Two recent newspaper articles—one by a self-identified “Progressive Catholic” and the other by a Catholic who is conservative-libertarian in persuasion—neatly articulate two common, competing visions of the role of government in our society. Each article captured an important truth about the role of government, and each article also failed to account for at least one crucial element of a solidly Catholic understanding of the role of the government. By showing what each writer gets right, and by uncovering what each writer leaves out, we can begin to sketch out an account of government—and crucially, an account of citizenship—that fully squares with Catholic social teaching.
In his Washington Post column on Monday, E.J. Dionne stated forthrightly, to his credit, that he and his fellow Democrats should stop downplaying their faith in big government. Government, Dionne crows, can do “good and valuable things.” More government spending, Dionne argues, will create more jobs—and we really need jobs right now. (Dionne also argues that the 2009 stimulus should have been much bigger than it was.) The era of big government is most certainly not over, Dionne insists, and neither should it be: Democrats have hid their Progressive lamp under that Clintonian bushel basket for too long!
While Dionne was singing government’s praises and bemoaning missed opportunities for government to do good and valuable things like create jobs by growing spending, over at the Washington Examiner, Tim Carney was making a very different case. Carney (who, for whatever it’s worth, is a close personal friend of mine) is harshly critical of heavy-handed, government interference in the private affairs of citizens. He cites recent conflicts between government and the religious beliefs and practices of citizens as evidence that “[g]overnment is always a rival, and often an enemy, of religion.”
“[C]ultural conservatives,” Carney writes, “need to understand that government is inherently their enemy.” Moreover, this antipathy between government and religion isn’t going anywhere. “And as government grows, so will the conflict.”
Dionne is undoubtedly right that government can do “good and valuable things.” But it does not follow that everything government does is good or valuable. And it tells us nothing about whether this or that government action should be undertaken.
At the same time, Carney is right that, as government insinuates itself more and more into the lives of citizens, areas of life once governed by social, cultural, and religious norms will increasingly be brought under the coercive regulation of the state. But can we conclude from this that government is “inherently” the enemy of cultural conservatives or “always a rival” to religion? I think not.
Government can be a threat to liberty (in this example, religious liberty) when it oversteps its bounds, but to suggest that government cannot but trample on religious liberty ignores the obvious fact that the protection of religious liberty in American law is guaranteed precisely by an act of government: the First Amendment. Government did not create that right, to be sure, but it does have a strict obligation—legal and moral—to defend it.
This view of good government—self-limiting government in the service of liberty for the sake of the common good—is precisely what the Constitution set out to establish. Yet the success of the American experiment in ordered liberty was no sure thing. As Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist #1, the (as yet un-ratified) Constitution represented a monumental test of, “whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.”
Abraham Lincoln echoed this same sentiment, famously, in his Gettysburg address, which begins by asking whether this or any nation, “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal can long endure,” and finishes by expressing hope that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” The success of our Republic is never a given—not in 1787, not in 1863, not today. Not ever.
People are not born with the ability to govern themselves well. Self-government requires responsible liberty. For Catholics, that means liberty in service to the truth about the human person. Such virtue—and in this sense, liberty is a virtue—must be learned, and it must be practiced; it must never be taken for granted.
Pope John Paul II warned, in Centesimus Annus, that when democracy becomes unmoored from the truth about the human person, it can easily drift toward tyranny. “As history demonstrates, a democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism.” That’s a truth wise men have understood at least since the time of Aristotle. Perhaps the most complete articulation of the fragile nature of democracy, at least in the American context, comes from Alexis de Tocqueville.
Tocqueville warned that the greatest threat to American democracy was “soft despotism” in which free citizens willingly trade their freedom—and the social responsibilities that always attend freedom—to an increasingly comprehensive, if ostensibly benevolent state. When free men and women delegate to the state the care for the well-being of themselves and their neighbors, they not only forfeit the exercise of their freedom, they lose the character necessary to live as free persons. They can cease to be the kind of citizens possessed of those virtues necessary for responsible self-government. They become unfit for democracy, and well suited to despotism.
In terms of Catholic social teaching, a society that cedes too much responsibility for solidarity to the state defaults on the obligations incumbent upon all free societies. When too much responsibility for solidarity is delegated to the State—that is, when subsidiarity is violated—the common good necessarily suffers. Pope Benedict XVI stated this succinctly in Caritas in Veritate:
Solidarity is first and foremost a sense of responsibility on the part of everyone with regard to everyone, and it cannot therefore be merely delegated to the State.
The principle of subsidiarity must remain closely linked to the principle of solidarity and vice versa, since the former without the latter gives way to social privatism, while the latter without the former gives way to paternalist social assistance that is demeaning to those in need.
To deny the good and necessary role of government in ordering liberty and protecting the common good, is to abandon the very proposition to which this nation was dedicated at its founding. What is more, a radical ambivalence toward the very possibility of good government is simply not compatible with a Catholic understanding of government nor, indeed, of human nature itself.
Likewise, a society that finds the rigors of liberty too taxing, that can’t be bothered to build structures of solidarity and community except through the state, and that relies too heavily on the government, even for the honorable reason of promoting solidarity, is a society that cannot but fail in its responsibility to the common good. The surest road to despotism is for men and women to pass off their own responsibilities of citizenship and solidarity to “someone else.” That should be a warning both to those who expect government to solve our social ills and to those who would forget the obligation of everyone to strive for solidarity and the common good in every aspect of their lives.
As for the central question of the day—how much government is too much government?—that is a question about which reasonable people of good will can and do disagree. Answering it well will require informed and careful judgment and a well-formed conscience. This is not an easy task, but such is the nature of politics in a free and democratic society. And it is the vocation of all Catholics (especially lay Catholics) to engage that debate for the good of the nation; we cannot, as citizens and Catholics, sit idly by. One cannot stress enough the duty to educate ourselves and ensure the proper formation of our consciences (always with the Church!) in order that we might judge well—not only at the ballot box, but in those innumerable daily decisions that constitute the overwhelming share of our contribution to a just society. There is nothing we can do to better serve and defend our democracy than to live every single day as good and faithful Catholics.
Stephen P. White is a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and the coordinator of the Tertio Millennio Seminar on the Free Society. The views expressed here are his own.