For those who missed it, check out Fr. Thomas Reese, SJ, of Woodstock Theological Center of Georgetown University, on The Colbert Report last night. He discusses the incongruity of Rep. Paul Ryan’s proposed budget with Catholic Social Teaching, which the congressman claims conforms with Catholic morality. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has rejected this claim and the faculty of Georgetown University, led by Fr. Reese, have recently issued a public letter to Ryan similarly critiquing his budget for its incompatibility with Catholic moral teaching. Check out the video!
Archive for catholic social teaching
These days it can be difficult to find good news associated with Catholicism in the public square. Sure, the experience of pastoral care and concern on the personal, local and individual level continues to reflect God’s love and mercy in the lives of many, but events and decisions that garner much more public attention tend to be of the negative variety (so much for “no such thing as bad publicity.” On the contrary, there is such a thing and it is indeed bad). However, this week, perhaps overshadowed by other news items, some good news for Right-to-Life and Social-Justice advocates has come out of the State of Connecticut. Governor Dan Malloy signed a bill into law that abolishes the death penalty in Connecticut. This is, without a doubt, a laudable move, the only reservation on my own celebratory mood is that the law is not retroactive, so the dozen or so prisoners currently on death row will still be executed. Nevertheless, no death penalty in the future is still something to celebrate.
While this might seem like some politically neutral or wholly ‘secular’ affair, Lisa Miller of the Washington Post wrote a short piece in the paper last week, prior to the signing of the bill into law, that picked up on the possible influence of the Roman Catholic Church and its (in my opinion, entirely laudable) effort to lobby against capital punishment in each of the half-dozen or so states that have abolished this form of punishment. Miller observed that of the five most recent states to abolish the death penalty, three of those states governors were raised Roman Catholic. Gov. Malloy, it turns out, is a Boston College alum and someone who, while a prosecutor in Brooklyn, came to change his view from support of the death penalty to having very serious legal and moral reservations about it.
“I don’t want to overemphasize my Catholicism here,” the governor, who grew up in a family of eight children and went to Jesuit-run Boston College, told me. “But I know my religion. I know religions in general. In the New Testament, the one place where Jesus talks about the death penalty, he says, ‘Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.’ When I’ve reflected on the death penalty, the reality is I frequently ponder that passage.”
Miller does an excellent job highlighting the true complexity that is actually reflected in Catholic moral teaching — something that those who remain so-called “one-issue voters” in the Church should as keenly observe.
Powerful, vocal Roman Catholics have been much in the news of late, mostly for their hard-line positions on abortion and birth control, and their self-serving rhetoric on the subject of religious rights in the health-care debate. But Catholic activists are playing another political role, too — under the radar — on an issue that hasn’t made the same sorts of headlines.
They are helping to turn the tide of public opinion in the United States against the death penalty. (According to a Pew poll earlier this year, about a third of Americans now oppose capital punishment, up from 18 percent in the mid-1990s.) And they are appealing to the consciences of Roman Catholic politicians to do it.
The sanctity of human life is central to Catholic theology, and for death penalty opponents, this sanctity extends as much to living men and women convicted of capital crimes as it does to embryos and fetuses. Malloy’s change of heart is reflected in the opinion of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, for 30 years ago, popes and bishops were not so clearly emphasizing their opposition to capital punishment.
Regardless of the personal, confessional faith of individual governors, my hope is that other states in the US will continue to follow the lead of Illinois, Connecticut and others that have made this important move. And, that a Catholic Governor had something to do with this in Connecticut might indeed be something to celebrate amid troubling and challenging times about the public face of the Church and its involvement in things such as American politics.
Gov. Malloy even has a little bit of additional wisdom for us people of faith: “on the morality of death as punishment for crimes, Malloy believes the Gospels contain something like the first word. ‘Jesus Christ — he laid out what the standard was.’”
One of the most central tenets of Catholic Social Teaching is the priority of the common good. This principle is found most starkly in the ecclesiastical documents and encyclicals of the last fifty years, especially in Pope John XXIII’s Pacem in Terris (nos. 98-108), the Second Vatican Council’s Gaudium et Spes (nos. 26-32, 68-75), and Pope John Paul II’s Sollicitudo rei Socialis (nos. 35-40). As Jesuit Fr. Thomas Massaro of Boston College explains succinctly in his excellent book, Living Justice (2000), “To speak of the common good is to recognize that there are numerous proper goals in life beyond our own private benefits. Responsible people look for opportunities to contribute to worthy causes and to improve society in many ways, even when the benefits of this progress will go primarily to others…everyone has an obligation to promote the common good by making whatever contributions are necessary to improve the lives of others” (85).
Recalling this important theme of Catholic moral teaching, the priority of the common good over individual interests, we can take a look at one of the passages from Thomas Merton’s writing on Christian nonviolence. Here Merton presents the practice of nonviolence as necessarily arising from the context of seeking the common good.
Nonviolence is perhaps the most exacting of all forms of struggle, not only because it demands first of all that one be ready to suffer evil and even face the threat of death without violent retaliation, but because it excludes mere transient self-interest, even political, from its consideration. In a very really sense, he [or she] who practices nonviolent resistance must commit himself [or herself] not to the defense of his [or her] own interests or even those of a particular group: he [or she] must commit himself [or herself] to the defense of objective truth and right and above all of [humanity]. His [or her] aims then not simply to “prevail” or to prove that he [or she] is right and the adversary wrong, or to make the adversary give in and yield what is demanded (Faith and Violence, 14).
This was written around the same time that the concept of the common good was first being articulated in such words in the 1960s, but the insight of his writing continues to speak to us today in clearly prophetic terms as the notion of the common good becomes much more present in the Church’s formal teaching.
The Christian commitment to nonviolent action as opposed to the popular cultural push for the use of violent force is a central feature of seeking the common good. Can one claim to uphold the commitment to the Catholic moral tradition and support the use of violent force? Can any war be just? Or does war and violent force simply advance the partisan interest of a particular person or persons over against the collective interest of the common good?
I find much of the contemporary discussion surrounding questions about Catholic Social Teaching and the role of government – particularly the United States government – in providing for the needs of the poor in society to fall within the continuum of mildly annoying or at least curious to simply abhorrent. The curious discussions have to do with the recognition of the place governments have to care for and protect their citizens, especially the most vulnerable, from the standpoint of Catholic teaching and the various debates over the ways to translate those moral positions into practice. The abhorrent discussions tend to center on something of an apologetic ode to the value of private property and the “right” this or that person has to accumulate personal wealth.
How such claims can be made in the name of Christianity and with a straight face (or serious blog entry) is beyond me. These apologists, whether individually wealthy or aspirants to such a state, seem to me to be engaging in a post facto exercise of selfish (read: sinful) self-justification. It is an impressive intellectual – perhaps even an attempted theological – acrobatic performance to claim that Scripture or the Christian kerygmatic tradition supports such a position of individualism and private wealth.
To back me up, I wish to draw on the wisdom of my Franciscan brother, the medieval philosopher and theologian Blessed John Duns Scotus. In his masterful text Ordinatio, a revision of his lectures on Lombard’s Sentences, the Subtle Doctor considers the so-called source of “individual property rights.”
He makes clear that there are only three possibilities for the origin of this view: Divine Law, Natural Law or Human Law. He very quickly rules out both Divine and Natural Law, noting as he does that Scripture and nature do not provide even the slightest evidence to support the claim. Furthermore, he posits that the very notion of “private property” or individual ownership is the result of human sinfulness, quite the opposite of God’s will.
In the state of innocence common use with no distinct ownership would have been more conductive to this [peaceful and decent life] than individual ownership, for no one would have taken what another needed, nor would the latter have had to wrest it by force from the other; rather each would have taken what first came to hand as needed for that person’s use. In this way also a greater sufficiency for sustenance would have obtained than if one person’s use of a thing were precluded because another had monopolized it. (Ordinatio IV, dist. 15)
What follows is then a theory about the need for just and prudent laws that find their origin in human reason in order to facilitate the equitable distribution of resources for all. Laws need to be legislated, then, to protect the weak and marginalized in society because, as Scotus writes, “the evil and covetous person would take more than needed and to do so, would also use violence against others who wished to use these common good for their own needs.”
While the Divine and Natural Law that prescribed for a state of living that held all goods in common was necessarily revoked by human sinfulness, it was not, as Scotus reminds us, reversed so that people now had a “right” to private property. On the contrary, we can understand the emergence of human governance and positive law as the necessary – if perhaps unfortunate – requirement to provide and maintain a “peaceful and decent life” among humankind.
These positive laws, therefore, should strive in accordance with prudence to most closely provide for the condition for the possibility of living the Divine and Natural Law wherein all have what they need and others do not take, by force or otherwise, more from others.
In this way, I think Scotus’s writing anticipates Peter Singer’s contemporary claim in his discussion of global poverty that every dollar one accumulates beyond what one needs for survival is effectively stolen from the poor. When there are children around the world who die daily because they don’t have access to something as basic as drinking water or $1 worth of food, how can American Corporations and their CEOs justify their quarterly bank statements?
To return to my first point: I see a continuum of discussion, on one end the apologetic approach is abhorrent and on the other end there is mild annoyance. That mild annoyance needs to be pursued further, for I readily admit that translating this foundational Christian belief – that private property is not part of God’s plan – into praxis is not easy. But we cannot surrender our Christian moral responsibility for the sake of convenience nor can we pretend that governmental structures and programs designed to take care of the poorest and weakest among us are anything less than what is our duty and responsibility according to Divine Law.
 I should note that when I use “personal wealth” I also include public and private corporations and their respective financial assets. After the recent landmark ruling of the United States Supreme Court, which granted corporations the rights equivalent to that of individual personhood, I believe that whatever responsibilities fall to individual persons also apply a fortini to corporations.
Today, the Franciscan friars of Holy Name Province (New York), the province to which I belong, released a statement that speaks out in support of workers’ rights at a time when the matter has become a major public and political focus in this country. Drawing on Catholic Social Teaching and the Franciscan Tradition, the leadership of Holy Name Province, together with the committee for Justice Peace and the Integrity of Creation, produced he following statement expressing the position of our religious community in these difficult times.
STATEMENT SUPPORTING WORKERS’ RIGHTS
We are well aware that difficult economic times call for hard choices and diligent financial responsibility on the part of federal, state, and local governments to promote the common good. At the same time, as heralds of the Gospel, we must voice our concern that basic principles of social justice be maintained in these decisions.
That workers have the right to organize in order to negotiate with employers for a just wage and for adequate medical, disability and retirement benefits, has been a principle of Catholic moral teaching for more than a century.
The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (CSDC)(2004), summarizing this tradition, recognizes “the fundamental role” of labor unions, calling them “a positive influence for social order and solidarity, and…an indispensable element of social life… more fitting and necessary than ever” (#305).
Just two years ago, Pope Benedict XVI reminded us of this fact in his encyclical, Caritas in veritate, observing that:
Governments, for reasons of economic utility, often limit the freedom or the negotiating capacity of labor unions. Hence, traditional networks of solidarity have more and more obstacles to overcome. The repeated calls issued within the Church’s social doctrine, beginning with Rerum Novarum (1891), for the promotion of workers’ associations that can defend their rights must therefore be honored today even more than in the past [#25].
That labor unions are still needed in the U.S. is quickly evident when we consider that as union membership has declined (from 30% of the workforce in the 1950’s to less than 12% today), so too have the relative incomes of working- and middle-class Americans. Simultaneously, the concentration of wealth in the top 1% of earners is now greater than any time since the 1920’s. In the words of Peter Steinfels, “our democracy has become the most economically unequal nation in the advanced world” (Commonweal, Vol. CXXXVIII, No. 5, March 11, 2011, p. 5, 20).
Catholic social teaching on the rights of workers can be viewed as a modern echo of the teaching of Jesus who insisted: “whatever you did for one of these least brothers or sisters of mine, you did for me” (Mt 25:40).
Labor unions have the obligation of seeking not only the good of their members (subsidiarity) but also, in cooperation with the government, the common good of all (solidarity). They must not “lose contact with their specific role, which is to secure the just rights of workers within the framework of the common good of the whole of society” (CSDC, #307).
As states work to balance their budgets and to contain the spiraling costs of worker wages and benefits, they may legitimately seek to renegotiate past contracts with union workers. But they must not deny the collective bargaining rights of workers in a frantic scramble to arrive at fiscal solvency. Nor should union workers alone be made to bear the burden of eliminating government deficits flowing from the current severe economic recession, while that same government continues to afford tax breaks for the most wealthy. As John Paul II wrote in Laborem Exercens (1981): “The thing that must shape the whole economy is respect for the workers’ rights within each country and all through the world’s economy.” (#17)
Economic justice for all must remain the goal of both unions and government, whose relations “must be marked by cooperation; hatred and attempts to eliminate the other are completely unacceptable” (CSDC, #306).
We appeal to everyone – government officials, union members, and ordinary citizens – to move beyond divisive words and actions and work together to build a society where there truly is “liberty and justice for all.”
Franciscan Friars, Holy Name Province
8 March 2011
It has recently come to my attention, thanks to one of the regular readers of http://www.datinggod.org, that a very good post can be read on Faith in Public Life blog titled, “Catholic Lie of the Year.” The premise for this reflection follows the annual politifact.com (a Pulitzer-Prize winning news source) awarding of the “Lie of the Year” to the myth perpetuated by some politicos that healthcare reform was an ostensible “government takeover” of healthcare. Busted.
As those who have been familiar with the content and scope of the reform legislation have known all along, such lies perpetuated by those wishing to curb the reforms are nothing more than a ruse. Unfortunately, there are far too many sheep led astray by such egregious untruths. And when this many people repeat and repeat an untruth, it begins to take on the aura of validity (remember WMDs?).
In response to such flagrant disrespect for the truth, the Faith in Public Life blog had this to say in choosing the “Catholic Lie of the Year.”
I’m picking the laughable effort that Deal Hudson, the CatholicVote.org crowd and other conservative Catholics made to brand Tea Party ideology as all nice and cozy with Catholic social teaching. This effort was so transparently partisan and willfully ignorant of centuries of Catholic social teaching that it runs away with the award like Cam Newton and the Heisman.
It is indeed laughable that those that bear the self-ascription of the “Tea Party” (and indeed such descriptors can only be self-ascribed because there is no “Tea Party” authority or unified organization of which to speak) should claim their disparate ideological aims as in line with Catholic Social Teaching (CST).
The most common distortion of CST, and coincidentally the most misunderstood of the seven principles of CST, is that of the principle of subsidiarity. The Faith in Public Life blog explains:
The idea that the Catholic principle of “subsidiarity” fits lockstep with anti-government rhetoric, free-market fundamentalism and lower taxes for millionaires and billionaires is a stunning distortion of papal encyclicals and Catholic social teaching through the ages. The always insightful Vox Nova blog says it well.
“Fundamentally, subsidiarity is all about letting human dignity flourish by creating the space for social relations to take place at the most personal level. It is meaningless when stripped away from solidarity. It has nothing to do with low taxes, minimal regulation, or low spending. In the economic sphere, solidarity calls for government intervention in certain core areas (such as determining working conditions and support for the unemployed), while subsidiarity calls for the government to create favorable conditions for the common good to flourish. That, by the way, means correcting the problems that come with the free market. This was patently clear to Pius XI, the intellectual architect of subsidiarity, when he railed against the injustice created by unregulated large corporations, especially in the financial sector. Properly understood, subsidiarity provides a bulwark against both the centralizing tendencies of socialist collectivism, and the decentralizing tendencies of the free market.”
The work of the Faith in Public Life blog and the bloggers at Vox Nova, among others, is well done. The manipulation, misrepresentation and even villainization of CST by certain seeming “conservative” groups, pundits and network hosts (am I the only one who finds it odd that Tea Party icon Glenn Beck has demonized CST, while other Tea Party constituents have been propagating the myth of Tea Party ideology and CST symbiosis) has really confused the public and disheartened theologians.
It seems to me that this instance, whether intentionally or by happenstance, is yet another example of how certain political entities, organizations and demagogues misappropriate theological and scriptural themes, terms and concepts to use in ways antithetical to their true meaning.
When it comes to the so-called Tea Party and Catholic Social Teaching, one should be very aware of what is and what is not legitimate. Don’t fall for the ruse.