We are familiar enough with left-of-center Catholics, like Catholics United and the professors who publicly opposed House Speaker John Boehner’s honorary degree from The Catholic University of America in 2011, beating the drum for governmental—especially federal government—“solutions” to problems. We also witness it, however, from some Catholics known for being committed to the orthodox teaching of the Church. When someone is too insistent about reducing the role of government or even just raises questions about certain public policies, there are those who are quick to put him into such categories as “neoliberal” or “neoconservative.” There is a tendency to slip into the practice of absolutizing public policy approaches or other matters of prudential judgment and treating them like they are doctrinal mandates.
A reviewer of one of my books—apparently an orthodox scholar, although not well-known in those circles—is a case in point. He took me to task for asserting—after a considerable discussion about Catholic social teaching in a 700-page book—that legislation should be adopted only when “absolutely needed.” He insisted that such a view was not “magisterial” and collided with Aquinas’ argument that the legislator is needed to move a people to the common good. While Catholic social teaching holds that the securing of the common good is a main task of the state, it nowhere says that this means that legislation or enacting a new public policy or program is the singular way to do this. Sometimes—even frequently—government is best able to help fashion good social conditions by stepping back. If one can think of a scenario that might best depict what Catholic social teaching, in its essence, aims for it would be this: The building up of a moral culture and citizenry, a basic juridic framework to protect economic and other rights, and a healthy and vital civil society to carry on most economic and social welfare matters. The state’s role would be to enact appropriate legislation to head off likely problems—like the labor legislation Pope Leo XIII called for (Rerum Novarum #39)—and working with the private sector on such things as economic planning to head off unemployment problems (Laborem Exercens #18), and to always “oversee” things with an eye to the common good, ready to intervene to stop serious abuses such as the growth of destructive monopoly.
Moreover, a smug assurance about the value of more legislation and public policy in solving social problems is easily undermined by the repeated reality of unintended consequences and interest group government, where even failing policies cannot be dislodged because special interests begin to profit from them.
My phrase “absolutely needed” indicates the urgency today of restraining runaway government. In an era of 75,000 pages of federal regulations with their increasing complexity, vagueness, and contradictoriness and when enforcement people in government and authorities outside it can’t agree on what laws and regulations actually require, it’s hard to claim that we need more law. Should we really be legislating when it’s not clearly needed? While the reviewer may be correct in identifying the high calling of the legislator according to Aquinas and Aristotle before him, isn’t it clear that so many of them today don’t measure up? This is not an era marked by great statesmanship. Moreover, is the role of a legislator just to pass laws? Senator Howard Baker in the 1980s lamented the much-diminished role of the U.S. Senate as a great debating body, which had once helped to explore, clarify, and better understand great national questions. Isn’t that part of what the legislator does to further the common good?
To believe that government will necessarily act rightly—without looking at its track record or the context of a time—is simply foolish.
Before enlisting Aquinas in the cause of activist government, one should consider his admonitions that human law not try to repress all vices or prescribe all virtues. It should not be like Calvin’s Geneva, or our Calvinist-like secular state of today which increasing seeks to regiment so many areas of life. It certainly should be concerned about promoting virtue—the social teaching of the Church says that one of government’s roles, to be sure, is to make men better—but it must also be realistic and aware of other problems that could easily develop if it pushes too far. It’s not a question of government having either an activist or minimalist role, but a proper one. As the noted post-World War II American Catholic theologian Fr. Francis J. Connell said, “excessive legislation is very harmful to the welfare of a nation.”
To be sure, the role of government is not the same for all countries at all times. We can say there is perhaps a range of what is acceptable and expected depending on such considerations as a people’s history, tradition, and level of socio-political development. This is very much like Aristotle’s famous typology of good and perverted regimes; there can be more than one type of good or acceptable regime and what is best for one people may not be best for another. Fr. Connell said that “unnecessary legislation” is against the spirit of a country like the U.S. Maybe Obama and the left should be thinking about that as they try to import European social democracy to the U.S. Actually, the recent meltdowns, economic and otherwise, show that these social democracies have gone beyond what in absolute terms is the reasonable range. Among other things, their excessive taxation on the productive element of their populations have long since surpassed the level that Rerum Novarum would have considered immoral since it is essentially an infringement on the right of private property (#35).
Then there is the nagging question of subsidiarity. The book reviewer insisted that my claim that it means that activities ought to be carried on at the lowest possible level in society is not magisterial teaching. They should be done at their “proper places.” To be sure, some activities by nature go to the highest level. A local government could not carry out national defense. It is hard to claim, however, that Pope Pius XI’s classic definition of subsidiarity—“it is an injustice … a grave evil and a disturbance of right order, to transfer to the larger and higher collectivity functions which can be performed … by lesser and subordinate bodies” (Quadragesimo Anno #79)—does not demand turning to the lower level whenever possible. As a leading current authority on subsidiarity, Professor John J. Schrems, says, “the burden of proof lies always on those who want to deprive a lower level of its function.” From her consistent stress on intermediary (civil society) groups to her high regard for the family farm and small-scale enterprise to Pope John Paul II’s call to turn away from the welfare state and take care of human needs at a level “closest to … those in need” (Centesimus Annus #48-49), the Church makes it abundantly clear that activities be done at the “local” level wherever possible and practicable.
Instead of government setting up more programs, political leaders should work to stimulate and cajole—using the bully-pulpit, if necessary—action by civil society. Again, not all that government should do is legislate.
Faithful Catholics should be careful about falling into the trap that government action and new public policies are the ready solution to all social problems. The Church’s social reaching suggests otherwise and, contrary to the prevailing view, in the nature of things government is often not capable of handling them.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is Pope Pius XI.