The last week of February, 2021, represents the lack of consensus amongst U.S. citizens about the proper role of government on the Federal, state, and municipal levels. On the one hand, we marvel at the vivid color pictures and sound beamed to us by the Mars Lander Perseverance. Mars has become a planet populated by robots, developed and manufactured by NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The latter institution is managed by the California Institute of Technology, and some parts for these rovers were developed in consultation with the private sector. NASA’s mission success demonstrates superb cooperation between government, the non-profit sector, and private industry.
On the other hand, back on Earth? A heated debate is afoot about the role and powers of the distinct levels of government in combatting Covid-19. Our failure to establish consensus here played a direct role in the deaths of over a half-million U.S. citizens. This lack of consensus drives controversies surrounding mandates to mask and/or shut down businesses and public facilities. A political populism grounded in ignorance of the scientific method wrongly interpreted the evolving scientific consensus on addressing the virus as an example of government corruption and part of a conspiracy to take away our freedom. All of this thwarted effective coordination among Federal, state, and municipal governments to combat the virus and efficiently distribute and administer vaccines using the best insights from our scientists and medical professionals.
Conflicts about government’s proper role and powers, and on which level its powers should be exercised, go back to the first debates about the Constitution in 1787. Perennial questions undergirding those debates, such as executive versus legislative power, go back farther still to Anglo-Saxon England. Cheering on NASA’s Mars missions and intensely debating the government’s pandemic-era powers exemplify the traditional poles of our national discourse over political structure. However, the attempted autogolpe of Donald Trump and his allies in Congress, backed by his supporters who stormed the Capitol Building on January 6, exposed a disturbing new phenomenon: people who view government as an intrinsic enemy to their freedom, to the point that they will turn to unconstitutional power grabs and domestic acts of terror.
This debate makes clear that the United States has not settled the question of federalism. We have not had a sustained and constructive national debate about which powers properly belong to government and at which level. Often a traumatic event, like a world war or the 9-11 attacks, inspires citizens to call on the Federal Government, thus increasing its power. Over the past 160 years, the United States mobilized and fought the Civil War, coped with rapid industrialization and workers claiming their rights, answered citizens’ demands for protection from fraudulent business practices, protected industries and consumers from predatory monopolies, fought two world wars and one Cold War, addressed human needs through a Depression and several recessions, built and maintained infrastructure for an urban, industrial society of unprecedented complexity and speed, and answered the irruption of women, as well as ethnic, religious, and racial minorities demanding their civil rights. The growth of the Federal Government’s powers and responsibilities happened in response to a succession of events and crises which other civic institutions, individual state governments, and the private sector, could not or would not handle themselves. “Big Government” was a creature of our own making.
Despite exceptions, Roman Catholics in the United States are not helping with this debate. U.S. Catholics reflect and amplify our national differences within our own church to the point that too many buy into the Manichean nature of our current politics. Too often we view our fellow Roman Catholics on the other side of a national debate as sell-outs to an enemy. Often we deploy apocalyptic language where the other is not just an existential threat to the country, but also to the Church on a degree not seen since Faustus of Mileve. The first step to independence from the false secular ideological dichotomies which pit Catholics against each other must be to plumb the depths of our theological and philosophical traditions, including political philosophy. If such efforts merely confirm our existing political views and do not help us develop compelling ways to move past contemporary polarization, then either our Catholic intellectual life is too clouded by secular politics, or we have not delved deeply enough into those traditions to adequately critique our politics and find compelling alternatives.
The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (paragraphs 168-170) reminds Roman Catholics of the essential conditions by which we approach government and its powers, and critique those secular political ideologies which attempt the same. Individual persons share coequal responsibility with the state to work towards the common good. Our exercise of political authority, whether as individual citizens or through state institutions, should work for the common good. To that end, the state has a duty to “guarantee the coherency, unity and organization of the civil society of which it is an expression, in order that the common good may be attained with the contribution of every citizen.” While the state cannot achieve this end without every citizen’s active participation, “the individual person, the family or intermediate groups are not able to achieve their full development by themselves for living a truly human life. Hence the necessity of political institutions, the purpose of which is to make available to persons the necessary material, cultural, moral and spiritual goods.” Moreover, Catholic Social Teaching (CST) charges government to “ensure the common good [through] the proper reconciling of the particular goods of groups and those of individuals.” While CST acknowledges that “in the democratic State…decisions are usually made by the majority of representatives elected by the people,” the common good does not reference only the majority. Achieving “the effective good of all the members of the community, including the minority,” is a duty of majority to the minority, without spite or condescension.
CST therefore contradicts those who seek to minimize government to the bare bones of facilitating commerce, law enforcement, and defense. Such persons often misquote a famous line from Ronald Reagan’s first inaugural address. They recall Reagan saying “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem,” but forget that that sentence began with four important words: “In this present crisis…” Having lived through the Great Depression and World War II, where Federal and state governments used New Deal programs to buy the nation time to recover and blunt the temptation to revolutionary violence as a solution, then successfully mobilized the nation to help the Allied Powers win a World War on two fronts against the Axis Powers, Reagan knew from experience that the vision of minimal government held today by many conservatives and all libertarians was not realistic. He makes that clear elsewhere in the same address: “Now, so there will be no misunderstanding, it is not my intention to do away with government. It is, rather, to make it work with us, not over us; to stand by our side, not ride on our back. Government can and must provide opportunity, not smother it; foster productivity, not stifle it.” Reagan wanted government to be accountable to the governed, and called for renewed recognition of the Constitutional “distinction between the powers granted to the Federal Government and those reserved to the States or to the people.” Conservative arguments like Reagan’s, which realistically envision a larger, more substantive role for government than those who claim to be his political heirs, could be part of the discussion Catholics should have on government because they imply an understanding of government able to grapple with the complex demands of modernity.
On the other hand, CST contradicts those on the political left who privilege government to the point that the independent mediating institutions of civil society, whether churches and their myriad ministries, labor unions, professional associations, and voluntary organizations dedicated to charity or other civic goods, are marginalized or eliminated altogether. The Compendium speaks to this with its exposition of the principle of subsidiarity (187-188). The understanding that government is coequally responsible with individuals to secure the common good is underscored by the fact that “every person, family and intermediate group has something original to offer to the community.” Partnerships between government, the private sector, and the independent non-profit sector are necessary because no single institution is omnicompetent. In addition, when government over-centralizes and excessively bureaucratizes its authority, procedural ways of thinking eclipse the government’s mission to help people. Both government marginalization and the elimination of the mediating institutions of civil society squelch innovation born by the freedom and initiative of citizens who make up those organizations.
Debating fellow Catholics, I often hear the familiar chestnut that “one party is closer than the other,” to Catholic teaching. This concession has yielded only the captivity of the Church to prevailing political ideologies. Human political ideologies always will fall short of attaining the common good because, as Leander Keck put it, “everybody’s last name is Adam.” Using CST to confirm one’s political biases must end. Catholics employ our shared social teaching, rooted in God’s Word, to assert our ideological independence as a Church. This shapes the political ideas we propose to our fellow citizens, including developing an understanding of all the government we need, sufficiently empowered at each level to help us lead our individual and common lives in a context of ordered liberty.
Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2004.
Keck, Leander E., The Church Confident: Christianity Can Repent but It Must Not Whimper, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993).
Reagan, Ronald, “First Inaugural Address of Ronald Reagan,” The Avalon Project: Documents in Law, History, and Diplomacy, Yale Law School Lillian Goldman Law Library, The Avalon Project : First Inaugural Address of Ronald Reagan (yale.edu)