Liberals and Conservatives Apply Social Teaching Principles Differently

SAN FRANCISCO, June 1, 2011--There is a tension between how liberals and conservatives apply Catholic social teachings that sometimes devolves into questions about who is authentically Catholic in their approach to public policy. While there are some moral areas in which the application of Catholic teaching is so clear there is little room for prudential judgment among Catholics who fully accept the teachings of the Church, most leave a lot of latitude for different approaches or strategies to serve the common good. In these cases, it is common for Catholics of good will to have diamentrically opposed positions on issues. Stephen White of the Ethics and Policy Center provides some very helpful insights into this in an article entitled "Catholic Conservatives and the Common Good".

Catholic Conservatives and the Common Good   

By Stephen P. White  

Catholics self-styled as “progressive” have enjoyed a virtual monopoly on the more communal terms in Catholic social teaching: common good, solidarity, social justice, and preferential option for the poor. These principles are integral to a fully Catholic understanding of society and the role of the state. Meanwhile, Catholics of a more conservative bent have emphasized other aspects of the Church’s social doctrine: subsidiarity, the dignity of the individual, and the creative power of markets.

While these latter, personalist principles are essential to a genuine Catholic social teaching, without the communitarian dimension, the view from the Right tends to devolve into a quasi-libertarian and, often, overtly ideological imitation of Church teaching. At the same time, the Left’s approach underemphasizes subsidiarity and the rights of mediating institutions; its old statist habits tend to subsume everything under the crushing embrace of government.

Accordingly, both the communitarian and personalist elements of the Church’s social teaching have widely come to be seen through the lens of a political partisanship – i.e. the personalist and communitarian “schools” of Catholic social thought tend to reduce to quasi-libertarian and quasi-socialist positions, which closely mirror their respective political counterparts. Such stunted accounts of the principles of Catholic social teaching are unhelpful and morally inadequate.

Unlike political ideologies of the Right and Left, personalist and communitarian principles are not fundamentally opposed, but complementary. Libertarians and socialists may adhere to incompatible ideologies, but for Catholics, the common good is never “in tension with” (let alone opposed to) the dignity and proper autonomy of the individual person. Subsidiarity is not “balanced against” solidarity. The erosion of solidarity always endangers subsidiarity. In the absence of subsidiarity, solidarity is smothered by dependence upon the state. The dignity of the individual can never be sacrificed in the name of collective utility, and no true individual good can be legitimately won at the expense of the common good.

Those like President Obama, who insist that the measure – indeed, the necessary condition – of national greatness is our willingness and ability to care for the weakest among us are entirely correct. Where reasonable people of good will can and do disagree, is on the question of how our society, and thus the state, should fulfill our commitments to the poor and marginalized.

It’s an astonishing failure of political imagination (or an extraordinary act of historical hubris) to insist that the only moral means for promoting the common good are to be found in the expansion of the massive social assistance programs devised in the middle of the twentieth century, the costs of which have put this country on the road to insolvency.

If more taxes and government spending were in fact better for society, it would be irresponsible to oppose them. If a larger, more active state with an expansive welfare apparatus constituted the social arrangement most conducive to the common good, we would, at least from a Catholic point of view, be morally bound to support it. Yet as a matter of empirical evidence and prudential judgment, not ideological preference, the current system is, to say the least, not entirely convincing.

So does this “canonize” the policies proposed by conservatives? No. But if promotion of the common good is the ultimate measure of social justice, then proposals for entitlement reform like those recently put forward by Congressman Paul Ryan and passed by the House have a strong claim over the recent proposals of President Obama – and precisely on the grounds that they better promote social justice and the common good.

Two decades ago, welfare reform succeeded, not because of some national neo-libertarian change of heart in the American polity, but because it became plain that our welfare programs, as they existed, were grossly counter-productive, indeed harmful to the very communities they had been designed to help and were harming the wider community in the process.

Many progressive Catholics worried that welfare reform would make things worse for the disadvantaged, and so would violate the Church’s preferential option for the poor. Instead, as President Clinton pointed out in 2006 writing in The New York Times, as welfare rolls fell, “child poverty dropped to 16.2 percent in 2000, the lowest rate since 1979, and in 2000, the percentage of Americans on welfare reached its lowest level in four decades.”

We have again reached, or are very near to reaching, another such tipping point. Many progressives are again warning that reform of government entitlements would be an abdication of moral responsibility, a betrayal of the common good. If the entitlement reforms this country desperately requires are going to succeed – and it seems that any such reform will have to come from conservatives – those who would lead that reform must be able to make a compelling case that entitlement reforms serve not only individuals but the common good. (The recent exchange between Congressman Ryan and Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York makes for a good start.)

Catholics genuinely interested in promoting the fullness of the Church’s social teachings must give better accounts of how their favored policies work. Policies that defend subsidiarity and free markets while promoting individual liberty and responsibility are good and necessary. But advocates of these social goods should not neglect those arguments – by far the greater, both politically and morally – that defend the good of all while working in accord with the Founders’ hope of a “more perfect Union.”

This article first appeared at "The Catholic Thing" ( Copyright © 2011, all rights reserved.

Stephen P. White works in the Catholic Studies Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., where he has been the coordinator of the Tertio Millennio Seminar on the Free Society since 2005. He studies philosophy at the Catholic University of America.

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