The usual view among Catholics is that public authority should look after all aspects of the common good. As a result, the social encyclicals have proposed a variety of responsibilities for government. The variety has grown with the range of problems under consideration, from the condition of industrial workers in Rerum Novarum to the comprehensive good of all humanity and even the natural world in more recent encyclicals.
The popes have therefore presented classical liberalism and libertarianism as positions to avoid. They have, of course, also rejected socialism. People, families, and associations need to lead their own lives, make their own decisions, and own the consequences. Otherwise they will be deprived of the agency necessary for human dignity. Saint John Paul II noted that rejection of such considerations by Communist governments led to passivity, alienation, inhumanity, and gross inefficiency, and eventually to collapse of the system.
The popes have been less inclined to discuss limitations on public authority based on the corruptions to which political power may lead. John Paul’s comments on democracy and the division of powers in Centesimus Annus showed his awareness of the problem, as did some of Benedict’s comments in Caritas in Veritate, but such concerns have been a minor feature of the social encyclicals. Concern with extremes of economic power, along with the position of the Church hierarchy as a government, seem to have inclined the popes to think of government as a neutral arbiter that stands above the clash of interests that pervades everyday social and economic life.
That tendency has perhaps been strengthened by memories of Catholic monarchy, by hopes for a better world after the sacrifices of two world wars, and by the post-Vatican II sympathy for secular aspirations and movements that led many to idealize what a universalized secular authority could achieve. It may also reflect the status of Catholic social doctrine as part of moral theology, which leads it to speak more of what should happen than what actually happens.
Idealization of worldwide secular movements and authorities seems to have reached its peak in Populorum Progressio, in which Blessed Paul VI asserted that “[development] agreements would be free of all suspicion [of self-interest] if they were integrated into an overall policy of worldwide collaboration,” and contended that
some would regard these hopes [regarding world government] as vain flights of fancy. It may be that these people are not realistic enough, and that they have not noticed that the world is moving rapidly in a certain direction. Men are growing more anxious to establish closer ties of brotherhood … they are slowly making their way to the Creator, even without adverting to it.
But political power is often more corrupting than economic power. Nor are the corruptions likely to be remedied by making power global, thereby emancipating it from answerability to anyone but those who are globally strongest.
The corruptions come from every direction: ordinary people find ways to game the system for various benefits; pressure groups use government programs as a vehicle for rent seeking; the well-connected profit through cronyism and special deals; and private powers and their public counterparts otherwise find ways to work together for mutual benefit that take little account of the public interest.
Beyond such economic corruptions, there are ideological temptations. Those with power habitually exaggerate their wisdom and virtue and the importance of what they do, so that the greater their power the more likely they are to feel themselves called upon to remake the world in the image of their own perhaps radically defective ideal. Our present global elites, for example, lead extraordinarily privileged lives, and they base the legitimacy of their position on claims of economic efficiency and neutral expertise. So why wouldn’t they try to put their legitimacy beyond question by claiming that such qualifications are the key to all good things, and attempt to establish a global technocracy that overrides all other sources of authority, including local community, cultural tradition, natural law, and the Church?
The most basic point leading the popes to reject both socialism and classical liberalism is the need for societies to be oriented toward something beyond economic concerns, and ultimately toward God. Pope Benedict noted that denial of objective values can lead even democracies into a new form of tyranny notwithstanding forms of popular election, separation of powers, and legal recognition of human rights.
Such concerns are becoming ever more pressing. Even so, recent popes haven’t said much about their practical implications. Suppose, for example, that the “true world political authority” Benedict called for in Caritas in Veritate became a possibility, but there was no prospect whatever it would “observe consistently the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity, … seek to establish the common good, [or] make a commitment to securing authentic integral human development inspired by the values of charity in truth” in the sense he required. What then? He didn’t say.
The Catechism sheds some light on the matter when it tells us that
Regimes whose nature is contrary to the natural law, to the public order, and to the fundamental rights of persons cannot achieve the common good of the nations on which they have been imposed… Authority is exercised legitimately only when it seeks the common good of the group concerned.
Current Western governments and international organizations, as a matter of the defining principles they believe give them moral authority, reject natural law and public order based on anything other than technology and human will. They also reject rights as basic as religious freedom, the right to life, and the right of a man and a woman to form a family as a publicly-recognized institution with a natural function and the rights corresponding to that function, such as the right to educate their children in accordance with normal standards of right living.
The ability of such governments and organizations to achieve the common good and exercise legitimate authority is consequently limited. Their faith in their own righteousness is not. They are therefore unlikely to be suitable partners for the Church in advancing her social goals.
Churchmen have sometimes been caught flatfooted dealing with totalitarian movements, and the current situation of growing soft totalitarianism is too recent and too disturbing for its implications for Catholic social action to have been adequately understood and articulated. For that reason it is not surprising if some churchmen fumble things.
Many have therefore fallen into serious errors, some of which are strikingly illustrated by the recent article by Antonio Spadaro, S.J., and Marcelo Figueroa in La Civiltà Cattolica. From that and the subsequent America interview with Fr. Spadaro it is clear that for the authors any religiously-motivated political opposition to secular progressivism—for example, support for abortion restrictions, denial of recognition to same-sex marriage, and conscientious objector rights for culture war losers—is an attempt to impose “religious morals” that falls outside legitimate political discourse. Cooperation among Christians in support of such projects is therefore an “ecumenism of conflict” or even an “ecumenism of hate” that should be resolutely opposed.
That view, of course, rejects not only traditional doctrine on the relation between Church and society but the applicability of natural law to secular states. It reduces the social activity of the Church to that of a secular progressive NGO. Some such result seems inevitable when the post-Vatican II anthropocentric turn and the will to cooperate with secular movements and authorities become absolute.
That must change, and Catholics must regain their critical sense of what secular movements and authorities really are. The obvious remedy—which is necessary in any case, for reasons apart from politics—is a restored emphasis within the Church on natural law and on the transcendent dimension of the Faith. Only those dimensions can give us a correct perspective on worldly affairs, and make possible effective efforts for true justice. Divorced from them the social doctrine of the Church is no longer itself.