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Is Catholic Social Teaching Inherently Liberal?

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | May 14, 2009

In a speech that he delivered in Washington last month, drawing kudos from many liberal Catholic analysts, Father John Langan of Georgetown argued that American Church leaders should engage the Obama White House on a broad range of issues, rather than allowing their relationship to deteriorate solely because of a disagreement on abortion.

The problem isn't only abortion, of course; the Obama administration is pursuing policies inimical to the culture of life on several different fronts. And the notion that the American Catholic hierarchy has been hostile toward the Democratic Party leadership will quickly be recognized as laughable by anyone who is acquainted with American bishops. But these are old arguments, which have been thoroughly explored elsewhere-- not my topic for today. From among all the familiar themes raised by Father Langan's talk, one sentence leapt out at me:

There seems to be a fairly strong prima facie case for Catholics to support the Obama administration and its agenda as an effort to move American society somewhat closer to the ideals of Catholic social thought and to move our society forward from the pit which it has dug for itself.

Notice, now, that our Jesuit mentor is not merely saying that it is possible to make a Catholic case for Obama's policies. He is claiming a "prima facie" case-- a case so obvious that it almost doesn't need to mentioned; an argument so strong that the burden of proof is on anyone who disagrees.

Is it really true-- is it really self-evident-- that Obama's policies match the social teachings of the Catholic Church on issues such as welfare and economic justice? Sadly, I think that many Catholics who answer that question reflexively, with a strong Yes.

Moreover, I suspect that many of the people most likely to accept Father Langan's "prima facie" argument are those involved in teaching Catholic social thought. For years the Church's institutional efforts to promote social justice have been dominated by political liberals, and years of exchanging similar ideas within their closed fraternity, their conversation has become so restricted that they can easily fail to recognize the existence of other viewpoints.

Early in the 1980s (I forget which year exactly), I was asked to address a Washington gathering of "justice and peace" coordinators from Catholic dioceses all around the country. At a forum that was, predictably, dominated by liberals, my task was to explain how a Catholic could embrace the conservative policies of the Reagan administration. The hostility of my audience was palpable. When I suggested that the universal Church has a more implacable enemy than Ronald Reagan, that attempt at sardonic humor drew not even a single responsive chuckle-- not a glimmer of understanding that the battle against Satan is more crucial to the Church's mission than the battle against Republican policies.

If the diocesan officials who greeted me with such stony silence were the same people who helped to design the social-justice curricula for parochial schools, it is not surprising that younger Catholics have drifted toward more liberal stands on political issues. It is no surprise-- to cite just one leading indicator-- that a solid majority of Notre Dame students are pleased to welcome President Obama to their campus and proud to have him receive an honorary degree.

For far too long, students in Catholic schools and subscribers to diocesan publications have heard only one side of what could and should be a lively debate about the implications of Catholic social teaching.

The Church clearly teaches that the moral duty of all believers to help those in need, to exercise the "preferential option for the poor." But is it self-evident that the effort to fight poverty should be waged through impersonal government programs, supported by mandatory taxation, rather than by the freewill offerings of charitable donors? Is it self-evident that the federal government should supervise these anti-poverty programs, although the principle of subsidiarity would seem to militate in favor of local solutions to local problems and individual approaches to needy individuals? Is there a prima facie case for allowing the Church's own charitable efforts to be subsumed into the tax-subsidized programs, so that "Catholic Charities" is for all practical purposes a government agency?

These questions are rarely raised when parish "justice and peace" committees meet. The conservative Catholics who make make these arguments are generally not members of those committees; they are already too busy with their work on the pro-life committees! So liberal Catholics eventually come to take it for granted that what seems so obvious to them must be equally obvious to their fellow Catholics. They are genuinely surprised to learn that some faithful Catholics are not enthralled by the promise of an Obama presidency, even apart from issues involving the dignity of life.

Oddly enough, to each of the questions raised above, I think that the answer is obvious. The federal government should not usurp the role of private charity. Government activism should be confined to the local level. Church agencies should eschew involvement with government programs. I would happily explain my views on each of these questions to diocesan justice-and-peace officials if I were invited to do so again. But an entire generation has passed, and I have not been invited back to their national conference, while a parade of liberal speakers has been welcomed to reinforce the group's existing prejudices.

What is obvious to me, apparently, is not obvious to the justice-and-peace clientele. So be it. I do not claim that every good Catholic must agree with me; I realize that contrary arguments can be made. And there is where we differ: Conservative Catholics would never dare to argue that a "prima facie" case can be made for their own preferred political policies. That liberal Catholics make that argument is a sign of destructive intellectual inbreeding, and an arrogance which must be corrected.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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