Wednesday, September 06, 2006

We're All in this Together: Basic Concepts of Catholic Social Justice

This is a continuation of the series that began with The Efficiencies of Charity

We are going to change tacks just a bit after the last post on the efficiencies of the local over the national and talk about Solidarity as a core concept of social justice. A Catholic concept for many years, Socialist tried to co-opt the meaning of solidarity to mean ‘the working classes banded together against the rich’. In reality, solidarity means “the distribution of goods and remuneration for work”, or (more directly) ‘earning a wage and being able to buy things’. It also ‘presupposes the effort for a more just social order’, or ‘the wages should be just and the prices of goods should be just’. Much more importantly than material goods, however, solidarity means friendship and social charity – caring for your fellow men as individuals and working together as a family at the same time. It means not just the poor cooperating with the poor, but with the rich as well – employees and employers banding together to make the workplace a better place. Indeed, at its heart, the concept of solidarity is a rejection of class – there are no rich, no poor, no employer or employee as classes; just people who happen to do different things, but who share the same needs.

Solidarity is the realization that no one in any society is alone. The factory owner depends upon the metal worker who makes the forms for the product being made; the metal worker depends upon the toolmaker, who depends upon the smelter, to the miner, who uses the machines made in the owner’s factory. Just like a family, society is a web of interdependencies. When this is forgotten, the result is tension, strife, and misunderstanding. This aspect of Catholic solidarity was explicitly referenced in Poland (a very Catholic nation) when the movement for justice that arose among the working men of the factories named itself ‘Solidarity’. It is also important to note that solidarity is more about the spiritual and emotional than it is about the material. The goal is justice, not wealth (although greater wealth is often a side effect).

This is a direct contradiction of many ideologies that are seen as ‘Right Wing’; Libertarians and Objectivists, in particular, reject this notion. This admission of the fact of inter-connectedness directly opposes their beliefs (‘there is no society, just individuals’ for Libertarians and ‘there are a few demi-gods that everyone else mooches from’ for Objectivists) that they must either reject it or reject their own beliefs. Yet it is not Leftist, either. There is no compulsion in solidarity and, more critically, no collectivization. Ideas such as compulsory union membership or the seizure of land to make collective farms are alien to this vision of solidarity. It is a voluntary union, a decision made by choice, that forges the friendship that is the core of solidarity.

Another key concept in Catholic social justice is Subsidiarity. Subsidiarity is defined as the principle that "a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to co- ordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good." (Catechism of the Catholic Church, para. 1883). The OED defines it to mean “the idea that a central authority should have a subsidiary function, performing only those tasks that cannot be performed effectively at a more immediate, local level”. In other words – the smaller and more local, the better. This is a moral choice for two reasons. The first reason, as we saw in the Efficiencies of Charity, is that local efforts are both more likely to be appropriate (charity reaches those in need, business plans match the local economy, etc.) and more efficient (less is wasted on administration, distribution, etc.). This is a moral impetus to local control because it means that there is less waste and wasted effort. The second, more important, moral reason is that the loss of personal autonomy can be dehumanizing. When people have less control of their own lives theologians call this an ‘impairment of the will’. Our sense of worth (when we are mentally and spiritually healthy) comes not from material things, but from the choices we make. The exercise of free will is the motor for our choice. When our choices are constrained, we lose some free will. Although there will always be constraints on will and action, those imposed by others for reasons other than moral ones are the most deleterious to the will. This means that impairment of the will can lead to feelings of disconnection from others, depression, and despair. While efficiency alone is a compelling argument for subsidiarity, the addition of the moral pressure to avoid impairment of the will makes it the standard of the Catholic Church.

Catholic social teaching also emphasizes that people have a right to private property (Catechism, para. 2402), but cautions that this comes with responsibilities. As stewards of the earth, owners of property have a responsibility to properly manage their property so that it not only secures them and their families from poverty and violence, but also so that the rights and well being of others are not harmed. Indeed, the Church teaches that property is ‘to be made fruitful’ so that after the owner’s first duty (to his own family) is met, the products of property can be freely shared with others, especially the sick and the poor. Indeed, the catechism states that waste and excessive expense are immoral and that willfully damaging one’s own property in a way that makes it less fruitful is ‘contrary to moral law’ and requires that reparation be made to the community (Catechism, para. 2409).

The inevitable conclusion of the ideas of solidarity, subsidiarity, and the right to private property while recognizing the social responsibilities of ownership is the rejection of Communism and Socialism. Communism denies the existence of private property, making people dependent upon others for their livelihood, denying them the security of property, and reducing them to means of the end of production. Socialism uses central planning and ‘the state’ to make economic decisions for all, removing their free will and denying them security and property.

However, another inevitable conclusion is the rejection of laissez-faire capitalism or ‘pure market’ economics. The strict individualism of laissez-faire capitalism rejects the idea of solidarity and the primacy of ‘the market’ reduces humans to means of the end of profit. In both cases things (either goods or profits) are placed in a position of greater importance than people, a clearly immoral position.

Clearly, Catholic Social Justice rejects Communism/Socialism and free-market Capitalism. As a result of this, the Catholic Church’s teachings on moral economic activity is sometimes called a “Third Way”, or an alternative to the two competing paradigms of political economics of the last 150+ years.

In the next article I will discuss this ‘Third Way’, what it would look like, and where its being used today.

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