanding of the human person and society.
It is this task, the recovery of a Christian understanding of the person and society within our existing political context which is most urgent. Reducing Catholic social teaching to a set of public policy initiatives crafted to address contemporary, often mistaken, economic analysis of our present social problems is not enough. The treasures of Catholic social teaching are for all of life.