Tuesday, October 2, 2012

How we contributed to an all-powerful State

Are you worried about the upcoming presidential election? Are you worried about the erosion of religious liberty? Are you worried about a big government getting bigger…perhaps turning America in what used to be a Republic-democracy into a socialistic or totalitarian state? Last question: Are you a Catholic?

Why do I ask? It may sound academic, but the fact is that over the last several decades many Catholics have confused social justice with charity. Catholics make up a sizable voting bloc. And if more Catholics were better educated about the distinction between social justice and charity, the shadow of socialism would not be looming large over the American landscape.

In Rerum Novarum (On Capital and Labor, 1891), Pope Leo XIII warned about the challenge America is now facing: the undue interference of the State in the private sector. To Catholics he wrote “that the main tenet of socialism, community of goods, must be utterly rejected.” However- and this is very! very! important -he taught, in no uncertain terms, that 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.” This is precisely where social justice gets muddled with charity. Even the finest of Catholic spokespeople will discourse about social justice issues as being interchangeable or synonymous with charity and almsgiving. But there is a problem with this.

Justice- even social justice –falls within the realm of human or civil law. And human or civil law is within the jurisdiction of the State. If giving the surplus of my wealth to a poor person is matter of justice (a matter of right or wrong), and not charity, then the State has the right to intervene. The poor person has a legal claim to at least a portion of my wealth. As such, government has the duty to right the wrong; to redress the injustice! With such a view, however, giving to the poor ceases to be gratuitous, voluntary or a matter of Christian charity, but rather, one of obligation, something that is enforced by law.

But as Pope Leo XIII taught elsewhere, unequal conditions inevitably leads to unequal fortunes. When forces that exist outside of our control lead to misfortune, such as severe weather conditions, then State-aid is most certainly justified in these “extreme cases.” But there are recurring factors well within our control that lead to poverty such as self-destructive lifestyles and immoral choices. As it pertains to the latter, the question then becomes: Is it a matter of justice for the wealthy to finance the less wealthy? To be sure, Christian charity- one that is gratuitous and voluntary -makes no distinctions when it comes to giving to the less fortunate. Every Christian should lend a helping hand to the needy; presupposing that help is accepted.

Charity generally makes no distinctions between the worthy and the unworthy. Blessed Mother Theresa, for instance, helped all people. But justice, especially when it has the sanction of law, does and should make distinctions! The person who has made poor choices in his or her life (or even the person who has made good choices) has no rightful or legal claim upon the surplus of my wealth. I am not bound by law to give that surplus to the poor. And the State has no right to redistribute that wealth because the giving of that wealth is not a matter of justice but one of charity; an act that is gratuitous and voluntary.

It is no wonder, then, that not a few Catholics support big government and even socialistic government programs. They equate public programs for the needy with personal and private acts of charity. But whereas the former draws from the wealth of others; the latter is a personal donation of one’s own resources. Whereas the former is only an imitation of Christian charity; the latter is the real thing. And as regards to redistribution policies, love or charity cannot be compelled any more than hate can be prohibited. Not even God forces people to love. But he will reward or punish based a person’s love or lack of love.

In any event, the policy of redistribution by the State and the consequent monopoly on community of goods is wholly inconsistent with the principle of subsidiarity; a principle that the Catholic Church has supported with her moral authority since the first century. Big government programs that are advertized to serve the needy invariably expand the welfare-state. With this, wealth of the people is compromised thus ensuring a lower standard of living for everyone. To use the words of Leo XIII, “the sources of wealth themselves would run dry, for no one would have any interest in exerting his talents or his industry; and that ideal equality about which they entertain pleasant dreams would be in reality the leveling down of all to a like condition of misery and degradation.”

Socialistic programs not only create dependent citizens; they also empower the State, leaving the citizen helpless to redress political injustices and human rights abuses. The Catholic Church has always understood this.The U.S. Bishops Pastoral Letter of 1926, in protesting against the Communist persecution of the Catholic Church in Mexico, cited a passage from a French writer who said, "Private initiative begins where the intervention of power ends." Five years earlier, in his 1919 Pastoral Letter, Cardinal James Gibbons wrote this:

“[I]t lies in the very nature of man that something must be supreme, something must take the place of the divine when this has been excluded; and this substitute for God, according to a predominant philosophy, is the State. Possessed of unlimited power to establish rights and impose obligations, the State becomes the sovereign ruler in human affairs; its will is the last word of justice, its welfare the determinant of moral values, its service the final aim of man's existence and action.”

Not too long ago, there used to be a consensus among U.S. bishops about the value of limited government, private initiative and individual liberty. Today, that consensus has broken down. For instance, many Catholics took issue with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops who, with honorable intentions, called for universal healthcare coverage, even before the details of Obamacare was made manifest. The problem here was that the USCCB gave tacit approval to a State-run system; a system which would eventually, if not immediately, provide funding for abortion and ration healthcare. Such a massive bureaucracy was sure to give the State plenty of leverage to compel Catholic institutions to provide contraception against their will. All of this was foreseeable.

Sadly, Catholics are bending our knees daily to pray for the perseveration of religious liberty. Why, you ask? The answer, at least in part, can be traced back to the Church herself. Too many Catholics confuse social justice with charity! Too many Catholics favor big government programs, and even socialism itself, over the voluntary exercise of Christian charity by private citizens and institutions!

Catholics- both clergy and laity –are worried about the future. But the fact is this: We are where we are because we do not know where civil or social justice ends and where Christian charity begins. With the former, subservience to the State expands; but with the latter, personal freedom and prosperity flourishes.