Barring an international conflagration or another 9/11, both of which may God forbid, the 2012 election is going to be fought on the question of America’s fiscal future: Will the United States get a grip now, and over the next several decades, on the costs associated with an aging society? Or will we spend-and-borrow ourselves into virtual insolvency? Greece, Portugal, Spain, and other European countries have chosen the latter route, causing serious distress domestically and some disruption in the international economy. If the United States opts to go down the same road, the consequences will not only be grave at home; they will be far graver abroad, as American profligacy puts unbearable strains on the international financial and economic systems.
In 2011, the United States is like a patient who has been told that he or she has a serious, advanced, but curable disease: curable if certain measures are taken. There is little debate about the diagnosis, for everyone can read the demographic and budgetary realities; thus just about everyone, left, right, and center, agrees that we’ve got a major, but solvable, problem, the resolution of which will determine whether our children and grandchildren thank us, or wonder why we didn’t have the wit and will to fix what was wrong when we had the chance. The question before the electorate in 2012 will be, what are the measures necessary to cure the disease?
Catholic social thought ought to be helpful in sorting this out. Its both/and approach to society and public policy—the individual and the common good, the market and a strong legal and cultural framework to guide it, the responsibilities of individuals and the responsibilities of government—are a refreshing antidote to the statist and libertarian ideologies of the day. Few, if any, comprehensive visions of the free and virtuous society are as balanced and supple, or as amenable to creative mixes of public and private initiative, as Catholic social thought.
Yet in the hands of some Catholics, Catholic social thought has been reduced to another argument for what Blessed John Paul II criticized, in the 1991 social encyclical Centesimus Annus, as the Social Assistance State—what Americans more familiarly call the Nanny State. In this view, virtually every problem on the 2012 agenda—from the solvency of Social Security and Medicare to federal budgetary discipline and debt reduction—can only be addressed by an increase in the government’s involvement in the economy, the society, the culture, and the lives of individuals. Such thinking betrays a sorry lack of imagination (not to mention a sorry lack of historical understanding, of the “been there, done that” school). It is also a crude caricature, and thus a betrayal, of Catholic social thought and the social doctrine of the popes from Leo XIII through Benedict XVI.
Because this statist misreading of Catholic social thought often flies under the flag of “Justice for the Poor,” it’s important to underscore one crucial point as the 2012 debate unfolds, this year and next: Catholic social thought is about the empowerment of the poor. It is not about failed policies of social assistance that treat poor people as problems to be solved rather than as people with potential to be unleashed. It is not about using public policy to create generation after generation of serfs on the state welfare plantation. Catholic social thought is about the empowerment of the poor, and its broad imagination allows it to think of that empowerment happening through private sector means, some public sector programs, and public/private partnerships where necessary. But contrary to the way some misrepresent it, Catholic social thought does not measure the rectitude of a society by the percentage of its GNP represented in governmental budgets.
One of the four core principles of Catholic social doctrine is the principle of subsidiarity, which teaches that decision-making should be left at the lowest possible level in society, commensurate with the common good. A lot of Catholics forgot about subsidiarity during the 2009 health care debate. That failure should not be repeated in 2011 and 2012.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.