“A man and a woman united in marriage, together with their children, form a family. This institution is prior to any recognition by public authority, which has an obligation to recognize it. It should be considered the normal reference point by which the different forms of family relationship are to be evaluated” (Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC] 2202).
The Catholic Church teaches that the institution of marriage comes prior to the state and therefore must be accepted as normative. Indeed, all the nations in the world over the past 20 centuries have never questioned this standard, until recently.
On February 3, 2004, the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that the state laws restricting marriage to the union of one man and one woman were based upon a religious prejudice. This decision unleashed a national debate on the meaning of marriage and spurred many to support an amendment to the U.S. Constitution specifying the legal meaning of marriage as a relationship between a man and a woman.
The pope and bishops around the world have directly rejected the idea of “same-sex marriage”: “It is not based on the natural complementarity of male and female; it cannot cooperate with God to create new life; and the natural purpose of sexual union cannot be achieved by a same-sex union” (USCCB, Between Man and Woman: Questions and Answers About Marriage and Same-Sex Unions).
The Church must defend traditional marriage not only because it was instituted by God, but also because the family is the foundation of all society: “The family is the community in which, from childhood, one can learn moral values, begin to honor God, and make good use of freedom. Family life is an initiation into life in society” (CCC 2207).
The Catholic view of marriage should inform public policy in several ways. As the U.S. bishops have said, “Policies related to the definition of marriage, taxes, the workplace, divorce, and welfare must be designed to help families stay together and to reward responsibility and sacrifice for children” (USCCB, Faithful Citizenship: A Catholic Call to Political Responsibility).
The specific policies are a matter of prudential judgment, but what is behind them—the firm belief that marriage between a man and a woman should be protected by the state—is a non-negotiable principle of Catholic teaching.
The USCCB is strongly supportive of the constitutional amendment to defend marriage recently introduced in the Congress. A majority of Catholic senators, unfortunately, voted against it, in spite of the bishops’ lobbying effort.
Politicians will disagree prudentially on how best to protect marriage through law and public policy. The option being considered by some states, that of recognizing “civil unions” between homosexuals and affording to them some or all of the benefits of married persons, should be judged by its impact on the common good and especially on marriage and children.
The Pontifical Council for the Family has criticized the prospect of civil unions: “This would be an arbitrary use of power which does not contribute to the common good because the original nature of marriage and the family proceeds and exceeds, in an absolute and radical way, the sovereign power of the State” (Family, Marriage and “De Facto” Unions, 9).
“The right and the duty of parents to educate their children are primordial and inalienable” (CCC 2221).
Parents should know that it’s their job to oversee the education of their children. “As those first responsible for the education of their children, parents have the right to choose a school for them that corresponds to their own convictions. This right is fundamental. As far as possible parents have the duty of choosing schools that will best help them in their task as Christian educators. Public authorities have the duty of guaranteeing this parental right and of ensuring the concrete conditions for its exercise” (CCC 2229).
As public schools have become more secular in their curriculums, with some even hostile to the expression of religious views, parents have been forced to find alternatives that are “consonant with Catholic convictions.” This has led to a modest revival in diocesan and private Catholic education. It has also led many parents to enroll their children in private schools without religious affiliation or non-sectarian Christian schools. For those who cannot find or afford private schools, homeschooling has become the most viable option.
The problem of choosing a private school is that many Catholic parents cannot afford it, even at the reduced prices often available at parish schools. For this reason, some Catholic leaders have made a prudential judgment to support the idea of school choice.
Choice in education means that parents who qualify can receive an annual stipend from the government for use at private schools. Some would argue, however, that the state should not provide financial support for those parents who choose to send their children to parochial schools. Their argument is based on the perceived threat of such contributions to the separation of church and state.
Yet if the voucher system is limited only to public schools and non-sectarian private schools, the majority of private schools will be left out of the mix. Furthermore, most non-sectarian private schools are well beyond the financial reach of parents, even those who receive government subsidies.
So, in essence, a voucher program that excludes parochial schools is really a public school program. For reasons already discussed, this is not much of a choice for those Catholic parents who are concerned with the direction of public education.
“A business cannot be considered only as a ‘society of capital goods’, it is also a ‘society of persons’ in which people participate in different ways and with specific responsibilities, whether they supply the necessary capital for the company’s activities or take part in such activities through their labour” (Centesimus Annus, 43).
The well-being of our families, communities, and nation depends on the success of business and industry to create wealth. The greater the growth of industry, the more stable our society becomes: “Another name for peace is development. Just as there is a collective responsibility for avoiding war, so too there is a collective responsibility for promoting development” (Centesimus Annus, 52).
Businesses and industries create the wealth that provides financial support for their workers, both blue and white collar, and their families through earned wages, medical benefits, life insurance, disability, and pension plans. Without these wages and benefits, most workers would be unable to obtain the necessary goods of life. They would also be unable to support the present levels of government services and programs through the payment of taxes. The quality of life for all citizens, regardless of their income brackets, is thus proportionate to the success of their nation’s business and industry. It is therefore in the interest of every citizen that the economic sector grows and prospers.
Government, as a promoter of the common good, has an obligation to ensure that social and economic conditions promote business development. More often than not, as argued in John Paul II’s encyclical Centesimus Annus (1991), this can best be achieved by allowing market forces to act freely. As shown by the decline of communism, the state does not generally make the best allocations of capital when it is the sole decision-maker.
The more that regulations are imposed by government, the less room is left for entrepreneurial enterprise and creative decision-making. According to the principle of subsidiarity, corporate executives and managers should be allowed to control their own economic development, within the boundaries of law and morality.
At the same time—and again in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity—the government has a responsibility to protect the weak and vulnerable from unethical behavior. Government also has a duty to protect the rights of workers by ensuring decent working conditions, establishing fair wages, and holding corporate leaders accountable for breaking the laws governing corporate behavior.
Accountability is thus a social partnership between the private sector and the government. Private industry professionals and associations play an important role in setting appropriate standards for particular professions, businesses, and industries. Legislative and executive bodies also must set standards for responsible conduct through the passage and enforcement of appropriate laws to protect society as a whole from abuses.
Often referred to as the backbone of the U.S. economy, small businesses account for 99 percent of employers and, with the recent movement of formerly American factories and jobs offshore, now create between 60 percent and 75 percent of net new jobs annually. Pope Leo XIII wrote, “The law, therefore, should favor ownership, and its policy should be to induce as many as possible of the people to become owners” (Rerum Novarum, 46).
“In a system of taxation based on justice and equity it is fundamental that the burdens be proportioned to the capacity of the people contributing” (Mater et Magistra, 132).
Every citizen has a moral obligation to contribute to the common good. In financial terms, this responsibility is carried out primarily through a person’s labor and the wealth it creates. But a citizen also contributes through the payment of taxes, which are used to fund the cost of government.
Balancing this tax burden is a matter of prudential judgment. Taxes that are adjusted to income levels are designed to place more of the burden on the wealthy. However, some argue that this policy penalizes those who are successful and may actually deter others who would otherwise work to earn more. In response, some have suggested a flat tax, in which all citizens pay the same tax rate, or a consumption tax, based upon what an individual spends.
How the combination of progressive and regressive taxes is balanced is a source of much debate. Regardless of the solution, taxation policy should not become a weapon in class warfare. Citizens should work together to create a solution that is fair to all sides. The common good should be the goal of any taxation policy, not the interests of one particular class.
A just tax system is one that is based on a citizen’s ability to pay. In supporting their nation and communities, taxpayers should not find themselves unable to provide for their own families or maintain their businesses. Workers should earn enough money to pay their taxes and still take home a “living wage.” Traditional families should also be encouraged. This means that a husband working full-time should be able to support his wife and children at home.
Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Many mothers are forced to leave their children in order to earn second incomes because of the amount of tax the fathers must pay out of their incomes. This economic pressure adds to the stress and emotional cost to parents and their children. This is why the USCCB has supported family-friendly tax legislation, such as tax credits for children and direct rebates to low-income families with dependents. The bishops’ conference has also supported adjustments that would reduce the “marriage penalty” by increasing the qualifying amount for married workers.
Large corporations, small businesses, and other institutions that employ workers also have a significant impact on family stability, as well as on society as a whole. In addition to paying workers’ wages, corporations provide financial support for the common good by paying federal and state income taxes. These taxes represent another major source of revenue for the government.
To sustain the corporations and businesses that provide employment and financial support, the government should ensure that corporate taxes are low enough for both large and small companies to operate at optimal levels. “Governments must provide regulations and a system of taxation which encourage firms to preserve the environment, employ disadvantaged workers, and create jobs in depressed areas. Managers and stockholders should not be torn between their responsibilities to their organizations and their responsibilities toward society as a whole” (USCCB, Economic Justice for All, 118).
“Those who are oppressed by poverty are the object of a preferential love on the part of the Church which, since her origin and in spite of the failings of many of her members, has not ceased to work for their relief, defense, and liberation through numerous works of charity which remain indispensable always and everywhere” (Libertatis Conscientia, 68).
This “preferential option for the poor” challenges Catholics to make a special effort to help those in poverty. How this is translated into public policy is a matter for prudential judgment. But it’s clear from other aspects of the Church’s social teaching that Catholics must be careful not to undermine any person’s right to self-determination and autonomy, as has been witnessed by some forms of welfare assistance.
The principle of social justice combines the notion that persons are responsible for exercising their freedom to obtain the goods of life, and that these goods are proportionate to their inherent dignity. But there are some who cannot obtain these goods without assistance. One of the most contentious issues in modern politics is the question of what and how much should be provided by the community or the state.
Catholic social teaching does not justify the growth of a federal welfare state. A wealthy state that provides for the less fortunate is to be preferred to the socialist state where everyone is equally poor. The goal of Catholic social teaching is to provide the conditions for persons to obtain the goods appropriate to the dignity of their existence.
One way in which the government can most appropriately weed out the roots of poverty is through a sound fiscal policy. At a minimum, the Church advocates regulated income levels and working conditions that promote self-respect and self-sufficiency: “The amount a worker receives must be sufficient, in proportion to available funds, to allow him and his family a standard of living consistent with human dignity” (Pacem in Terris, 20).
The federal government should also enact legislation that motivates the unemployed to move from the welfare lines to the workforce. We should not embrace policies that encourage the unemployed to become dependent on the government, thereby losing their incentives to become self-sufficient.
“Life and physical health are precious gifts entrusted to us by God. We must take reasonable care of them, taking into account the needs of others and the common good. Concern for the health of its citizens requires that society help in the attainment of living conditions that allow them to grow and reach maturity: food and clothing, housing, health care, basic education, employment, and social assistance” (CCC 2288).
The number of uninsured in our country continues to be a major problem. As Catholics, we are called to respect the dignity of people by defending their basic right to health care. The principle of subsidiarity teaches that government must become involved when there is a problem that cannot be solved at the local level.
Throughout this country’s history, Catholic hospitals—622 as of 2002—have steadfastly fulfilled the moral obligation to care for the sick. But faith-based medical services, along with publicly funded hospitals and clinics, are strained to take care of the uninsured.
Insured patients are also financially strained to meet the rising costs of health care. Most rely on their employee benefit plans, which are less expensive than private insurance policies. However, the costs are still high, and some companies are scaling back their benefit programs. Other companies and professions do not offer any benefits at all.
Another health-care issue that has surfaced is that of conscience protections. Following the passage of Roe v. Wade, Congress protected the rights of health organizations and providers to refuse to perform abortions under the conscientious objection principle. Today, this question is returning with a vengeance.
In recent years, “reproductive rights” advocates have pushed for expanded health-care coverage that would force all employee health plans to include contraception and “emergency contraception.” The Catholic health-care ministry is based on the protection of life and preservation of the dignity of people. Procedures that are contrary to this mission (abortion, euthanasia, and contraception) cannot be provided by Catholic hospitals or supported by Catholic health-care plans.
“This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that . . . no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits” (Dignitatis Humanae, 2).
Because they are created by God, human beings have an intrinsic dignity. Their desire to practice religion is an expression of their dignity and must be considered a fundamental human right. Since religious belief is not uniform, the duty to respect religious liberty requires tolerance and respect for pluralism. The state must govern in a manner that allows full religious expression according to the dictates of the particular faith.
The goal of religious liberty is twofold: freedom of religious expression and suppression of those individuals or groups who would impose their beliefs on others. Protection of the common good can take precedence over an individual’s right to religious expression. Therefore, religious liberty does not protect those who promote violent demonstrations of faith or call people to commit violent acts.
The issue that most people identify with religious liberty—the display of religious symbols—is the easiest to resolve. The founding of America was rooted in Judeo-Christian teachings that were incorporated into our legal system and fundamental democratic charter and documents. In this regard, the distinct influence of the Ten Commandments cannot be ignored.
In the interest of respecting the complementary principles of religious tolerance and respect for historic traditions, the Ten Commandments have long been posted in our public places. Likewise, Christmas manger scenes should be allowed in public places along with menorahs or other symbols that show respect for religious traditions. Recently the “under God” phrase in the Pledge of Allegiance has come under attack, signifying the intent of secularizers to remove any symbol or mention of religion from the public arena.
During the past 35 years, government authorities have implicitly established secularism as an official state religion. Secularism has taken many forms: the removal of voluntary religious instruction in public schools; the banning of voluntary private prayer in public schools; employment discrimination against those who openly practice their faith; the promotion of an atheist “ethos”; and mandatory contraceptive coverage in health plans. “It is therefore difficult . . . to accept a position that gives only atheism the right of citizenship in public and social life, while believers are, as though by principle, barely tolerated or are treated as second-class citizens” (Redemptor Hominis, 17).
For the first 125 years of the American experience, government authorities relied upon the charitable work performed by faith-based organizations. It is only in more recent years that government social-service and education agencies have withheld financial support.
This is discriminatory. Secular organizations and faith-based organizations should play on a level playing field in competing for government funds. However, faith-based organizations that accept government funding must not be forced to sacrifice their religious liberties. A Catholic maternity center that receives a government grant must not be required to hire an abortion advocate.
“Every human being has the right to freedom of movement and of residence within the confines of his own country, and, where there are just reasons for it, the right to emigrate to other countries and take up residence there” (Pacem in Terris, 25).
Persons emigrate from one country to another for a variety of reasons. It may be for reasons of stark persecution, the desire to escape poverty, or to seek greater opportunity. The Church views immigration as a right that should be recognized by every nation. That right is rooted in the belief that each person should have access to the basic goods that constitute the universal common good.
The willingness for one country to accept persons across the borders and offer them a home is emblematic of the unity of the human family and an act of human solidarity. Some political leaders have spared no effort to restrict—and, in some cases, end—legal immigration to the United States. They argue that new immigrants do not assimilate to the American way of life and pose a threat to the jobs of U.S. citizens.
Some immigrants may just need time to adjust to American life and culture. In fact, a period of living in ethnic communities may be what immigrants need to prepare for mainstream society. Given the core of Catholic social teaching, any political candidate who impedes this process or betrays a hostile attitude toward immigrants would be found wanting.
The prosperity of the United States is not only attractive; according to the Catechism it places a special obligation on its citizens and elected representatives: “The more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin” (CCC 2241).
The Church also recognizes that a country has the right to monitor and set reasonable limits on immigration, especially now when the threat of terrorist infiltration raises concerns about immigrants from the Middle East. The United States may also protect its cultural patrimony, which some ply intelligence when making decisions that affect the immigrants to America do not share. But citizens should not fall into nationalist rhetoric that would reject most immigrants both now and in the future.
“Man, who discovers his capacity to transform and in a certain sense create the world through his own work, forgets that this is always based on God’s prior and original gift of the things that are. Man thinks that he can make arbitrary use of the earth, subjecting it without restraint to his will, as though it did not have its own requisites and a prior God-given purpose, which man can indeed develop but must not betray” (Centesimus Annus, 37).
Man’s relationship with the environment is subject to various principles of Catholic social teaching, such as solidarity and prudence, and the preferential option for the poor. The Church does not think environmental issues can be resolved through economic or scientific means alone—the underlying moral and cultural causes must be addressed if changes are to become permanent.
Since creation, the Church teaches, men and women have been made the stewards of this world. Despite this authority, we do not have an unfettered rule over the environment. Our control is subject to the same restrictions that are imposed on governing bodies: Just as governments serve to protect the common good, so too must we recognize our solidarity with nature.
Prudence requires that nations and their leaders apply intelligence when making decisions that affect the environment. Unfortunately, some are more concerned with meeting their economic and consumer goals than in responsibly carrying out their stewardship roles. As a result, the common good has been threatened from an array of environmental issues, including pollution and nuclear waste.
Arguably the more significant factor in environmental crises has been the rise of consumerism and over-consumption: “In many parts of the world society is given to instant gratification and consumerism while remaining indifferent to the damage which these cause. Simplicity, moderation and discipline, as well as a spirit of sacrifice, must become a part of everyday life, lest all suffer the negative consequences of the careless habits of a few” (John Paul II, The Ecological Crisis).
Rather than addressing issues of protecting natural resources or curbing consumerism, the affluent nations tend to focus more on reducing third-world birth rates. Foreign aid packages that are sent to Africa from USAID and other federally funded relief organizations often contain materials directed toward population control, such as contraception and voluntary sterilization. Even if these initiatives were successful, the impact on the environment would not be nearly as significant as reduced consumption. The sheer number of people is not the problem. Some of the most densely populated areas of the world are both affluent and ecologically secure.
To be fair, the leaders of the developed world have taken steps to curb their excessive consumerism. But men and women, the natural stewards of all creation, must continue to focus their creativity on more responsible development: “Even as humanity’s mistakes are at the root of earth’s travail today, human talents and invention can and must assist in its rebirth and contribute to human development” (USCCB, Renewing the Earth).