Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Letter from Theologians: When religion fuses with politics

Due to be published at the Edmund Burke Institute website:

In May of 2011 two Catholic theologians, Dr. Stephen Schneck, Director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at Catholic University and Dr. Vincent Miller, professor at Dayton University, made an appearance on the O’Reilly Factor to discuss a letter criticizing the 2012 Republican-supported budget that was led by House Speaker, John Boehner. This letter, entitled The Letter from Theologians, and drafted by Dr. Schneck, enjoyed the support of approximately eighty signatories, one of whom was a well-known theologian- Fr. Thomas J. Reese from Georgetown University. But of these eighty signatories, thirty were from the Catholic University.

There reason why Bill O’Reilly asked theologians Schneck and Miller on the Factor had to do with the controversy it provoked. Not in the name of their own political views did Schneck and Miller criticize Boehner’s policies; no, they invoked Catholic social doctrine in order to advance the erroneous belief that the Church requires the State- much like Socialism and the Democratic Party platform -to be the principal benefactor of the poor and the needy.
Catholic social doctrine, to the contrary, condemns the theory or national policy whereby the State assumes the private responsibility of being our brother’s keeper, a responsibility incumbent upon private citizens, the family or Christian institutions.

And this is the point I wish to make: The overriding principle of Catholic social doctrine is that of subsidiarity; a principle opposed to what is commonly known as “big government.” This principle holds that “nothing should be done by a larger and more complex organization which can be done as well by a smaller and simpler organization.” As a matter of fact, in Pope Benedict’s most recent encyclical, Charity in Truth, mentions this cardinal principle twelve times; giving it a place of high priority.

Nevertheless, Dr. Schneck begins the letter by accusing Mr. Boehner, a professed Catholic, of having a voting record at variance with the Church’s most ancient moral teachings. And what might that teaching be? “[T]hat those in power are morally obliged to preference the needs of the poor.” Specifically, Dr. Schneck takes Boehner to task on his 2012 claiming in that it guts “Maternal and Child Health grants and slashing $500 million from the highly successful Women Infants and Children nutrition program.” He then takes issue with the House budget which “radically cuts Medicaid and effectively ends Medicare.” Implying that cutting entitlement programs is tantamount to heresy, Schneck then admonishes Boehner to give full consideration to the teachings of the Catholic Church.

On the O’Reilly Factor, in order to support their position which favors big government programs, Scheck and Miller referenced two Catholic principles out of context. To justify the discontinuation of Bush’s tax cuts, for instance, Dr. Miller appealed to the principle of distributive justice. This principle of Catholic social teaching maintains that all classes, but especially the working and lower classes that have fewer means to legally defend their rights than the upper classes, be the beneficiaries of the same justice. That is to say, each worker deserves a wage by which he or she justly merits; that the burden of hard labor be age-appropriate, avoiding the exploitation of children (common in the late eighteenth and early twentieth century); that working conditions ought not be unsafe due to the employer’s dereliction; or that the poor have access to the basic necessities of life such as food and water.

In tandem with Dr. Miller’s argument, Dr. Schneck posited that the government ought to give preference to the poor, thereby giving the impression that the Catholic Church favors what amounts to a welfare State. One would think that by listening to Schneck and Miller that the Church would have endorsed Obamacare and the stimulus bills that have spiked to the national deficit to unprecedented levels. It is important to note, however, that this commonly held presupposition among Catholics theologians - that the State ought to be the principal benefactor of the poor and needy -is not only at odds with the Church’s most ancient moral teachings, but it has furthered the cause of an all-powerful State in our nation.

To counter these misrepresentations about the role of government, Bishop Nickless of Sioux City, Iowa, spoke to the practical implications of subsidiarity. In August of 2009, during the national debate on healthcare, he said that the sickest and those most in need should get the medical care they need. However, he goes on to say that how this is to be done is not self-evident. In fact, the decisions that are collectively made by society fall under “prudential judgment.” And in this category of prudential judgment, the Church does not teach that the government should supply healthcare.

As to the proper role of government, the Bishop of Sioux City reiterated the long-standing teaching of the Catholic Church. He said, “The proper role of the government is to regulate the private sector, in order to foster healthy competition and to curtail abuses. Therefore any legislation that undermines the viability of the private sector is suspect.”

Pope Leo XIII, in his encyclical, Rerum Novarum (On Capital and Labor), arguable the most authoritative Catholic document on economic and State-related matters, warns about the undue interference of the State in the economy. He said that “things move and live by the spirit inspiring them, and may be killed by the rough grasp of a hand from without.” That “rough grasp of a hand from without,” no doubt, is a State monopoly on the market. “It is clear,” Leo added, “that the main tenet of socialism, community of goods, must be utterly rejected.”

And herein lies the error that many progressive theologians make in criticizing the budget cuts that are being called for: Giving the surplus of one’s wealth is a “duty, not of justice (save in extreme cases), but of Christian charity -- a duty not enforced by human law.” (R.N. art. 22) Hence, it is not the duty of the State to take from the upper classes in order to provide for the lower classes. No, as Pope Leo XIII said, it is a duty inspired by Christian charity and is the primary responsibility of the private sector.