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Can 'Government' Ever Be Good? A Catholic Considers the Proper Role of Government

By Deacon Keith Fournier
September 10th, 2012
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Some on the political "right" espouse a version of libertarianism which is anti-government. This is at odds with the insights summarized in the Catechism. They paraphrase the American founders to imply that the existence of government itself is the problem. Some on the political "left" seem to want to federalize everything. They think that our obligation in solidarity means establishing more federal government programs. They are wrong.

WASHINGTON,DC (Catholic Online) - We are finally done with the political conventions which precede the Fall Presidential campaign in the United States. The airwaves will soon be filled with even more charged political commercials. The Presidential and Vice Presidential debates will soon occur and, before we know it, we will be at the ballot box. 

Anyone who reads me regularly, knows that I am convinced this election is one of the most important in my lifetime, given all that is at stake. However, I write to address an underlying issue which has not yet been properly addressed by either Major Political Party, the role of government in civil society.  

The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes some observations concerning society: "All men are called to the same end: God himself. There is a certain resemblance between the union of the divine persons and the fraternity that men are to establish among themselves in truth and love. Love of neighbor is inseparable from love for God".

"The human person needs to live in society. Society is not for him an extraneous addition but a requirement of his nature. Through the exchange with others, mutual service and dialogue with his brethren, man develops his potential; he thus responds to his vocation."

"A society is a group of persons bound together organically by a principle of unity that goes beyond each one of them. As an assembly that is at once visible and spiritual, a society endures through time: it gathers up the past and prepares for the future."

"By means of society, each man is established as an "heir" and receives certain "talents" that enrich his identity and whose fruits he must develop. He rightly owes loyalty to the communities of which he is part and respect to those in authority who have charge of the common good."

"Each community is defined by its purpose and consequently obeys specific rules; but "the human person . . . is and ought to be the principle, the subject and the end of all social institutions. Certain societies, such as the family and the state, correspond more directly to the nature of man; they are necessary to him."

"To promote the participation of the greatest number in the life of a society, the creation of voluntary associations and institutions must be encouraged "on both national and international levels, which relate to economic and social goals, to cultural and recreational activities, to sport, to various professions, and to political affairs."

"This "socialization" also expresses the natural tendency for human beings to associate with one another for the sake of attaining objectives that exceed individual capacities. It develops the qualities of the person, especially the sense of initiative and responsibility, and helps guarantee his rights. Socialization also presents dangers. Excessive intervention by the state can threaten personal freedom and initiative"

"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."

"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 government 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. It aims at harmonizing the relationships between individuals and societies. It tends toward the establishment of true international order." (CCC, Article 1, #1878 - 1885)

There has been little discussion about the principle of subsidiarity in Catholic circles - and virtually none in the national political debate - before Congressman Paul Ryan, the Republican Vice Presidential candidate, raised it in his intelligently written exchange of letters with Timothy Cardinal Dolan. Ryan is one of the few Catholic elected officials who actually uses the term to explain his own positions.

Though Catholics can can disagree with his application of the principle, at least he uses it. My experience has been that many Catholics do not even know that there is such a principle within the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church. Instead, they borrow rhetoric from the political left or the political right in discussing the role of government. They also fail to offer a Catholic contribution to a much needed discussion of the proper role of government.

If you listen to some on the political "right" you often hear a version of libertarianism which is anti-government and places the individual at the foundation of an understanding of freedom. This is at odds with the insights summarized in the Catechism. Often they paraphrase the American founders to imply that the existence of government itself is the problem.

For example, they can quote phrases such as "he who governs best governs least", the source of which is unclear, and use it to hide a disdain for government. This can also reveal a failure to understand the need for - and value of - government. When the right views government as the problem, the right goes wrong.

If you listen to some on the political "left", they seem to want to federalize everything. They think that our obligation in solidarity always means establishing more federal government programs. They are wrong. They have forgotten the role of mediating institutions and their vital role in governing and the service of the common good. They are also wrong when they question the empathy of anyone who disagrees with them.

Those on the political left who end up supporting a collectivist and statist model of government also end up threatening human freedom, initiative, creativity and flourishing. They also undermine the role of mediating institutions, the first of which is the family, the smallest governing unit and first vital cell of society. An overly federalized form of government is a disaster waiting to happen morally, politically, socially and economically. The bad fruit is all around us as our own nation moves toward a form of collectivism. 

Catholics should affirm that governing is meant to be something "good". God governs and invites us all into this effort. We were made to give ourselves in love and service to the other; to form societies and communities of interest and to build mediating associations. Through their proper role, governing is empowered to serve the common good while still respecting the role of the individual, human freedom, and the primacy of the family.

Catholics should insist that we are not fully human unless we are in relationship with one another. Freedom and human flourishing are not found in a notion of the isolated individual as the ground of human freedom. We were made for communion. We are one another's neighbors and we truly are called to stand together in solidarity. We are also responsible for one another and must build societies which further humanize us and enable us to live in peace together.

The first society is the family. It is there where we learn socialization and are schooled in the virtues which make good citizenship even possible. Thus the family must always be the guide, polestar and measuring stick for any broader social and governing structure. The family is the first government, the first school, the first church and the first mediating institution. All other government must defer to this first cell of social government and move out - or up - from there, never usurping the primacy of the family.

The question then really comes down to whether government is "good", in several senses of the word. Is it Moral? Does it recognize the existence of the higher law, the Natural Law which is a participation in God's Law? Does it affirm that there are self evident truths? Does it recognize the fundamental human rights with which we are all endowed and acknowledge that these rights are not given to us by civil government but by God? Does it affirm the nature and dignity of the human person as created in the Image of God?

Does the means of governing respect this dignity of every human person, recognize the primacy of true marriage and the family and society founded upon it and serve the true common good? Does it promote genuine human freedom, flourishing, creativity and initiative among citizens?

Is the means of governing "good" in the sense of being effective, efficient and just? Does it respect the self government of each individual human person? Does it defer to the smallest social governing unit of the family? Does it respect the other proper mediating institutions and associations by deferring first to them, providing assistance and help before assigning the task it attempts to accomplish to the centralized or federal government?

Catholics should be leery of the rhetoric of the right when it mischaracterizes government as evil. We should be leery of the rhetoric of the left when it promotes statism and collectivism as government. It is time for Catholics to take the principles set forth in the Social teaching of the Catholic Church and lead a discussion of good government which serves the common good.

We need good government. Good government recognizes fundamental human rights, the first of which is the right to life, as endowed by the Creator and not manufactured by civil government. In fact, the very role of government is to secure and protect those rights and not violate or usurp them.

Good government acknowledges the vital and indispensable role of mediating institutions and associations in government, beginning with the family and including churches, charities, associations, and local governing bodies. It defers to and respects their function and does not usurp their primacy.

The family and these other mediating institutions are the best place for government to first occur. This model of good government acknowledges our obligations in solidarity to one another, and to the poor, but always respects and applies the principle of subsidiarity.

Now, let's consider an application of what I have proposed in my discussion above. Beside the horrid violation of the fundamental human right to life and the right to religious freedom which infects the "Affordable Care Act", thereby rendering it an unjust law, I maintain that it also violates the principle of subsidiarity. It is NOT an example of good government.

We certainly need to reform health care in the United States of America. However, we need a vehicle for the delivery of health care services which defers to the family, utilizes the mediating associations and respects human and economic freedom. It is in entering into a discussion of good government and subsidiarity where an alternative to the massive federalized model of the Affordable care Act can be found.

The Federal Government should be the last place, not the first place, to which we should look in our efforts to fashion a truly just society. It is also the last place we should look to as we build an effective and just model of self government. Does it have a role? Yes, but the principle of subsidiarity must always be carefully applied and all forms of collectivism must be REJECTED.

I certainly hope some discussion of the proper role and means of government comes up in the Fall Presidential campaign. Maybe Paul Ryan will raise the issues in the Vice Presidential debate. It would be a breath of fresh air. However, Catholics must lead the way in offering such a discussion if we really care about furthering the true common good.

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