Earlier, I noted that Pope Francis spoke out against “trickle-down” economics in his first apostolic exhortation, arguing that such capitalistic systems naively put too much faith in those in command. “Would love to hear a conservative Catholic’s response to this,” former Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau smirked on Twitter.
Allow me to oblige…
Yes, I am a Catholic. I believe in the value of human life and in righting the wrongs of exclusion and inequality, as Pope Francis outlined. But I’m also a conservative who leans laissez-faire libertarian on matters of economics. As I noted in my post earlier, history disagrees with the Pope’s assumption that the best economies are those built primarily on the principle of equality — like the classless, moneyless and stateless “utopia” of communism which has enslaved, impoverish and killed countless victims throughout history.
But the Holy Father’s comments bring up a larger issue conservative Catholics have had to wrestle with: the role of the state as it relates to the individual.
These days, the Catholic Church seems to see the organized state as a means to a just society, that it’s the role of government to pursue social justice a la Jim Wallis. It’s as if having a state dedicated to social justice makes society just in the eyes of God. But I’m uncomfortable with this position, both as a conservative and a Catholic.
Personally, I think the Church overgeneralizes and tries (in vain) to apply individual spiritual principles to societal problems. If the Pope’s comments are ingested on an individual level, I agree with him. But when the Church starts talking about society’s collective action, that’s where they lose me. It’s not society’s collectivism that puts me in God’s good graces; it’s my individual attitude and actions and what I do with the free will He’s given me. In other words, I believe that God wants me to help feed the poor, not appoint a government to.
And I’m not the only Catholic who believes this. It’s interesting to think of Pope Francis’ assessment in light of Pope John Paul II’s past condemnation of communism and the “social assistance state.” In 1991, he observed (emphasis mine):
“In recent years the range of such intervention has vastly expanded, to the point of creating a new type of state, the so-called ‘Welfare State.’ This has happened in some countries in order to respond better to many needs and demands by remedying forms of poverty and deprivation unworthy of the human person. However, excesses and abuses, especially in recent years, have provoke very harsh criticisms of the Welfare State, dubbed the ‘Social Assistance State.’ Malfunctions and defects in the Social Assistance State are the result of an inadequate understanding of the tasks proper to the State. Here again the principle of subsidiarity must be respected: a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good.
“By intervening directly and depriving society of its responsibility, the Social Assistance State leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies, which are dominated more by bureaucratic thinking than by concern for serving their clients, and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending, In fact, it would appear that needs are best understood and satisfied by people who are closest to them who act as neighbors to those in need. It should be added that certain kinds of demands often call for a response which is not simply material but which is capable of perceiving the deeper human need.”
Society becomes just through the actions of individuals, not the collective action of the government. And as a conservative, I don’t place my “crude and naive trust” in anyone but myself. As a Catholic, I believe the responsibility for my ultimate salvation is mine and mine alone.
Please don’t excommunicate me.