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Donald P. Kommers

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Catholic Social Thought and the 2010 Election

Posted: 10/24/10 07:14 PM ET

In previous national elections, abortion and related right-to-life issues played a major role in the voting behavior of many American Catholics. In this election season, by contrast, economic and fiscal issues predominate, and there is no evidence to suggest that Catholics divide differently on these matters than any other segment of the American electorate.

But Catholics who take the social teachings of their church seriously will reject any candidate who would wish to dismantle social security, oppose universal health care, get rid of the income tax, weaken trade unions, disparage the need for environmental protection, or disdain the creative role of government in the face of acute poverty and rampant unemployment. Modern popes, American bishops and the Second Vatican Council have addressed each of these issues in various encyclicals, pastoral letters and declarations that condemn unregulated market capitalism and the unjust distribution of wealth.

Catholic social teaching revolves around the four bedrock principles of human dignity, common good, solidarity and subsidiarity. The last of these principles -- the one conservative Catholics love best -- downplays the role of the state by elevating the importance of voluntary associations such as families, churches, labor unions, business groups and other community organizations. The principle holds that the independence of these natural orderings, which precede the state, 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. Relatedly, in the interest of self-government and human flourishing, central governments should not assume tasks that subordinate political units are capable of carrying out.

Still, if private associations are unwilling or unable to meet needs essential to the realization of human dignity or the common good, governments are morally required to meet these needs. Similarly, if lower levels of government do not have the will or 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 right-wing groups such as the Tea Party. In the hands of 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 principles of human dignity and solidarity, every human being is entitled, as a matter of right, to all the goods and services needed to live in decency and self-respect.

Accordingly, as Pope John XXIII declared, "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 the market economy has failed 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 prevent companies from discriminating on the basis of race or sex, and to clean our air and water. To cut back on any of these features of the regulatory state or to oppose the great social achievements of the New Deal and Great Society, as some politicians are advocating today, flies in the face of all that Catholic social thinking calls for.

This thinking does indeed postulate an important and even indispensable role for the private ordering of the economy, but 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 2010, the bishops came out squarely in favor of redistributive taxation, still another policy strongly opposed by certain right-wing groups. "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, guarantee minimum wages, provide access to food (food stamps today), protect the environment, 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." 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, perhaps on the order of the 1930s Civilian Conservation Crops, and this means now and not at some future or indeterminate date, especially in a country as rich as the United States. As Bishop Howard J. Hubbard said recently, "to talk about tolerable levels of unemployment as an antidote to inflation and to develop policies to maintain such is totally unacceptable in human terms." Equally unacceptable in human terms are public policies and institutional structures that produce what the bishops have called "concentrations of privilege."

Popes and bishops who have called for tearing down these concentrations might have looked to the social democracies of Western Europe as superior models of distributive justice, precisely the models the political right in this country relish maligning. Catholic voters might be reminded that the postwar founding of Germany's social welfare state was largely the product of Catholic social teaching. The Constitution of the Federal Republic of Germany also elevates the principle of human dignity over economic liberty and requires that the use of private property should serve the common good. These are just some of the values of human solidarity that serious Catholics should be aware of before they enter the polling booth on Nov. 3.