Thursday, May 31, 2007

The "Branches" of Catholic Social Teaching

In my previous blog, I indicated that the Church’s teaching on “human dignity” was the “tree” from which other branches in Catholic social teaching derive. In this blog, we’ll take a close look at these other branches.

Human dignity is best realized within vibrant communities. Because we are social in nature, we are most healthy and happy in relationship with others. Good social policies promote these relationships by promoting healthy, strong communities.

Since I am a teacher, I often use the common practice of curving tests as a contrary example to this principle. Though there are many ways to curve tests, the basic idea is to determine the average grade of a certain test, make that the “C” grade, whereas slightly higher and lower than the average is a B or D, and significantly above and below is an A or F. If a class does exceedingly well on a test by averaging an 88, then an 88 becomes a “C”, but if the class does poorly, an average grade of 55 becomes a “C”. Bottom line: if you’re a student in that class, you want the rest of your classmates to do poorly. Since curving is a common university practice in math and science classes, it’s not surprising then that there is a strong antipathy toward Asian students at many universities, who often score more highly in math than their American counter-parts (generally because they work harder!). At other universities, students report that their science experiments were sabotaged by classmates seeking to boost their grade at the expense of others. Curving tests creates a “win-lose” mentality in students that seriously undercuts any community building.

In terms of social policy, there are two important principles that derive from this basic teaching on community. The first is that good social policy promotes and strengthens the most fundamental of all communities: the family. We know, as a matter of fact, that children are best nurtured in the context of parents who are committed to one another. Does our tax code encourage marriage, or is there a disadvantage to filing taxes jointly? Do our civil courts make separation of spouses a simple matter, as in “no-fault” divorces, or do they encourage a more deliberate, thoughtful process, recognizing the detrimental effects of divorce on children?

The second derived principle is that of “subsidiarity”, which argues that things are best handled at the most local level possible. To encourage vibrant communities, “higher” groups should never usurp the authority and responsibility of “lower groups” unless absolutely necessary. So, for example, it is good planning for cities to encourage parent-led sports leagues for children, or charitable organizations like YMCA, rather than try and run these leagues themselves. Why? Because it is likelier that these leagues and Y’s can run these programs better and more cheaply than the city, which would, in the absence of such leagues, become quickly crushed by its myriad responsibilities in addition to building roads, handling crime, putting out fires and all the other things a city must do. Similarly, state governments should not usurp authority and responsibility from cities, nor the federal government from states. Rather, all of these “higher” groups should seek to empower the lower groups to be as healthy and as active as possible, for they all serve an important civic function. Good communities at the lower levels help create healthy relationships that build human dignity.

Government has a special obligation to protect the dignity of the poor and vulnerable. In fact, government should give preference to the poor and vulnerable.

This is one of the more controversial of Catholic social teachings, but for Christians, it shouldn’t be. Jesus’ admonition reminds us that whatever we do to the “least of my brethren”, we “do unto him”. From the Old Testament prophets to Jesus, through the long history of our Church’s ministry to the poor through hospitals, schools, Catholic Relief Services, Catholic Charities, schools and social centers, our tradition speaks eloquently to this most fundamental of our responsibilities. As a practical matter, who protects the interests of the poor, if not government and if not the Church? Wealthier people, typically better educated and connected, have the resources to take care of themselves.

A practical example of this principle in action: how should we tax? There are fundamentally two types of taxes: a regressive, flat tax (like sales taxes) or a progressive tax (like income taxes) wherein the rate of taxation increases the wealthier one is. A wealthy person might object to progressive taxation, reasonably arguing that he is “penalized” for his success by having to shoulder a higher percent of his money, which is “unfair”. But what effect does a regressive tax have on a poor person? Suppose someone makes just $20,000/year and must pay a 10% flat tax on his income. What effect will taking away $2,000 have on this person? It will cut into basic necessities: food, shelter and clothing. What effect will a flat 10% tax have on a person making $200,000 year? It might affect the type of car, the size of a mortgage or the expense of a vacation, but it will not affect food, shelter and clothing at the most basic level. The principle of preference for the poor suggests that the Catholic Church would support progressive over regressive taxation.

Employment helps foster human dignity.

Catholicism argues strongly that when we work, get paid and become self-sufficient, our human dignity is truly fostered. (If anyone doubts this, just watch how quickly deflated people become when unemployed for long periods of time). Good social policy, then, places a high premium on lowering unemployment rates. The old adage “Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, feed him for a life-time” applies here. When people become productive members of society, they contribute to that society by spending, paying taxes, and becoming responsible citizens.

Two other pieces to our tradition regarding employment: Businesses must pay their employees a "just wage". Justice in setting salaries is NOT merely "what the market will bear" or "whatever employee and employer negotiate"; rather, the Church defines it as enough money that a worker and his family, if thrifty, can live an upright life. Apply that standard to our current minimal wage rates and it is easy to understand why the Church has been vocal about supporting aggressive minimum wage increases.

Second, the Church supports the rights of workers to unionize, and even, as a last resort, to go on strike if justice demands it. In many countries, as was the case of the U.S. during the industrial revolution, without unions, the advantage the employer has over the employee is so great that the imbalance virtually guarantees the employee will be unjustly treated. But the Church is also careful to say that unions must always consider the common good, not just the interest of its employees. Also, because strikes have such wide-spread, detrimental affects to the common good (when U.P.S. went on strike in the mid-1990's, many mail-order businesses went bankrupt because they were unable to deliver their goods, as an example), they must truly be last resorts, and they must aim for just ends.

Human dignity is realized through ownership.

Originally as an argument against socialism, Catholic social teaching has always held that private ownership is a natural right. If it’s a natural right, then it is a right for all people, so that government ought to promote policies that encourage ownership for as many people as possible. The current tax code, which gives a significant break to home owners by allowing them to deduct the mortgage interest, is an example of a policy that is consistent with this Catholic social principle. We know that when people own their own homes, they keep their homes and neighborhood cleaner and neater, and that owning a house is a source of pride and accomplishment for those people. We ought to encourage this as much as possible.