Even the most casual observer of current events would have noticed the following two headlines that have surfaced in the first two days of this week: First, Pope Francis plans to canonize Popes John XXIII and John Paul II and, second, intractable budget-related issues have led to the first government shut-down since President Clinton occupied the White House. Insights from the tradition of Catholic social teaching, as articulated by John XXIII and John Paul II, speak to the contemporary situation.
Catholic social teaching makes frequent reference to the relative rights and responsibilities of individuals and groups in relation to the common good. This insight provides a helpful orientation to the matter at hand, yet Catholic social teaching does not provide a specific model or blueprint according to which to build a more just social order. Both John XXIII and John Paul II wrote on this important matter during their respective pontificates. The following quotes are worth pondering at this not-that-uncommon juncture in American politics: gridlock.
In his 1963 encyclical Pacem in Terris, John XXIII wrote,
Beginning our discussion of the rights of the human person, we see that everyone has the right to life, to bodily integrity, and to the means which are suitable for the proper development of life; these are primarily food, clothing, shelter, rest, medical care, and finally the necessary social services.
Therefore a human being also has the right to security in cases of sickness, inability to work, widowhood, old age, unemployment, or in any other case in which one is deprived of the means of subsistence through no fault of one’s own (11).
John XXIII spoke here not only about that to which every person is entitled, he also spoke about our obligation to contribute to the supply of goods that will provide for people in need at any given time.
The natural rights with which we have been dealing are inseparably connected, in the very person who is their subject, with just as many respective duties; and rights as well as duties find their source, their sustenance and their inviolability in the natural law which grants or enjoins them.
Those, therefore, who claim their own rights, yet altogether forget or neglect to carry out their respective duties, are people who build with one hand and destroy with the other.
Since men are social by nature they are meant to live with others and to work for one another’s welfare.
A well-ordered human society requires that men recognize and observe their mutual rights and duties. It also demands that each contribute generously to the establishment of a civic order in which rights and duties are more sincerely and effectively acknowledged and fulfilled.
It is not enough, for example, to acknowledge and respect every man’s right to the means of subsistence if we do not strive to the best of our ability for a sufficient supply of what is necessary for his sustenance (28-32).
In other words, we must do everything we can to contribute to the well-being of others.
John Paul II, writing to commemorate the one hundredth anniversary of the first modern papal social encyclical, explained that, while the Catholic social teaching tradition provides a framework for building a just society, it does not provide a blueprint.
The Church has no models to present; models that are real and truly effective can only arise within the framework of different historical situations, through the efforts of all those who responsibly confront concrete problems in all their social, economic, political and cultural aspects, as these interact with one another. For such a task the Church offers her social teaching as an indispensable and ideal orientation, a teaching which, as already mentioned, recognizes the positive value of the market and of enterprise, but which at the same time points out that these need to be oriented towards the common good (43).
While Catholic social teaching does not prescribe a particular model, it does direct us to order politics and economics to promote the common good.
Authentic dialogue and negotiation are necessary for the development of a humane social order. In the U.S., government is not a passive enterprise. It is incumbent upon every citizen to participate in the legislative process. Citizens participate through their votes, yes, but they must also participate through regular contact with their representatives at the local, state, and federal levels. They must insist on a political and economic order that is “oriented toward the common good” according to the preferential option for the poor.
People of good will will disagree on how to reach this goal yet all people of good will must make a sincere effort to work together to make this world a better place.
The quotes from John XXIII’s Pacem in Terris can be found on the website of Catholic Charities of St Paul and Minneapolis. Their website is rich resource for all things Catholic social teaching.
The quote from John Paul II can be found in his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus at the Vatican website.
Submitted by: N. Rademacher, Associate Professor, Religious Studies