The National Catholic Review
Apr 22 1995 - 12:00am | Thomas A. Shannon
From April 22, 1995
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The political climate has changed dramatically in light of the Republican landslide in the fall elections and the Contract With America. But what astonishes me is not so much the content of the contract or the rhetoric of the debate, but the zeal and seeming joy with which social programs are being actually dismantled or put in line for their time on the block. This is coupled with the battle cry of "dismantle government," a return of the get-the-government-off-our-backs rhetoric of the late 1980's, all this dignified now by the rhetoric of devolution and states' rights. More dismaying than anything else, however, is the underlying theme of isolated individualism, a cry of "I've got mine, now you get yours." The Irish nationalist movement, for all its excesses, has at least recognized that the basis of reform is "Sinn Fein"--we ourselves. Our cry seems to be I myself. And we will be the worst for it.

There are two traditions within Catholic social thought that are particularly relevant in this present moment of political and social disemboweling. The first is the venerable principle of subsidiarity described in Pope Pius XI's encyclical Quadragesimo Anno (1931): "One should not withdraw from individuals and commit to the community what they can accomplish by their own enterprise and industry" (No. 79). Given what has been said thus far, one might be surprised that I cite this principle. For it would seem a teaching that precisely fits the temper and mood of our times. And so it should, for only a few would see no need for reform in governments and programs at all levels. Federal, state and municipal governments and many of the programs that they have enacted have become outsized, and reform is needed. Subsidiarity is an apt principle on which to base reform.

But the principle of subsidiarity has its flip side: as big as necessary or appropriate. This is the dimension of subsidiarity we are in danger of forgetting. For while we should not do for others what they should rightly do for themselves, neither should we require them to do what they cannot or should not do for themselves. The virulent anti-government rhetoric of the current Congress, the talk shows and other electronic media suggest that each individual can do it all on his or her own: No instructions needed; Pull yourself up by the bootstraps; I made it by myself; Government destroys initiative; Government destroys freedom. Such rhetoric goes beyond standard liberal cries for autonomy and traditional libertarian celebrations of the rugged individual. Witness Presidential candidate Lamar Alexander's pledge to dismantle the Federal Government and make Congress part-time. Such anti-government, anti-insider sentiments are only the latest extreme in a season of extremes.

Ultimately no one can provide for oneself everything one needs. No one has ever been a self-made person--contrary to our deepest-held American mythology. No one of us fed, clothed or sheltered ourselves at birth. No one of us invented our language, our science or even our beloved Internet. All these achievements were community efforts. To be sure, individual initiative was called for--but had it not been for others doing for us what we could not do for ourselves, we would be lost; we would not be here. Even another country aided us in our revolution. My plea is that in this time of the attempted devolution of many social structures, we Catholics at least not forget our principle of subsidiarity--and that it cuts two ways.

The second resource that Catholics have is the concept of social justice. This resource is in more desperate straits than subsidiarity. For what is being encouraged and celebrated is an individualistic ethic and sense of justice that says "what is mine is mine and no one else has any claims to it, regardless of circumstances." This understanding of justice looks to the acquisition of goods and their care and feeding primarily for the sake of individual well-being. Justice in this perspective can be reduced to getting what one wants and then holding on to it.

The bishops of this country look at justice from another perspective. They see justice not as a way to secure and maintain goods (though they do not reject receiving and enjoying the fruits of one's labor) but rather as participation in the social life of the community. They said in "Economic Justice for All": "Basic justice demands the establishment of minimal levels of participation in the life of the human community for all persons" (No. 77, italics in original). This concept of justice helps secure another core element of Catholic social teaching, the common good, which is understood as: "the sum of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfillment" (No. 79). What is important about these concepts is that they recognize that individuals have both rights and duties. No one gets a free ride. While each has certain rights and entitlements that one can claim from the community, there are also duties to one's neighbor and to the community.

Social justice and the establishment of the common good that complements it mandate the establishment of appropriate institutions that secure the rights of citizens and through which citizens can exercise their obligations to the community. In this way the good of each and all can be obtained. Such an understanding of justice and the common good takes seriously the devastating effects of poverty, repression, unemployment, illiteracy, racism and sexism. Social justice condemns the individual and social forces that bring these about and calls for their removal. But it does not stop there, for it next mandates the institutional reforms which will effect the reintegration and reincorporation of these individuals into their rightful roles in society. Only through participation in society will individuals achieve their full human dignity, and only in this way will the good of all be achieved.

Tired and ineffective liberal rhetoric, many will say. At least the polite ones will say that. But we Catholics must respond with the bishops: "The common good demands justice for all" (No. 85, italics in original). This vision of justice also encompasses both dimensions of the principle of subsidiarity. Individuals ought to do for themselves what they can, but they need the appropriate institutions whereby they might be enabled to do that. In addition, this definition of justice requires that we also do for others. Justice is not securing my good alone; it seeks to ensure that others have access to the common good as well. Only in such a just society are the rights of all secured and their duties specified.

This vision of justice also looks for some degree of equity in the social structures. A strong Catholic social justice will ask why the poor and marginal seem to be bearing the burden of governmental devolution. Why is it that food stamps and school lunches are in jeopardy, when the Federal Government subsidizes Congress's meals and business people receive an 80 percent tax deduction for meals? Why can some groups receive subsidies but the urban poor cannot? Why do educational programs directed to the poor, such as Head Start, and support for public elementary, secondary and community colleges continue to have their funding reduced? Ironically, the Catholic social vision and the politics of disembowelment ask similar questions about the value and status of institutions, the social distribution of goods and services and personal responsibility. The essential difference is that the Catholic social vision suggests that all are called upon in justice to do their share. According to the politics of disembowelment, only the poor seem to have such obligations.

Can this Catholic vision be translated into action? We might well ask first if anyone still believes in it. Remember that the bishops' letter on economic justice was not only not received by the majority of the community; it was actively rejected, and the bishops were reviled as economic innocents. Today only a few within the Catholic community have raised their voices against the politics of disembowelment. And the few who have done so have been quickly dismissed or politely listened to and then dismissed. Witness Cardinal John O'Connor's appeal to the Governor of New York on behalf of the poor. Other religious leaders as well are learning that the sower's seed is falling on very thin and rocky soil these days.

What may be more important than political action now--though that is important too--is a moment of reflection within the Catholic community, a moment in which we examine our tradition and the rich resources it contains as a remedy for the ills of today. In particular, I would call for a critical reappraisal of the principle of subsidiarity and the concept of social justice, with its celebration of the common good, as appropriate bases on which to restructure our community. These principles will not solve our problems or make our task less painful. But they will help ensure that the burdens of restructuring and downsizing are distributed fairly.

The Second Vatican Council perhaps said it best in its "Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World": "Profound and rapid changes make it particularly urgent that no one, ignoring the trend of events or drugged by laziness, content himself with a merely individualistic morality. It grows increasingly true that the obligations of justice and love are fulfilled only if each person, contributing to the common good, according to his own abilities and the needs of others, also promotes and assists the public and private institutions dedicated to bettering the conditions of human life" (No. 30).

Thomas A. Shannon is professor emeritus of religion and social ethics at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, Mass.