“Social Justice”: a phrase that’s tossed around a lot, but usually in ways that do serious INjustice to its original context. Paul Ryan, a Catholic economics expert from Wisconsin, is suddenly in the news; I thought it might be time to go back and take a look at some classic Catholic social justice theory…what it REALLY says. Let’s take a look.
Leo XIII came out with the seminal encyclical, “Rerum Novarum” in the year 1891. It was followed up by other letters that built upon that good foundation. The basic idea from this tradition that I want to underline is summed up in two words: ‘subsidiarity’ and ‘solidarity’. In Catholic social theory, these two values are presented as tied together, balanced and equally necessary in a healthy society. I know, this all seems pretty abstract to start with, but hang with me, here. If we could just grasp this, a LOT of common sense can flow from it. What are these two words?
In Catholic thought, ‘subsidiarity’ simply reminds us that a healthy society is made up of a whole lot of small, strong, independent social groups – ‘subsidiary’ groups. You have youth groups, charitable societies, local governments, schools, the Elks, religious societies, etc. (By far, the most important is the family, nuclear and extended.)
In order for things to work right, each of these smaller, ‘subsidiary’ units needs to be respected by the larger organs of power. THE State, THE Church, THE Press, THE Armed Forces must respect the independence and integrity of each of these smaller groups for the good of all. These larger groups shouldn’t overawe or super-cede jobs that are properly done by the smaller groups.
What this means is, a large group, such as the government, should neither take over the smaller functions of the family through force such as in Communist or totalitarian governments or through a sort of benevolent ‘smothering’, such as in socialism. When decisions within families, such as how to educate the children or how they will be taken care of are usurped, the result is massive social injustice and disequilibrium.
When Hitler forcibly shipped youths to retraining camps, he claimed to be serving social justice; but this severed children from their family and town roots and served as great brainwashing but horrible social justice in the long run. Hallowed family & regional traditions which had humanized and stabilized were ripped out, leaving a moral vacuum ripe for the greatest horrors. Scandinavia’s 80% taxation and 6 AM to 8 PM daycare led to unprecedented levels of 5-year old suicides among other things before they lurched away from total immersion socialism. This is not some abstract idea. It’s really there and has real consequences when it is violated. (John Paul II personally experienced what can happen with both the Nazis and the Soviet Communists.)
It was the genius of our Founding Fathers to build in and express respect for states and towns, families, churches and associations. It was this that de Tocqueville marveled about, because it worked so well. (This is not to romanticize all ‘small-town’ values, by the way. I understand these places can, indeed, sometimes, be petty, parochial or prejudiced. The larger point remains.)
However, it’s not good to ONLY have respect for subsidiarity. What if all the small groups did whatever they wanted without regard to other groups or larger supervisory groups? That wouldn’t work, either. (John Paul II warned not only about Communism and socialism, but, also, about untrammeled capitalism with no conscience.)
What is the antidote for such a danger? It is the idea of ‘solidarity’. (Have you ever wondered why John Paul used the word so much, or why Lech Walesa named his union with this word? Wojtyla knew how to put these classic ideas into practice in the real world!) This principle says that everyone should consider the whole of humanity or the larger group in whatever they do. We’re all in this together, after all. True, my grocery store can put up the price of milk far above wholesale if it wants and that might be good for the store in the short run, but how would that affect the needier people, and, therefore, the larger community? Patriotic sentiments and actions for one’s country are a perfect example of such ‘solidarity’. It might cost my family and my locality for me to serve in the military, but it serves the greater purpose of preserving the liberties of millions. We need to develop a community sense of charitable concern.
However, this ‘solidarity’ is absolutely USELESS if it is not entirely starting from yourself; you must be acting because that’s what you believe and what you are. (That is precisely where Marxism and socialism err, by theorizing that individuality is not important and conformity must be forced.) This internalization of ideals of solidarity is called virtue. If the larger organs of power seek to IMPOSE it, then it is NOT ‘solidarity’ at all! Solidarity must be learned on the knees of mothers, at truly free-standing schools, in the company of local friends and co-workers and in the pews of churches. It involves souls reared in such nurseries that go out “to give their lives to a cause greater than themselves”. (I think THIS is why Benjamin Franklin liked public religious expression and charities although he didn’t practice himself!) Can you see the perfect balance of the two extremes: subsidiarity AND solidarity? Precisely because you are so respectful of the smaller, organic groups, you are able to more perfectly promote the whole.
Perhaps you can see that both sides of the political spectrum can take some solace in this economic approach, as well they should. Truth avoids extremes; the via media is good. WELL, Paul Ryan is steeped in this approach and refers to it regularly. His budget plan doesn’t really change much fundamentally, but there is a bigger emphasis on ‘devolving choice’ to states, local groups and individuals; that general principle is a sound one quite consonant with what we’ve said above. The other side of the aisle has savaged him with the usual canards about killing old people and starving children, but, as you listen, just remember what I have explained is what he is really talking about. Perhaps we could elect people who would work together to find a balance that could actually work.
Crossposted from mlajoie