Catholic Social Teaching and Contemporary Social Problems
Ed Mechmann graciously agreed to sit down for an interview with the University Bookman. Mr. Mechmann, a Harvard educated lawyer and former prosecutor, is director of public policy for the Catholic Archdiocese of New York and oversees the Archdiocesan Safe Environment Office. He specializes in public policy education and advocacy, religious liberty law, Catholic theology, and has written a book on Catholic social teaching entitled God, Society and the Human Person. He spoke with University Bookman assistant editor Alexis Carra about Catholic thought in light of contemporary social issues.
The Catholic Church is increasingly portrayed as being at odds with contemporary society. What is the relevance of Catholic social teaching today? Has it been misunderstood?
Catholic social teaching is part of the overall moral teaching of the Church, but it’s really an approach to how we live together as people in various social structures. There are many different philosophies that can govern how we live together and relate to each other, and Catholic social teaching is an attempt to bring the Gospel values to bear on these questions. I think one of the reasons why the Church is at odds with society—which is actually one of the reasons why it’s so relevant to talk about Catholic social teaching—is that the Church’s social teaching is not just based on the revelation of the Gospel, but also on a reasoned reflection on the nature of the human person. It presents a specific anthropology about what it means to be human, and this anthropology is at odds with contemporary society. Contemporary thought is so materialistic and pragmatic and that’s fundamentally inconsistent with the anthropological vision of Catholic thought. Catholic social teaching is often misunderstood because the world is thinking in materialist, consumerist, and utilitarian terms, while the Church is thinking in terms of the sanctity and beauty of the human person.
You write in your book that Catholic social teaching is often concerned with the “ultimate supernatural destiny of humanity.” Because of this, “[s]ociety must be ordered with a primary emphasis on the spiritual and moral health of its members.” How do atheists and people of different faiths fit into this picture?
The nature of the human person does not change with the subjectivity of my belief. Humans are not just material entities, but also spiritual beings. People may not accept this or the fullness of the truth, but that doesn’t change the reality. Because we are not just material beings, society cannot organize structures, laws, and practices according to primarily materialist concerns. We have to also take into account the non-material: the spiritual and the philosophical. That’s what separates and distinguishes Catholic social teaching from other social thought. Now all people—even atheists and people of different faiths—search for meaning in life. And all people search for meaning that transcends their own materialistic needs. This is just a human truth. You can go back to the great book, Man’s Search for Meaning, written by Auschwitz survivor Viktor Frankl, to understand the universality of this experience. Of course, you also need authentic human freedom and religious freedom to engage in this search for meaning. But in the end, by focusing on the spiritual dimension of the human person, you can create a society that truly is in tune with the entirety of the human experience. You can create a society that allows humans to fully flourish. And even atheists will benefit from this kind of society. Everybody is hurt by a purely materialistic society. All you have to do is look at the way the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany played out to understand this.
When referencing Pope John Paul II’s encyclical, Centesimus Annus, you write that “certain aspects of the ‘social assistance state,’ more commonly known as the ‘welfare state,’ violate the principle of subsidiarity because they arrogate to the central authority activities that are properly the function of intermediate institutions or associations, and ultimately the family.” You also note that the state, amongst other functions, must “help citizens find work and employment” and “require the payment of social security contributions.” Are these roles in conflict?
Well, one of the real challenges in policy making is reconciling these tensions. Catholic social teaching sets parameters and encourages certain virtues, but it’s really left to the prudence and judgement of policymakers to keep the balance. But yes, these tensions really do exist, and when speaking from a Catholic perspective you can’t go too far in either direction. You can’t move toward a completely individualistic society—the objectivist dream—but you also can’t move towards the collectivist dream—the workers’ paradise where everything is determined collectively. Ultimately, we have to remember that the person, not the state, is the focus of society. And the state has to recognize the existence and validity of intermediary structures and relationships between people. In this sense, the state cannot usurp functions proper to intermediary structures.
However, there are also times when individual activity or intermediary structures cannot satisfy human needs. We can’t protect ourselves from every economic event. We can’t protect ourselves from poverty as a result of disability or old age. To a certain extent, we are captive to market forces that are beyond our control and can lead to underemployment or unemployment. This is where the increased role of the state comes into play. But again, the state exists to help us flourish, not to occupy every aspect of our lives. And I think in the modern age, that’s a strange way of looking at things. The Church looks at the role of the state in a very different way than the modern state looks at itself. But this is also where the principle of subsidiarity has incredible relevance. According to the principle of subsidiarity, the best way to deal with social problems is at the level closest to the people involved. Higher levels should only get involved if lower levels cannot accomplish the task. That’s one of the ways to draw the balance.
Following the direction of Pope Francis, Catholic culture has experienced an apparent public shift in emphasis away from controversial social issues (such as abortion or gay marriage) toward helping the poor and marginalized. Some would even argue that Pope Francis is critical of capitalism and sympathetic towards collectivist policies, like income redistribution, because these policies may benefit the less fortunate. To what extent does Francis’s attitude encapsulate the Church’s position?
I think Pope Francis is pushing two agendas that essentially go together. On the one hand, Pope Francis’s first agenda is to reemphasize the evangelical mission for the Church—bring people to the Gospel so that they can come to know Jesus Christ and be saved. Yet at the same time, the Holy Father’s second agenda is to continue advocating the social message of the Church—and this agenda that was actually commenced by his predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
Now, when trying to understand what Pope Francis is talking about, we must keep those two agendas clear in our minds. In the famous interview published in America magazine, where Pope Francis supposedly spoke about the excessive emphasis on controversial social issues like abortion and gay marriage, the Holy Father was really speaking about the evangelical mission. He does not want controversial issues to impede people from hearing the Gospel and responding positively to it. He primarily wants to bring people to Christ. Once people are brought to Christ, then we can start talking about the consequences of the Gospel: What does the Gospel mean? How do we apply it to these controversial social issues?
This coincides with Pope Francis’s second agenda. He’s not changing any teaching; he’s not contradicting any aspect of Catholicism. He is simply stressing the centrality of the human person in the Church’s social doctrine. In other words, we first have to focus on the need for human dignity and then we can speak about such issues as abortion and gay marriage. This emphasis on human dignity also relates back to the Holy Father’s understanding of capitalism. When he’s critical of certain elements of capitalism, he’s critical of an approach that objectivizes people and treats them as objects to be used by others. These are all standard Catholic beliefs.
You often recognize that “the heart of any social reform is charity.” What do you mean by “charity”? Can charity ever be obligatory? If all Americans were mandated to give a dollar a year to starving children in Africa, social reform would certainly occur, but would it be born out of charity?
When we’re discussing charity from the perspective of Catholic social teaching, we’re not just talking about giving money or giving possessions; we’re really talking about giving love. So in that sense, charity—meaning love—is obligatory and absolutely essential for humanity. But when we’re called to charity, we’re also called to a certain frame of mind and a particular understanding of relationships. How do I relate to you? How do I understand my relationship with you? How can I help you? Once we starting thinking in that way, we begin to understand that we’re all members of the human family. We’re all meant to love each other and part of this loving relationship involves the gift of self.
Because of this, charity really is at the heart of any social reform. It’s directly connected to justice and the common good. Pope Benedict, in his encyclical Caritas in Veritate, specifically talks about this transformation through charity and the gift of self. And this is how Catholic social teaching specifically invites us to help others. Of course, I can give a dollar a year to the poor children in Africa, and this would help in a very real way, but if I don’t do it out of love, it won’t have the same transformative effect; it will be lacking. I won’t be transformed and the child who receives the money won’t be transformed.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church explicitly states that “[r]ich nations have a particularly ‘grave moral responsibility’ to poorer nations, out of solidarity and charity.” What would be an example of this “grave moral responsibility” in practice? Would it be immoral for a nation to prioritize its own interests before paying attention to poorer nations?
This must all be guided by solidarity. Solidarity is a virtue; it’s this sense of fraternity, love, and shared experience. Now obviously, the officials of a particular nation have an obligation to enhance the common good of their nation. But they cannot do this at the expense of people in other nations. Let’s take international debt relief as an example. Obviously, sanctity of contract is important; if nations are owed money, they should be paid back money. Yet at the same time, the people in the debtor nation are not just cash cows; they are real people. The richer nation has the moral obligation to ensure that the people in the debtor nation are not subjected to undue suffering.
I think another good example of how this moral responsibility is shown is through sweatshop issues. Sweatshop workers in Bangladesh, India, and other countries are responsible for making the cheap clothes that we love to buy, but they are also exposed to inhumane working conditions while doing so. We are buying what they produce for us and we have the responsibility to make sure that their working conditions are just and safe. This is the concept of the indirect employer. Now, going back to the notion of prioritizing interests, it would not be immoral—in and of itself—for a nation to prioritize its own interests before paying attention to poorer nations. However, there are just some things that a nation cannot in a morally responsible way benefit from.
Sometimes, Catholic social teaching provides a clear position on an issue, but other times there is no set position, simply principles meant to “infuse policy debates with Gospel values.” Because of this, you note that faithful Catholics may actually disagree on how to accomplish certain goals. Is this a drawback to Catholic social teaching?
This is an endemic issue with Catholic social teaching. But this issue is at the core of the moral teaching in general. The negative moral precepts are fairly clear, but the positive moral norms are not so clear-cut. What does it mean to love my neighbor? What does it mean to be just? And the social teaching works in the same way. We just have to be prudent to ensure that we’re not importing our partisan interests from the outside. There may be overlap between Catholic positions and secular political ideologies, but these ideologies should not be dictating Catholic positions.
There is a set Catholic position on abortion, but there’s not really a set Catholic position on such issues as taxation or welfare reform. There are simply Catholic principles that are meant to guide policies. Of course, this will not solve the indefinite nature of Catholic social teaching or the lack of clear policy prescriptions. But this is not a drawback to Catholic social teaching. There is room for diversity of opinion among faithful Catholics regarding positive moral precepts. We can disagree over the best way to serve the poor. We can disagree over the best way to defend our national borders. So long as we’re arguing from the Catholic perspective and arguing in a charitable manner, these disagreements do not breach communion; they may actually be beneficial.
Immigration is an important issue for many Americans. The Church encourages nations to welcome foreigners out of respect for the human person, yet also recognizes the duty of a nation to secure its borders. From a Catholic standpoint, how would you go about assessing the morality of certain policies in which there are conflicting interests and no explicit Catholic policy?
This is a particularly complicated field. There are many issues involved, so I think you have to divide the issues up as closely as possibly into clear and defined questions. Unlike in the political sphere, where it’s popular to talk about all these “comprehensive” issues, moral discussions work in a different way. It’s best to break all these “comprehensive” issues into “bite-sized chunks.” Then, we can analyze these “bite-sized chunks” in a moral discussion. This way, instead of assessing the morality of immigration reform as a whole, we can have a good moral discussion on refugee policy or family reunification policies or criminal penalties for violating immigration laws.
For example, when discussing refugee policy, an aspect of immigration policy, we can break it down into further “bite-sized chunks.” How many people should we admit? What should be the standards? How can we encourage more generosity? How can we improve the process? What are the reasons why these people are refugees? Are they subjects of political persecution or is it religious persecution? All of these factors are involved when assessing the morality of refugee policy. Nobody—whether you are a political philosopher or a Catholic theologian—will be able to completely resolve these thorny issues. However, it is still possible to focus on these issues from the Catholic perspective. And once you do, you will start to see answers that differ from those in the political realm. The issues will be “humanized.” It’s not just a policy; it’s a question of real life people.
Is there anything you would like to add?
People are so frustrated with our current political system and I believe Catholic social teaching offers ways to work towards the resolution of problems. It has the potential to change the way we think and perhaps change the world—and change it in a Godly way.
Posted: October 5, 2014 in Interviews.
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