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Catholic Lie of the Year

December 23, 2010, 12:16 pm | Posted by John Gehring

We noted last week that the Pulitzer Prize-winning Politifact.com gave its Lie of the Year award to the myth that health care reform legislation represented a “government takeover” of the health care system. This has me musing over what the biggest Catholic lie of the year was in 2010. I’m picking the laughable effort that Deal Hudson, the CatholicVote.org crowd and other conservative Catholics made to brand Tea Party ideology as all nice and cozy with Catholic social teaching. This effort was so transparently partisan and willfully ignorant of centuries of Catholic social teaching that it runs away with the award like Cam Newton and the Heisman.

The idea that the Catholic principle of “subsidiarity” fits lockstep with anti-government rhetoric, free-market fundamentalism and lower taxes for millionaires and billionaires is a stunning distortion of papal encyclicals and Catholic social teaching through the ages. The always insightful Vox Nova blog says it well.

Fundamentally, subsidiarity is all about letting human dignity flourish by creating the space for social relations to take place at the most personal level. It is meaningless when stripped away from solidarity. It has nothing to do with low taxes, minimal regulation, or low spending. In the economic sphere, solidarity calls for government intervention in certain core areas (such as determining working conditions and support for the unemployed), while subsidiarity calls for the government to create favorable conditions for the common good to flourish. That, by the way, means correcting the problems that come with the free market. This was patently clear to Pius XI, the intellectual architect of subsidiarity, when he railed against the injustice created by unregulated large corporations, especially in the financial sector. Properly understood, subsidiarity provides a bulwark against both the centralizing tendencies of socialist collectivism, and the decentralizing tendencies of the free market.

Deal Hudson and Thomas Peters might want to put down those Republican talking points and dust off their Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. Released by the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace in 2004, the Compendium describes the “common good” as “the reason that political authority exists.” In Catholic teaching, government has an essential role in helping to create the conditions of a just society where human dignity can flourish. The Catholic Church is not a spiritual subsidiary of the Cato Institute. The Church’s call to reject excessive individualism and warnings about the dangers of unregulated markets don’t sound anything like the Tea Partiers.

Even on the prickly political issues of taxes, Catholic teaching is not shy about urging a more just distribution of wealth (see Church teaching on the “universal destination of goods”). Church advocates for “a reasonable and fair application of taxes,” according to the Compendium, “in which burdens are “proportioned to the capacity of the people contributing.” As Vincent Miller, the Gudorf Chair in Catholic Theology and Culture at the University of Dayton, writes in a recent Washington Post “On Faith” commentary “the late Pope John Paul II, that resolute opponent of communism, nonetheless repeatedly insisted that private wealth was subject to a ‘social mortgage’ to be used for the common good.”

Catholic conservatives have every right to support the Republican Party, embrace Tea Party libertarianism and believe in less regulation of business. These are political arguments I find lacking, but they are longstanding views subject to debate in the robust marketplace of ideas. But anointing them with the imprimatur of Catholic Church teaching is wrong.

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