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Expect More Catholic Caveats about Government

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Dec 19, 2012

I found some extraordinarily important distinctions in Pope Benedict’s recent address to the Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. These distinctions ought to affect significantly how we approach the Church’s social teaching regarding governmental authority in general, and world governmental authority in particular.

Recent popes have called for the exercise of administrative authority at the global level to deal with those problems that are global in scope, and therefore not amenable to solution at lower levels. This would seem to be an extension of their call for intervention and collaboration by national governments to address widespread social problems, such as economic disparity, both at home and abroad. One famous example is Pope Paul VI’s advocacy of government-organized foreign aid, and even the establishment of a world fund, in Populorum Progressio; another is Pope Benedict’s own insistence in Caritas in Veritate #67 on the need for a world political authority to deal with global economic and environmental instability.

In proposing these expansions of the highest levels of governmental authority, the Church has received considerable criticism for what many perceive as a naïve expectation that modern States, and the international organizations they create, are actually capable of addressing significant problems in a salutary way. These criticisms have not been entirely lost on the Church’s social magisterium. For example, Pope John Paul II recognized in Centesimus Annus #48 that the modern social assistance State frequently fails to understand and respect the nature of man, thereby making many problems worse. But with some frequency, bishops and even popes have called for increased State or international authority without identifying the potential dangers.

There is, after all, little disagreement at the level of pure theory. Everybody would admit that the principle of subsidiarity remains firmly intact when government at even the very highest level provides assistance to lower levels by dealing with problems that are within the scope of government and not amenable to more local control. But there is always a danger of articulating what is right and good in the abstract without a corresponding pragmatic evaluation. The Church can teach (for example) that problems of international commerce ought to be addressed as needed at an international level; but the Church cannot teach that in any particular instance or context the establishment of an international authority is likely to achieve its ostensible purpose, and to achieve it in a way that does more good than harm.

In our own day this creates immense problems. The prevailing contemporary conception of the State is of an exclusive authority which controls the lives of everyone within its borders through laws that depend for their authority purely on the will of the governing class—with no room for either natural law or supernatural authority. This conception inevitably extends to international authorities established by the dominant states, exacerbated by the fact that the more removed an authority is from the people it serves, the less accountable it becomes. As the Church increasingly recognizes how endemic this conception is to modern political authority—and as she is increasingly targeted as an enemy of that authority—she must inevitably become more aware of the dangers of articulating social theory without significant pragmatic caveats. Insofar as the State and the international order are based on a faulty understanding of man, the common good cannot be served by contemporary political authority.

This is why I found Pope Benedict’s address to the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace so intriguing. The PCJP, we must remember, is the Pontifical agency which most often calls on the State or the international order to solve this or that problem. How remarkable, then, that in the first place the whole tenor of the address is to insist that the widespread denial of the fundamental truth about man changes the game in our time. The Pontifical Council must recognize that institutions which operate on a faulty conception of the human person are essentially incapable of contributing to the common good:

[T]oday’s culture—characterized among other things by a utilitarian individualism and technocratic economics—tends not to value the person, who…is conceived of as a “fluid” being with no permanent substance. Paradoxically, man today often seems to be an isolated being because he is indifferent to the constitutive relationship of his being, which is the root of all his other relationships: his relationship with God. The human being today is considered mainly in a biological perspective, or as “human capital”, “a resource”, part of a productive and financial mechanism that towers over him.

In the second place, when the Pope explains John XXIII’s vision for a world order, he is careful to insist that Pope John saw an “intrinsic connection between…the inner significance of the common good on the one hand, and the nature and function of public authority on the other.... Public authority, as the means of promoting the common good in civil society, is a postulate of the moral order” (Pacem in Terris, #36). Therefore, Benedict hastens to add, such an international order can work only when it is defined and limited by a proper understanding of the nature of man and of the common good:

It is not, of course, the Church’s duty to suggest…the practical configuration of such an international arrangement, but she offers to those who are responsible for it those principles for reflection, criteria for judgment, and practical guidelines that can guarantee the anthropological and ethical frame around the common good (cf. Encyclical Caritas in Veritate, n. 67).… [W]e must not imagine a superpower, concentrated in the hands of a few, that would dominate all peoples, taking advantage of the weakest; rather, any such authority must first of all be understood as a moral force with the potential to influence in accordance with reason (cf. 27), that is, as a participatory authority, limited in competence and by law.

Earlier in the address, the Pope mentions that the Church’s social doctrine is in fact part of her mission of evangelization. The corollary, I would argue, is that successful evangelization is a prerequisite for a salutary implementation of her social teaching. Although that teaching depends on the natural law, which is accessible to all men and women, history suggests that only in the most unusual of circumstances can we expect it to bear fruit in the absence of the purifying and clarifying power of Jesus Christ. In theory, the natural law can stand alone as a basis for government. In practice, it seldom if ever will do so.

The Pope’s address is interesting because it insists on the proper moral context for proposed solutions, recognizing that the common good cannot be served by an increase in institutional power without a proper commitment to the truth about man—a power that is “indifferent to the constitutive relationship of his being, which is the root of all his other relationships: his relationship with God.” As popes and bishops continue to find a need to advocate ideal solutions to the world’s problems in the foreseeable future, I would expect an ever-growing emphasis on the caveats—on the perils of implementing such solutions through political authority in a culture running from reality, both ignorant of and hostile to the truth.

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Show 2 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - Dec. 23, 2012 6:47 AM ET USA

    The Pope is saying without a proper understanding of 'the truth about man' governments will not be able to implement just social laws. Pontius Pilate once asked what is truth. We are still being governed by people that do not believe in Jesus. The secular governments are the worst but sometimes I wonder about the religious side. They profess to know Jesus and yet all they offer to offset secular over reach are veiled warnings. Jesus spoke plainly. Church leadership must follow His example.

  • Posted by: Cornelius - Dec. 21, 2012 9:25 AM ET USA

    The Pope is certainly amongst the foremost thinkers of our time (if only because his deep faith gives him that "outside the box" perspective), yet too often his insights are shrouded in excessively academic or abstruse prose which is scarcely accessible to most people. You're helping to make him more accessible, Jeff. Thanks.

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