Sunday, August 26, 2012

Concentric Circles

Moyers and Company is not a show I watch very often - Bill Moyers remains a staunch left of center commentator and I don't find much useful in his stuff.    But this afternoon as I was driving back from a board I worked with on Saturday, I was able to listen to the attached program - called Faith and Politics.   Moyers invited two Catholic activists on the program to discuss their perspectives on the issues in this year's campaign.  They were Sr. Simone Campbell who heads a group called Network, which describes itself as a "Catholic Social Justice Lobby" and Robert Royal who heads something called the Faith and Reason Institute.

On the Institute's home page is the following statement - 

"In his encyclical on Faith and Reason, Pope John Paul II praised the authentic achievements of modern thought, but pointed to a difficult contemporary problem: “reason, rather than voicing the human orientation towards truth, has wilted under the weight of so much knowledge and little by little has lost its capacity to lift its gaze to the heights…. has preferred to accentuate the ways in which this capacity is limited and conditioned.”  His lament reflects the condition of all advanced societies: an abundance of wealth and practical means coexists with an extreme poverty of purpose and vision.

In his Farewell Address, George Washington made a similar observation: “Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”  For Washington, national morality was also the “spring of popular government.”  American liberty was thus closely allied with faith. Reason and experience affirmed that truth."

They discussed two concepts that are important in Catholic theology - subsidiarity and solidarity.   Sr. Simone has an odd understanding of subsidiarity - from her perspective government is first and foremost the provider of welfare in society.    Thus, from her perspective there is no harm in jumping the minimum wage to $12 per hour (or even $20 at one point).   She seems to be a clone for the Obama arguments about the budget.   Equity only comes from government.

Subsidiarity is, according to the OED a concept that aruges that "a central authority should have a subsidiary function, performing only those tasks which cannot be performed effectively at a more immediate or local level."   The word authority is chosen carefully,  notice it does not say a central "government."    Sr. Simone also suggested in her discussion that solidarity applies (which ultimately means a compassion for everyone in society, especially the poor).   Unfortunately, Sr. Simone seems ignorant of the purpose of the movement that gave "solidarity" prominence.   It was about throwing off the yoke of government, in that case communist oppression.

Conceptually, I have always thought of government as a subset of civil society.   We decide to delegate some things to government but the larger controlling instrument in society is not government but civil society.   While this may seem like a small point, it is ultimately a very large one.   Part of my own thinking has been heavily influenced by Catholic teaching about subsidiarity - but part of it has also been influenced by an understanding of the ideas presented in the Federalist - which is about as close to a business plan for our system of government as one can find.   If government creates civil society, then government can abolish it.  And that certainly is not the idea that the founders of the nation offered.

I am not a big fan of the term "social" justice because it has at its base an odd understanding of the term justice.   Social Justice, for those who use the term, cannot be actuated without governmental involvement.  Where is the role for civil institutions - for example, the church, in assuring justice?  And can the church operate without relying on government to arbitrate justice?

Sr. Simone sees the language in Matthew 2:21 is only one sided - "render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's" - her logic would be that there is no necessary rendering to other places such at God because Caesar takes care of all that.  What twaddle.  But Sr. Simone is convinced that she is correct.  So she is not at all bothered by the rapid increase in the number of food stamp recipients in the last four years, nor or the continuing unemployment problems in the economy.  What does it matter unless the rich truly pay their fair share.   When it is pointed out that the top 10% pay a disproportionate share of their income to taxes and to the support of government - she discerns that is still not enough.   

Robert Royal was more balanced. He understands a difference between civil society and governmental society.   He also made several strong points about the risks of trusting too much in government.  One of the distinguishing marks of American society that has been observed as far back as DeTocqueville - was the American use of civil institutions to solve social problems.   Sr. Simone does not see the inherent perils attached to thinking government is the first avenue for solving societal problems.  When you start with that assumption, important issues like both clauses of the First Amendment become secondary.

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