Reactionary Liberalism and Catholic Social Doctrine

The debate over Catholic social doctrine and U.S. social welfare policy took an unhelpful turn in May when a gaggle of academics fired a shot across the bow of House Speaker John Boehner, prior to his commencement address at the Catholic University of America. Their charge? That Boehner’s House voting record showed him to be a man who fails “to recognize (whether out of a lack of awareness or dissent) important aspects of Catholic teaching.” Why? Because he had not supported legislation that, in the professors’ view, addressed “the desperate needs of the poor.”

Speaker Boehner, a Catholic with a solid pro-life voting record, is a big boy who can defend his votes on various issues. What bothered me about the open letter to Boehner was its tone (smarmy), its assumptions about the one-to-one correspondence between the principles of Catholic social doctrine and the policy preferences of the Democratic Party, and its suggestion that anyone who challenges that linkage is in “dissent” from settled Catholic teaching.

The 2012 election seems likely to be defined by a major national debate on the welfare state, government spending, and social responsibility. If libertarian minimalism of the sort espoused by Ron Paul sits poorly with the rich and complex tradition of Catholic social doctrine, so does reactionary liberalism of the sort espoused by the anti-Boehner pedagogues. So perhaps a review of the basics is in order, to put the forthcoming argument on a more secure footing.

(1) The Church’s concern for the poor does not imply a “preferential option” for Big Government. The social doctrine teaches that the problem of poverty is best addressed by empowerment: enabling poor people to enter the circle of productivity and exchange in society. The responsibility for that empowerment falls on everyone: individuals, through charitable giving and service work; voluntary organizations, including the Church; businesses and trade unions. Government at all levels can play a role in this process of empowerment, but it is a serious distortion of the social doctrine to suggest that government has exclusive responsibility here. On the contrary: In the 1991 social encyclical Centesimus Annus, Blessed John Paul II condemned the “Social Assistance State” because it saps welfare recipients of their dignity and their creativity while making them wards of the government.

(2) Fiscal prudence is a matter of justice extended toward future generations, and is therefore an inter-generational moral imperative (as is provision for the retired elderly). To leave mountains of unserviceable debt to future generations is shameful. The reactionary defense of governmental pension and social welfare programs with no evident concern for their fiscal implications violates the moral structure of Catholic social doctrine: the portside analogue to a cool indifference toward the fate of the poor.

(3) There are legitimate disagreements about the implications of the Church’s social doctrine for American social welfare policy. To suggest that the social doctrine provides obvious, clear-cut answers to questions about the future of Medicare or Medicaid is to misrepresent that teaching. To charge someone with “dissent” from Church teaching because that someone disagrees with one’s own prudential judgments about the application of the social doctrine to complex policy issues is a serious misuse of the notion of “dissent” and borders on calumny (a false statement that “harms the reputation of others and gives occasion for false judgments concerning them” — Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2477).  It ill behooves anyone to make such a charge; it particularly ill behooves academics who publicly dissent from settled Catholic teaching on marital chastity, sexual morality, and qualifications for Holy Orders from chairs at Catholic universities.

(4) The moral imperative to legally protect innocent human life from conception until natural death is a settled matter in Catholic doctrine. So is the nature of marriage as the stable union of a man and a woman. Catholic legislators who support the abortion license are manifestly in dissent and have damaged their communion with the Church.  So have legislators who support “gay marriage.” Academics eager to demonstrate their fidelity to Catholic social doctrine might point this out — and support the bishops who do. 

George Weigel’s column is distributed by the Denver Catholic Register, the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Denver.

George Weigel


George Weigel is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., and the author, most recently, of The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II⎯The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy.

  • Steve N.

    As usual, very well done. Now, if only the so called elected officials, you know whom I mean – the “elect”- could respond with meaning we’d begin again.

  • Robert Brennan

    Another excellent and thought provoking article from Mr. Weigel and further proof that being a collectivist/socialist doesn’t make one a good Catholic any more than being a free market capalist makes one a bad Catholic. Our faith teaches us that we have a moral responsibility to supply people with a safety net…But it’s a “safety” net, not a “cargo” net.

  • Martial Artist

    Mr. Weigel,

    First, I would suggest that your writing that “it is a serious distortion of the social doctrine to suggest that government has exclusive responsibility” is in itself a rather significant distortion of the social doctrine, as witness the citation from Centsisimus Annus” in the paragraph that immediately follows.

    If the “social assistance state” actually commits the evils attributed to it by Blessed John Paul II, which I firmly believe it does, then the role of the state, particularly at the federal level, is the more egregious dissenter from the Church’s teaching, both on the basis of subsidiarity and on the basis of government’s advocacy of policies which have been shown, repeatedly, to produce results counter to their stated aims.

    Secondarily, as a Catholic of distinctly Old Whig temperament (in the Hayekian sense), I would question the applicability and accuracy of your characterization of Ron Paul’s position as one of “libertarian minimalism” which I take to be, at best, a negative evaluation on your part. And I do so with a particular historical perspective in mind. When the U.S. government limited itself to its Constitutionally defined and authorized responsibilities, there was in much of this nation a strong sense of personal responsibility among those who had much to provide for their fellows who had little. The unconstitutional assumption of responsibilities and authority to provide the elements of the “social assistance state” by our government has contributed to the undermining of that inherent charitable impulse in our citizenry, in large part through the evils you enumerate in your paragraph (2). Insofar as I am aware, Libertarianism (of the small ‘l’ variety) is not inherently inconsistent with Catholic social teaching, nor any other Catholic teaching for that matter. It supports the dignity of the human person, the respect for the rights of owners of property and of subsidiarity as a proper means of approaching the resolution of social issues. I think you do a disservice to those of us who are of what is a basically libertarian disposition. I am of that disposition because of my faith, as most of the other approaches to politics involve the imposition of one group’s values upon everyone else, thereby demonstrating that group’s view that they have an understanding of their neighbors need than do their neighbors. It is inconsistent to be libertarian and to believe that I understand better than you what may be best for you in a given situation.

    Other than those two demurrers, I would wholeheartedly agree with what is expressed in your article.

    Pax et bonum,
    Keith Töpfer

    • Anonymous Seminarian

      I agree. Ron Paul deserves better credit. A constitutional libertarian (read pro-life) is exactly what we need at least at the federal level. If the good citizens of Taxachusetts want to pay for their own welfare state, I say, let ’em, but leave the rest of us out of it.

  • Victor P

    I usually don’t comment but I MUST express my wholehearted agreement with Mr. Topfer and await Mr. Weigel’s response

  • Tony Esolen

    On libertarianism:

    If we mean by it that people are first of all individual agents, and that they owe nothing to the common good, then I can’t be a libertarian. For example, if being a libertarian prevents me from trying to outlaw pornography, or from trying to enact other laws having to do with the general moral tenor of the people, then I can’t be a libertarian. Catholic teaching does affirm that we are essentially and not just accidentally social beings.

    On the other hand, I do agree that the social-assistance state is destructive of both the individual and the community. That is, there are grounds on which to oppose the Leviathan other than those that spring from individual rights. For example, the social assistance state removes from people the authority to educate their children as they see fit, and that is an offense to human dignity. I’m not talking about individual parents here, but about whole communities, people getting together to see that a certain job gets done.

    I recall that during the presidency of Grover Cleveland a terrible hurricane hit Texas. Then there were calls for the federal government to send assistance. Cleveland – a bull-headed and unimpeachably honest man, who personally spent hours and hours reviewing claims for pensions from children of civil war veterans, many of them false – insisted that the Constitution gave him no authority to do that. Instead he called upon the people of the United States to help their countrymen, and himself contributed immediately. According to one account I’ve read, mountains of food and supplies reached Texas in very short order.

    One of the objections I hear to private charity is that the recipients would be embarrassed by it, whereas they’re not embarrassed by a check from the government, or even food stamps (which nowadays just come from a credit card, if I’m not mistaken). But that is exactly why private charity is superior. If I take a check from John, I have to look him in the eye. I know him. Or I know people like him. I feel bound to use the money wisely. I may feel a sense of shame; sometimes that’s unfortunate and undeserved, but sometimes it is deserved. In any case there’s a human interaction, not a bureaucratic one.

    A question I’d like to ask: how is it that people in our country, right now, come to be poor? Aside from those who have been battered by the recent recession, whence comes the poverty? It isn’t as if people have to know anything these days to make a decent living; look at journalists, for instance. I’m not saying that all people deserve to be poor. I am certainly saying that lawmakers cannot treat such poverty as we experience as itself the problem rather than the result of a deeper problem. If we started to ask, “Why is John poor?”, we might come up with some interesting answers that would discomfit everybody, as, for instance, “Because John grew up without a father,” or “Because John was never taught to work with his hands,” or “Because John got caught up with getting girls pregnant,” or “Because John hung around with cocaine sellers,” or “Because the unions have kept tradesmen out of teaching programs in the prisons,” or “Because he was never given an example of noble manhood to aspire to,” and so forth.

  • Luciano

    The reality is that the so called liberals don’t really care about the poor they just want a way to reduce all to wards of the state and then decide who lives or dies.