The Personalist Project

Like practically everyone I know, I'm an admirer of Fr. Barron. His clear, incisive and mild-mannered way of defending the faith is a gift for the Church in our day. But in a recent column about the social teachings of the Church, I think he misses the mark by trying too hard to be even-handed.

He begins by laying out two "extremes", as if they're equal and opposite errors.

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.

Straight-away, I have objections:

1) There's no just parallel (in terms of reasonableness) between those who see Ryan "as a menace, the very embodiment of cold, indifferent Republicanism" and those who see him as a "God-fearing advocate of principled conservatism." One is an absurd caricature; the other is the simple truth about the man.

2) To see him as a sincere Catholic and a principled conservative does not involve fantasizing that he is "a knight in shining armor." Why must the good father exaggerate? Why treat those who are enthusiastic as if they must therefore be starry-eyed, naive and unthinking? I think he is trying too hard to appear "above the fray."

3) Where is the "worst kind of exaggerated hoo-hah" on the right? I'd like to see examples. The only exaggerations about Ryan I have found among Catholics comes from those like Mark Shea, who dub him a "fanatic" or "devotee" of Ayn Rand, because he was influenced by her thought and admires her critique of collectivism.

From there, Fr. Barron goes on to helpfully expound on the two “master principles” of Catholic social teaching in the modern world: subsidiarity and solidarity.

Both of these grow out of the nature and dignity of human persons.  According to Catholic subsidiarity, the individual has priority over the collective, and the smaller unit of community over the larger. Government is best that is closest to the person. No larger political body should dominate the smaller, more natural community. Individuals are "prior" to the family; families to the tribe; towns to the states; states to the nation, etc. The larger unit ought not to take on tasks that can be handled competently by the smaller unit.  Subsidiarity stands in radical opposition to communism and statism—philosophies that fail to do justice to the rights and prerogatives of individuals, families, and local communities.

The principle of solidarity arises out of what Wojtyla calls "the communitarian dimension of the person."  Persons do not exist as isolated individuals.  We live with others; we depend on others; we are responsible for others, especially the poor and weak and vulnerable among us.  Solidarity is opposed to radical individualism and the extreme strains of libertarianism that glorify self-interest, exploit the poor and the environment, and reduce social bonds to contracts among consenting adults.

Fr. Barron is right to explain that these are general principles.  It is not the role of the teaching Church to offer policy prescriptions.  The Church doesn’t endorse any particular form of government, never mind one political party over another.  (I have among my acquaintances orthodox Catholics who are far right enough to prefer monarchies to democracies and some who are far left enough to condemn capitalism and lobby for far greater re-distribution of wealth.)  The role of translating the general principles of Catholic social teaching into practical policy belongs to the laity, not the hierarchy. He’s right, too, that there is a certain historical tension between these two great principles.  The best of the left has been animated by concern for the poor, and the worst of the right has been more about acquiring riches and protecting privilege than establishing justice.

But his implicit suggestion, which he draws out a little in this you tube commentary, that there is a rough equivalence between the way the two American parties currently embody (and fail to embody) these principles—the Republican party specializing in subsidiarity at the expense of solidarity and vice-versa for the Democrats—strikes me as seriously misleading, at best.

That neither party perfectly represents Catholic social teaching goes without saying.  But it does not follow that both parties fall short in equal measure. 

Compare a few items in their respective platforms.

  1. Abortion is absolutely evil.  The legal slaughter of helpless innocents is the gravest possible violation of the principle of solidarity.  The Democratic Party is committed to it.  It is even committed to opposing any and all restrictions and limits on abortion.  In flagrant violation of the principle of subsidiarity, it tries to thwart efforts by states to prevent or limit abortion within their jurisdiction.  It wants to force Catholic hospitals to offer abortion and all medical students to be trained to perform abortions.  It supports using tax payer dollars to pay for abortions.  And so on, and so forth.  The Republican platform opposes abortion unambiguously.
  2. The Democratic Party’s push to legalize same-sex marriage gravely violates both principles, by using the force of law to disrupt and weaken the natural family while it constrains religious and local communities to accept what they find morally abhorrent.  The Republican platform supports traditional marriage.
  3. The HHS mandate requiring all health care plans to offer free contraception and sterilization and Obamacare’s centralized control of healthcare decisions are likewise sharply at odds with these principles.   Republican proposals are not.

On level of general philosophy and policy priorities, I think it fair to say that the Democratic Party today is radically and ineluctably at odds with Catholic social teaching, while the Republican Party isn't.

While I’m under no illusions about the likelihood of a Romney/Ryan administration ushering in the civilization of love called for by John Paul II, I cannot understand how any Catholic can view their policies and principles as only "marginally better" than those of Obama and Biden.  Nor can I sympathize with attempts at even-handedness that don't do justice to reality.


Comments (3)

Scott Johnston

#1, Sep 4, 2012 6:32pm

Excellent post, Katie! Not that you need my agreement, :) but I agree fully.

It is worth noting he does not explicitly reference the two political parties (other than his mention of the 84 Cuomo speech).

I'll bet the explanation for his apparant equivalency here, is the strongly embedded (and appropriate!) principal among Catholic clerics that they should not say things publicly that could be construed as promoting one party over another. They strongly avoid overt partisanship.

So, when clerics make public remarks about political subjects, they are habituated to go to great lengths to avoid coming across as partisan. In comments about contemporary politics they will seek the double goal of 1) sticking with Catholic principles that should be applied regardless of party, and 2) appearing even-handed in any remarks that approach the specifics of present-day politics.

I suspect he would completely agree with your remarks. I also think he would judge it improper for him to say so publicly, as specifically criticizing one party versus the other would be just the sort of explicitly partisan remark that clerics customarily consider off-limits.

So, I think he would want to leave specific party critiques to laypersons.

Scott Johnston

#2, Sep 4, 2012 6:38pm

Of course, it's entirely possible, and appropriate, for a cleric to strongly critique in public, specific violations of Catholic principles (or the natural law). Eg., speaking out against abortion and same sex marriage, and any specific legislation or policies that would promote these things. But they can easily do so without making any reference to a specific party. If they are clear and consistent about laying out general principles that everywhere apply, the specific political implications are fairly obvious, without explicitly stating them. They leave that to laymen.

Katie van Schaijik

#3, Sep 5, 2012 8:43am

He references the two parties more the in video commentary I linked and goes farther, I think, in suggesting that the Republican Party, too, has a "social teaching problem"—as if the Democrats are bad on the "social issues", while the Republicans are bad on the "fiscal issues."  I don't see it.  

Libertarianism (at least in its more extreme forms) does have a problem.

But even if Fr. Barron's equivalency is motivated as you say (which I don't don't doubt), I think it's not okay.  

It's not true to reality.  And it's all too likely to mis-form Catholic consciences at a critical moment.

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