Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Christianity by State Command and the Social Teaching of the Church


President Obama’s somewhat overlooked remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast last week offer a revealing glimpse of his actual governing philosophy. In those remarks, Obama explained that his core policies—Obamacare, financial and consumer regulations, higher tax rates and various and sundry government programs and subsidies—are an expression of his Christian virtue and the means by which he lives the Gospel. For example, in speaking of taxes, the president said, “And I think to myself, if I'm willing to give something up as somebody who's been extraordinarily blessed, and give up some of the tax breaks that I enjoy, I actually think that's going to make economic sense. But for me as a Christian, it also coincides with Jesus's teaching that ‘for unto whom much is given, much shall be required.’”

If one is able to cut through the grammatical incoherence and understand the intended meaning of the president’s remark, one should be rather stunned at both the underlying logic and the application of Christ’s teaching. The president wants to raise taxes. He claims that his planned tax increases “make economic sense.” But, in addition, because the tax increases, commanded by force of law, would affect him, he conceives of himself as selflessly sacrificing out of his bounty for the common good. As such, Obama lives the Gospel through the mediation of the state.

Similarly, Obama actually justifies Obamacare and his financial regulatory actions—contained in the 1,000 page Dodd-Frank bill—according to second Great Commandment. He insists that these humongous expansions of the administrative state are merely ways to implement the exhortation “love thy neighbor as thy self.”

Much could be said of the president’s logic and theology, but perhaps the most salient point to come out of these statements concerns Obama’s determined statism. For Obama, the state mediates even the way we live the Gospel. That is, we build the Kingdom of God primarily through a powerful, redistributive, highly regulatory administrative state. And so when we stand before the Lord at His Judgment, we may answer that, although we did not feed the hungry or cloth the naked personally, we did support insurance mandates and price fixing for credit card interest rate charges. “Well done, good and faithful servant!”

To be fair, later in his remarks, as he typically does, the president offers some pablum to mildly offset his vigorous statism. So after describing his policies as manifestations of the teachings of Christ, he admonishes against politicians claiming their policy preferences are “biblical.” Additionally, noting that government is important, but not all-important, he praises the small acts of daily kindness by individuals that “will somehow sustain us in these challenging times.” Yes, “somehow”, undirected by central authority, countless individuals, cooperating with Grace to live their faith, can improve the world. To Obama, this seems as mysterious a reality as the relations of the Trinity.

Yet there is no doubt that, for Obama, the state is the prime mover for the betterment of the world. So the Gospel itself is subordinated to the state. The state lives the Gospel for us through its fine-tuning of human activity; its subjugation or vilification of those person and institutions deemed harmful or malevolent; its favor and subsidies for the persons and institutions it wishes to promote for the good of all; and its provision of benefits to select members of the citizenry. The minders who set the values of the state, of course, insist that state’s values are coordinate with those of the Gospel.    

Contrast the Obama approach to the Gospel and the state with that suggested by Pope Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum, the papal encyclical that forms the foundation of Catholic social teaching. For decades, the social teachings of the Church, flowing down from Rerum Novarum, have provided liberal Catholics with a purported justification for favoring a big government welfare state; that is, in some respect, liberals have read the social tradition, with its concern for the poor and the weak, as grounds to endorse an Obama-statist approach to the Gospel, the Gospel implemented by a big government of good intentions. However, Rerum Novarum, the “Magna Charta” of Catholic social thought, hardly encourages such a vision of the relations between the Gospel, the state and the just society.

Instead, Rerum Novarum proceeds from the Church’s natural law tradition that, first and foremost, recognizes the inalienable God-given rights the individual and the family. Before Pope Leo reached any other issue, he firmly established the right of the individual to own private property and flatly rejected socialism as contrary to man's nature. He proffers the family as the primary and inviolable social institution, "anterior to the state." 

"Hence, it is clear that the main tenet of socialism, community of goods, must be utterly rejected, since it only injures those whom it would seem meant to benefit, is directly contrary to the natural rights of mankind, and would introduce confusion and disorder into the commonweal. The first and most fundamental principle, therefore, if one would undertake to alleviate the condition of the masses, must be the inviolability of private property."

It is not Leo's position that the state has no role in securing a just society that conforms to the values of the Gospel. But the state’s role is limited to directly addressing only those matters that individuals, families and private associations cannot effectively address themselves and is restricted by the natural rights of ownership and free association.
The exhortation of Rerum Novarum is not to the government, but to individuals and to the Church. The remedy to the social ills that Leo wished to cure—exploitation of workingmen, “wage slavery” and poor working conditions—is principally achieved by the Christian conduct of both business owners and workers. He calls upon members of each “class” to conduct their affairs according to the Gospel. He does not demand that the state take and redistribute the wealth of the “those whom fortune favors”, but instead urges those of means to give generously out of their duty of Christian charity. Such giving is not commanded by “human law” but by the individual’s fidelity to the Gospel.

Nor is the justice of Rerum Novarum seduced by the cheap appeals to Obama-style “fairness”, as determined, of course, by the minders of the statist Gospel. To the contrary, Leo accepts the reality of the human condition, acknowledging that there will be degrees of inequality as a result of the differences in the luck, talent and effort of men. The idea for Leo is not the illusion of perfection guaranteed by various systems of the all-beneficent big government, but a society oriented towards the common good that allows the poor to live in dignity and, by dint of hard work and thrift, improve their station in life.

And the role of the Church is paramount. The prerogatives of the Church are those of the Gospel. It is the duty and the desire of the Church, through its members, the Body of Christ, to build up the Kingdom of God, bringing the message of the Gospel to rich and poor alike and relieving suffering wherever it is found. “At the present day many there are who, like the heathen of old, seek to blame and condemn the Church for such eminent charity. They would substitute in its stead a system of relief organized by the State. But no human expedients will ever make up for the devotedness and self sacrifice of Christian charity. Charity, as a virtue, pertains to the Church; for virtue it is not, unless it be drawn from the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ; and whosoever turns his back on the Church cannot be near to Christ.”

The difference in the vantage of the Obama-statist approach and that of Rerum Novarum is no mere matter of theory. At present, the implications of the Obama outlook are forcing a serious conflict in relations between the Church and the state. The Obama administration’s determination to require, by force of law, the institutions of the Church—schools, hospitals and charities—to provide their employees with health insurance coverage for birth control and drugs that induce abortions demonstrates the ultimate and inevitable perversion of the statist Gospel.

In the name of “rights” and of the common good, the state massively intrudes upon not only the religious expression of the Church in its various ministries, but also imprudently interferes with the right of free association between employers and employees. The perverse state Gospel creates a “right” to these sorts of “treatments” and imposes an artificial duty upon employers to satisfy this “right” on behalf of those who voluntarily agree to work for those employers.

Up until now, liberals in the Church were sympathetic towards, or even openly supportive of Obamacare, with its mandates, taxes and quasi-nationalization of health insurance. For the liberals, including some bishops, the alleged ends of Obamacare—quality health care for all—obscured the obvious dangers that accompany such tremendous bureaucratic intervention into the private sphere. Obamacare is the perfect example of the statist Gospel in action, trammeling natural law rights and disregarding prudence and restraint in a vein search for system of total equality managed by the mediators of the statist Gospel. 

But now the whole American Church is alert to the excesses of the Gospel of Obama. The Church must not only unite in its opposition to this particular policy, but it must also re-examination the commonly-held understanding of the social teaching. As a Church, we need to return to the first principles annunciated in Rerum Novarum. A just society cannot arise from unjust acts that are contrary to man’s natural rights. While Church and state may share a noble goal, the Church must remind the state that, in reaching the desired end, the state must respect the God-given prerogatives of the individual and the family. It must follow the principal of subsidiarity and allow the private associations of the civil society to flourish and to cooperate freely with each other and with the government in reaching the goal.

And, like Pope Leo, the Church must warn against the folly and harm of utopianism, recognizing both man’s imperfection and his indomitable independence. The judgments we make must be truly prudential; that is, made upon due consideration of the man’s true nature and of the world as it actually operates, flaws and all, in a spirit of restraint and humility.  

Finally, the Church must make clear that the state is not equivalent to the society as a whole. The government is a component of the society and is the servant, not the master, of individuals and families. As we seek after a just society, we must remember that justice is achieved not only by human law and government programs, but by a virtuous and charitable populous infused with religious and moral values. For too long, the Church herself gave too much deference to the state’s efforts to form the just society. Yet in every age, it is the Church, through its teaching and its ministry, through its vowed religious and holy laypeople, that builds up the Kingdom of God. Long before the age of the welfare state, it was the Church that looked after the poor, the orphan, student, the aged and the sick. The Church continues these missions today and it need not subordinate itself to the state in order to further “social justice.” In fact, the Church should excel the state in this regard. In the end, the social teaching is a call to each individual to live the Gospel in his daily life and a restatement of the very purpose of the Church Militant.

The challenges of creating a just society today are different in character from those that faced the Church of Leo’s pontificate. But the principals that Leo set forth for the way in which the Church should engage the world endure and are, in fact, all the more critical for addressing the present situation. All Catholics should unite around these principals, infused with personal zeal for the Gospel and dedicated to the protection of the natural rights of free individuals, created in the image of God.

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