Thursday, May 05, 2011

Different Paths

George Weigel on Catholic Social Thought and the 2012 Election:

Yet in the hands of some Catholics, Catholic social thought has been reduced to another argument for what Blessed John Paul II criticized in the 1991 social encyclical Centesimus Annus as the Social Assistance State—what Americans more familiarly call the Nanny State. In this view, virtually every problem on the 2012 agenda—from the solvency of Social Security and Medicare to federal budgetary discipline and debt reduction—can only be addressed by an increase in the government’s involvement in the economy, the society, the culture, and the lives of individuals. Such thinking betrays a sorry lack of imagination (not to mention a sorry lack of historical understanding, of the “been there, done that” school). It is also a crude caricature, and thus a betrayal, of Catholic social thought and the social doctrine of the popes from Leo XIII through Benedict XVI.

Because this statist misreading of Catholic social thought often flies under the flag of “Justice for the Poor,” it’s important to underscore one crucial point as the 2012 debate unfolds, this year and next: Catholic social thought is about the empowerment of the poor. It is not about failed polices of social assistance that treat poor people as problems to be solved rather than as people with potential to be unleashed. It is not about using public policy to create generation after generation of serfs on the state welfare plantation. Catholic social thought is about the empowerment of the poor, and its broad imagination allows it to think of that empowerment happening through private sector means, some public sector programs, and public/private partnerships where necessary. But contrary to the way some misrepresent it, Catholic social thought does not measure the rectitude of a society by the percentage of its GNP represented in governmental budgets.

One of the four core principles of Catholic social doctrine is the principle of subsidiarity, which teaches that decision making should be left at the lowest possible level in society, commensurate with the common good. A lot of Catholics forgot about subsidiarity during the 2009 health-care debate. That failure should not be repeated in 2011 and 2012.

Liberals like to invoke Jesus' call to Christians to help the poor to support their desires for more government programs and more spending. If you don't believe that such government intervention is the most efficient or effective way to help the poor, they will accuse you of failing to live up to the duties of the Christian faith that you profess. The truth is that both liberal and conservative Christians heed the words of Jesus and wish to help the poor. It's just that they believe there are different means to better reach those ends. It's perfectly legitimate to argue over which approach best realizes the goal. However, it's not legitmate to question the committment on both sides to tend to the needs of the least and the lost.