Is God a Social Democrat?

“God as social democrat” is the theme of Newsweek’s story on the first draft of the new pastoral letter by the U.S. Catholic bishops on the economy. That is as outrageous as: “God is a Republican.”

My phone has been ringing with calls from Catholics of many political viewpoints who fear that the bishops have gone too far both in appropriating God for their particular political views, and in writing off views more conservative than their own. One stranger said, excessively hot at the moment, no doubt: “This means war.”

Everyone admires the bishops for their emphasis upon helping the poor. The Statue of Liberty expresses the long-held ideals of the American people: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” The American people wish to help all Americans to escape from poverty.

The question is, how to do it? And, how to define the problem? Here many sophisticated arguments rage. Explicitly, the bishops do not wish to rely excessively upon the state. Yet many, many passages in the bishops’ letter reveal a state-oriented way of thinking.

For example, their very first sentence reads: “Every perspective on economic life that is human, moral, and Christian must be shaped by two questions: What does the economy do for people? What does it do to people?”

But this is to ignore the individuals whose actions constitute economic life. It is to imagine “economic life” and the “economy” as something above and outside of people. Human beings create economic life; it does not descend from above. A more accurate sentence would read: “What do human beings do in the economy for others? What do they do to others?” In a free economy, persons are not merely passive.

In their conclusion, the bishops write that “The Christian perspective on the meaning of economic life” is “something not well known in our country today.” First of all, there is no “the” Christian perspective on economic life. There are many diverse Christian traditions and many different ways of thinking religiously about economic life, some conservative, some liberal, some radical, some moderate.

In addition, it seems certain that there are millions upon millions of Americans who do think often and deeply about the religious perspective on their economic activities. The bishops are not as lonely as their sentence asserts.

Moreover, the presuppositions of the U.S. economy are steeped in Christian materials. It is doubtful if capitalism as it is known in Britain and the U.S. could ever have arisen apart from profound Jewish-Christian perceptions about sin, providence, individual dignity, creativity, cooperation and association. These depths the bishops fail to consider.

Again, on almost every page of this first draft there are sentences which other serious Christians will find profoundly misleading, doubtful, objectionable, and even offensive. More than its drafters perhaps realized, this draft is sectarian. As one conservative Catholic put it, “It is as if the bishops mean to drive all but the far left from the Church.”

The bishops’ subject is supposed to be the economy. But a substantial proportion of their text deals with political decisions to be taken by the state.

The bishops call for a new bill of rights, this time, “economic rights.” This is a dangerous use of the word “rights.” To every right there corresponds a duty. Who has the duty to find shelter, food’ and income for an individual? In the first place, that person himself. As with the classic inalienable rights, the state should not interfere with the right of a person to support himself.

Only when that person is unable to be self-reliant, through no fault of his or her own, does a claim on others arise. In a good society, the vulnerable and needy deserve to be cared for, as a matter of justice, as well as charity, because of their dignity (and need) as fellow human beings. But such a claim falls short of being a “right” in the classic sense. It is conditional. It arises from a person’s involuntary inability. The true economic right is the right to be self-reliant. Claims arising from disability fall short of being rights.

“To say that the bishops are not proposing radical changes would be wrong,” one of the drafters of the document has told the press. He speaks of a radical “restructuring” of the U.S. economy. What is so sad is that what he here calls radical is, chiefly, a set of old left ideas now discredited not only in the country at large but even among socialists. These “radical” elements do not flow from the scriptures, from the Catholic tradition, from the American tradition, or even from the document’s own early premises. They seem added for shock value. They have offended many.

In short, back to the drawing boards. This first draft needs lots of work. It is unnecessarily divisive, less on religious than on practical political matters.

Michael Novak

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Michael Novak held for many years the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and is now a trustee and visiting professor at Ave Maria University. He is a philosopher, theologian, and author, as well as the 1994 recipient of the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He has been an emissary to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. He has written over twenty-seven books on the philosophy and theology of culture, especially the essential elements of a free society. He also founded Crisis Magazine with Ralph McInerny in 1982.

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