Sunday, October 20, 2013

Thinking about Catholic Social Teaching in current political discussions...

It is rare enough that anyone even discusses Catholic Social Teaching nowadays, so I am happy to see someone grappling with the concepts of Solidarity and Subsidiarity in the American political landscape. 

It's worth reading Mr Frost's short essay.

That said, I remain somewhat dubious. Mr. Frost seems to have his own agenda couched in a strawman account of subsidiarity and (inadvertently?) distorts the proper application of CTS to serve an assertion.  He also blithely accepts the status quo:

A common use that the political right makes of the doctrine of Subsidiarity is to be found in the claim that the function of the social safety net should be privatized and localized. Churches and other charitable entities should deal with the needs of the poor, it is said, rather than the government. This would indeed be in accord with Subsidiarity if it was practical, but it is not. Private organizations do not have the resources to handle all of the needs provided for by the social safety net in American society. 

Anyone who would like to see the day when a social safety net is no longer needed should donate to charity as much as possible, and volunteer to work for charitable organizations with the same vigor. If the needs of the poor and vulnerable are adequately met at a lower level of organization, then there will be no need for higher levels of organization to remain involved. But, in light of the many years of prevalent secularization and the outright promotion of mammonism in American society, that is not likely to happen in the near future.
I would just point out a few issues:
1) The principle of subsidiarity states that decisions ought to be made when possible at the lowest (least centralized) competent level of governance. This is to promote solidarity in respecting the social nature of the person, and with a view that decisions are best made at a local level where those affected by policy decisions have relevant say in what happens. Competency is of course necessary: it does no good if the need cannot be met adequately at the simple lowest level.

In matters of safety net social services (which are a moral matter of solidarity and justice), there is no real reason to assume that such services and resources cannot be met and best be administered at the state level, rather than the Federal level. Most US states have populations and economies equivalent to whole nations in Europe (looking at GDP, for instance). To assume safety net services must be a Federal project is a violation of subsidiarity, especially since most aid winds up being administrated locally via city, county and state agencies by way of Federal funding. That Federal level is basically all money that does not go to the needy, but rather to the unnecessarily added layer of Federal bureaucracy.

2) There are ways of encouraging donations to meet the needs on the level of charitable giving through revising tax policies: e.g., if donations were privileged as tax credits rather than deductions. The State of Arizona has such an arrangement in the School Tuition Organization by which a married couple can take a State tax credit of over $1000 to support, for instance, Catholic parochial schools. I know many families, including our own, who take advantage of this to give added donations to charitable causes we think are especially worthy. 

If the government really wanted to empower the people to give charitably with due consideration for the Catholic social principles of subsidiarity, solidarity, and the universal destination of goods, then a multiplier to the tax credit (say 1.5 x the donation to some maximum) would encourage even more giving.  The current tax policies tend to discourage giving (a dollar gift is only a  30 cent or so deduction), which is why it seems Mr. Frost rather blithely accepts the status quo rather than offer ideas for realizing the vision of a more just society where solidarity and subsidiarity might meet in justice.

3) Lastly, Mr. Frost makes a really bad argument that any one who wants X should do Y, and rather sanctimoniously demands "with the same vigor". The sheer complexity and entrenchment of the social services system guarantees that the system won't change. It is firmly entrenched and politically charged as a third rail by the politicians who leverage it to their political advantage, by the voter base who are recipients and don't want it to change, by the Federal and State level civil servants who get paid to administrate these funds, and by the various government employee unions who can only continue to collect dues and exert self-serving political pressure by maintaining and growing the civil servant class jobs.  Bluntly, the whole system is built upon a soft corruption of self interest operating in the name of "public interest".  Until the system itself is reformed, which I doubt it ever will be, chiding people to give more and volunteer more comes across as petty.

I am all for applying principles of Catholic Social Teaching to the social, political, and economic problems that face us. I encourage us all to continue to study the Compendium of Catholic Social Doctrine for sane and balanced principles and guidelines to think about how to best order society for justice and human flourishing. But I am concerned about the rhetorical misuse of Catholic Social Teaching on both sides of the political spectrum. I am glad that Mr Frost brings these terms of subsidiarity and solidarity to this discussion, and he essentially has the terms correct, but he sees somewhat more interested in taking the political Right to task than the political Left.  Yet the political Left is far more removed from Catholic Social Teaching than the Right, namely with its rejection of the natural family as the basic unit of polity, and its willing embrace of legal postivism and rejection of natural law and all it entails.

In short:

When the Right starts taking solidarity and the common good seriously, I'll take them seriously. 

When the Left starts taking subsidiarity and the common good seriously, accords the natural family proper authority to rear and form their own children, and abandons their legal positivism for natural law jurisprudence, I'll take them seriously. 

I don't ever expect either side to deal with the universal destination of goods in any coherent manner since their respective clientele patrons are utterly opposed to it intruding on their personal and corporate wealth.

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