Thursday, August 25, 2016

Four Life Issues and Catholic Social Doctrine

There are several political issues commonly wrapped in the social-justice banner that are also issues affecting life and the family. In theory, a Catholic ought to support those policies which support life and family regardless of which party proposes them. However, when the two parties split on abortion and (later) euthanasia, so did American Catholics. Now the nation is so polarized politically that, as Scott Eric Alt explains, any Catholic who demands we pay attention to life issues outside of abortion and euthanasia is accused of “trying to kill opposition to abortion”.

“A Catholic CANNOT Vote Democrat”

On August 23, my friend and Catholic Stand colleague Matthew Tyson published “Yes, You Can Be Catholic AND Vote Democrat” on his Patheos blog Mackerel Snapper. On the face of it, I can’t conceive a more quixotic and desperate cause than trying to convert the Democrat Party to a “whole life” position, as the Democrats for Life want to do. Besides, the demographics have been shifting leftward (and away from party labels) for the last three generations, and the Republican Party is shredded in two. There’s arguably as much hope for converting the Democrats to the “seamless garment” as there is for converting the Republicans. (Yes, I went there.) But, as GKC said, hope only begins to be really useful when things appear to be hopeless.

For the record: Though I probably agree with many if not most of Matthew’s positions (I don’t fully know what they are), I refuse the label liberal. Classical liberalism, as I recently pointed out, was and is premissed on a faulty anthropology; the postmodern left’s social liberalism is progressing towards an authoritarian statism, and the postmodern right’s economic liberalism enables crony capitalism. Precisely because I am a Catholic, I hold neither the Republicans’ nor the Democrats’ ideological biases and policy preferences to be above challenge or criticism.

The post’s title was guaranteed to attract a knee-jerk contradiction. Sure enough, a reader (whom I’ll call Cato) declared, “A Catholic CANNOT vote Democrat,” and that “being a [Catholic] Democrat is indistinguishable from being a pro-equality KKK member, a Catholic Nazi, or a Catholic Stalinist.” Why? Apparently, because Cato, bless his heart, believes the national platform makes all the party’s members co-conspirators, despite the fact that individual candidates are not and cannot be required to support every platform plank. It’s stupid sweeping generalizations like this which are driving Gen-Xers and millennials away from party identification.


Matthew’s a big boy who’s capable of defending himself and doesn’t need his quondam editor to shield him from the fray. However, Cato’s ill-tempered response provides us with a chance to look at some misunderstood issues of Catholic social doctrine (CSD). Yes, there is such a thing, right-wing foot-stomping to the contrary; and to deny it exists or has any serious theological weight is a prime example of conservative “cafeteria Catholicism”.

Putting Cato’s last point first: Matthew stated that his problem with the Affordable Care Act was that “it didn’t go far enough”. To be fair, I think he should have stated his preference for universal health care more directly. Nevertheless, in attacking him, Cato said, “ACA healthcare violates the bedrock Catholic principle of subsidiarity.”

No, it doesn’t. Subsidiarity, as important as it is to CSD, is not foundational or inviolable. Subsidiarity directs the effort to the lowest level social organization capable of addressing the problem; it doesn’t assume the lower levels can do everything, let alone do everything better. That private initiatives on the community level can even begin to effectively address the myriad issues presented by the burgeoning costs of healthcare is a dubious, if not laughable, proposition dictated by free-market utopianism. The common good takes precedence and determines the application of subsidiarity (cf. Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church § 188). There are other issues, particularly those of conscience, with ACA; violating subsidiarity is not one of them.

Minimum Wage Increase

Concerning a minimum wage increase, Cato said, “Catholics are to support a just wage, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to a minimum wage, especially as a minimum wage may unjustly force employers to pay employees more than they are worth. Thus, the minimum wage can be seen as a form of theft. Even if it isn’t, it violates the bedrock Catholic principle of subsidiarity.” A “just wage”, then, is just what the employer is willing to pay and no more.

What does a just wage mean to the Church? “In order to protect this relationship between family and work, an element that must be appreciated and safeguarded is that of a family wage, a wage sufficient to maintain a family and allow it to live decently. Such a wage must also allow for savings that will permit the acquisition of property as a guarantee of freedom” (CSDC § 250).

Furthermore, “‘Remuneration for labour is to be such that man may be furnished the means to cultivate worthily his own material, social, cultural, and spiritual life and that of his dependents ...’ The simple agreement between employee and employer with regard to the amount of pay to be received is not sufficient for the agreed-upon salary to qualify as a ‘just wage’, because a just wage ‘must not be below the level of subsistence’ of the worker: natural justice precedes and is above the freedom of the contract” (CSDC § 302).

In other words, according to Catholic social doctrine, a laborer cannot be worth less than a living wage. Employers that refuse to pay their adult workers living wages foster the welfare system, using it to “socialize” labor expenses they would otherwise have to pay. Subsidiarity by no means prevents local, state, or federal authorities from setting a minimum wage as a pragmatic stand-in for a living wage; in fact, the activity of the government “must also be inspired by the principle of solidarity and establish limits for the autonomy of the parties in order to defend those who are weaker” (CSDC § 351).

Paid Paternity Leave

“Ditto paternity leave.” Matthew came out in favor of paid paternity leave, a plank in the DNC platform. By dittoing his minimum-wage argument, Cato betrays the fact that his understanding of CSD is pretty much limited to knowing the word subsidiarity; for him, it’s a wrecking ball that destroys all government intervention.

Again, we turn to the Compendium. “Family and work, so closely interdependent in the experience of the vast majority of people, deserve finally to be considered in a more realistic light, with an attention that seeks to understand them together, without the limits of a strictly private conception of the family or a strictly economic view of work. In this regard, it is necessary that businesses, professional organizations, labour unions and the State promote policies that, from an employment point of view, do not penalize but rather support the family nucleus. In fact, family life and work mutually affect one another in different ways. Travelling great distances to the workplace, working two jobs, physical and psychological fatigue all reduce the time devoted to the family.” (CSDC § 294)

It comes back to the “living wage” argument. Essentially, Cato wants us to take a view of employment where the employer dictates the working conditions as if he were grudgingly doing the laborer a favor by hiring him, and where the employee’s health, family life, and ability to survive are “not my problem”. But the employer is not giving the employee a job out of the goodness of his heart; he needs to fill the job to meet his business load. Healthy, happy employees produce more than tired, ill, stressed, and anxious employees. Also, as I’ve said before, employees are consumers; when employers drive down wages, they drive down consumers’ ability to consume. Cato’s argument is not only wrong but wrong-headed.

The Death Penalty

The last topic is capital punishment. Cato’s argument: “States have the right to implement the death penalty. While I’m not a fan of capital punishment for a myriad of technical reasons, the abolition of the death penalty is not ipso facto a Catholic position.”

The right of the state to implement the death penalty isn’t in question. “The traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude ... recourse to the death penalty, when this is the only practicable way to defend the lives of human beings effectively against the aggressor” (Catechism of the Catholic Church § 2267). Rather, the question is whether the state ought to implement the death penalty. And at least for the last twenty years, since St. John Paul II wrote Evangelium Vitae, the magisterium has been gravitating towards the answer, “No.” “Bloodless methods of deterrence and punishment are preferred as ‘they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person’” (CSDC § 405; cf. CCC § 2267)

Cato’s logic is faulty; any position which doesn’t run afoul of Catholic doctrine can be considered a legitimate Catholic position. However, as the New Mexico bishops recently pointed out in a joint statement, not only St. John Paul II but also Benedict XVI and Francis have spoken out against the death penalty. The end of the next twenty years may likely find that support for the death penalty will be the not-Catholic position.

Taking Life and Family Issues Seriously

“Solidarity without subsidiarity, in fact, can easily degenerate into a ‘Welfare State’, while subsidiarity without solidarity runs the risk of encouraging forms of self-centred localism” (CSDC § 351). Neither of these principles is an end in itself but is directed towards the common good. The arguments Cato advances encapsulate a contemptuous view of the worker as a burden on the employer — a false view since employees fulfill needed roles, directly contribute to the success of the enterprise, and power the economic engine of consumption with their wages. Although subsidiarity recognizes the logical and social priority of the family and community, it does not prohibit national intervention when it’s needed.

Healthcare, living wages, paid paternity leave, and the death penalty are all either life or family issues or both. One thing I’ve learned over time is that pro-abortion people don’t take pro-life people seriously when, out of adherence to free-market and small-government shibboleths, they oppose life and family policies, especially those that would make it easier for women to choose life. There’s no future in merely fighting abortion as a product of moral laxity — that’s the mindset that turns pregnancy into punishment. Opposition to government intervention on other life and family issues is the true “poison pill” which undermines pro-life and pro-family credibility.

I don’t vote for parties; I vote for persons. I would have no qualms voting for a pro-life, pro-family Democrat, especially if such a critter would run against Sen. Ted Cruz when his seat comes up for election again in 2018. If we want the left to start taking us seriously on abortion and euthanasia, we have to get serious about other life issues. Otherwise, they’ll continue to blow us off as hypocrites. And they won’t be wrong.