Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Free Will and a Conservative Take on Social Teaching

The world of blogs is a highly text-based world, and the world of Catholic blogs is populated by a certain number of characters with favorite texts. Such a character may throw out a favorite line from the Catechism or the Council of Trent of Gaudium Et Spes or what have you again and again to make a set point about Catholicism and the world. One reaction to these people who have found a textual hammer and wander about in search of nails is to get annoyed with them and eventually tune them out -- the other is to eventually get motivated to go read their quote in context.

One such oft-thrown-about quote I had been running into lately was from Pius XI's 1931 encyclical on Catholic social teaching Quadragesimo Anno (on the 40th anniversary of Rerum Novarum) and was reputed to describe capitalism and socialism as "twin rocks of shipwreck" -- which the speaker generally took to mean a via media which involved a partial redistribution, but not wholesale collectivization, of goods.

I was pretty sure that Pius XI had not in fact meant to mandate a welfare state as the proper compromise between collectivism and Randian individualism (indeed, my assumption was that Pius XI did not mandate any specific form of political governance -- that is something from which the Vatican wisely holds itself aloof) but it wasn't till recently that I put surfed on over to the Vatican website to wee what Quadragesimo Anno actually said about twin rocks of shipwreck. Here's the actual quote:

46. Accordingly, twin rocks of shipwreck must be carefully avoided. For, as one is wrecked upon, or comes close to, what is known as "individualism" by denying or minimizing the social and public character of the right of property, so by rejecting or minimizing the private and individual character of this same right, one inevitably runs into "collectivism" or at least closely approaches its tenets. Unless this is kept in mind, one is swept from his course upon the shoals of that moral, juridical, and social modernism which We denounced in the Encyclical issued at the beginning of Our Pontificate.[29] And, in particular, let those realize this who, in their desire for innovation, do not scruple to reproach the Church with infamous calumnies, as if she had allowed to creep into the teachings of her theologians a pagan concept of ownership which must be completely replaced by another that they with amazing ignorance call "Christian."
In the following paragraphs Pius goes on to outline the idea that, while the principle of private ownership remains essential, it must be recalled that in Christian virtue one's possessions (especially when they go beyond the necessities for housing, feeling and clothing one's family) may bring with them certain responsibilities to the wider community.

In regards to these responsibilities, Pius points out:
50. Furthermore, a person's superfluous income, that is, income which he does not need to sustain life fittingly and with dignity, is not left wholly to his own free determination. Rather the Sacred Scriptures and the Fathers of the Church constantly declare in the most explicit language that the rich are bound by a very grave precept to practice almsgiving, beneficence, and munificence.
However, in the preceding paragraph he has already said:
The natural right itself both of owning goods privately and of passing them on by inheritance ought always to remain intact and inviolate, since this indeed is a right that the State cannot take away: "For man is older than the State,"[34] and also "domestic living together is prior both in thought and in fact to uniting into a polity."[35] Wherefore the wise Pontiff declared that it is grossly unjust for a State to exhaust private wealth through the weight of imposts and taxes. "For since the right of possessing goods privately has been conferred not by man's law, but by nature, public authority cannot abolish it, but can only control its exercise and bring it into conformity with the common weal."[36]
All to often, especially in this age of "liberation theology" and other politicizations of the Christian message, "Catholic social teaching" seems to be used as a code phrase for "how the Church says nations should be run". There is, of course, an element of that, but in general I think that conceiving of "social teaching" as being primarily political in application represents a mis-understanding of what Catholicism is and how it views the human person.

In this regard, I think we might do well to turn to a much more recent encyclical, and one dealing not with social teaching per se, but rather with virtue: Benedict XVI's recently released Spe Salvi:
Christianity did not bring a message of social revolution like that of the ill-fated Spartacus, whose struggle led to so much bloodshed. Jesus was not Spartacus, he was not engaged in a fight for political liberation like Barabbas or Bar- Kochba. Jesus, who himself died on the Cross, brought something totally different: an encounter with the Lord of all lords, an encounter with the living God and thus an encounter with a hope stronger than the sufferings of slavery, a hope which therefore transformed life and the world from within. What was new here can be seen with the utmost clarity in Saint Paul's Letter to Philemon. This is a very personal letter, which Paul wrote from prison and entrusted to the runaway slave Onesimus for his master, Philemon. Yes, Paul is sending the slave back to the master from whom he had fled, not ordering but asking: “I appeal to you for my child ... whose father I have become in my imprisonment ... I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart ... perhaps this is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back for ever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother ...” (Philem 10-16). Those who, as far as their civil status is concerned, stand in relation to one an other as masters and slaves, inasmuch as they are members of the one Church have become brothers and sisters—this is how Christians addressed one another. By virtue of their Baptism they had been reborn, they had been given to drink of the same Spirit and they received the Body of the Lord together, alongside one another. Even if external structures remained unaltered, this changed society from within. When the Letter to the Hebrews says that Christians here on earth do not have a permanent homeland, but seek one which lies in the future (cf. Heb 11:13-16; Phil 3:20), this does not mean for one moment that they live only for the future: present society is recognized by Christians as an exile; they belong to a new society which is the goal of their common pilgrimage and which is anticipated in the course of that pilgrimage. (para. 4)
This, I think, underlines a key point which is too often forgotten in our modern society where funerals are infrequent and quiet (though mortality stubbornly remains at 100%) and "community" is considered one of the most important aspects of organized religion: At root, the most important point in any Christian's life is after death, and his most important community is not the body politic but the Body of Christ.

As such, moral teaching (including social teaching) is, I think, more concerned with personal virtue than with achieving a particular end state organization of society. Paul was more concerned that Onesimum and his master Philemon both treat each other as brothers in Christ than that an end be put to the slave owning culture of Roman society.

One of the difficulties with exhorting people to virtue is that often they don't listen. A rich man is exhorted to use his riches for the good of his fellow creatures and he instead uses $100 bills to light cigars and throws champagne parties while the poor starve at his gate. What is to be done? Certainly, no degree of government intervention can cause this man to behave virtuously against his will. At most, he may be taxed, and those tax receipts used for the common good.

To a certain extent, I think this is justified. The government is charged, among other things, with protecting the common good, and I think it is justified in taxing those who have money in order to make sure that there are not starving people in the streets. However, when the government (which its size enforcing a one-size-fits-all approach) goes beyond alleviating hunger and homelessness to trying to assure some sort of economic equality or "minimum standard of living" it is my opinion that it runs the serious risk of setting up unintended incentives for people who consider their chances of making their own way in life to be marginal at best. This, combined with the necessity of respecting the property rights of individuals, seems to me to preclude using the governments powers for much redistribution beyond the alleviation of catastrophic need.

In this sense, what I see as the correct conservative approach to social teaching does not have nearly the warm and comforting glow as the "progressive" approach. And yet, I think it more correctly accounts for the reality of our nature as moral and mortal beings, living out our time on earth in expectation of what is to come.

The phrase "you cannot legislate morality" has been very much overused, and yet in this instance there is a very real truth to it. We cannot achieve the twin aims of respecting people's natural right to property and leaving room for people to behave in a virtuous manner by helping their fellow men unless we simultaneously allow people the opportunity to sin against their fellow men by refusing to help anyone.

Perhaps it is not surprising that in a society in which many loudly blame God (or suggest that he does not exist) for having given us the freedom to sin, many also feel reluctant to leave individual citizens the liberty to sin, or be virtuous, in their use of their personal wealth.


k said...

Very interesting, thank you.

I've been a fiscal conservative for many years, and as I get older and more secure in the job market, I find myself realizing how easy it is to convince oneself that however much money one has, it is not enough. Unless you really stop and think about your position, your priorities, and compassion, it's startlingly easy to feel that you have nothing to spare, even if you're making twice as much money as you were a couple of years ago... back when you had nothing to spare.

jawats said...

I knew I liked you - very well written! And, what kind of camera did you end up purchasing?


Jennifer F. said...

Very interesting, very helpful post. I've never known exactly what "Catholic social teaching" really was (only what I've heard it represented to be, which I kind of doubted was true) and this really clears it up. Great post.

Rick Lugari said...

Another excellent post, Darwin. I've seen these errors or misunderstandings quite a bit lately too, and am thinking of one person in particular. Perhaps he's the same one that inspired this post. Nevertheless, I think the problem lies in that those who think like that are actually trapped in a materialistic mentality, though they would certainly deny it. They think they are shunning materialism by advocating statist policies, economic "equality", and policies that "help" particular hardships. It seems they embrace these notions and baptize them in the name of Catholic social teaching rather than starting with Catholic social teaching and measuring or developing policies that best comply.

The individual that I'm using as a model for the sake of this comment reminds me of Hudge in Chesterton's What's Wrong with the World (Hudge and Gudge were ruling elitist types. Hudge socialist, Gudge individualist.) What Chesterton so rightly recognized and articulated that they were opposing sides of the same coin - the wrong coin. He measured their ideas not by fads or their notions of future society, but by how they affected Jones (the common man - the family).

That is the test of Catholic social teaching - the family. [Side note: Did you read Pope BXVI's Message for world Peace Day? The beauty in it is how he ties everything to the family, which is the foundation of society, the reason why states even exist (or should exist.)] One thing I would consider an error on the part of the above person(s) is to consider any defense of the individual - the family - and their right to property, freedom, and self-determination as stemming from the radical Individualist philosophy. But that's simply not so, or at least not so when being argued by a Catholic. They seem to think that the errors of Individualism is the rights to freedom and property, rather than the true error which is the "every man for himself" model of a system. So it would seem to me what they do is reason: Individualism (characterized in their mind as property and personal freedom) is bad AND we have an obligation to our fellow man AND states should serve the common good* THEREFORE collectivist policies are the Catholic ideal. *The common good can be as scary of a thing as democracy, it is susceptible to a great amount of abuse or counter-productive ideas. Indeed, the common good is the basis for Marxism, and one could argue Individualism based on the common good. However, as Catholics we (should anyway) recognize that the common good is directly related to the mass of Jones'.

I've gone too long and probably just opened a can of worms by not going in depth enough on a number of things, but I'd still like to give some examples of what I consider to be erroneous policies I've seen bandied about:

Day care tax credits. Sure, they would help some families, especially lower income families - no doubt. But what does it do for those families that make the financial sacrifices to have a parent stay at home raising and educating their children? Nothing. In fact it could only serve as an incentive for them to abandon their family oriented lifestyle. See, the "cure", the "assistance", is actually a poison. It's like a narcotic that relieves some pain but does nothing to cure, all the while poisoning the body and making the body dependent on it. I have more, but need to stop here. Thanks again for the thoughtful post, D.

Kyle R. Cupp said...


I think your approach to understanding Catholic social teaching is a good one. If we want to understand the whole of Catholic social thought, we need to do more than read a particular encyclical (or passage) on the Church’s social teaching: we have to read all of the works pertaining to its social thought, and moreover, understand the whole body of the Church’s teachings (and the historical contexts in which its teachings arise). It is sometimes assumed that the various teachings of the Church are separate and unrelated to one another, when in truth all its teachings flow from its primary mission of bringing souls into loving union with God and one another. Bringing Benedict XVI’s thought on virtue into the discussion over Catholic social teaching is very helpful in this regard. Thank you.