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Written Word > Articles & Commentaries > August 2012 > The Great Both/And of Catholic Social Teaching
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The Great Both/And of Catholic Social Teaching

By Rev. Robert Barron

For many on the left, Paul Ryan is a menace, the very embodiment of cold, indifferent Republicanism, and for many on the right, he is a knight in shining armor, a God-fearing advocate of a principled conservatism. Mitt Romney’s choice of Ryan as running mate has already triggered the worst kind of exaggerated hoo-hah on both sides of the political debate. What is most interesting, from my perspective, is that Ryan, a devout Catholic, has claimed the social doctrine of the Church as the principal inspiration for his policies. Whether you stand with “First Things” and affirm that such a claim is coherent or with “Commonweal” and affirm that it is absurd, Ryan’s assertion prompts a healthy thinking-through of Catholic social teaching in the present economic and political context.

Ryan himself has correctly identified two principles as foundational for Catholic social thought, namely subsidiarity and solidarity. The first, implied throughout the whole of Catholic social theory but given clearest expression in Pope Pius XI’s encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, is that in the adjudication of matters political and economic, a preferential option should be given to the more local level of authority. For example, when seeking to solve a traffic flow issue in a suburb, appeal should be made to the municipal authority and not to the governor, even less to the Congress or the President. Only when a satisfactory solution is not achieved by the local government should one move to the next highest level of authority, etc. This principle by no means calls into question the legitimacy of an overarching federal power (something you sense in the more extreme advocates of the Tea Party), but it does indeed involve a prejudice in favor of the local. The principle of subsidiarity is implied in much of the “small is beautiful” movement as well as in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, which exhibits a steady mistrust of imperial power and a steady sympathy for the local, the neighborhood, the small business.

Now in Catholic social theory, subsidiarity is balanced by solidarity, which is to say, a keen sense of the common good, of the natural and supernatural connections that bind us to one another, of our responsibility for each other. I vividly remember former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo’s speech before the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco in 1984, in the course of which he effectively lampooned the idea that individual self-interest set utterly free would automatically redound to the general welfare. Catholic social thought does indeed stand athwart such “invisible hand” theorizing. It also recognizes that, always in accord with subsidiarity, sometimes the federal and state governments are the legitimate vehicles by which social solidarity is achieved. Does anyone today, outside of the most extreme circles, really advocate the repeal of Social Security, unemployment compensation, medical benefits for the elderly, food stamp programs, etc.?

Solidarity without subsidiarity can easily devolve into a kind of totalitarianism whereby “justice” is achieved either through outright manipulation and intimidation or through more subtle forms of social engineering. But subsidiarity without solidarity can result in a society marked by rampant individualism, a Gordon Gekko “greed is good” mentality, and an Ayn Rand/Nietzschean “objectivism” that positively celebrates the powerful person’s dominance of the weak. Catholic social theory involves the subtle balancing of these two great principles so as to avoid these two characteristic pitfalls. It does, for example, consistently advocate the free market, entrepreneurial enterprise, profit-making; and it holds out against all forms of Marxism and extreme socialism. But it also insists that the market be circumscribed by clear moral imperatives and that the wealthy realize their sacred obligation to aid the less advantaged. This last point is worth developing. Thomas Aquinas teaches that ownership of private property is to be allowed but that the usus (the use) of that privately held wealth must be directed toward the common good. This is because all of the earth and its goods belong, finally, to God and must therefore be used according to God’s purpose. Pope Leo XIII made this principle uncomfortably concrete when he specified, in regard to wealth, that once the demands of necessity and propriety have been met, the rest of what one owns (is that a correct adjustment? Owes to owns?) belongs to the poor. And in saying that, he was echoing an observation of John Chrysostom: “If you have two shirts in your closet, one belongs to you; the other belongs to the man who has no shirt.”

In his wonderful Orthodoxy, written over a hundred years ago but still remarkably relevant today, G.K. Chesterton said that Catholicism is marked through and through by the great both/and principle. Jesus is both divine and human. He is not one or the other; nor is he some bland mixture of the two; rather, he is emphatically one and emphatically the other. In a similar way, the Church is radically devoted to this world and radically devoted to the world to come. In the celibacy of its priests, it is totally against having children, and in the fruitful marriage of its lay people, it is totally for having children.

In its social teaching, this same sort of “bi-polar extremism” is on display. Solidarity? The Church is all for it. Subsidiarity? The Church couldn’t be more enthusiastic about it. Not one or the other, nor some bland compromise between the two, but both, advocated with equal vigor. I think it would be wise for everyone to keep this peculiarly Catholic balance in mind as the debate over Paul Ryan’s policies unfolds.

Posted: 8/20/2012 12:00:00 AM by Word On Fire | with 14 comments

Applauding Loudly
Brilliant article. Father Barron has taken a political contemporary topic and used it to explain the paradox of Jesus being Man and the Divine God. Love of the faith means accepting and treasuring the mysteries but sometimes clarity is shed by great theological minds. This is one of those occasions.
8/21/2012 1:53:10 PM
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Warren McG
Great post Fr. Barron! I have been a long time fan of your blog, podcast, and, more recently, your documentary series. I have been attempting to follow the messy political debate surrounding Paul Ryan's budget proposal. I've also been attempting to think about how to implement Catholic Social Teaching in public policy.

I understand the call for the rich to participate in solidarity, but I'm not sure how such a principle should be implemented in policy. I recognize there could be disagreement here, but I'm not even sure of what policies are even reasonable enough to consider. For conservatives, it seems that simply taking the rich's money via high taxes and having the government redistribute that money to the poor is inefficient, if not outright unjust. Yet, I'm not sure how else one could "incentivize" the rich to give their excess money to the poor other than tax incentives (tax breaks for charitable donations or business/capital investments that can lead to job creation).

Do you have any thoughts on the matter, or, more likely, do you know whose work I could study on the topic?

Thanks. May God continue to bless you and your ministry's work.
8/21/2012 1:57:44 PM
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The man with wealth has to be given the chance to act with charity and humility in his life at the point when he aligns his life with Jesus. Government is only coercion. Government does not love you, know you or tell you the truth. Government confiscation is not charity and frequently is misapplied.
Government funds abortion, planned parenthood, stifles individuals, stops Catholic Institutions from helping the poor. As Government grows, it serves less, solves less, and violates Natural Law.
8/21/2012 3:57:56 PM
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Father Barron,

Good article. Why don't you make a video sermon version of it so people can see it on YouTube?
8/22/2012 9:25:20 AM
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Peggy King
I think you will find many of the "rich" do give quite a bit to the poor and to charities. Even if it not out of the goodness of the heart, there are tax benefits to giving.
8/22/2012 3:21:43 PM
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Warren McG
Hi David and Peggy, thanks for your responses!

@David: I agree that the man with health has to be given the chance to act freely with charity and humility. However, I think the government may have a role to play in incentivizing those with imperfect motives to act for the common good. I'm just familiar enough with the field of public policy to know what such policies look like. Do you?

@Peggy: I don't disagree, and I think it's a shame that these political debates often devolve into the various candidates inciting class warfare. With regard to the tax benefits, though, is there a way we can improve upon the current structure? Would these part of the "loopholes" that Ryan seeks to close? Should they be? Note that he hasn't specified which aspects of the tax code he intends to keep, likely because he couldn't gain consensus on specifics.
8/23/2012 3:49:51 PM
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Mary Walker
Thank you for outlining this so clearly. Our problem is neither party fully supports Catholic social teaching. We need a new party.
8/26/2012 8:37:55 PM
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With all do respect to the comments made above, we always seem to find ourselves spinning our wheels around election time. Simply put (for myself), I have seen jabs at the Catholic Church from this administration. I would much rather give to others than to rely on a Government to do it for me; especially if it doesn't respect my Faith. I can't be convinced otherwise. It seems pretty simple knowing that Ryan has claimed the social doctrine of the Church as the principal inspiration for his policies. Where is the threat in that? It sure beats what we have now. Is he made perfect? No. Are we all perfect? No. Knowing he wants to strive for good based on the doctrine we know is good enough for me. I stumble at times but try to do good every day. I am willing to give these guys a chance. I haven't seen what a lot of people "hoped" to see with the guy in office right now; especially with the lies he made to the bishops. Let's hold on to our freedom of religion. Everything else will always be a debate but for the greater good because of what it stands under.
9/4/2012 8:35:45 AM
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Thank God that I found your article here Father. I watched the video first and the comments from people just confused me more. But after reading your article here, I am 100% for you Fr. There are many divisive thoughts on the Social Catholic Teaching just like many Christian denominations even though there is only ONE LORD, ONE TRUTH. But that doesn't mean I will NOT do anything where there doesn't seem to have a perfect candidate for every dilemma in society. My heart tells me that I should what do based on what the Catholic Church teaches me and pray that together with Jesus, everything will fall into place according to your time and your term, NOT ours, out of true obedience and trust in you Lord.
9/8/2012 3:56:22 AM
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Great article. Fr. Barron is a treasure.

Re; Politics: Riddle me this batman...

How will a farmer contribute a tithe to his Church or leave his gleanings to the poor when Caesar has takes too much for his wine, orgies, and followers? If the farmer cannot pay his debts, feed his family, cover the bills, pay the workmen their wages, and have enough left over to plant... then he just goes on food stamps? E.G. See the Ukrainian famine.

When the farm is barren, and the farmer's family starves, what will Caesar steal then? Poland?

The envious never consider the lessons of history, and they never care about the damage left in the wake of their sins. Envy is possibly the worst of sins, since the sinner has no idea of the harm caused and is convinced his "enemy" deserves whatever horrors are meted out.
9/11/2012 10:17:07 AM
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Anne Baldwin
I'm wondering about the Aquinas "usus" application in a real case situation. May we expect that your wonderful Catholicism videos and workbooks will soon be released from their stringent copyrights so that people may legitimately share them on computers and copied editions? Much revenue would be lost wouldn't it? Yet much common good attained. Just wondering at what point this intellectual noodle sticks to the wall.
9/18/2012 2:57:06 PM
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After listening to Fr. Barron's talk about this and reading the article, I believe that Subsidiarity should be the principle that guides us in the formulation of administrative/bureaucratic policy, and Solidarity should be our guide for our personal actions. Solidarity for the individual, Subsidiarity for the organization.
9/18/2012 9:09:22 PM
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I was shocked to learn from Mother Teresa's stories that the poor actually hunger for God and NOT the physical nourishments like most of us would think. If I have learned everything in this world and have NOT known GOD, then I have learned NOTHING. I worry more about the hunger of my soul more than my physical hunger. THus, I need those intellectual noodles from Fr. Barron. Because if I am a genuine Christian Catholic who truly trust in God, then maybe I should learn to trust that He will take care of my physical needs as well. The Catholicism series are meant for your soul's food, if you don't the have the financial means to purchase it, then don't buy it. God's word is not going to go bankrupt if people stop buying the DVDs. It's somewhat ungrateful for someone who criticizes for such work like the Catholicism while it's meant for one's soul salvation. If you have nothing nice to say, maybe it's best to keep it to yourself. The world has enough negativities to read about.
9/23/2012 6:30:01 AM
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Ron Alexander
Fr. Barron sets forth a well-balanced explication of "subsidiarity" and "solidarity" in Catholic social theory.

One recent unfortunate example of the difficulty in finding the right balance between subsidiarity and solidarity is the outbreak of meningitis.

“Compounding pharmacies” are regulated by states rather than the federal Food & Drug Administration. The meningitis outbreak arose from a company in Framingham, MA regulated by Massachusetts, not the FDA. The problem, I believe, is the degree of technical sophistication and the level of regulation provided by the state versus federal government.

Unfortunately, the failure of “subsidiarity” … i.e., the effectiveness of state regulatory … was not limited to Massachusetts. Rather, 14,000 people have been exposed around the country. As of October 12th, twelve states have reported 185 cases of illness, with 12 killed. Tennessee has reported the most cases of illness. Failure of "subsidiarity" in Massachusetts has facilitated deaths in Tennessee.

The United States is a national marketplace. There is very little that is truly local. The meningitis outbreak is a very unfortunate example of the risks of “subsidiarity.” “Solidarity” implies “big government.” The republican right, often supported by the Catholic Church, reflects the neoliberalism of von Mises, Hayek, Friedman, and now the Tea Party. The greatness, historically, of the United States is our “solidarity” in creating a national marketplace. We are an integrated continent-wide economy of 300+ million, not 50 marketplaces of 6 million people. Our historical exceptionalism arose from our solidarity, our federalism, not the weakness of our Confederation (1776-1789).

The Catholic social doctrine of balancing “subsidiarity and “solidarity” is theoretically appealing. But if an issue is worthy of discussion in a national forum, it is probably an issue requiring solidarity rather than subsidiarity.
10/12/2012 7:34:22 PM
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