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A Catholic Attitude toward Government

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Mar 31, 2010

From time to time we receive emails from those who, having no reservations about big government whatsoever, accuse us of being knee-jerk conservatives and state things like: “Much of the world has nationalized health care and it works just fine.” But we receive just as many emails from those who, apparently shocked by the very idea of government, accuse Benedict XVI of drinking “the social justice Kool Aid” and argue essentially that the only good government is a dead government. Amid many conflicting opinions, what should a good Catholic’s attitude toward government be?

Notice that I don’t ask what form government ought to take or exactly what duties it ought to perform. The answer to these questions will differ in many particulars based on the nature of the society in question, the prevailing understanding of the common good, and the availability of various kinds of resources and infrastructures. Instead, what interests me here is our general attitude toward government. I would argue that this attitude should derive from three basic principles and encompass three conclusions drawn from those principles.

Principle 1: Man is a moral actor. Being created in the image of God, man possesses intellect and will, which are to be directed toward the objects and ends proper to his condition. As both John Paul II and Benedict XVI have taught particularly richly in modern times, man is therefore fundamentally a moral actor, and every human decision is in some respect a moral decision. Because of the second principle, below, a great many of these moral decisions necessarily revolve around the common good.

Principle 2: Man is a social being. This is embedded in the very act of his creation (“male and female He created them”) and lies at the core of human completion, child-bearing and family life. It is also embedded in the innate desire of the human person for love of every kind, including friendship. And it is embedded in the tremendous variety of aptitudes, talents, interests and abilities which we find in human persons, such that a life more in keeping with human aspirations and human dignity is always potentially to be had by living and working in groups, in which each one contributes something distinctive to the good of all.

Principle 3: Man is fallen. Because man is fallen, his intellect and will are weak, and he is prone to misunderstand the good and fail to pursue it even when he understands it. As a result, human persons often behave in ways which are injurious to themselves and to the larger communities of which they are a part. Sometimes they simply fail to properly perceive what the common good requires them to plan or to do; sometimes they act directly against it. This is so both individually and socially. Although the pooling of human resources always has great promise, the establishment of voluntary or involuntary associations, businesses and/or governments cannot guarantee superior perception or superior decisions. All systems of human organization derive their efficacy from Principle 1, but because of Principle 3, no system of human organization will ever tend automatically toward perfection.

Conclusion 1: Government is necessary. The first relevant conclusion to be drawn from man’s moral responsibility, social character, and fallen state is that government is necessary to all societies, to help organize those things needed for the common good and to protect the good of both individuals and society as a whole from those who subvert that good through evil or ill-considered actions. Thus every human society has created and submitted to some form of government in order to manage those concerns which lie beyond the scope of individuals or private associations, to protect the weak against the strong, and to defend against both external and internal threats to the common good. No society has ever succeeded in dispensing with government.

Conclusion 2: Government is dangerous. It would be incorrect to class government as a necessary evil. Like everything that is part of human nature or grows from it, it is in potential great, in practice weak, and in truth perfectible only by grace. But even though government is in theory a human good, as each man is in his nature good, it is also true that government is always dangerous, as each man is dangerous because he is fallen. Inevitably staffed by fallen men, government may seek some goods and not others, combat this evil but not that, mistakenly identify evil as good or good as evil, fail to assess actual situations properly, and act either venally or incompetently. It is therefore exceedingly dangerous, and must at all times be designed and shaped with these dangers in mind.

Conclusion 3: Government is inadequate. Society needs multiple substantial social institutions. One may well argue with the American founding fathers over the possibility of designing a paper government which can stand against a real government once it has grasped power. Fortunately, a healthy society does not require a constitution, but it does require a strong church on the one hand and strong intermediate social institutions on the other. It is precisely a sense that government is inadequate to meet the requirements of a healthy society which provides a context in which a government’s dangers will not typically outweigh its necessity. This conclusion may be less obvious than the others, so I’ll expand upon it.

First, a healthy society must understand that truth (in the sense of spiritual and moral certainty) has one source while the pragmatic mechanisms of government (constitutions, laws, judgments and executive decisions) have another. If this is so, it then becomes self-evident that a healthy society requires a strong institution to represent spiritual and moral truth in a way that can inform and influence the pragmatic mechanisms of government through which we manage our socio-political concerns. A healthy society needs, in other words, both the doctrine of the two swords, and both swords.

Second, a healthy society requires the substantial presence of intermediary institutions, each of which represents various social groups and social goods, and each of which has the corporate influence to play a role in the establishment of a reasonably balanced social order—a social order in which government is one social mechanism among many through which both the common good and the good of individuals is secured. In other words, a healthy society requires a healthy corporate sense, a sense of being organized in different ways and at different levels into significant bodies, as opposed to conceiving of itself as a collection of atomized individuals, bereft of socially and politically influential identities.

Application

When the West was healthy, it was characterized by both of these requirements, but it is now scarcely characterized by either. Increasingly, we have the isolated individual on the one hand and the totalitarian regime on the other—a story which unfortunately failed to end with the twentieth century. This has led inexorably to the widening gulf between liberals and conservatives: The former see government power as the answer to errant individuals; the latter see individual freedom as the answer to errant government. Both sides tend to forget that individuals and government alike are inescapably marked by the Fall.

But what ought to follow is not a war between these two sides. The way out is neither to give all to government nor to eliminate government, but gradually to strengthen both the Church and as many intermediary institutions as possible. It is symptomatic of our dilemma that most of us cannot even begin to think what a powerful and independent Church or a significant intermediary institution would look like. Success, then, demands that we begin by reimagining the social order. But we will never think outside our social box unless we can transcend the box, and there is only one way I know to do that. We must reimagine the social order not as socio-political animals forced to choose from existing sides but as men and women in tune with a higher source of moral vision. At long, long last, we must reimagine the social order not as liberals or conservatives but as Catholics.

An appeal from our founder, Dr. Jeffrey Mirus:

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Show 4 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: habiltzjr6726 - Apr. 07, 2010 7:20 PM ET USA

    First, We must reaffirm most strongly that this Catholic social doctrine is an integral part of the Christian conception of life. ... It is therefore Our urgent desire that this doctrine be studied more and more. First of all it should be taught as part of the daily curriculum in Catholic schools of every kind ... -- John XXIII, MATER ET MAGISTRA, May 1961 The political scene would be so different today had that been done - less liberal/conservative Catholics and more CATHOLIC Catholics

  • Posted by: tim.moore1408 - Apr. 07, 2010 1:02 AM ET USA

    It is interesting that in a society that is rapidly becoming more secular, that the Church as a counter-balance is becoming more and more sidelined in the political process. And not all of that is due to the grasp and power of secularism; our bishops with their inability to stand for basic doctrine and confront cafeteria Catholic politicians for the last 40 years have willingly had a hand in destroying the Church's credibility.

  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - Apr. 06, 2010 7:36 AM ET USA

    Yes the answer is for Catholics to study and understand what the Catholic really supports. Social justice is used like a battering ram to advance social causes that many times are more in line with Marxism than Catholicism. Governments using strong arm tactics like taxs to forcefully take property away from one person to give to another is just plain wrong! I prefer the old saying, "The government is best which governs least." T. Paine But many Bishops want social tax dollars. Why?

  • Posted by: wolfdavef3415 - Apr. 01, 2010 12:34 AM ET USA

    This was absolutely an inspirational message. I think that you have well laid out the case here. Even for those who think that American politics need a third party, yet are Atheist, I would invite them to consider the Catholic point of view. I think that these people would agree on everything except for abortion and euthanasia. These differences appear larger than reality.

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