Invoking the Tradition: Catholic Social Teaching in Policy Debates

Catholic social teaching can serve as an important source of wisdom about how to order personal action and social policy toward the ultimate ends of human life. Still, invoking this tradition does not obviate the need for detailed and mundane policy debate.

Like many others, I applaud Senator Marco Rubio’s invocation of the modern tradition of Catholic social teaching (CST) in articulating his vision of “common good capitalism” at Public Discourse. The papal encyclicals on social matters and the Compendium of the Church’s Social Doctrine (2005), which outline Catholic teaching on the economy, the family, politics, and related matters, merit attention from thinkers and leaders working to craft a vision and course for just public policy. There, readers will find helpful concepts unique to the tradition, such as “subsidiarity” and “solidarity,” as well as thorough treatment of such terms as “human rights” and “social justice.” CST gives these staples of contemporary political discourse substantive content and form.

Yet there can be significant disagreement about applying CST principles in a particular situation. At Law and Liberty, for example, James Rogers raises a noteworthy objection to Rubio’s application of the tradition to a critique of “financialization.” Rogers writes that the “notion that ‘financialization’ represents intrinsic social waste,” common among postliberal thinkers, is “fundamentally shortsighted, and misguided,” failing to take account of finance’s role in promoting investment and the potentially harmful effects of excessive regulation.

There are also more general complications involved with invoking CST in policy debate. Different elements of CST can be construed to point in different directions; it is all too easy to pick and choose, attaching a preferred element of the tradition to a preferred policy. Catholic social teaching can serve as a leavening source of wisdom in policy debate, but we should be discerning in how we invoke it and respond when others invoke it. While CST can serve as a source of wisdom on ordering personal action and social policy toward the ultimate ends of human life, invoking CST does not remove the need for detailed and mundane policy debate.

The Dignity of Work

CST may be most helpful for consideration of the proper ends of social action and public policy. In that spirit, Rubio proposes reordering American economic and social policy so that “dignified work” is among its central goals. He connects work to family and community life, writing that

The Church emphasizes the moral duty of employers to respect workers not just as means to profit, but as human persons and productive members of their community and nation. The tradition sees past our stale partisan categories and roots our politics in something larger: the inviolable dignity of every human person, the work he or she does, and the family life that work supports.

Rubio cites Rerum novarum (1891), the encyclical by Pope Leo XIII that launched the modern tradition of CST. He might also have cited Pope John Paul II’s Laborem Exercens (1981), which is devoted to work. Among other pronouncements about the nature of work, Pope John Paul II states that “suitable employment” is a right:

When we consider the rights of workers in relation to the “indirect employer,” that is to say, all the agents at the national and international level that are responsible for the whole orientation of labor policy, we must first direct our attention to a fundamental issue: the question of finding work, or, in other words, the issue of suitable employment for all who are capable of it. The opposite of a just and right situation in this field is unemployment, that is to say the lack of work for those who are capable of it.

Further, the pope states that justice demands the availability of unemployment benefits:

The obligation to provide unemployment benefits . . . is from the fundamental principle of the moral order in this sphere, namely the principle of the common use of goods or, to put it in another and still simpler way, the right to life and subsistence.

How does Rubio apply the teaching on dignified work as a requirement of justice? Interestingly, he rejects the proposal for a Universal Basic Income that Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang has championed, which some libertarians have endorsed, on the grounds that it would make people too dependent on government and subsidize unproductivity. Instead, Rubio recommends “taxing stock buybacks and encouraging physical investment, building new hubs for manufacturing and innovation, and further expanding the federal per-child tax credit and enacting a paid family leave policy.” But his proposals, which smack of “corporatism,” according to critics, could also make certain industries too dependent on government, especially his argument that the government should direct investment of tax dollars into industries that may not succeed based on market demand but are crucial to the national interest or likely to generate employment. We can see that invoking the tradition, while helpful for identifying ends of policy and social action, does not necessarily settle the issue about the appropriate means of achieving just ends.

The New Deal, Social Justice, and Catholic Social Teaching

Rubio is not the first American politician to reference CST in support of a reorientation of economic and social policy. In a speech in Detroit in 1932, then-Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt quoted from Pius XI’s Quadragesimo anno (1931), calling it “one of the greatest documents of modern times,” and saying that it was “just as radical as I am.” Roosevelt quoted passages criticizing the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few, which the pope described as creating a form of “dictatorship” and “domination.”

Indeed, Catholic scholars Monsignor John A. Ryan and Bishop Francis J. Haas played a major role in the development and promotion of the New Deal. They pioneered American Catholics’ involvement in social reform, the labor movement, and “social justice.” Politicians and activists appealing to CST, especially its emphasis on the “preferential option for the poor” and the duty of government to enact distributive justice, have played an important part in the development of American policy and social action.

Although the New Deal assuredly did much good, it also shifted American policy and governmental structure toward a centralized, statist model of social provision. Many faithful Catholics and other Christians who support the aims of CST nonetheless oppose providing for the poor primarily through large national welfare programs, based on the principle of subsidiarity and challenges to that model’s effectiveness.

My point is not to accuse Rubio or Roosevelt of intentionally hijacking CST principles and attaching them to predetermined policies, but to suggest such invocations don’t obviate the need for attention to prudent application of the ends identified in the tradition.

Matters of Principle vs. Matters of Prudence

In fact, the same features that make CST helpful can also make it difficult to invoke the tradition well. Most of the social encyclicals deal primarily with principles and aims rather than specific courses of action, and CST acknowledges a variety of goods in society, such as freedom and justice, that may be in tension and must be balanced. Determining how to do so requires prudential judgments based on particular situations. And, as Rubio notes, CST is not reducible to a particular party platform or ideological persuasion.

These features are salutary, but they make CST amenable to appropriation in support of a variety of policy agendas. There is a temptation to emphasize only the elements of the tradition that appear to support a predetermined policy preference. If that happens, interpretations of CST will become another source of partisan wrangling. Invocations of CST could even exacerbate such wrangling, because partisans might claim that anyone who disagrees on a policy issue is disagreeing with the Church and God.

Of course, in some cases, that’s true, if you accept the authority or reasoning of the Church. CST is clear on some issues. Evangelium vitae (1995), for example, leaves little doubt as to the unjustifiability of abortion and euthanasia. But on other matters involving economic and social policy, the tradition of CST and the implications of particular encyclicals are less clear, giving rise to conflicting interpretations even among American Catholics. The mixed response to Pope Francis’s Laudato si’ (2015) is just one example. Some have apparently wholeheartedly embraced the encyclical as giving clear guidance for direct political action to combat climate change, while others question its scientific basis. The variation in clarity regarding direct application to policy perhaps relates to the distinction between fundamental human rights and essential components of the common good, such as the right to life, and determinations of policy that indirectly relate to such rights or the common good; such determinations depend on a number of contextual and situational factors. As an example, Pope Pius XI writes in Quadragesimo anno that, given a just wage for a worker as an end, good policy also has to factor in the capacity of a given business owner responsible to pay such a wage, and the general economic conditions:

In determining the amount of the wage, the condition of a business and of the one carrying it on must also be taken into account; for it would be unjust to demand excessive wages which a business cannot stand without its ruin and consequent calamity to the workers . . . if the business in question is not making enough money to pay the workers an equitable wage because it is being crushed by unjust burdens or forced to sell its product at less than a just price, those who are thus the cause of the injury are guilty of grave wrong, for they deprive workers of their just wage and force them under the pinch of necessity to accept a wage less than fair.

We should also note that, the general continuity in the tradition notwithstanding, papal teachings have differed in emphasis, and there are discontinuities in prescriptions based on popes’ perceptions of contemporary needs and tendencies. Quadragesimo anno is much more corporatist than Centesimus annus (1991), which many commentators took as an unprecedented embrace of market economics, based on the results of Soviet-style communism.

A Rich Source of Wisdom

CST should be seen for what it is: a rich source of wisdom and particularly well-articulated truths about the human person and the right ordering of society. Notably, its primary purpose is to guide members of the Church and other people of good will in matters of social action, not government policy. The tradition does also speak to policy, but we should treat appeals to CST in support of particular policy proposals with the same caution and criticism we employ with any appeal to a transcendent authority. We should welcome and appreciate its public invocation, but remember it is no panacea.

Christians and people of good will have much to gain from studying CST. As Catholic scholar Stephen White has observed, CST should serve as a source of wisdom and a call for sustained reflection attuned to the ultimate aims of human life in society:

We often look at Catholic social teaching as if it were a Catholic party platform, defining what policies Catholics are supposed to be for and which we’re supposed to be against . . . But this misses the real value of Catholic social teaching, which is a coherent and comprehensive vision of what it means to be a human person made in God’s image and made for communion with others and with God.

Taken as a whole, the tradition of CST rarely provides unconditional support for specific policies or programs, though it does take policies that condone or cause intrinsic evils or violate human dignity off the table. It does provide a wealth of guidance on the ends we should have in mind when we think about social action and policy. Rubio’s proposal to make “dignified work” a central goal of American economic policy aligns with that guidance. However, the specific policy proposals he advances require consideration according to their potential to actually contribute to that aim. They must be weighed against their potential to undermine other goods such as economic liberty and the system of “free enterprise” Rubio seeks to preserve and bolster. Reasoning and prudence based on experience and scholarship can and must supplement attention to the tradition’s wisdom and principles in the effort to build a just social order.

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