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‘Catholic’ Policy

Fundamental differences regarding what our country is about are driving public debate. So also are the positions taken on the role of government not only by politicians but also by religious, academic, business and labor leaders. Catholics must not shy from the fray. Indeed the appropriate role of government, particularly in U.S. social welfare policy, is one of the areas of discussion to which Catholic social doctrine has much to offer the larger public debate as well. Central to the informed conscience of every Catholic, however, is a precise knowledge and understanding of Church teaching.
In May, this debate took an unhelpful turn when some academics took House Speaker John Boehner to task just prior to his commencement address at the Catholic University of America for failing “to recognize important aspects of Catholic teaching.” On what grounds? Because he had not supported specific legislation that, in the professors’ view, addressed “the desperate needs of the poor.”
One may recall criticism of former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other politicians over political positions at odds with principles of Church teaching. And for good reason. Certain matters, such as the moral imperative to legally protect innocent human life from conception until natural death, are very much settled Catholic doctrine. So also is the nature of marriage as the stable union of a man and a woman. To charge someone publicly, however, with “dissent” from Church teaching because that person disagrees with one’s own prudential judgments about the application of the social doctrine to complex policy issues is a misuse of the term and an inaccurate representation of Catholic teaching on social matters and conscience decisions.
To suggest “dissent” in this context is to imply that a politician’s Catholic orthodoxy can be judged from a voting record in support of a particular kind of U.S. social policy. Catholic theologians traditionally take account of the ends, means and consequences of decisions, basing their analysis on their objective morality, not their subjective “good” or “bad” motives, which is to say, whether the moral agent — or, in this context, the legislation — “means” well or ill. George Weigel, acclaimed theologian and biographer of Blessed John Paul II, cautions against drawing precipitous conclusions about a public figure’s orthodoxy based upon a policy stance and offers considerations which we think are germane to the public debate.
“The Church’s concern for the poor,” he writes, “does not imply a ‘preferential option’ for Big Government.” Citing the 1991 social encyclical, Centesimus Annus, in which Blessed John Paul II condemned what he called the “Social Assistance State” because it saps welfare-recipients of their dignity and their creativity while making them wards of the government, Weigel comments that “the responsibility for that empowerment falls on everyone: individuals, through charitable giving and service work; voluntary organizations, including the Church; businesses and trade unions.”
If then Catholic social doctrine teaches that the problem of poverty is best addressed by empowerment — that is, enabling poor people to enter the circle of productivity and exchange in society — then government plays a constructive role to the extent that it enables this process of empowerment. It is, however, a serious distortion of the social teaching to suggest that government has exclusive responsibility here. Debate and the taking of positions on a U.S. social policy which also includes fiscal responsibility — to wit, the effects of budget deficits, inflation and accumulating burden of debt on future generations — is both legitimate and necessary.
To suggest, on the one hand, that the social doctrine can provide obvious, clear-cut answers to questions about, for example, the future of Medicare or Medicaid would be to misrepresent that teaching. On the other hand, and in all candor, Catholic legislators who support the abortion license are manifestly in dissent and damage their communion with the Church. So also legislators who support “gay marriage.” In fairness, academics eager to demonstrate their fidelity to Catholic social doctrine might also point this distinction out – and support church and public officials who do.

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5 thoughts on “‘Catholic’ Policy

  1. Oh right right. Jesus was ALWAYS talking about gay marriage and abortion and hardly ever mentioned the poor.*

    *sarcasm

    ps–None of those professors said that government had exclusive responsibility. That’s a straw man argument you’re making there.

  2. I am perplexed and disturbed by your use of the qualifier “innocent” when asserting “the moral imperative to legally protect innocent human life from conception until natural death, are very much settled Catholic doctrine.” Does that mean that the Church supports the death penalty? or if one is not “innocent” there is no moral imperative to protect human life?

  3. If anyone sees a problem with social justice why do we give 34billon a yr in foreign aid to foreign countries that approximately 70 percent is used by their military while people in this country are starveling

    1. how else would all of the military contractors and their subsidiaries support themselves and post profits?