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Social Justice

8/17/2006 - 6:05 AM PST

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A New Alliance

By Deacon Keith Fournier
© Third Millennium, LLC
Catholic Online

Christian citizens have an obligation to care for the poor; to proceed along that road we must forge a new social alliance

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“To love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, 1790.

"It would appear that needs are best met by people closest to those in need."
Pope John Paul II

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Our nation has been presented with new social challenges; particularly since we experienced together our collective “existential moment” of September 11, 2002.

That fateful day called us to reflect, as a people, on what brought us together as a nation and continues to inform our bold proclamation of “E Pluribus Unum”. Our vision for freedom is a unique and extraordinary gift. New needs are being addressed in our midst and many are being addressed through the formation of new alliances committed to the implementation of new models of participation and new approaches to public policy.

Much of the momentum toward both of these is coming from communities of faith.

The issues being addressed and the solutions being proposed are fresh and must not be pigeon-holed into old political labels. They present a framework for a new social effort. Let’s examine a few together.

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Caring for the Poor and the role of “government”

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Voices on both sides of the political aisle are acknowledging that the “era of big government is over”. However, the real issue now is what will replace it? America is witnessing the resurgence of old and the beginning of new models of the application of two social principles - the principle of subsidiarity (that government is most effective when it is closest to the people) and solidarity (the recognition that we have an obligation to our neighbor).

Hopefully, this will lead to both a reaffirmation of our social obligation to the poor and the needy and effective responses. Caring for the poor must begin with an acknowledgment that we even have such an obligation in justice. This is particularly vital within the faith community. Some in the religious community (sometimes tritely referred to as the “religious right”) have actually followed the siren song of libertarianism over the last decade. This is distressing to say the least.

As a Catholic Christian, I have long insisted that every Christian should reject the isolated individualism that lies at the foundation of the libertarian philosophy. We of all people must acknowledge that we have a responsibility to the “poor” in our midst. It lies at the heart of the Christian mission. Simply expressed, we are our brother’s (and sister’s) keeper.

In fact, if we truly understand our faith the poor “will be with us always” for a number of reasons. First, there is that old problem of sin. Then, there is what the poor teach us about ourselves and what truly matters in life. Poverty is more than a material condition-though it is that! It is an invitation to practice justice and mercy.

If we truly understand the biblical word translated “compassion” it means to “suffer with”. All of us are, in some way, “poor.” To have a genuine concern for the poor means to be willing to “suffer with” them. That is after all what we believe that God Himself did with the entire human race! Then, there is the social obligation of solidarity, we will be judged on whether we both heard the cry of the poor and acted on their behalf.

The practical and policy applications of this responsibility need to also be considered in light of another social principle found at the heart of the social tradition of our faith as well, the principle of subsidiarity. This is where the role of government comes in.

This principle affirms the human experience that government is best when it is closest to the people being governed. In the American experiment this has been referred to as “limited” government. Our founders were fleeing a form of overly centralized and distant government. They rightly reaffirmed self government and founded a system of civil government that is increasingly becoming a model for the rest of the world.

Catholic social teaching has long recognized that excessive intervention by higher governmental entities can threaten personal freedom and initiative. This teaching of the Church has been elaborated as 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 coordinate its ...

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