Politics and church social teaching

By | April 25, 2012

“We want a safety net for those who cannot help themselves, but programs should not be designed to enable able-bodied people to lapse into complacency and dependence,” Ryan told CNS.

He believes government should have a limited role in helping the poor.

Credit Ryan for turning to Catholic social teaching — which has been called the church’s best kept secret — for guidance in proposing federal funding measures. However, it’s important to note that the church’s social doctrine grew out of the disparity between the rich and poor during the Industrial Revolution. So it was society’s limited role in helping the poor that inspired the church’s social doctrine.

Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 social encyclical, Rerum Novarum, outlined issues such as the Catholic doctrine on work, the rights and dignity of the poor, the obligations of the rich and perfecting justice through charity.

Rerum Novarum and other social encyclicals produced a set of principles and themes that guide Catholic social teaching. Among them are:

• Sanctity of human life and dignity of the person.

• Call to participate in family and community life.

• Human rights and responsibilities.

• Preferential option for the poor and vulnerable.

• Dignity of work and the rights of workers.

• Solidarity and the common good.

• Subsidiarity.

• Care for God’s creation.

Church leaders since the time of Pope Leo XIII have pointed to these themes as necessary for building a just society.

Congressman Ryan’s reference to subsidiarity, while admirable, was misleading. Subsidiarity does seek to put control into the hands of people on the grassroots level. The best example of subsidiarity would be self-help programs supported by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development. But nations still have an obligation to provide for the least among them. Balancing the budget on their backs by taking away important programs that help them is not in harmony with Catholic social teaching.

In a different interview, Ryan pointed to the preferential option for the poor as another tenant of church social teaching to which he subscribes. “(It) means don’t keep people poor,” he said, “don’t make people dependent on government.”

That’s not how the church describes this option for the poor.

“This is an option, or a special form of primacy in the exercise of Christian charity, to which the whole tradition of the church bears witness,” said Pope John Paul II. “It affects the life of each Christian inasmuch as he or she seeks to imitate the life of Christ, but it applies equally to our social responsibilities and hence to our manner of living, and to the logical decisions to be made concerning the ownership and use of goods” (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis).

So while individuals have an obligation to help the poor, so does government. That’s a lesson Ryan and all elected leaders need to keep in mind.

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