Catholic Social Teaching and the Tea Part

A recent article in the Catholic Newsletter “Our Sunday Visitor” entitled “Is the Tea Party movement in sync with Catholic teaching?” has raised some interesting issues relating to the ideals driving the Tea Party and the teaching of the Catholic Church. The article notes that: “A study commissioned earlier this year by the National Review Institute found that 28 percent of tea party supporters identified themselves as Catholic. Yet while the movement may include aspects that are attractive to practicing Catholics, there are also serious questions about whether the at times radical views and controversial practices seen from tea party protesters fit with the teachings of the Church.”

Of course the teachings in question are mostly related to the issue of “Social Justice”. This is an area that both the Church and Catholic Tea Party members need to address because, as the article points out, Catholic participation in the movement is growing. Some see the Tea Party movement as a populist uprising rooted in frustration ad are at a loss to explain the significant Catholic involvement:

Although the tea party movement lacks a centralized leadership, with its divergent branches representing an array of different interests and viewpoints, the group’s common focus is on limited government and reduced taxation, creating a political ideology that combines elements of libertarianism and populism.

While populist movements have a long track record in the United States, Catholic historian David O’Brien told Our Sunday Visitor that they have generally been associated with Midwestern or Southern Protestants and, in some cases, have been fueled in part by anti-Catholic sentiment. But the tea party movement has grown out of a shared frustration over the nation’s current economic situation — something Catholics are not immune to — giving it a strong appeal.

“People are either out of work and don’t think they are ever going to get a job again, or they are very fearful of losing what are not very good jobs to begin with,” said O’Brien, the University Professor of Faith and Culture at the University of Dayton. “There’s this huge anxiety, and that cuts across religions, races, even classes.”

But among Catholics, he said, the support for the tea party movement has been unique.

“I don’t recall a broad-based Catholic populist upsurge of anything of this variety,” O’Brien said.

Some Catholic leaders see a contradiction between the principles animating the Tea Party movement and the teaching of the Catholic Church:

Stephen Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America, said that Catholic voters have been known for their propensity to switch party allegiance, but their strong show of support for the tea party comes as a surprise.

“What strikes me is that even though Catholics are attracted to this movement, there really is a pretty sharp tension between some of the basic teachings of the Church in regards to politics, the role of government and what we owe to the poor, and what these tea party advocates are promoting,” Schneck told Our Sunday Visitor.

Others see a compatibility between the Church’s teaching and the Tea Party’s concerns:

According to Father Robert Sirico, president of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, the radical extremists in the tea party represent only a small percentage on the fringes of the movement. At its heart, Father Sirico said, the tea party and its view of government are very close to the Church’s social teaching on the principle of subsidiarity, which favors doing things on a simplified level rather than leaving them to a more complex, centralized organization.

“I think the majority of the people who are involved in the tea party movement prefer things to be done at the most local level possible,” Father Sirico told OSV. “They are not against government in principle, they are against the excessiveness of government that we see, and that’s expressed in the principle of subsidiarity.”

Many of the stances tea party activists have taken on political issues also would resonate with Catholic voters, Father Sirico said. For example, many practicing Catholics would likely agree with the tea party’s concern about the overreaching involvement of government in schools and health care, he said, and though the movement has hesitated to identify itself as pro-life, the majority of tea party activists appear to be in agreement with the Church’s stance on abortion.

But while he doesn’t feel that there is a conflict for Catholics to join the tea party, Father Sirico said, he does think tea party advocates could benefit from a greater understanding of Catholic teaching.

The Animating Principles the Drive the Tea Party Movement

Although I am not a Catholic, I am a member of the Tea Party and have a great deal of respect for the Catholic Natural Law tradition and moral philosophy. Given that, I have an interest in seeing this supposed conflict resolved. The first thing which strikes me is that even those who see the concerns driving the Tea Party movement as incompatible with Catholic teaching admit that the extent of rank and file Catholic support for the movement is unprecedented for what they consider to be a mere populist reaction rooted in frustration. Perhaps it is time for these people to consider that the Tea Party movement is more of a positive movement to reform America based on our fundamental founding principles and not merely a reaction of frustration to economic conditions. Looked at from that viewpoint, it is not hard to explain Catholic participation in the movement. These Catholics apparently see a common ground between the principles that inspired America’s founding, as expressed in our Declaration of Independence and enshrined in our Constitution, and the moral teachings of the Catholic Church. The fact that they are members of the Tea Party and still consider themselves to be Catholic indicates that they see no conflict. By not even considering this possibility, some Catholic leaders and scholars are insulting the intelligence and integrity of a large and growing number of rank and file Catholics. Why alienate so many Catholics when they just may be onto something? One would think that a more thorough investigation into the possibility that the concerns driving Tea Party members and the teaching of the Catholic Church may be compatible should be tried before writing off Catholic Tea Party members as misguided.

A good start has been made by Catholic leaders like Father Sirico of the Acton Institute for Religion and Liberty. As noted above, he does not see an incompatibility between the two. In defending the Tea Party movement, he mentions the Catholic principle of subsidiarity and suggests that the Tea Party movement should incorporate such notions in presenting a comprehensive expression of their ideals. In another article, Father Sirico also mentions the Protestant notion of “Sphere Sovereignty” along with subsidiarity as principles that the Tea Party should embrace explicitly. (They already have implicitly in his viewpoint) Father Sirico’s suggestion is a good one and is already in the process of being implemented here in Vermont. Earlier this year a local Tea Party associated group hosted a series of session entitled “The Biblical Roots of American Civilization” that were aimed at expressing the moral underpinnings of the American experiment in ordered liberty that animates the Tea Party movement. The coordinator who set up the sessions is a Catholic, the person who created the website to host the material developed is an Evangelical, the person who covered the expenses is an Orthodox Jew and the person who recorded the event is a local Regent for the Catholic Daughters of America. I am the one who gave the presentations and am what could be considered a “Home Church” Christian. We are all concerned with exploring the moral underpinnings behind our founding vision of ordered liberty. The site can be accessed here: http://www.thelibertyfoundation.us/ It is a work in progress and some of the texts still need to be added, but all of the YouTube videos of the presentations are there.

In the presentations we explore the notion of the dignity of the human person as a being created in the image of his creator as the source behind what has come to be known as “American Individualism”. We make a clear distinction between this ideal and the notion of self-centered selfishness. In doing so we point out that Americans are not only noted for their individualism, but for their tendency to form voluntary associations and give to charity. This tendency of Americans to form voluntary associations was noted by Alexis de Tocqueville in his classic “Democracy in America”:

“Americans of all ages, all stations of life, and all types of disposition are forever forming associations. There are not only commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but others of a thousand different types — religious, moral, serious, futile, very general and very limited, immensely large and very minute. Americans combine to give fetes, found seminaries, build churches, distribute books, and send missionaries to antipodes. Hospitals, prisons, and schools take shape that way. Finally, if they want to proclaim a truth or propagate some feeling by the encouragement of a great example, they form an association. In every case, at the head of any new undertaking, where in France you would find the government or in England some territorial magnate, in the United States you are sure to find an association.”

We also echoed such founders as George Washington in expressing a healthy concern for the expansion of the role of government:

“Government is not reason, it is not eloquence, it is force; like fire, a troublesome servant and a fearful master. Never for a moment should it be left to irresponsible action.”

We defined “irresponsible action” to be allowing government to expand its role into areas where it is unsuited to deal with. The reason for avoiding such an expansion is two-fold. First it is a threat to individual liberty and second it crowds out the institutions of “Civil Society” such as the Family, Church, etc. We noted that Adam Smith had pointed out in his “Theory of Moral Sentiments” that Man has a natural moral sentiment, which finds fulfillment in acting with benevolence towards others. The moral sentiment is best developed by voluntary associations, which are undermined by the intrusion of the state into the “Sphere Sovereignty” of the institutions of Civil Society. In short, our opposition to the growing expansion of the role of the state into areas that are more properly the domain of Civil Society is far from a negative reaction to economic conditions and a lack of concern for the poor. Making such an accusation not only undermines the intelligence and integrity of Tea Party members, it displays intellectual laziness on the part of those making the accusation.

Compatibility With Catholic Social Teaching

This brings us back to the compatibility of the principles driving the Tea Party movement with Catholic social teaching.  I started looking into this when one of the Tea Party’s coordinators, who is Catholic, came to me with questions on the issue.  These questions were prompted by the fact that such teachings are to be a part of her son’s Confirmation instruction.  The source for the teachings she sent me came from the U.S. Bishops Conference. A quick review of the material confirmed my view that the basic moral principles expressed were compatible with the ideals of the Tea Party. These principles are related to the dignity of the human person, concern for the poor and solidarity. Where to problem comes is when there is a jump from those basic moral principles to the support for a specific political agenda. In short, the biggest difference is over means and not ends. We in the Tea Party do not see the expansion of the role of government into the arena of Civil Society as likely to achieve that noble ends expressed in the sections on basic principles. On the contrary, we see the increasing expansion of the role of the state to lead to the collapse of American civilization.

Another problem is with what was not listed in the basic principles. While there rightfully was a focus on human solidarity, there was hardly any mention of the importance of individual human liberty. There was no mention of the principle of subsidiarity. There was mention of the problems with an “unchecked” market, but no mention of the problems that come from an expanded role of the state unchecked by a concern for the principle of individual liberty and the sovereignty of the institutions of “Civil Society”.

Of course the material from the U.S. Bishops Conference is viewed as an official source, so the conclusion on the part of many is that where there is a difference, the two approaches are not compatible.  There is another source on this subject, however, that could be considered even more official than the U.S. Bishops Conference.  It is a site called “The Social Agenda” and it was put together by François-Xavier Nguyên Cardinal Van Thuân President, Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.  (He is not the current President, as he passed away in 2002)  Given that this source is connected with the Vatican, it should have even more official credibility than the material being taught now.

Teaching from the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace

In reviewing this site, I found in its teaching much more compatibility with the concerns of the Tea Party movement. It is also more comprehensive in its approach than the material listed on the U.S. Bishop’s Conference website and it sticks to fundamental principles for the most part and does not insist on support for specific issues like those associated with the expansion of the welfare state. It does make an exception for areas where it sees no room for difference, namely “The Evil of Abortion and Euthanasia”.

The first session starts out with the affirming the dignity of the individual human person and the importance of human freedom:

“The question of morality, to which Christ provides the answer, cannot prescind from the issue of freedom. Indeed, it considers that issue central, for there can be no morality without freedom: It is only in freedom that man can turn to what is good…” (Veritatis Splendor, n. 34)

Of course if defines that freedom so as not to confuse it with selfishness and license. It then goes on to affirm “The Social Nature of Man” in a manner very similar to Adam Smith and his “Theory of Moral Sentiments”.

“The cardinal point of this teaching is that individual men are necessarily the foundation, cause, and end of all social institutions. We are referring to human beings, insofar as they are naturally social, and raised to an order of existence that transcends and subdues nature.” (Mater et Magistra, n. 219)

It goes on to insist that the state cannot adequately fulfill man’s social nature by itself:

In contrast, from the Christian vision of the human person there necessarily follows a correct picture of society. According to Rerum Novarum and the whole social doctrine of the Church, the social nature of man is not completely fulfilled in the State, but is realized in various intermediary groups, beginning with the family and including economic, social, political and cultural groups which stem from human nature itself and have their own autonomy, always with a view to the common good. This is what I have called the subjectivity of society which, together with the subjectivity of the individual, was cancelled out by Real Socialism (SRS, nn. 15, 28).?(Centesimus Annus, n. 13)

In the socialist approach, where the state assumes all roles to itself, “the subjectivity of the individual, was cancelled out”. The Tea Party movement is determined to see that this does not happen in America. In doing so we echo the site assertion that:

“The foundation and goal of the social order is the human person, as a subject of inalienable rights which are not conferred from the outside but which arise from the person’s very nature…. Likewise, the person is not merely the subject of social, cultural, and historical conditioning, for it is proper to man, who has a spiritual soul, to tend towards a goal that transcends the changing conditions of his existence. No human power may obstruct the realization of man as a person.”?(World Day of Peace Message, 1988, n. 1)

In making the following assertion, the site is contrasting the Christian view of the human person with the socialist view:

“Likewise, the person is not merely the subject of social, cultural, and historical conditioning, for it is proper to man, who has a spiritual soul, to tend towards a goal that transcends the changing conditions of his existence.”

Such views have infected the welfare state societies of the west and are a threat to both human liberty and a thriving Civil Society. This is another concern that we in the Tea Party share with teaching expressed in this site, but do not find echoed in much of the material being presented in the U.S. under the subject of “Social Justice”.

This site also empthasises the concept of subsidiarity as well as solidarity and thus makes it easier for Catholic members of the Tea Party movement to see how the Church’s teaching is compatible with the principles that were at the heart of America’s founding.

“The teaching of the Church has elaborated the principle of subsidiarity, according to which a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to co ordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good (CA, n. 48; cf. QA, nn. 184 186). God has not willed to reserve to himself all exercise of power. He entrusts to every creature the functions it is capable of performing, according to the capacities of its own nature. This mode of governance ought to be followed in social life. The way God acts in governing the world, which bears witness to such great regard for human freedom, should inspire the wisdom of those who govern human communities. They should behave as ministers of divine providence. The principle of subsidiarity is opposed to all forms of collectivism. It sets limits for state intervention. …” (CCC, nn. 1883 1885)

There is also the question of how the free market approach to economics is viewed. Most Tea Party members have a positive view of the free market approach to economics. This view is often referred to as “Capitalism”. The term has been the source of much confusion and has been written about negatively by most Catholic scholars. The problem is more one of terminology than principle as expressed in this site. Properly defined, the site expresses a very positive view of free market Capitalism as long as it is part of a pluralistic order that includes a vibrant Civil Society upholding human dignity and a government protecting human rights:

“Returning now to the initial question: can it perhaps be said that, after the failure of Communism, capitalism is the victorious social system, and that capitalism should be the goal of the countries now making efforts to rebuild their economy and society? Is this the model which ought to be proposed to the countries of the Third World which are searching for the path to true economic and civil progress? The answer is obviously complex. If by capitalism is meant an economic system which recognizes the fundamental and positive role of business, the market, private property, as well as free human creativity in the economic sector, then the answer is certainly in the affirmative, even though it would perhaps be more appropriate to speak of a `business economy,’ `market economy,’ or simply `free economy’.” (Centesimus Annus, n. 42)

Finally, we arrive at the crucial issue of what has been referred to as “The Welfare State”. The approach to this matter lies at the heart of the difference behind much of what is being taught under the guise of social justice and the concerns of the Tea Party movement. Once again, Tea Party members will see their concerns shared by this site:

“In exceptional circumstances the State can also exercise a substitute function, when sectors or business systems are too weak or are just getting under way, and are not equal to the task at hand. Such supplementary interventions, which are justified by urgent reasons touching the common good, must be as brief as possible, so as to avoid removing permanently from society and business systems the functions which are properly theirs, and so as to avoid enlarging excessively the sphere of State intervention to the detriment of both economic and civil freedom. In recent years the range of such intervention has vastly expanded, to the point of creating a new type of state, the so called `Welfare State.’ This has happened in some countries in order to respond better to many needs and demands, by remedying forms of poverty and deprivation unworthy of the human person. However, excesses and abuses, especially in recent years, have provoked very harsh criticisms of the Welfare State, dubbed the `Social Assistance State.’ Malfunctions and defects in the Social Assistance State are the result of an inadequate understanding of the tasks proper to the State.” (Centesimus Annus,n. 48)

I will conclude that the principles, which motivate the Tea Party movement are the same as those that led to America’s founding. Given this, the question of whether the concerns of the Tea Party movement are compatible with Catholic teaching is the same as whether Catholic teaching is compatible with the principles that inspired America’s founding. I would like to suggest that they are as long as Catholic leaders who are instructing Catholics make use of a more comprehensive set of materials as a source. There are some differences in empthasis between the principles promoted by the Tea Party, which are derived from America’s founders and even this website put together by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. The biggest difference is the view of the state. Both see the necessity to limit the role of the state, but the Tea Party puts more stress on this point. It also, in echoing America’s founders, is more concerned about the nature of the state as an institution rooted in force. Still, such wariness over the nature of the state is not without its parallels in Catholic thought. Many of the American Puritan thinkers, who came to America and were so involved in setting up the institutions that helped to shape American civilization, were enthusiastic students of St. Augustine. Augustine made the distinction between the “City of the World”, which was represented by the state and was based on force, with the “City of God” which was represented by the Church and was based on love. He saw the state as only becoming necessary because of the fall and its role was to prevent humans from engaging in evil. In this he was echoing St. Paul in insisting that the state’s role was to “Wield the Sword” as a protector of the innocent against the “evil doer”. Augustine was also noted for his claim that God gave Man dominion over creation. A rational being given dominion over irrational nature. God did not give Man dominion over his fellow Man, or rational beings over other rational beings. He said this in response to the Pagan notion that some men were born to rule and some men were born to be ruled. Such views influenced Catholic thinkers in the Middle Ages to promote the institutions of representative government and to oppose slavery and other forms of absolute rule. Catholic Historian Lord Acton wrote about this in his essay “The History of Freedom in Christianity”. Augustine’s views influenced America’s founding by influencing the Puritan settlers who arrived on these shores. That influence was such that he has been referred to as an honorary founder.

If the Catholic Church is to address the concerns of a large and growing number of Tea Party faithful, it should take a look at the areas of common interest between Catholic teaching and America’s founding principles.