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Social Justice

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


"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


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.


Caring for the Poor and the role of "government"


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 activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good." (Centesimus Annus "The Hundreth Anniversary")

Subsidiarity is a fundamental principle of Catholic social teaching. However the application of the principle of subsidiarity as a model for social ordering can come about only by the empowering of "mediating institutions."

Mediating institutions, first and foremost, include the family. Others are churches, political parties, voluntary organizations, business enterprises, unions, trade and professional groups, and the media. They participate in a vibrant effort at government. This way of viewing government has been lost in much of our contemporary political discussion.

We seem to have bought the extremes. Either "government" refers to the centralized federal brand or a notion that "government is intrinsically evil". Neither fit the current need and both miss the mark.

Perhaps a better language to use in discussing the proper role and application of governance is to speak of "good" governance. Government is "good" when it is closest to the people. In that sense it is good as in effective, efficient and just. It is also "good" when it reflects the values of the people and is informed by the higher values.

Simply put, "charity begins at home." Families are the first government and the first mediating institution. Governance should expand from there to local expressions and free associations, State and then Federal participation. A new "partnership" for the poor needs to be developed that includes every level of this understanding of governance and promotes each of their proper, efficient and compassionate participation.

For example, private, faith based and associational charities are helping where public assistance has not been entirely successful. They should be seen as a vital partner and empowered - not discriminated against. Contemporary policy initiatives such as the "Care Act" are beginning to remove the animus against faith based social service providers and opening up the public square to all providers.

Most "plain folks" understand that social outreaches motivated by faith often do the best job. "Big Government", no matter how well intended, just hasn't been all that effective at charity. The majority of people who are truly examining both the statistics and the logic are supporting this "new" (actually ancient) approach to empowering the mediating institutions.


The Market and Freedom


Then there is the other issue so prevalent in the news today, corporate corruption.

While market economies are flourishing, so is corporate corruption. While embracing the notion that "free" markets promote participation, reward initiative and promote authentic freedom, we also need a reaffirmation of the fundamental understanding, long enshrined in both Jewish and Christian social teaching (the patrimony of western culture), that the market was made for man (and woman) and not man for the market.

We need a "moral" market economy, what our President rightly called "capitalism with a conscience.".

I choose to speak of the "free enterprise" system as a "market economy" rather than "capitalism". The use of the term "capitalism" has all too often been confused with a new form of "economism" that leaves out the most important form of capital, human capital. The true goal of a capitalist economy that understands the true meaning of freedom should not be the accumulation of capital - though the increase of capital is a fruit and a necessary one. Rather, a free economy should promote the freedom and the advancement of human persons.


Faith is Back


Though an argument could be made that it never actually left but rather fell asleep, religious faith is making a striking comeback. Religious institutions are being both purified and renewed, finding new adherents, claiming new loyalties and rediscovering a true social conscience.

In our post 911 American landscape, such a movement is welcomed, even encouraged, by an eager American public. It is beginning to give rise to a new social model that recognizes the proper role of State and federal government to empower and encourage the free associations, mediating structures and "little platoons" (in the now famous words of Edmund Blake) of compassion in the work of authentic social action.

This "new" form of civil life has begun to replace the old. It is actually a "back to the future" play because it participates in an even older model of governance and participation. Simply put, a "bottom up" rather than "top down" model of care.

Such a movement, however, represents more than a political movement-it represents an alternative public creed, at least in light of the efforts of the latter part of the twentieth century. One of its goals is the fulfillment of the obligation of human solidarity through a restoration of civil and social cooperation. This movement is being forged against the division wrought by decades of ineffective centralized, federalized social, political, and economic policy.


Rediscovering the Mediating Institutions


The re-empowering of what in Catholic social teachings are called the "the mediating institutions" is the beginning of a new model of social life. "Mediating institutions" include the first institution, the family, the neighborhood, charities, religious institutions, voluntary associations, philanthropic organizations, and groups of families in a partnership for progress and care, a new alliance of and for the poor.

In 1891, the famous papal encyclical of Pope Leo XIII, entitled "Rerum Novarum" ("On Capital and Labor") examined many of the same challenges we now face but within a different social context, that of the challenges being faced by workers in a society being dramatically changed from an agrarian to an industrial one as a result of the industrial revolution.

The problem was rightly identified as workers being treated as products or merchandise to be used and not as human persons who are created in the very image of God. Proponents of a centralized and controlled economy, Socialism, were advocating a class struggle. They called for taking control of the means of production (supposedly by the "working class") as a means to "freedom". This kind of almost substitute brand of "economism" was worse. It failed as well to understand the primacy of the human person and freedom and proposed a system that led to a greater problem where it was actually tried. It was a huge failure.

Leo XIII proposed a model of solidarity that would encourage and empower workers to associate in a "mediating structure", a union. He wrote of the role of free associations in governance and defended the rights of persons to join together in free associations that would advance the common good of the group.

He encouraged organized groups of persons with similar interests and affirmed this approach to advancing the needs of workers, empowering them to pursue a "just" wage that recognized the dignity of the worker and the primacy of family. In its inception the role of the union as such a mediating institution was a great assistance in insuring that industry treated workers as persons and not as commodities.

He also encouraged the use of these mediating institutions as a form of governance and a vehicle for promoting other conditions of the workplace that would promote the "goods" of family; leisure time; time to worship God and keep holy the Sabbath; along with a mechanism of leverage, the right to strike if other means of bargaining had failed.

From that application of the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity, the "union" movement, as a response to a particular set of social needs and problems in a particular age, flourished. Additionally, a tradition of Catholic social teaching developed promoting such free associations as a vehicle for participatory government. Perhaps a contemporary application of this that makes sense to most of us today is the tremendous role that a trade union movement named "Solidarity" played in liberating the oppressed Polish people from the tyranny of Marxism.

Putting aside the legitimate issues of what has become of some labor unions, at least in the American context (e.g. have they become the very oppressive power they were initiated to confront?) there is no question that free or mediating associations are vitally important not just in the field of industrial labor environments but in our current conditions. Most social scientists will acknowledge that we have moved into a new age, equally as challenging as the shift from the agrarian to the industrial.

These "mediating institutions" are essential for the common good of any free society. Free associations of all kinds promote authentic participation in governance and promote the true application of freedom.

They also are a protection against a wrong kind of socialization and the danger of a centralized, distant approach to government overly regulating every aspect of civic life. Associations of citizens, families, religiously motivated activists, business owners, manufacturers, academics, artists and on and on promote a free and healthy society.

They promote the common good by promoting the particular goals, needs and perspectives of the group and also by empowering the members, through their solidarity with one another, to pursue the ends that will support the goods of the association. They also contribute to the common good of the entire society by opening up participation vehicles in the exercise of governance. Such associations of the citizenry also protect against the abuses of a centralized government.

Faith based communities are also an example of such free associations. The "phenomenon" of churches, associations of people of faith and citizen groups banding together in such associations is not new.

What is new is the new alliances that are overcoming the old stereotypes, blurring the caricatures, confounding the simplistic political labels and offering the new hope for the new millennium. Nowhere is this more promising than the "alliances of the poor."


New Allies


These new allies are emerging all around us and on both sides of the political fence. One such ally is Jim Wallis. Just as I have often been branded as a part of the "religious right" Jim has often been called a member of the "religious left"

Together we are Christians!

In an insightful article entitled, "The Church Steps Forward from Welfare Reform to Overcoming Poverty," Wallis called for everyone "across the conservative and liberal spectrum to step forward and offer moral leadership for the sake of the nation's poor." I agreed with him then and do so even more emphatically now.

Wallis refers to what I've been calling a "new alliance" as a "new paradigm." This new paradigm is essential to restoring true social justice to our society. Yet, though it is a new paradigm, I believe that it is better seen as a new alliance, for an alliance is made up of acting persons. Ironically, this new alliance is anything but new.

The current presidential administration has been greatly influenced by, among others, the thinking of Marvin Olasky. Professor Olasky is a scholar at the Acton Institute, a conservative think tank. He is a solid thinker and has helped the current administration to grasp a different model of governance at a time when the contemporary models of liberalism have failed. Among his writings are found "The Tragedy of American Compassion" and the now highly regarded "Compassionate Conservatism."

His fine insights are simply another expression of the truths contained within the body of social teaching within my own Church. This entire area of how we can build models of participation and apply both the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity is the most exciting policy work of our age. This initiative is bringing "liberals" and "conservatives" together. The labels are losing their value.

Learning from the Past

In the 1970s, in the wake of one of this country's most abominable Supreme Court decisions, Roe v. Wade, (which "found" a constitutional "right" for a woman to abort her unborn baby in what the Justices called the "penumbra" of privacy), a new alliance was forged to stand for the inviolable dignity of every human person, now matter how young or old, living in the womb or outside, healthy or ill. This movement has not only stood allied in this the greatest and foundational human rights issue of our age, it has also forged a new ecumenical model of cooperation at the social level.

It was forged from a similar necessity to combat evil as had presented itself forty years earlier during World War II. This new terror was not manifest in one human being leading an evil new political crusade, neither were its victims exterminated in death camps visible to journalistic scrutiny. Rather, it was simply a philosophy that chose hedonism and death over responsibility and life. A philosophy which was founded on a fundamental dehumanizing flaw, it treated the human person as property, as a product to be used and abused, as a comodity.

The allies of this struggle for the soul of the culture were not nations, but Christian communities. Catholics and Protestants working with pro-life Jews and people of general goodwill joined in an alliance that birthed one of the most important movements of this century: the pro-life cause. Out of these shared foxholes emerged an ecumenism and inter-religious cooperation powerfully at work today. Pope John Paul II captured the heart of this ecumenical cooperation in his 1995 encyclical, "That They May Be One". The pope wrote::

"Relations between Christians are not aimed merely at mutual knowledge, common prayer and dialogue. They presuppose and from now on call for every possible form of practical cooperation at all levels: pastoral, cultural and social, as well as that of witnessing the Gospel message".

This common effort to defend those whom Mother Theresa called "the poorest of the poor", the voiceless children in the womb, the disabled, and the elderly, gave rise to the greatest example of Christian ecumenism and inter-religious cooperation in modern history. It showed us once again how we could band together in order to do what is right.

It rose from the "bottom up", it put government back in the associations of like minded men and women who banded together for higher good, the common good. The family reemerged as the base of this social action movement and became a model for the groups and alliances that grew to support this noble effort

It can be a model for the developing new alliances that will help to build this new model of compassion and care.


The End of Statism


A kind of "faith" in big government that characterized the past fifty years is coming to a close. That faith too often placed an exaggerated confidence in centralized government. In America, the broad reach of federal government programs sometimes even undermined the need for individual, church, and associational responsibility for social welfare.

In its worst forms it replaced traditional faith with something alien to our tradition: the worship of an all-powerful, all-knowing state, capable of eliminating all our natural loyalties to our families, our communities, our peculiar history, and ourselves.

This was a new form of stat-ism.

As a nation that now seeks to return to an earlier understanding of "limited government" or what I propose is best called "good government", it is absolutely necessary that we also recognize the obligations and responsibilities that accompany such a reduced federal government structure.

Now that the era of big government is over, America is pregnant with possibility and still bound by solidarity to care for all of her citizens. Her greatest challenge is perhaps her greatest opportunity: how she will care for the needy now.

Caring for the needy is a human obligation. It crosses political lines and unifies all races. Indeed, it is the work of God. Upon his inauguration, John Fitzgerald Kennedy reminded us that "here on earth God's work must truly be our own." How then do we accomplish this work of God?

Our post 911 American environment beckons each of us to assume our role in becoming the answer. As we deconstruct big government, we jeopardize what has been called for generations a "social safety net." By now most of us recognize that, unfortunately, this safety, in some instances, became a trap leading some into dependency and bondage.

The welfare state did not achieve its best aspirations. It has failed. Yet we do need a safety net. We must become that safety net.


A New Public Policy Initiative


With the end of the era of big government, what is needed is a new approach to public policy that empowers the mediating institutions. Though there need be no conflict between compassion and free enterprise. However, they will not be enough.

We need to recognize once again that government involves not just the federal, State and local government, but our mediating institutions.

We need new mediating institutions, new alliances of and for the poor.

In his passionate and prophetic message to the nation on one of his visits during the end of the last millennium, Pope John Paul II reminded America "freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought."

As Christian citizens we are called to live out what the Catholic Church calls a "preferential option" for the poor and disadvantaged. We must have a special concern for the hungry, the poor, the old, the sick, and those who have no family. A true understanding of solidarity recognizes our call as followers of Jesus to identify with those most in need.

However, this obligation of solidarity that recognizes we are indeed our brother's keeper extends to all men and women. It is not simply a "religious" obligation but a human one. Because we share a common bond of humanity and live on a common planet, we have such an obligation to one another.

It is not enough to devolve a bloated Federal bureaucratic approach that has been at best mixed in its efforts to reach out to the poor and disadvantaged.

We need another approach. This need and obligation demands a response. How will it be done? Who will do it?

In the eighteenth century a great statesman and leader, Edmund Burke, noted for his quotation, "all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men do nothing," spoke of the "little platoons."

These were the churches, neighborhoods, community groups, charities, and voluntary associations through whom "God's work," the care of the needy, was best accomplished. If they are still the means, the question now is how to use them?

The President refers to them as "armies of compassion"

When Congress and the White House agreed to the historic overhaul of public aid to the poor, everyone threw down the gauntlet to business executives and entrepreneurs: Unless we put the jobless poor to work, welfare reform will fail. Additionally, we will have failed in our obligation of solidarity.

Yet despite the exhortations and the promises of tax breaks, the efforts of many business communities to recruit and hire workers off welfare thus far have moved at a glacial pace. In fact, statistics are not encouraging. Perhaps it was partly because the focus was wrong. In doing away with one approach we failed to form the alternative.

Preparing the unskilled, dependent poor to move out of welfare to work is never easy, but it can be done. This dedication to the poor may require an employer to become uncomfortably close to the employee in order to help navigate the inevitable problems of child care, abusive spouses, low self-esteem, and the many effects of poverty.

However, business initiatives like this are only a part of what must become a comprehensive new partnership between government, the marketplace, and those who do charity the best, the extended families of faith based groups, philanthropic organizations and charities.


The Christian Task


As the Allies of the pro-life movement realized, our alliances can make a greater difference than our isolated voices.

Having more in common than anything that can divide them, Christians not only can but also must join forces now in building this new model of caring for the poor. We have a unique and special role in forging both this new policy and the new associations.

I am not proposing a "lowest common denominator" approach within such alliances, but rather a true ecumenism based on the common belief in our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, a common creed, a common book, and a common commission.

We stand now together in Christ, called to incarnate his presence in our culture. We can stand together on the essentials of the Christian faith without denying the genuine distinctions in our doctrine and practice. This is our high calling, our mission, and civilization's greatest hope.

Joining together in living our common social obligation to the poor and needy will not compromise other important truths or prevent us from cooperating together on other efforts. We also need not fear working together and alongside of many who do not share our convictions. For we do not own truth; truth owns us. And if we are owned by the truth as faithful followers of Christ, we should not be afraid to either serve or engage our culture.

Some are warning that this new social model is dangerous. Some argue that it threatens the separation of Church and State. However, as my mother told me, consider the source. Some, though not all, of the loudest voices opposing the move toward empowering faith based institutions are the same ones who affirm the government sanctioning of abortion, the silencing of "religious speech" and the hostility toward our participation in public life as believers.

The time has come for all of us who, linked arm in arm, constitute this grand experiment called America, to look with hope and vision toward the future. This is the same hope and vision that drove our ancestors to build a new nation "conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."

The future need not be met with fear, but with faith; faith in the innate goodness of the American character; faith in the conviction within all of us that, even in difficult times, those helped with a hand up, rather than a handout, will turn their lives around; faith in the God whose work on earth must truly become our own.


Deacon Fournier is a Deacon of the Diocese of Richmond, Virginia serving at St. Benedict's Catholic Church, a dynamically orthodox Roman Catholic Parish, dedicated to fidelity to the Magisterium and faithfulness to the Church's mission of sanctification, evangelization and transformation. He holds degrees from Franciscan University of Steubenville, the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, the University of Pittsburgh School of Law and is currently a PHD student at the Catholic University of America. His latest book is entitled, "The Prayer of Mary: Living the Surrendered Life".


Third Millennium, LLC VA, US
Deacon Keith Fournier - Deacon, 757 546-9580



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