Tread Lightly

By Brian Caulfield

As a native New Yorker, who grew up with the rumble of subway trains, I have a vivid image of both the power and the danger of the "third rail."
Well, there are many "third rails" in the Church's social teaching that hold enormous power for healing societal ills as well as for causing much mischief when trod upon without due respect for tradition and complexity.

In fact, there should be a sign over the storehouse of Catholic social teaching, reading "All Ye Who Enter: Tread Lightly."
Having warned myself, I will look at sections of the Catechism of the Catholic Church dealing with social doctrine, especially as it relates to the individual and society.

The Church asserts that man is a social being and needs society to develop his potential, and that the "subject and the end" of all social institutions is the human person.

But what of the tendency toward selfishness among individuals? And the tendency of society in the form of government to push its power into the lives of citizens? These tendencies have been the source of some social theories that place the locus of rights completely in the individual (such as libertarianism), and other theories that place all power in the collective (such as communism).

The Church sees both of these extremes as failing to respect the full dimension of individual human freedom and man's need and ability to associate with others in a "truly human" manner. In my view, libertarianism and communism are two forms of despair over the fallen human condition. They seek to eliminate the tension between the individual and the government by placing all power on one side or the other.

While falling between the two extremes, the Church's teaching is not a "happy medium." Regarding the "social question" the Church brings in a third reality -- the spiritual dimension of man and his relationship with God, the creator. All human activity, including the power of the state, are subject to the laws of God and the natural law.

A Social Being
The Catechism states that although society and the state are necessary for man, "Excessive intervention by the state can threaten personal freedom and initiative. The teaching of the Church has elaborated the principle of subsidiarity, according to which a 'community of higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of the lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help coordinate its activities with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good.'" (#1883)

Section 1885: "The principle of subsidiarity is opposed to all forms of collectivism. It sets limits for state intervention. It aims at harmonizing the relationships between individuals and societies."

These are wonderful ideas. But they can be variously interpreted, with both sides claiming to uphold this or that version of the common good, subsidiarity and harmony.

Yet despite these tensions, the Church asks us to take the hard road of social engagement and responsibility. We cannot despair of the human condition, even as we recognize our fallen state. This is part of the message of Pope Benedict XVI in his encyclical Spe Salvi (In Hope We Are Saved).

Social structure, government and laws are not "necessary evils" in the eyes of the Church. They must be seen as aspects of the commandment to "love thy neighbor as thyself." This excludes a collectivist "nanny state" as well as an economy regulated only by personal gain and greed.

Brian Caulfield is editor of Fathers for Good.