Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

The PCJP’s Vision of Polity: The Ideal vs. the Real

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Oct 25, 2011

I should like to add some additional remarks to Phil Lawler’s outstanding commentary on the call of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace for a world economic regulatory authority (see Spare us from Vatican economic analysts). I believe at the heart of the PCJP’s advice is a failure to sufficiently distinguish the ideal from the real.

In an ideal world, the vast majority of men and women would see reality clearly and behave morally. They would establish governing officials who, in their turn, would see clearly, behave morally, and truly work for the common good. Violations of the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity would be rare, modest, and easy to correct. Moreover, in this ideal world, it would be possible both to fully understand and effectively manage all the various cultural, social, economic and political issues around the entire globe. In such a world, only those forms of regulation as are right, proper and just would be put in place, and they would be quickly adjusted as needed to secure the common good with the smallest possible restriction of personal freedom and initiative.

In the real world, of course, the vast majority of men and women neither see reality clearly nor strive to act morally in all circumstances. They are governed by officials who are frequently less moral, and not infrequently also less visionary, than themselves, and who very frequently put various forms of self-aggrandizement ahead of the common good. True solidarity is relatively rare, and it is not too much to say that the principle of subsidiarity is honored by those in power only extremely rarely. Moreover, in the real world a full comprehension of the various problems at work around the globe is utterly unattainable, and so the effort to manage such problems is frequently heavy-handed and fraught with enormous unintended consequences—even when the intended consequences are consistent with the common good.

This does not mean that we can never know anything, or that we should not work hard to ameliorate human problems. But any sentient being who has lived more than twenty-five years has had enough time to learn that the two preceding paragraphs are inescapably and irremediably true. Moreover, the larger the field of concern on a scale from the local community to the entire universe, the less possible it is to see clearly, to understand fully, and to manage anything effectively. The real is not the ideal and, conversely, the ideal is not the real.

With all this in mind, we can see that Catholic social teaching has as its purpose the job of delineating the principles which ought to guide the social order ideally. In this context, the latest document from the PCJP is unsurprisingly dominated by the common sense idea that global-scale problems will require for their solution some integrated global solutions, and that these integrated global solutions will require properly developed global structures. In the context, this is relatively simple and straightforward, and eminently sensible.

Moreover, to its credit, the document also repeatedly identifies potential pitfalls in human behavior that can cause even the best-intended institutions of governance to fail in their purpose, ultimately doing more harm than good. Such pitfalls begin with the abject failure of so many to govern their lives, their goals and their methods according to both a strong spiritual understanding of the human person and a strong moral sense of the importance of the common good. They end with the tendency of governments everywhere to fail abysmally the test of subsidiarity. Very good. Here we see what it is about the real which threatens the ideal.

Now clearly, if the real conditions “on the ground” could be eradicated so that the concrete proposal for a world authority could be implemented in the proper context, then it would be difficult to find any immense quarrel with the PCJP recommendations. But what if the real conditions are extremely unlikely to be eradicated but the PCJP’s endorsement makes it more likely that the proposed solution will be implemented anyway. What quarrel with the likely results might we have then?

In a recent In Depth Analysis, I highlighted the no-nonsense portrayal of real government which Pope John Paul II gave us in his frank encyclical Centesimus Annus (see Toward a Viable Catholic Political Strategy for our Times). One would think that any pontifical agency familiar with this work would give more thought to the wisdom of implementing new layers of government in a fallen world, and would perhaps tailor practical suggestions to the real circumstances in which we find ourselves, especially in what is at the present moment a post-Christian world.

This to me is the great failure of the document: It calls for an approach which is likely to be sensible only in an ideal world, and which is fraught with danger everywhere else. One wonders how it is possible to have lived through the recent experiment of the European Union—both in terms of its anti-Christian ideology and its woeful inability to manage financial reality—without being more attentive to the problem of situating the ideal in the real.

Whom will the PCJP recommendation encourage? Even granted that some members of the PCJP are laymen, is it not wiser for Vatican organizations to avoid making concrete socio-political proposals for fear of lending to them a specific mantle of religious authority? Finally, in the matter of practical moral reasoning, where has the art of the possible gone?

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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