Church role in a free society
If you follow my thoughts regularly, you will have noticed that I rarely mention the names of partisan political figures. I do not and will not tell anyone for whom to vote. What makes me an expert? I have enough of a job to decide my own vote. I believe that people are smart enough to make their own political decisions. But if I do not consider my office gives me any special insight into politics or economics, it does not mean I think the Church has nothing to say about the direction a country or society are headed, or what might enrich a culture. On the contrary. The Church has much to offer and has not been silent over the course of history, especially in the last 130 years or so. In fact, I would maintain, its role is essential.
Catholic social teaching, from Pope Leo XIII (Rerum Novarum, 1891) to Pope Francis is grounded firmly on a solid and true understanding of human nature that values the radical dignity of every human person, transcending tribe, race, nationality, class or any other labels a checklist by demographers might devise. Every person is made in the image and likeness of God, an incarnate spirit, endowed from the moment of conception with a divine spark.
Looking back on 100 years of Catholic social teaching, St. John Paul II articulated perhaps the most comprehensive vision of the essential role of the Church in society to date in his encyclical “Centesimus Annus” (1991). I am especially indebted to George Weigel’s summary of the social teaching of St. John Paul II in this encyclical.
Commemorating “Rerum Novarum,” from a very different time in history, right after the industrial revolution, the Holy Father looked forward to the new millennium and beyond. It was at a moment when the political and economic struggles of the 20th century seemed to have been resolved, politically, in favor of democracy as opposed to fascist and communist totalitarianism and, economically, for the free market, in contrast to state owned and controlled economies. Freedom seemed to have won.
The Holy Father recognized, however, that something was still missing. Human wellbeing and social stability could not be ensured unless a free society was also a virtuous society. It is not enough to think of institutions of political and economic freedom without the cultivation of virtue. While the Church of itself lacks sufficient resources to expound on how the polity and the economy should run, it has much to offer on that crucial third component.
It takes a certain kind of people, a critical mass as it were, to build a vibrant public moral culture. Free democratic communities and markets interlock in a way that requires also a people of moral character. In order for society to function in a truly human way, the reform or restructuring of political and economic structures is never enough.
Another way of saying this is that democracy and a free economy are not machines that can run on their own. They need soul fuel. It is not enough just to change the machinery of government. Nor are properly organized markets sufficient, according to St John Paul II, without a social solidarity of virtuous people, working together. A vibrant public moral culture is the key to the future. This also clarifies the mission of Church, its limited yet essential role.
The Church is not in the business of designing the polity or the economy, of opining on which form of democratic structure works best, a bicameral or single legislative house, say, or how to structure an income tax system, or how court systems should operate. The truths the Church teaches, however, about the nature and dignity of human persons and their acts, are essential for a free society. Not just because the Church says so, but because they are true. Even non-believers might agree. “We hold these truths to be self-evident…”
Among those truths are the first principle of personalism. This starts with the innate dignity and value of every person made in the image and likeness of God. The Church knows that all right thinking begins with the inalienable dignity of every human person, not with tribe or ethnic group. Made in the image and likeness of God means the human person is capable of reason.
Another principle is that of the common good, that this personal dignity and freedom mean living with others in society and exercising one’s rights so as to contribute to the benefit of others. It’s not just about me, myself and I. And there are layers to this inter-personality. Authority in a free society should be multi-tiered and textured. This is known as the principle of subsidiarity, first articulated by Pope Pius XI in “Quadragesimo Anno” (1831). Decisions should be made not at the highest level, but by those closest to the decision, like American federalism. And finally, principle of solidarity without which people perish. This inspires an attitude and practice of inclusion, recognizing that when one person is disvalued or marginalized, all are.
It is distinctly the essential role of the Church to teach and promote that moral culture by forming people in those virtues. This is one reason why the Church is so insistent on a culture of life, because respect for and protection of every human life as essential is the bond that holds a society together and safeguards it from cannibalizing itself.
We come then to the crucible of freedom. Freedom is understood by many to be essential for a civilized society, but the nature of freedom is often fraught with confusion, conflated with the notion of choice. The mere assertion of choice in the name of freedom tends to end any conversation. It was the wisdom of St. John Paul II to say that the sentence must be completed: choice for what? If freedom is not tethered to the good, to the truth, it becomes destructive, a mere assertion of willfulness, a power grab. This reduces the beauty of freedom to what is really a childish notion of “I did it my way,” the M.O. of every 2-year-old in the world. It has all the meaning and productivity of that child banging on the piano keys, not music, just noise.
Choice that is not ordered to what we know to be good – “freedom” without a good end – can become destructive. If it is just my choice and your choice, your truth and my truth – not THE truth – then what happens when they collide? Mere willfulness. One’s will then imposes itself by force or censorship, constraint or restraint, on that of another, typically using the coercive power of state, what Pope Benedict XVI called the dictatorship of relativism.
One need not look far to see the chaos this leads to, the destruction of a free and virtuous society. When wrongs are defined as rights, we know a country is heading in a wrong direction. Freedom is more than choice, but a habit of choosing what is objectively truth, a virtue into which we grow, not a power that we claim over the will of another. In the end, this is no display of respect for our common humanity, but a demoralization thereof.
Recognizing that humans exist and grow in and through relationships – another sign of children made in the image of a personal God – our social teaching upholds natural communities, such as the family, and voluntary associations, which St. John Paul II writes are the sinews and ligaments of a free and virtuous society. The individual is not pitted alone against the state, but lives in any number of natural and voluntary associations. These communities form, protect and mediate the freedom and identity of the person. A genuinely free state will protect them. They are the first schools of freedom! How else to turn willful 2-year-old year tyrants into civil, tolerant children of a democracy.
Our social teaching also offers valuable insights on the nature of wealth, which has changed over the course of human history. For centuries, wealth was primarily defined in terms of the ownership of land and what was in it, what we call natural resources. Today, as St. John Paul II observed, wealth is a matter of initiative and imagination, what someone’s creativity can come up with. Sand has been in the earth for a long time. Only in the past few decades has someone’s genius (image and likeness of God?) turned a few grains into a computer chip – and a fortune!
With this new understanding of wealth comes a different view of poverty. Just as one can be wealthy without land, having land alone may not free one from poverty, unless one is part of those networks that generate wealth. More often today, poverty is exclusion, not being a part of those networks. Inclusion or empowerment of those without material things enables them to enter into the circles of creativity. So education takes on an increasingly vital role in forming the skills to participate in a free economy, a clarion call for the educational mission of the Church among the rural and urban poor. What could be more essential than to help form our children holistically as responsible citizens in a free society – as the Church’s social teaching provides a remarkable template for.