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The thinking behind Catholic compassionate conservatism

Issue: "A warmer Chile," Nov. 9, 2002

I've written many columns about Protestant contributions to the development of compassionate conservatism. In this issue, as we examine poverty-fighting in traditionally Catholic Chile, it's time to note the Roman Catholic contributions as well.

One good starting point is with Pope Leo XIII's encylical, Rerum Novarum (1891). He wrote that Socialists "strike at the interests of every wage earner, for they deprive him of the liberty of disposing of his wages, and thus of all hope and possibility of increasing his stock and of bettering his condition in life." He saw socialism as unbiblical--robbing workers and threatening families--and also counterproductive: "Socialists, working on the poor man's envy of the rich, endeavor to destroy private property.... But their proposals are so clearly futile for all practical purposes, that if they were carried out the working man himself would be among the first to suffer."

Leo forecast that under socialism "the sources of wealth would themselves run dry, for no one would have any interest in exerting his talents or industry." He noted that the "ideal equality of which so much is said would, in reality, be the leveling down of all to the same condition of misery and dishonor." It's sad that the Soviet Union and other countries had to find out in hard practice what those with a biblical understanding of human nature could predict.

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In opposition to socialism, 19th-century Catholics developed the doctrine of "subsidiarity." They wanted social tasks to be performed in the smallest of available areas: family before neighborhood, neighborhood before local government, local government before national government. Catholics began emphasizing voluntary social action through "associations" rather than compelled behavior through government bureaus, and Leo was called "the pope of the principle of association."

Pope John Paul II spoke from that tradition when he visited Santiago, Chile, in 1987 and spoke of the need not for more welfare but for jobs that allowed workers to have a sense of accomplishment, self-reliance, and dignity. Four years later, on the 100th anniversary of Leo XIII's encyclical, the pope published Centesimus Annus, a tribute to his predecessor that chastised politicians for having disregarded the principle of subsidiarity: "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."

John Paul II promoted voluntary social activity as the alternative to the welfare state: "By intervening directly and depriving society of its responsibility, the Social Assistance State leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies, which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving clients, and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending. In fact, it would appear that needs are best understood and satisfied by people who are closest to them and who act as neighbors to those in need." He also noted the importance of holistic help to the poor: "Certain kinds of demands often call for a response which is not simply material but which is capable of perceiving the deeper human need."

Chile's new compassionate conservatism is the union of several strands of thinking and experience. Papal pronouncements in this area track right alongside evangelical thought. Chile's disastrous brush with socialism from 1970 to 1973 has left the political right, center, and big chunks of the left looking for ways not to repeat the process, nor to fall into the lassitude of a full-fledged Social Assistance State. (Chilean poverty has allowed only limited movement in that direction.)

The leading American developer of Catholic social thought over the past two decades, Michael Novak, has watched South American developments in books such as This Hemisphere of Liberty (1990), and explained well the Leo XIII heritage in books like The Catholic Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1993). Catholics and Protestants who have fallen into the trap of equating "social justice" with government action should follow Mr. Novak's prescription: Separate "social justice from an uncritical reliance on the blind leviathan of the state and link it, instead, to the concrete intelligence operative in individuals and their free associations."

Mr. Novak even offers five economic/political specifics for South American development. The Novak agenda starts with increasing home ownership by offering tax incentives and instituting legal reform. Other proposals: Make it easy and cheap to incorporate small businesses; strengthen and promote faith-based groups; restructure banking laws so that credit becomes readily available to poor persons with good work records; and encourage the development of private schools.


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