11 February 2021

WSJ on Catholic social teachings

On 5 February this article by Francis X. Rocca appeared in The Wall Street Journal: Can Catholic Social Teaching Unite a Divided America? Subtitle: "President Biden, Sen. [Marco] Rubio and many non-Catholic thinkers see a way forward in the church’s long tradition of public discourse, even as they disagree in interpreting it." The article is behind a pay wall, but here is a brief excerpt:

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.” . . .

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.” . . .

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 [Robert W.] McElroy. “The parties bifurcate what Catholic social teaching holds out as most crucial.”
Of course, Catholic social teachings are not the only alternative to the current ideological polarization in the American polity. The Reformed approach associated with Abraham Kuyper and his heirs constitutes a second great tradition of social and political reflection in what might be called the Christian Democratic legacy. For the relationship between the two, see my discussion in Political Visions and Illusions, chapter 8.

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