Rethinking the Social Question

“The exclusive binary model of market-plus-state is corrosive of society…”
Pope Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate 39

Pope Paul VI pictured in undated portraitThe recent beatification of Blessed Pope Paul VI has reminded us of his deep commitment to justice and the role of the Church’s social doctrine in lifting up human dignity and promoting the common good in the political, economic and social order.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, in Caritas in Veritate (CIV), recalled that Paul VI urged the formation of an economy in which “all will be able to give and receive without one group making progress at the expense of the other” (Populorum Progessio 44).

As we approach another election, we are afforded the opportunity to exercise our right to participate in the political life of the country and our local communities. Yet it is arguable that our choices are often relegated to a narrow space between support for either bureaucratic state control or the pervasive laws of the market, to govern the totality of civil society. This false binary logic plays itself out in an increasingly hyper-partisan political culture pitting liberals against conservatives, free marketers against proponents of the welfare state, or other labels one decides to use. This overriding logic, according to Benedict XVI, has “accustomed us to think only in terms of the private business leader of a capitalistic bent on the one hand, and the State director on the other” (CIV 41). Perhaps it is time we reconsider the social question and how the political economy serves, or undermines, human life and dignity.

Church teaching calls for us all to be active participants in civic life. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) states, “It is necessary that all participate, each according to his position and role, in promoting the common good” (CCC 1913). This is also echoed in Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: A Call to Political Responsibility from the Catholic Bishops of the United States (Faithful Citizenship 4). But the bishops also remark how Catholics often feel “politically disenfranchised”, given limited political options and how these compare to the breadth of the Catholic social teaching tradition.

This disenfranchisement, I believe, is traceable to the false binary logic that Benedict XVI describes. In CIV, building on the thought of both St. John Paul II and Blessed Paul VI, Benedict suggests we should think differently. He suggests that the social teaching of the Church has something more genuine to contribute to the social question than the current global order affords.

Benedict refers to an “economy of gratuitousness” (CIV 38) where both the political and economic life is oriented in the service of the person, promoting solidarity and human dignity. Ultimately, this is a political and economic order rooted in the values of love and gift, or reciprocity. A social order of this quality is better suited to the integral development of the human person in his or her material, social, political and spiritual being. Greater and more meaningful global participation in social life, especially by people on the margins of society, is possible than is reflected in our current economic and political arrangements.

Pope Francis has spoken many times of an economy that kills and excludes, where for many, “it is a struggle to live, and often, to live with precious little dignity (Evangelii Gaudium, #52). Such an economic and political order denies the “primacy of the human person” (EG #55), he argues, and lacks a truly humane purpose.

Paul VI and Benedict XVI challenged us to think imaginatively and consider the values that drive our global order.

How different would our world look if it were grounded on an ethic that placed the human person and the strength of families and communities first? Poverty, hunger, violence, the good of families and persons, political participation and other concerns, I suspect, would look radically different if the virtues of caritas, gift of self and love were the basis of our human interactions.

Perhaps it is time we rethink the social question anew.

Anthony J. Granado is a policy advisor at the USCCB’s Department of Justice, Peace & Human Development.

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