Alex Mikulich, Ph.D.
The 2012 presidential election is raising fundamental questions about the role of government in a modern democracy where most of the major issues at stake are intertwined with global realities. If the question of the size of government is posed as it often is by campaigns and the media—should it be big or small—this is an overly simplistic way of framing the moral and policy issues facing the nation. Roman Catholic social teaching offers a far more robust and dynamic framework for thinking about the social, economic, environmental, and moral issues at stake for our nation and world.
In the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, particularly paragraphs 160-163 (available online at http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/justpeace/document.... ), we find that the principles of the human dignity of the human person, the common good, subsidiarity, and solidarity are permanent principles of the Church’s social teaching. They go to the heart of the Church’s teaching and its understanding of the Gospel. These principles articulate the Church’s understanding of its encounter with the Gospel and God’s law summarized in the supreme commandments to love God, self, and neighbor.
The baptismal call to love God and neighbor is beautifully expressed in the documents of Vatican II. Upon the 50th anniversary of Pope John XXIII’s opening of Vatican Council II this October, it is fitting to recall the opening paragraph of Gaudium et Spes, Vatican II’s Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World:
"The joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the men of our time, especially of those who are poor or afflicted in any way, are the joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ as well. Nothing that is genuinely human fails to find echo in their hearts. For theirs is a community of men who, united in Christ and guided by the Holy Spirit, press onwards towards the kingdom of the Father and are bearers of a message of salvation intended for all men."
The aspirations, hopes, and pain and suffering of all peoples are concerns of all followers of Christ and people of goodwill. These concerns cannot be reduced to individual or institutional charity; all who are in any way “afflicted” are the responsibility of the whole of society.
The Church articulates the principles of the dignity of the human person, the common good, subsidiarity, and solidarity, not as passing fads but as enduring, universal truths that call everyone and every institution in society to pursue the good of all.
Sadly, these principles have been misappropriated and misinterpreted in contemporary U.S. political discourse. This includes the way that one political party and their presidential and vice presidential candidates have denigrated the principle of solidarity through their pejorative use of “redistribution” as socialist scheme. They have also misunderstood and misinterpreted subsidiarity for their own political end. Congressman Paul Ryan has specifically utilized the principle of subsidiarity as a call for small government, a claim that directly conflicts with Catholic social teaching (see theologian Vincent Miller’s reflection on Paul Ryan’s invocation of subsidiarity at http://americamagazine.org/content/article.cfm?article_id=13510&comments=1 ).
Solidarity and subsidiarity are not opposed to one another. Again, the Compendium of the Social Doctrine helps us to recall that the principles of the Church’s social teaching must be appreciated, interpreted, and applied in their unity and interrelatedness.
As Vincent Miller explains, recalling Pope Pius XI’s classic articulation of subsidiarity in his encyclical Quadragesimo Anno (1931), Pius was discussing not only state power but the modern reality in which “things which were done by small associations in former times cannot be done now save by large associations (#79).” (See Quadragesimo Anno online at http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/pius_xi/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-xi_...). This changed historical context sets the stage for Pius XI’s articulation of subsidiarity:
"Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish on their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do" (#79).
This is not yet a discussion of the role of the state but a principle for all social actors that concerns love, justice, and freedom. The Pope continues to say that “for every social activity ought of its very nature to furnish help (subsidium) to the members of the social body, and never destroy and absorb them.” Then the Pope addresses the role of the state in the context of the state holding the primary responsibility in society to reform the social order in the following paragraph:
"The public authority should let subordinate groups handle matters and concerns of lesser importance, which would otherwise dissipate its efforts greatly. The State will more freely, powerfully, and effectively do all those things that belong to it alone because it alone can do them: directing, watching, urging, restraining, as occasion requires and necessity demands. Therefore, those in power should be sure that the more perfectly graduated order is kept among the various associations, in observance of “subsidiary function,” the stronger social authority and effectiveness will be the happier and more prosperous condition of the State" (#80).
Although subsidiarity helps to limit the authority of the state so that it facilitates the freedom of smaller institutions and associations to effectively and freely pursue the common good of their respective localities, subsidiarity also demands that the state take up its role in working toward the common good of the entire society.
Pope Benedict’s Caritas in Veritate or “Charity in Truth,” emphasizes the interrelatedness between subsidiarity and solidarity. Addressing the economic crisis of 2009, Pope Benedict contends that that “unfettered commercial logic” wreaked havoc in every sphere of social, economic and environmental life. Markets have become places where the strong subdue the weak with no regard for social justice, Pope Benedict laments, and without regard for building relationships “of friendship, solidarity, and reciprocity that should be integral to economic activity (#36).”
Pope Benedict’s Caritas in Veritate celebrates a holistic, person-centered approach to economics that celebrates the responsibility of society, including government, to care for every person, especially the economically vulnerable, as an imperative of the Gospel. In a global economy where cities and states lack the resources and power to address the larger regional and global forces that impact prices, trade, employment, and development, nation states must help smaller levels of government and institutions serve the common good. Pope Benedict goes further and calls for an international public authority to help build a global common good (see Fred Kammer’s 2009 essay, Continuity and Change in CARITAS IN VERITATE, Part IIE on International Relations, at http://www.loyno.edu/jsri/continuity-and-change-caritas-veritate).
The Romney-Ryan economic plan fails the test of solidarity and subsidiarity in Catholic social teaching at least three ways.
The first problem of the Romney-Ryan plan(s) is that they would increase already scandalous levels of income and wealth inequality and poverty. In his The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future, Joseph E. Stiglitz, a winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, explains that economic elites have created a regressive tax system, one in which the top 1 percent in income and wealth pay a lower fraction of their income than do those who are far poorer.
Governor Romney responds that giving more to the rich leads to a larger pie, so that the piece of the pie that the poor get is enlarged. A recent scrutiny of federal tax policies since 1945 by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, however, finds that tax cuts produce no economic growth.
Stiglitz counters that the size of the economic pie has been diminishing for most Americans while the top 1 percent take increasingly larger pieces. Even in the wake of the Great Recession, “the wealthiest 1 percent of households had 225 times the wealth of the typical American, almost double the ratio of 1962 or 1983.” Simultaneously, incomes of the working poor are constricting as they struggle to make ends meet on the minimum wage and/or multiple part-time jobs. This is scandalous because it denies human dignity, thwarts solidarity, and threatens the already fragile conditions localities and states face.
Second, the Romney plan would move the nation closer to plutocracy. As Robert Reich observes, unlike Presidents Teddy Roosevelt and Franklin D. Roosevelt, who were both wealthy but who advanced policies to limit monopolies and champion the interests of workers and the poor, Romney is not a traitor to his class, “he is a sponsor of it.”
Given Republican efforts in 12 states to suppress the votes of African Americans, Latinos, the elderly, and the poor, it strains credulity to imagine how a Romney administration would serve solidarity between, and the common good of all Americans.
Third, Romney’s plan to drastically cut government spending fails the test of history. President Hoover’s austerity turned the 1929 crash into the Great Depression. Citing recent historical evidence of the failure of austerity measures in East Asia and Europe, Stiglitz likens the contemporary myth of austerity to doctors who believed in bloodletting in the Middle Ages and insisted on more even when the patient didn’t get better. Even if Romney’s tax cuts were revenue neutral (as he claims), the Economic Policy Institute projects his plan would cause job losses of 608,000 in 2013 and nearly 1.3 million in 2014.
As the Center on Policy and Budget Priorities explains in detail, Romney’s proposal to cap federal spending at 20 percent of Gross Domestic Product and boost defense spending to 4 percent of GDP would require deep cuts to programs for the poor, elderly, unemployed, and disabled that “would cause the incomes of large numbers of households to fall below the poverty line.” Romney’s plan heaps burdens on the most vulnerable Americans, contradicting the Church’s moral priority to protect the poor. This contradicts subsidiarity because it does not help lower levels of government and smaller institutions—it actually heaps heavier burdens upon them.
Stimulus is not a four letter word—Stiglitz contends unemployment would have exceeded 12 percent and may have remained at that level without the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009. Yet it is also true that President Obama has not effectively promoted or articulated the moral priority of the poor and solidarity.
However, as Michael Grunwald explains in The New New Deal: The Hidden Story of Change in the Obama Era, ARRA is not only about creating new jobs that revitalize transportation and communication infrastructures, but prioritizing fundamental human needs for the 21st century. That includes shifting away from fossil fuel dependency and carbon emissions, modernizing health care and education, creating a more progressive tax code, and making government more efficient.
These are economic priorities that set the conditions for the possibility of promoting subsidiarity, solidarity, and the common good for the 21st century. While neither candidate articulates or promotes the fullness of Roman Catholic social teaching, people of faith and citizens of good will can utilize Catholic social teaching to live up to their responsibility of faithful citizenship.
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