by Al Kresta
When I see people cloaking their own political/economic preferences with the authority of divine revelation, I get angry. Jesus, himself, got angry when the Pharisees attributed to their own traditions a divine authority for which they had no warrant. I’m sure my anger doesn’t compare well to that of Jesus. Nevertheless, having been misled in my teens and early 20s by false spiritual claims, this does get a bit personal.
All Catholics, however, should take false spiritual claims personally. They threaten to undermine our task in the world. The Catholic Church is placed on earth to reveal the united humanity willed by God and inaugurated in Jesus’ Kingdom. People enter this new humanity through baptism and the Church is established, one might say, as the pilot-plant of that new humanity. We are to pioneer better ways of loving and serving one another, of carrying one another’s burdens, of resolving human conflict and ensuring human flourishing. When the institutional and spiritual unity of the Church is threatened, Jesus’ claim to have inaugurated his Kingdom is made less plausible in the eyes of the watching world. Much is at stake in our life together.
This is why I am dismayed when well-intentioned men and women confuse left-leaning, socio-economicpolicies with definitive Catholic social principles. Inevitably, this confusion provokes reaction from fellow Catholics who, leaning right, sense the abuse of spiritual authority. It gets ugly.
I first saw this type of abuse from the political right at a 1976 symposium titled “A Christian Approach to Economics” held at a Lansing Baptist church. The presenter, a genial, successful businessman and longtime Bible reader, made the claim that the Ten Commandments show that unfettered capitalism is the only economic arrangement that Christians can support.
I had just finished reading Ron Sider’s Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger and my head was busting with Bible verses about the Jubilee year and the gleaning laws of the Old Testament. The presenter’s hot words led to my boiling words and when I stood to interrupt, verbal fisticuffs followed. Both arrogantly and incautiously claimed to know more about God’s will than we had a right. It was ugly.
Disagreement about socio-economic policies doesn’t justify abandoning confidence in the Catholic social principles that do apply in all times and all places. These principles are:
• The dignity of the human person, meaning that every human life is sacred, images God and is the foundation, the cause and the end of every social institution.
• Subsidiarity, meaning that problems should be handled by the smallest, lowest, or least centralized authority capable of resolving the problem.
• Solidarity, meaning that no economic, religious, racial, ethnic, or political barrier should blind us to our common creation and our potential redemption.
• Universal destination of material goods, meaning that the goods of creation are destined to meet the basic needs of the whole human race.
• Preferential option for the poor, which means the testing of various policies by their impact on the poor and powerless.
These immutable principles construct the arena in which we carry out our contest of application. Catholic laity are divinely ordained as citizens, sociologists, politicians, economists, artists, mothers and fathers, union leaders, corporate managers, etc., to enter that arena and formulate policies based on these revealed principles. We won’t always agree. But our policies must be submitted to prudential reason and, when possible, empirical testing. In Christ, conflict of opinion should be creative.
Unfortunately, some try to short-circuit the debate by claiming divine authority for their favorite socio-economic policies. The evangelical Protestant businessman, coming from the right, championed unfettered capitalism as a divine truth. Today many Catholics, coming from the left, similarly abuse spiritual authority and baptize a center/left Western European democratic socialism. They seem mired in memories of the mixed economies of Europe that produced strong recovery after World War II. Today’s economic successes of India, Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, the failures of Argentina, Chile, many African nations or the current economic stagnation of the European Union seem lost on them.
This is our test: “What offers long-term help for the poor?” The Asian Development Bank estimates that between 1990 and 2005, approximately 850 million people have escaped absolute poverty. A major reason has been more open markets, private entrepreneurship, greater access to foreign capital and the freeing up of trade. Here the poor have been elevated, first of all, through the creation of wealth rather than its redistribution. You can’t redistribute what you don’t possess.
Many Catholic social justice advocates fail to learn from these social experiments because of a habitual distrust of free markets and economic liberalization. They reflexively turn to the state to solve socio-economic problems as though this is the only option mandated by divine teaching. It is not.
Embrace everyone, but resist any opinion from left or right that confuses Catholic social doctrine with any particular application of it. We cannot claim divine warrant for our prudential judgments any more than the Pharisees claimed for their, perhaps helpful, pious traditions. The Body of Christ is not conservative or liberal; it is Catholic. We are not captive to any partisan ideology. We do have our principles, but will test policies by how they protect human life, increase human beatitude, expand human liberty and elevate the poor to freedom and dignity.