In 1997, a House sub-Commitee debated the partial birth abortion bill, and solicited 3 "experts" before the committee to testify both for and against the bill. Among those who testified was Helen Alvare, a spokesperson for the United States Bishop's Conference, who gave an articulate, forceful and above all reasoned argument in favor of banning the procedure in the United States. As much as I was impressed with Ms. Alvare's testimony, it became clear that the Congressmen were even more impressed, for over the next 30 minutes, they questioned, prodded and solicited her opinions to the near exclusion of the two other witnesses co-testifying.
Watching all this on C-Span reminded me of something we Catholics often take for granted: the power and intellectual consistency of our social teaching tradition. Beginning with Leo XIII's "Rerum Novarum" in 1891, and refined through the years up to John Paul II, our Church has developed sets of principles and perspectives which can give coherent guidance to public policy, ranging from topics as diverse as welfare reform, capital punishment, and development of third world countries to substantive critiques of socialism and capitalism alike.
It is the internal coherence of these positions that makes them so valued by policy makers and ethicists outside our tradition. Yet sadly, only a small percentage of Catholics understand our social teaching tradition with any depth. Few would know what "subsidiarity" meant, fewer would be able to articulate the proper relationship of government to the economy, perhaps even less would be able to discuss the implications of "preferential treatment of the poor and vulnerable."
Too many of us, rather, are reduced to sincere though unhelpful platitudes that we are to "serve the poor" or "love our neighbors". But how do these gospel commands translate into the issues of our day? What is a "just wage" and how does that translate into the minimum wage debates over the last year? What can we say to those who believe capital punishment is defensible? What about immigration reform? Acceptable levels of unemployment? The role of the state vs. the role of the federal government in Hurricane Katrina reconstruction? Does our faith have anything REALLY to say about these things beyond a sentimental appeal to "just get along"?
I believe it does! Over the course of the next several blogs, I will outline the principle themes of our Catholic social teaching which derived originally from the gospels, but which has crystallized in a sophisticated way over the last 115 years through papal encyclicals.