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Politics 101: Principles First

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Oct 25, 2010

With some people already voting through advance mechanisms, and with election day in the United States coming up in just a week, it is a good time to remind ourselves of a few basic Catholic political principles. These principles can be applied to nearly any political setting and situation, though I will make some particular observations on the situation we face in America and in the West generally.

I wish to identify seven key Catholic social principles which we are all supposed to apply in making decisions affecting the larger social order, including political decisions:

  1. Socio-political life arises from the very dignity of man as a social being precious to his Creator. The social order is a direct result of the nature of the human person, and is a product of the dignity of this social being who lives far more fully in community than in isolation. For this reason, all initiatives which devalue the life of the human person are contrary to the very purpose of socio-political activity. Any abuse, exploitation or killing of any group or class of human persons is always, under every regime, a grave crime.
  2. The moral framework for the social order is provided by the Natural Law. Since acceptance of Revelation and the gift of Faith must always be free and voluntary, and since the natural law is accessible to all regardless of religious affiliation, the moral framework for the public order is to be derived from the natural law. While Revelation and grace make it far easier to rightly perceive natural law, it is the natural law alone which all citizens can rightly be expected to understand and to obey. Natural Law therefore provides the moral glue which can bind together diverse groups of citizens, as well as diverse nations, and can enable significant collaboration across regional, ethnic and religious lines.
  3. Social action must always be oriented to the common good. There are many goods, both private and public, which people may pursue in their diverse circumstances. But the pursuit of any good ought never to detract from the common good of society as a whole. Indeed, the primary purpose of political action is always to secure the common good. The first duty of government, therefore, is to protect society against clear dangers to the common good, and the second is to refrain from restricting or burdening those free activities of citizens that are conducive to the common good. Finally, when any person, or even government itself, aims to secure a benefit for some particular social group, care must be taken that this particular benefit is congruent with the common good.
  4. A healthy society promotes private property in the context of the universal destination of goods. This principle has two sides. On the one side, the Church recognizes that ownership is both an indispensable means and an indispensable incentive through which persons participate in God’s plan, provide for their own needs, exercise their abilities, express themselves more fully, and participate fruitfully in social, cultural and political life. On the other side, the Church understands that God created the world and all that is in it for the sustenance and enjoyment of all persons, not just some. Consequently, the ownership of private property must always be ordered both to the legitimate needs of the owner and the participation of all in created goods, as is consistent with the common good.
  5. Social action must be guided by the principle of solidarity. Solidarity is the concern by all for all. Every social, economic and political plan or program is to be motivated by genuine concern for others in society, and especially for all those who have a stake in, or will be affected by, the plan or program in question. Thus plans guided by solidarity will take the needs of all into account and be developed and implemented in such a way that the good of some is not enhanced at the expense of others.
  6. Social action must be rooted in the principle of subsidiarity. Subsidiarity is the principle that social activity of every kind should be undertaken at the lowest possible level, and that higher levels of government should, wherever possible, foster success by providing only such assistance as is needed rather than by inappropriately taking over that activity. Subsidiarity ensures that people take an active role in their own affairs, and remain in control of their own affairs—in keeping with their human dignity—and it also ensures maximum personalization of social action and social services within a community. Thus real problems can be properly assessed and effective solutions can be implemented as individually as possible. A corollary to this principle is that citizens should not seek excessive and self-interested benefits from government, which would diminish self-reliance and erode the strength of the community.
  7. Intermediary institutions are vital to a strong social order. In modern nation states this principle is easier to understand negatively. When, for example, we have the atomized individual on one side and the modern state on the other, social life tends to be flattened and impoverished until, in the end, some sort of totalitarianism is nearly inevitable. Persons naturally express themselves and their interests through various kinds of groups—companies, unions, associations for civic, recreational and charitable purposes, a variety of levels of administration and governance, and above all churches. Where such organizations are strong and influential, culture is enriched, opposing interests are balanced, heritage is preserved and strengthened, and personal liberty is protected. Intermediary institutions grow naturally in a culture which practices the principle of subsidiarity.

Practical Observations

Several basic applications of these principles spring immediately to mind:

First, there is a vicious culture war going on between those who accept the natural law as a moral framework for social affairs and those who favor legal positivism (the theory that the law is whatever we say it is). It is clear that Catholics (and all who recognize the natural law) should perceive a tremendous gulf of separation here, which they would be fools to cross by supporting a candidate who seriously misunderstands the natural law or does not even believe it exists.

Second, Western politics continually wrestles with the claims of private property and the universal destination of goods. Unfortunately, the West also tends to address these concerns through a false understanding of solidarity on the one hand and virtually no inclination toward subsidiarity on the other.

Government action is the proposed solution for just about everything, even though government action is by its very nature involuntary and, therefore, cannot represent genuine solidarity of any kind. Moreover, the West seems to have forgotten how to develop solutions which take advantage of the natural stake and effective abilities of those most directly involved on the lowest possible level; instead, Western politics seeks almost reflexively to solve problems through bureaucratic programs implemented at the highest level. The result is loss of liberty, disintegration of the social fabric, reduction of self-reliance, and the decline of all those intermediary institutions which enrich human culture. Not at all incidentally, these are the same institutions which stand (when they are healthy) between the weakness of the individual person and the power of the State.

A false understanding of solidarity, when coupled with a complete disregard for subsidiarity and the importance of intermediary institutions, is a recipe for social disaster. Therefore, it stands to reason that Catholics (and others who recognize these principles) ought to perceive another vast gulf here, which once again they would be fools to cross by voting for a candidate who shows no recognition of at least half of the most important principles which ought to govern our common life together.

The third point ought really to go without saying. The tendency in the West to devalue human life, to abort the unborn, to euthanize the aged and the handicapped, to use human embryos for scientific experiments, to view men and women as sexual objects, and to use human persons for harvesting of tissue and organs—all of these evils strike at the very heart and purpose of human socio-political activity. The gulf here is sufficiently wide that crossing it politically is not only foolish but gravely evil and even criminal.

Conclusion

Unfortunately, we live in an era in which the reigning political forces tend to justify anything and everything in terms of “liberation”, “benefits” and “change”. The terms “liberty” and “liberation” are used as masks to establish personal rights without corresponding duties, even alleged rights which have no basis in natural law, while denying authentic rights which are firmly rooted in reality. The terms “benefits” and “concern for the poor” are used to increase government power at the expense of the very communities which alone can develop effective solutions to their own problems. And the terms “change” and “new” are used to justify just about anything that undermines or denies the moral wisdom and effective customs we inherit from our own cultural heritage and traditions, not infrequently denying even what used to be regarded as common sense.

This should not be the case. There are very real principles which must be implemented in all successful societies, principles which are necessary to social health and to the common good, which alone can provide a fit environment for persons to thrive, in keeping with their natural and supernatural destinies.

Therefore, in acting politically, Catholics should not be blinded by personal attractiveness, slogans or self-interest; they should first examine matters of principle. Indeed, to avoid socio-political disaster, we must first restrict our choices to the persons and policies which reflect the correct principles. If the governing principles are wrong, the end result cannot come out right. Operating under false principles, things inevitably deteriorate in the ways that matter most. Catholics (and all men and women of good will) must recognize this and stand absolutely firm in insisting on the priority of principle.

Only when this is done can we afford the luxury of pragmatism. Only within what we might call the range of principled options can we consider which of several purposes ought to claim our attention as most important for the common good, or which candidate or policy is most likely to succeed in achieving the purpose in question. It is always a mistake to support policies and programs which promise a desirable result without being rooted in the right principles. I say “always” advisedly: Those policies and programs will always fail; and in the process at least some existing human goods will always be further eroded or completely lost.

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Show 3 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: impossible - Oct. 27, 2010 11:13 AM ET USA

    Regarding the words "Church enjoins all to vote morally," the problem that exists is what the word "Church" means to various people. It can mean: The Magisterium; my Bishop; my Pastor; the USCCB; the National Catholic Register; Commonweal; America, etc. etc. Theological reality rests in the Magisterium. Poor catechetics is at the heart of the confusion.

  • Posted by: impossible - Oct. 27, 2010 11:03 AM ET USA

    My first impulse is to simply say "WOW!!" Unfortunately: (1) Too many Catholics and other believers will not see/read this article; (2) Too many Catholics are so poorly catechized that they won't get it even if they do read it; (3) Too many Catholics are taken in by unprincipled politicians using "God" words and phrases to sucker them in (aided and abetted by ambiguous Faithful Citizenship documents); (4) Knee-jerk partisan habits sustained by sloganisms. Thanks for your great articles.

  • Posted by: frjpharrington3912 - Oct. 26, 2010 11:59 PM ET USA

    In Caritas in Veritate the Pope says that truth is intrinsic to charity for God is absolute truth and eternal love expressed in the face of the person of Jesus Christ. Thus charity can not be separated from truth or else it loses its objectivity and becomes purely a subjective expression of individuals and states. Likewise, conditions which truly promote the common good of all people are based on faith in God the supreme good and the principles of the natural moral law accessible to human reason

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