Catholics may wonder sometimes about the pertinence of Catholic social teaching to our fast-changing public life. Yet President Obama talked freely a several weeks ago with Catholic journalists about the formative influence of Catholic social teaching on his moral development, citing it particularly as “a moral compass” on matters of distribution (see Signs of the Times). At the center of that teaching is the notion of the common good, which Blessed John XXIII was the first to define as the full human development of every person. Now Pope Benedict XVI, in his first social encyclical, Caritas in Veritate (On Human Development in Charity and Truth), released on July 7, has written: “To take a stand for the common good” involves care for and participation in “that complex of institutions that give structure to the life of society, juridically, civilly, politically and culturally, making it the polis...” (No. 7).
In the United States today, however, our institutional arrangements seem to be failing the common good, surrendering to individual, partisan and class interests. On Capitol Hill, in state houses and in board rooms across the country all the pointers read: decline—failure to move ahead because we cannot come together. At a time that calls for shared sacrifice and an increased measure of fairness, too many leaders are pursuing their own interests to the detriment of the common good.
In New York State, a split in the Senate, precipitated by Republicans and a single grand-standing Democratic renegade, has deadlocked state government, causing scores of bills to expire for lack of action. In California, the voters rejected Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s proposed plan to reduce the state’s $41 billion deficit by $21 billion; and the Legislature, perpetuating decades of dysfunction, is incapable of passing a budget. As of this month, California is paying its vendors in i.o.u.’s.
On Capitol Hill, where there is some appearance of action, legislation is so muddied by deals for special interests that observers question whether any of the legislation—whether on banking reform, health care or climate change—will result in any significant change. In their flight from serious regulation, banking interests are resisting the Obama administration’s latest proposal for a new agency to protect consumers in the financial markets. Coal, power and agricultural interests obtained special provisions in the Cap-and-Trade energy bill. So many pollution licenses have been given away in advance, it is reported, that as few as 10 percent of licenses remain to be openly traded. As one columnist has written, “political pragmatism” is succeeding in assembling majorities in favor of bills that will pass the test of “policy pragmatism”—that is, policies that will work.
The Me Decade of the 1970s has not ended. Even the Great Recession has not killed it. Though polls show that taxpayers are willing to pay more to provide universal coverage in health care or to reduce global warming, when they face actual proposals to raise taxes to balance budgets or solve fundamental problems, they and their lawmakers vote no. As in the recent past, the wealthy are the most resistant. Bankers rushed to pay back their government loans so that government could not set limits on executive compensation intended to retain the too-smart-for-the-world’s-good whiz kids who brought us the global economic crisis.
The political system, too, is corrupted in the profound sense that it not only cannot resist special interests but allows itself to be ruled by them. In hearings, Congressmen and Senators hold their theaters of crisis, and play their roles as righteous defenders of the underdog. They scold automakers for flying to Washington on private jets and question loan executives for taking fat bonuses as their companies were about to tank. But despite the change of administrations, one-party control of Congress and the world economic crisis, it is business as usual. Legislation is written to please the interests, while lawmakers “spin” to the voters that they are making fundamental reforms. Advocates for the common good, like proponents of single-payer health care, are not given a serious hearing. Only special interests need apply.
In his new encyclical, Pope Benedict reminds us of the function and purpose of our public and social institutions. “To desire the common good,” he writes, “and strive for it is a requirement of justice and charity..... The more we strive to secure a common good corresponding to the real needs of our neighbors, the more effectively we love them” (No. 8). Today all Americans, but especially those in elected and appointed office and those in key positions in the private sector, need to ask themselves how effective their decisions are in bringing about the integral human development of every person that is the common good.