International Update : Can Catholic Social Teaching Unite a Divided America?

Insight Online News

By Francis X. Rocca

President Joe Biden, the second Catholic in history to hold the office, has made religion a prominent element of his public role. He attended Mass on the morning of his inauguration, quoted the theologian and philosopher St. Augustine in his inaugural speech and placed a photograph of Pope Francis, whom he has praised as a personal inspiration, behind his desk in the Oval Office.

Mr. Biden’s approach is a far cry from that of the first Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, who sought to dispel prejudice against his faith by assuring an audience of Protestant ministers during the 1960 campaign: “I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me.”

Perhaps inevitably, the start of the Biden administration has kicked off a debate over how Catholic his policies actually are.

Progressive Catholics see much of Mr. Biden’s agenda, in areas such as migration, race relations, economic inequality and the environment, as the church’s social teaching in action. “President Biden has a natural disposition to compassion, but Catholic social teaching in those areas, particularly with the poor and those who are victimized in various ways, provides a framework for that compassion,” Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego, one of the leading liberals in the U.S. church, said in an interview.

But conservative Catholics, including Archbishop José Gómez of Los Angeles, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, have emphasized instead Mr. Biden’s deviations from church teaching. “Our new President has pledged to pursue certain policies that would advance moral evils and threaten human life and dignity, most seriously in the areas of abortion, contraception, marriage and gender,” Archbishop Gómez wrote in a statement released on Inauguration Day.

What is Catholic social teaching? And why should it matter to the nearly 80% of Americans who do not belong to the church?

A body of doctrine on law, politics and economics developed by popes since the late 19th century, Catholic social teaching has historically been more influential in Europe and Latin America than in the U.S. But some on both sides of the aisle, not all of them Catholic, say its concepts are especially needed at this fractured moment in American politics. “If you’re looking for a way to bridge differences and find some unity and healing, Catholic social teaching offers a path forward that challenges both right and left and calls us to work together for the common good,” said John Carr, a former adviser to the U.S. bishops who teaches at Georgetown University and who endorsed Mr. Biden last fall. “In a society with very few strong moral paradigms left, Catholic social thought is a well-organized tradition that has something for both left and right,” said Adrian Vermeule, a conservative professor of constitutional law at Harvard University. “Catholicism, despite or because of our polarized age, is becoming something like an organizing common language for a great deal of American public life.”

Church teachings on social questions are set out in the philosophical terms of natural law, which predates Christianity and doesn’t depend on an appeal to scripture. Aristotle distinguished what was “just by convention” from what was universally “just by nature,” and the ancient Stoics taught that every human being could grasp moral truths through intellectual reflection. Following the teaching of St. Paul the Apostle that the “demands of the law are written in [the] hearts” of those who have not received divine revelation, early Christian thinkers embraced the idea of natural law as a language for communicating their beliefs to others. The 13th-century theologian and philosopher St. Thomas Aquinas developed Aristotle’s teaching that all beings exist for certain ends or functions, with human beings naturally inclined toward the good, including living together in a community.

“Roman Catholicism is not a fundamentalist tradition that says the only resource for our ethics is the Bible and our faith. It also bases our moral standards on reason,” said the Rev. David Hollenbach, a professor at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service. “It leads to what I think can be called a humanistic morality that should reach out to all human beings.”

Two of the central concepts of Catholic social teaching are solidarity and subsidiarity. Both have been influential beyond Catholic circles, including in European Union law, which considers them key principles.

Pope John Paul II defined solidarity as “a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all.” According to David Gibson, director of the Center on Religion and Culture at Fordham University, “President Biden’s agenda reflects a Catholic notion of solidarity in many ways, perhaps most notably on issues of climate change, support for immigrants and refugees, economic equity and expanded health care.” The principles of solidarity and the common good “are reflected in a policy agenda that strengthens unions and prioritizes restoring workers’ rights eroded in the Trump era,” said John Gehring, the Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, an advocacy organization in Washington, D.C. “Biden has a vision for economic dignity and a role for government in addressing inequality that is supported by a long history of Catholic social teaching.”

The second concept, subsidiarity, is generally understood as the principle that social and political activities should be organized insofar as possible at the local level. Or in the words of John Paul II, “a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good.”

Yuval Levin of the American Enterprise Institute, author of “The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism” (2016), says that subsidiarity reflects “a sense that human problems often are better resolved at the interpersonal level where people can see each other, and so if it’s possible that’s where our problems ought to be taken up.” The efforts of the George W. Bush administration to provide social services through civil-society institutions were guided by the principle of subsidiarity, he says. “Inherently there is a tension…between solidarity and subsidiarity,” Mr. Levin says. “One looks to define people’s identity based on what they have in common and the other looks to a much more diversified and localized way of reaching people.” But the two principles “need each other; each without the other is deformed.”

Mr. Carr warns against a lopsided understanding of subsidiarity. “Big institutions should not substitute for, replace or interfere with smaller institutions: family, neighborhood, union,” he said. “On the other hand, smaller institutions have a claim on larger institutions when they need it. You have a global pandemic—my family, my neighborhood, my little town can’t fix that.”

According to Peter Wehner, who served as a speechwriter and adviser in the George W. Bush administration, conservatives are often receptive to subsidiarity because of their skepticism of centralized government. But solidarity, particularly in regard to economic policy, can be a harder sell. “There is a tendency within the Republican party towards a more laissez-faire attitude on economics. At its worst it can be a quasi-Social Darwinian view, and I think Catholic social teaching pushes back very much against that,” Mr. Wehner said.

Severe critiques of free-market economics have featured prominently in the writings of the popes. In his first campaign for president, in 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt quoted Pope Pius XI’s encyclical “Quadragesimo Anno,” which raised grave doubts about capitalism in the midst of the Great Depression. Roosevelt called the encyclical “just as radical as I am” and “one of the greatest documents of modern times,” according to John McGreevy, a professor of history at the University of Notre Dame. Pope Francis has repeatedly warned against the excesses of capitalism. “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?” Pope Francis wrote in an early document, subsequently quoted in a speech by then-President Barack Obama. In his 2015 encyclical on the environment, “Laudato si’,” Pope Francis blamed what he called the “deified market” for pollution and global warming.

Yet Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical “Rerum Novarum,” which is considered the first document of modern Catholic social teaching, strongly defended the right to private property and condemned socialism. A century later, in “Centesimus Annus,” John Paul II offered the most favorable papal assessment of capitalism to date when he wrote that “the free market is the most efficient instrument for utilizing resources and effectively responding to needs,” though he added that many remained unjustly excluded from “the circle of exchange.”

This positive development in the church’s view of the market reflected in large part the influence of the American Catholic philosopher and theologian Michael Novak, author of “The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism” (1982), who argued that economic competition is compatible with the Christian values of charity and community. Novak was also an important influence, along with the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, a prominent Catholic priest and writer, on President George W. Bush’s philosophy of “compassionate conservatism,” which assigned a major role to faith-based and other nongovernmental organizations in providing social services, Mr. Wehner said.

“‘Compassionate conservatism’ was designed to be a policy application of Catholic social thought,” Michael Gerson, a former speechwriter and adviser to Mr. Bush who is considered one of the architects of compassionate conservatism, wrote in the Atlantic in 2018. He noted that the evangelical Christian movement to which he belongs lacks “a coherent, comprehensive tradition of social and political reflection” to match that of the Catholic Church.

More recently, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, a Catholic and a likely presidential candidate in 2024, quoted four popes in a speech at the Catholic University of America proposing worker-friendly policies such as paid parental leave, expansion of the federal per-child tax credit and changes to the tax code to incentivize job creation and higher wages. The senator now says that job losses and social dislocation caused by the pandemic have made even clearer the need for what he calls “common-good capitalism.” “To be a strong nation, we need strong families and strong communities, but none of that is possible if we do not have dignified work,” Mr. Rubio said in a statement. “This is foundational in Catholic social teaching, but it is also core to what America is supposed to be.”

A presidential candidate, of whatever religious affiliation, who combined socially conservative policies with a populist economic program would not only be in line with Catholic teaching but would win the White House, says Robert George, a professor of jurisprudence at Princeton University. “It’s a fertile field, it’s ripe for the harvest,” Mr. George said, though he added that such a candidate “would have to embody in a way that Trump didn’t, in their own lives, the socially conservative” values of their supporters.

Both progressive and conservative Catholics agree that neither major party’s program currently lines up with church teaching. “It’s very hard to find a candidate who reflects even 40% of Catholic social teaching in their views,” said Bishop McElroy. “The parties bifurcate what Catholic social teaching holds out as most crucial.”

Catholics on the left and right also agree that their church’s social doctrine is inseparable from its teaching on morals, including sexual and medical ethics. But they differ forcefully over how much political weight to give what Pope Benedict XVI called nonnegotiable moral issues, especially abortion. “For the nation’s bishops, the continued injustice of abortion remains the ‘pre-eminent priority,’” wrote Archbishop Gómez, quoting a U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops voter guide, in his statement on the presidential inauguration.

“The clear and undeniable respect in which Biden denies foundational Catholic social teaching is in exposing the unborn to the lethal violence of abortion,” Mr. George said. “What guides his agenda, what informs his ideology, is secular progressivism, not Catholic social teaching.” According to George Weigel, a biographer of John Paul II, “Any serious understanding of Catholic social teaching begins with the dignity of the human person from conception until natural death. That is the fundamental principle…To claim that you are thinking within the social doctrine of the church and to support abortion on demand or euthanasia is simply wrong, it’s a logical fallacy.”

But Mr. Carr, who contributed to earlier editions of the bishops’ voter guide, wrote last fall in America magazine that he was endorsing Mr. Biden, despite the Democrat’s position on abortion, “for what he can do to help us recover and heal, lift up those left behind, ensure health care for all and treat immigrants and refugees with respect.”

“Catholicism is not just about abortion and sex,” Father Hollenbach says. “The orientation of the Democratic Party, especially the orientation that Joe Biden is trying to bring, is responding to a wider range of important Catholic concerns across the board.”

Supporters of President Biden note that the message of Pope Francis to the new president, released the same day as Archbishop Gómez’s statement, contained no reference to abortion. “Francis is not a culture warrior, and he clearly wants to lead the church away from the kind of reflexive opposition that the Gómez statement demonstrated and toward a more engaged approach to help resolve issues,” Mr. Gibson said.

Bishop McElroy is a vocal member of the minority of U.S. bishops who diverge from the conference’s line. “It is a great sadness that President Biden and Democratic political leaders across the spectrum do not support legal sanctions to protect the unborn,” Bishop McElroy said. “But that is not the pre-eminent issue. The pre-eminent issue for our country at this time is healing and coming together,” he said. “Because unless we can get a political culture that’s healed in some fundamental ways, we can’t advance the common good in any sustainable way.”


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