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Splitting social and life issues? Can't do it.

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Sep 18, 2009

Have you noticed that those who are pro-abortion always attempt to seize the moral high ground when it comes to social issues? They may favor widespread contraception, abortion, embryonic stem cell research, and euthanasia, but that doesn’t prevent them from presenting themselves as more compassionate than others, because they really care about the poor and about economic disparity in general. The proof is that they favor Federal programs that attempt to implement distributive justice by redistributing wealth.

Now I have no quarrel with distributive justice. I’m a Catholic, not a libertarian. Truly, there is a large, long-standing and debilitating quarrel between left and right about the role of distributive justice, but I want to reserve a Catholic analysis of that issue for another time. Today I’m interested in that other false dichotomy between left and right, the one that says you can support the culture of death while still being right on social issues. This dichotomy presents life issues and social issues as disconnected.

Catholics of dubious commitment make a living off of this dichotomy, claiming the moral high ground by asserting their exemplary support of Catholic social teaching. But in his social encyclical Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict very deliberately turns the tables. He states point blank that this dichotomy is false. He teaches that if you do not get the life issues right, it is impossible to get the social issues right.

The Roots of the Socio-Economic Order

Caritas in Veritate was written partly to commemorate Pope Paul VI’s social encyclical, Populorum Progressio, which marked a critical development in Catholic social teaching through its articulation of the requirements for authentic human development. Never mind for the moment that we Americans always read social encyclicals for the purpose of figuring out which “side” the pope is on (again, left or right); that’s a sure recipe for blindness which I’ll take up in that future examination of distributive justice. Though Benedict does address that issue in his encyclical, he first does something even more important. In reviewing the entire body of Paul VI’s social teaching, Benedict includes Humanae Vitae.

This is a decisive inclusion toward which the Church has been building steadily for the last forty years. Benedict notes immediately that in Humanae Vitae Paul VI identified the foundation of society as a married couple open to life. This is not a matter of private morality, he says; rather, it creates an unbreakable link between life ethics and social ethics. The link is so important that Humanae Vitae ushered in a new area of magisterial teaching, leading, for example, to John Paul II’s landmark document Evangelium Vitae: the Gospel of Life.

Here’s how Benedict describes the link:

Openness to life is at the center of true development. When a society moves towards the denial or suppression of life, it ends up no longer finding the necessary motivation and energy to strive for man’s true good. If personal and social sensitivity towards the acceptance of new life is lost, then other forms of acceptance that are valuable for society also wither away. The acceptance of life strengthens moral fiber and makes people capable of mutual help. By cultivating openness to life, wealthy peoples can better understand the needs of poor ones, they can avoid employing huge economic and intellectual resources to satisfy the selfish desires of their own citizens, and instead, they can promote virtuous action within the perspective of production that is morally sound and marked by solidarity, respecting the fundamental right to life of every people and every individual. (28)

In the face of this fundamental reality about openness to life, Benedict finds it pathetic that some governments enforce contraception, sterilization and abortion, and that other governments and NGOs encourage these practices and even attempt to export them to other parts of the world as if they represent some sort of social progress. They represent exactly the opposite.

Population Growth and Development

The encyclical devotes considerable space to stressing that “to consider population increase as the primary cause of underdevelopment is mistaken, even from an economic point of view” (44). As everyone ought to know by now, declining birth rates in most societies constitute a huge problem, especially obvious in Europe. The reasons are fairly simple: Declining birth rates strain social welfare systems, increase their cost to those who are working, reduce the availability of savings which should be a resource for investment, reduce the availability of qualified laborers, and narrow the brain pool. And these are just the economic consequences.

Moreover, although Benedict himself does not specifically make this point, his argument presupposes a critical economic reality, demonstrated once again by the current recession: Significant economic development—that is, development with substance and staying power—is not possible without a vigorous new generation. By the nature of things, investment is always for the future, and the future can only bear a return insofar as there are large numbers of active persons in the next generation to invest in. Thus the graying of any society is a prelude to its inevitable financial collapse. In Benedict’s own words, “responsible procreation…has a positive contribution to make to integral human development” and, in fact, “openness to life represents a rich social and economic resource” (44).

Therefore, societies and cultures which reduce sex to recreation and regard procreation as a form of risk are gripped by a materialism which limits freedom, undermines the family and, in every conceivable respect, mortgages the future. This argument is both economic and more than economic. Benedict is not afraid to state clearly that “smaller and at times miniscule families run the risk of impoverishing social relations, and failing to ensure effective forms of solidarity” (44), the lack of which significantly impedes integral human development, including economic development. The feminization of poverty is another excellent example of the “anti-development” that is caused by the breakdown of the marriage bond and the family, a breakdown rooted largely in a false attitude toward sex and procreation. This has had a devastating impact on women, giving poverty a distinctly feminine face.

All of these situations, writes Benedict, “are symptomatic of scant confidence in the future and moral weariness” (44). Authentic development, including any sort of consistent economic development, simply cannot occur in this corrosive atmosphere. The best that a few people can hope for is a temporary superdevelopment in which they take advantage of their largely accidental personal wealth to grasp at an ever-growing array of material things and material comforts. Too often, the Pope points out, “superdevelopment” signifies “moral underdevelopment” (29), which causes massive damage throughout the social order. Such moral underdevelopment eventually reduces other persons to instruments without regard for their essential finality, their necessary openness to the absolute, and their own need for integral development.

Can’t Do It

Quoting John Paul II’s Evangelium Vitae, Benedict drives his point home: “A society lacks solid foundations when, on the one hand, it asserts values such as the dignity of the person, justice and peace, but then, on the other hand, radically acts to the contrary by allowing or tolerating a variety of ways in which human life is devalued and violated, especially where it is weak or marginalized” (15). In other words, the clear message of Caritas in Veritate is that no one can claim to be right on the social issues when he is wrong on the life issues. When we are wrong on the life issues we make social development impossible from its very foundation. This does not mean, of course, that every pro-lifer fully embraces Catholic social teaching as it relates to solidarity and economic policy. But it does mean that embracing the culture of life is the sine qua non of human development.

So, in a nutshell, what is Benedict’s message to all those—including many secularized Catholics—who claim we ought to support politicians who embrace the culture of death because they advocate a superior socio-economic policy? Sorry, says Charity in Truth, that pony won’t run. Social development is impossible when its very foundation is rotten. It’ll never happen. Can’t do it.

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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