The debate over Catholic social doctrine and U.S. social welfare policy took an unhelpful turn in May when a gaggle of academics fired a shot across the bow of House Speaker John Boehner, prior to his commencement address at the Catholic University of America. Their charge? That Boehner’s House voting record showed him to be a man who fails “to recognize (whether out of a lack of awareness or dissent) important aspects of Catholic teaching.” Why? Because he had not supported legislation that, in the professors’ view, addressed “the desperate needs of the poor.”
Speaker Boehner, a Catholic with a solid pro-life voting record, is a big boy who can defend his votes on various issues. What bothered me about the open letter to Boehner was its tone (smarmy), its assumptions about the one-to-one correspondence between the principles of Catholic social doctrine and the policy preferences of the Democratic Party, and its suggestion that anyone who challenges that linkage is in “dissent” from settled Catholic teaching.
The 2012 election seems likely to be defined by a major national debate on the welfare state, government spending, and social responsibility. If libertarian minimalism of the sort espoused by Ron Paul sits poorly with the rich and complex tradition of Catholic social doctrine, so does reactionary liberalism of the sort espoused by the anti-Boehner pedagogues. So perhaps a review of the basics is in order, to put the forthcoming argument on a more secure footing.
(1) The Church’s concern for the poor does not imply a “preferential option” for Big Government. The social doctrine teaches that the problem of poverty is best addressed by empowerment: enabling poor people to enter the circle of productivity and exchange in society. The responsibility for that empowerment falls on everyone: individuals, through charitable giving and service work; voluntary organizations, including the Church; businesses and trade unions. Government at all levels can play a role in this process of empowerment, but it is a serious distortion of the social doctrine to suggest that government has exclusive responsibility here. On the contrary: in the 1991 social encyclical, “Centesimus Annus,” Blessed John Paul II condemned the “Social Assistance State” because it saps welfare-recipients of their dignity and their creativity while making them wards of the government.
(2) Fiscal prudence is a matter of justice extended toward future generations, and is therefore an inter-generational moral imperative (as is provision for the retired elderly). To leave mountains of unserviceable debt to future generations is shameful. The reactionary defense of governmental pension and social welfare programs with no evident concern for their fiscal implications violates the moral structure of Catholic social doctrine: the portside analogue to a cool indifference toward the fate of the poor.
(3) There are legitimate disagreements about the implications of the Church’s social doctrine for American social welfare policy. To suggest that the social doctrine provides obvious, clear-cut answers to questions about the future of Medicare or Medicaid is to misrepresent that teaching. To charge someone with “dissent” from Church teaching because that someone disagrees with one’s own prudential judgments about the application of the social doctrine to complex policy issues is a serious misuse of the notion of “dissent” and borders on calumny (a false statement that “harms the reputation of others and gives occasion for false judgments concerning them”—Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2477). It ill behooves anyone to make such a charge; it particularly ill behooves academics who publicly dissent from settled Catholic teaching on marital chastity, sexual morality, and qualifications for Holy Orders from chairs at Catholic universities.
(4) The moral imperative to legally protect innocent human life from conception until natural death is a settled matter in Catholic doctrine. So is the nature of marriage as the stable union of a man and a woman. Catholic legislators who support the abortion license are manifestly in dissent and have damaged their communion with the Church. So have legislators who support “gay marriage.” Academics eager to demonstrate their fidelity to Catholic social doctrine might point this out—and support the bishops who do.