Unlike the election of 2008, economic and fiscal rather than cultural issues are dominating the federal election campaign of 2012, and there is no evidence to suggest that Catholics will divide differently on these matters than other segments of the American electorate. But Catholics who take the social teachings of their church seriously will almost surely reject the presidential candidate who would denigrate programs that assist the poor, adulterate social security, lessen the coverage of medicare or medicaid, oppose a redistributive tax code, and disdain the creative role of government in the face of unrelenting poverty and massive unemployment.
Catholic social teaching revolves around the four bedrock principles of human dignity, common good, solidarity and subsidiarity. The last of these principles, doubtless the one Republicans love best, downplays the role of the state by elevating the importance of voluntary associations such a families, churches, charities, neighborhood associations and other self-governing groups. The principle holds that the independence of these natural orderings is essential to freedom and autonomy. It also affirms that no higher or larger organization should undertake a task that a lower or smaller one can do as well. From the Catholic perspective, this is a clear principle of right political order.
But if private groups or non-state actors are unwilling or unable to meet needs essential for human dignity and the common good, governments are morally required to meet these needs. Similarly, if lower levels of government do not have the will or the resources to meet basic human needs such as medical care or a living wage, higher levels must do so. This too is rock-bottom Catholic social teaching. Informed by the imperatives of human dignity and solidarity, the spirit of this teaching is avidly communitarian and runs against the grain of the unchecked individualism championed by Paul Ryan and other leaders of today's Republican Party. In the hands of serious Catholic thinkers, common good reasoning even rejects the generally accepted utilitarian theory of "the greatest good for the greatest number." John Paul II defined the common good as "the good of all and each individual." In a well-ordered society, therefore, shaped by the moral imparatives of cooperation and interdependence, every human being is entitled, as a matter of right, to all the goods and services needed to live in decency and self-respect. The principle of solidarity requires no less.
The elevation of solidarity has been a nonstop theme in Catholic social teaching. Typical was Pope John XXIII's declaration that "all people have a right to life, food, clothing, shelter, rest, medical care, education, and employment." Not some but all people. With poverty and unemployment at record highs, it is clear that an unregulated market economy will fail to meet these basic human needs. For this reason, state intervention in the economy is as essential today as yesterday when, for example, federal laws were necessary to abolish child labor, to eliminate industrial sweatshops, to prohibit unsafe places of work, to outlaw union busting, to force employers to pay a living wage, to ensure the safety of food and drug products, to clean our air and water, and to regulate and so discipline the financial sector. To cut back on any of these features of the regulatory state or to oppose the great social achievements of recent decades, as Republicans are advocating today, flies in the face of Catholic social thinking.
Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan are telling us that government needs to get out of the way to improve the economy, lift people out of poverty, and reduce unemployment to tolerable levels. Their recipe for doing this is to lower taxes -- on the rich in particular -- cut spending, denude the regulatory state and thus to release the energy of American business and thereby quicken economic growth. But even if the millions of Americans without jobs or security were to plummet by as much as 50 percent under a Romney administration, which Republicans would regard as a massive vindication of their economic strategy, millions of other Americans would continue to live in poverty, remain jobless, and lack shelter, realities Catholic social thought would not accept. One may concede that this teaching cannot prescribe technical solutions to complex social and economic problems, but it nevertheless demands a sound safety net that secures the well-being -- and dignity -- of all persons.
Even while affirming an indispensable role for the private ordering of the economy, Catholic social teaching demands state intervention when necessary to provide for the common good of all. As the bishops of the United States emphasized in their 1986 Pastoral Letter on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy, the "market is limited by fundamental human rights." Mindful of increasing poverty, joblessness, and homelessness, moral scandals no less real in 2012, the bishops came out squarely in favor of redistributive taxation, still another principle flatly rejected by Romney-Ryan. "A system of taxation based on assessment according to ability to pay," the bishops declared, "is a prior necessity for the fulfillment of [basic] social obligations." The implication is clear. A graduated income tax based on ability to pay is necessary to support education, provide access to food, insure security in sickness and old age, and expand unemployment compensation when it runs out. Any exclusive dependence on excise or sales taxes for these purposes would disproportionately harm the less well-off and make a mockery of the bishops' preferential option for the poor.
John Paul II was fully in accord with the American bishops when before a Canadian audience he declared that the "needs of the poor take priority over the desires of the rich, the rights of workers over the maximization of profits, the preservation of the environment over uncontrolled industrial expansion, and the production to meet social needs over production for military purposes." (Today's Republican Party rejects every one of these canons.) As for joblessness in particular, Catholic social teaching has always maintained the need for full employment. If private markets cannot provide jobs for all, the state must step in with job-creation programs of its own.
Catholic teaching has often looked to the social democracies of Western Europe as superior models of distributive justice, precisely the models Republicans relish maligning. Catholic voters might be reminded that the postwar founding of social welfare democracies such as Italy and Germany were largely the product of Catholic social thought. As recently as May 31, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, the archbishop of Munich and Freising, acknowledged in a Chicago address the influence of Catholic teaching on the development of Germany's "social market economy," one that nurtures a culture of well being that does not focus on short term profits, economic greed, and the ruthless exploitation of our planet. Catholic voters will have to decide whether this teaching can be squared with the programs and policies of the Republican Party in 2012.