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Catholic Social Teaching: Readers Respond

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | May 22, 2009

 Dozens of readers have responded to my Commentary piece, "Is Catholic Social Teaching Inherently Liberal?" With thanks to all those who have joined in the conversation, and apologies that I cannot respond to every comment, let me offer a sampling:

Ken Hilb of Hammond, Indiana, strongly affirmed my argument that the realm of Catholic social teaching has been harmed by "destructive intellectual inbreeding." He added: "I am grateful for articles like yours that make a clear distinction between Catholic social teaching and Catholic socialist teaching."

Michael J. Burke of Stoneham, Massachusetts, strongly disagreed:

The half-truth spoken in this essay is exactly why little progress is made both for social justice and pro life. No question Republicans are 'more' pro life,' etc. As far as social justice there is not one scintilla of evidence that private charity has any affect on poverty rates; there is enormous evidence that a civic social sharing of wealth does…

That's simply wrong. One might argue whether or not private charity has a marked effect on poverty rates; in fact, there is a very lively argument on that very issue, and anyone who cares to sample the opinions of think-tanks in Washington will find plenty of interesting reading on the topic, from very different perspectives. To say that there is "not one scintilla of evidence" for the conservative opinion is a sign of precisely the inbreeding that I noted in my essay.

But let me make another point, to which I would ascribe a higher priority. If I use my own personal resources to help a neighbor in need, the national poverty rates will remain unchanged. But I will have fulfilled Christ's command, and my neighbor will be better off. You and I can't eliminate human need-- the poor we will always have with us-- but we can help people, one at a time. That one-on-one help is an exercise in Christian charity. Can the same be said for government programs?

Dane E. Ryan of Cannelburg, Indiana, sees a problem with the private approach, however:

I certainly agree that the "liberal" solution of always having top-down charity is not right, however I do not think that we cam get away with simply personal charity….Private charity alone is certainly not enough to deal with economic injustice.

And Phil Jones of Sydney, Australia agrees:

Why Catholics have extended their efforts from raising money themselves to help the poor, to demanding that governments do more to help the poor is in large measure a practical one. It simply isn't a realistic solution. Generally the problem is way too large.

But does the government have more money than the people? How could it? If the federal government has seemingly infinite resources, it's only because that money has been raised through taxation-- from individuals (or borrowed, in effect, from the same individuals and from future generations). The government has no source of funds other than the public. If taxes (and borrowing) were lower, the people could keep more of their own money, and those funds would be available to charity.

To be fair, Phil Jones goes on to make another point:

Not only that, assistance to the poor is an expectation of the whole of society and not just a minority or Catholics or Christians. Beyond that Catholic Social Teaching indicates that care for the dignity of the recipients of welfare is a fundamental issue. Programs that assist people to maintain employment or when that is not possible, be provided with support if unemployed or unemployable is less humiliating if it comes from governments rather than charitable institutions set up by the Catholic Church.

We should certainly do whatever we can to secure the dignity of people who receive needed assistance. But private charity need not entail humiliation. And in fact government programs can sometimes be humiliating as well as inefficient. There is a balance to be struck here, and it requires some delicacy, but I don't think it's impossible by any means.

As for the argument that all citizens-- not just Christians-- should contribute to the cost of economic justice, I agree. That debate, too, soon becomes a question of balance. How high do we set the safety net?

Dominic Pedulla of Oklahoma City made a similar point:

But this leaves untouched the issue of Catholics working together for the common good, with others of good will, to re-orient society's conscience and its policies and laws to more closely reflect that preferential option for the poor, at the level of government. You see I think one point we really should give the "peace and justice" folks credit for is the notion that we mustn't leave the whole burden of charity and concern for the poor entirely at the door of private, non-official, private charitable non-government organizations, as if subsidiarity now means absolutely no government involvement. This too is not self-evident (the idea of excluding government activity in favor of the poor), and can't be really attributed to the Church's social thought or included in the authentic meaning of subsidiarity. I think it came more from the good old fashioned rugged individualism of post-puritan american protestantism/conservatism and modern conservative libertarianism than Catholic thought.

True: it is not self-evident that government has no business in the field of fighting poverty. I'd readily concede that there is plenty of room for government involvement. My libertarian friends would press the case for free-market solutions much further than I would, and that too could make for a stimulating debate.

Let me make just one important point about subsidiarity: Local programs and volunteer agencies are often more efficient because they are closer to the people in need, and can customize their programs to fit individual needs. A bureaucratic benefactor far away cannot know the specific needs of individuals; a neighbor can.

Patrick Mongan (no location entered) was particularly pleased with my emphasis on subsidiarity:

Subsidiarity is one Catholic prinicple that is repeatedly ignored by liberals and although you mention it once, it should be one of the foundations of any social justice program. It was one of the key points in Pacem in Terris, frequently mentioned in the Catechism, and a favorite topic of Pope John Paul II. Catholics who are conservative or liberal can unite around this principle to work together to promote social justice. We must educate the laity and our Bishops need to embrace this principle in all their programs in a strong and forceful way.

For practical advice on helping the poor, there's no greater authority than Mother Teresa. Margaret B. McDougall of Staunton, Virginia, gained some practical wisdom from her work with the Missionaries of Charity:

During four of the best years of my life, working in shelters for Mother Teresa's sisters, a friend in one city urged me to let the local Superior know that the local food bank would be glad to supply the sisters if they requested it. The superior said to me that "Mother" (Teresa of Calcutta) never accepted government-funded help. She did not elaborate, but I got the point. It is impossible to accept government funding directly or indirectly without surrendering one's liberty from government controls, rules which are inevitably far more invasive and violating of any organization than is the Law of the Land. This applies throughout the world and life. He who pays the piper calls the tune.

Exactly. Moreover, if government is supplying the funding, then the effort is no longer running on pure Christian charity.

My Commentary essay focused exclusively on questions of economic justice. Several readers observed that other issues should be raised in any discussion of Catholic social teaching. For instance John Grimes (no location entered) wrote:

I would reverse your method here and ask other questions: Is capital punishment any longer a justifiable position for serious Catholics… And given statements by recent popes about current wars America is waging, can Catholics any longer subscribe to the traditional conservative penchant for wild military spending, all out of proportion to authentic national defense needs?

Point taken. On capital punishment and on foreign wars-- and, I would add, on immigration-- Catholics on the left of the American political spectrum find plenty of support for their arguments in the teachings of the Church magisterium. In my own experiences, however, I have found that there is a lively debate on these issues among Catholic intellectuals, whereas on the economic questions the two sides continue to talk past each other.

A fair number of readers were kind enough to write congratulatory messages, saying simply that they had found my piece helpful:

Thomas Stafford (no location):

Amen! and Amen! It is not charity when people empower the government to take resources from themselves and their neighbor. It even become worse when the have-nots and others that benefit from this collection and distribution outnumber those who pay for it.

Jeremy Rohr (Albertville, Minnesota):

I love your article. Over the past 20 years I have been both a 'bleeding heart' liberal and then later, after graduating college, a conservative in my political views. The mistake I made and see other people make is that I was first a liberal or conservative and then chose the aspects of the Catholic faith that supported my views to make me feel better. As my faith matures, I find that I am called to first be a Catholic and then support those political efforts that support the priorities of our church. My experience is that there are elements of both liberal and conservative politics that I can't support (ie socialism and the death penalty to offer two extremes). The hard part is to stay so close to God and detached from this world that we can recognize how God wants to move us in all aspects of our life, personal and political.

Samuel Doucette (Acton, Massachusetts):

Mr Lawler, Amen! Amen! Amen!

But not all readers were entirely positive. Colin LaVergne of Minneapolis made a pointed observation:

This is a very good perspective and one that needs further explication. I would disagree with one of his final sentences, however. I think there are many conservative Catholics who would think that their views on these issues are not subject to debate.

Granted; conservatives too can be dogmatic-- among other flaws. Dr. James MacDonald of Santa Cruz, California, wrote very simply:

You, sir, are the one who is arrogant.

Perhaps so. Many other people have made the same observation over the years. But it's not an argument.

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