Serious Catholics bring to American politics a distinctive way of thinking about public life that’s built on four core principles, drawn from the Church’s social doctrine.
The first principle is personalism, or the human rights principle. It teaches us that protecting the inalienable dignity and value of every human life is the first requirement of a just society. The second principle is the common good, or the communitarian principle. It teaches us that our individual rights should be exercised so that all society benefits from our labors.
The third principle is called, technically,subsidiarity; we can call it the free association principle. It teaches us that all concentrations of power are dangerous; that political responsibility should be exercised at local levels, not just nationally (or globally); and that the free associations of civil society (like the family and the Church) are the first schools of freedom.
And the fourth principle is solidarity, or the principle of civic friendship. It teaches us that the free and virtuous society is bound together by more than legal contracts — it must be bound together by a sense of mutual obligation, care and concern.
These principles are expressions of two more basic Catholic convictions: that freedom is not mere willfulness (“I did it my way”) and that human beings are more than twitching bundles of desires that the state is obliged to help fulfill. In the Catholic view of things, human beings are capable, with the help of grace, of choosing the right thing for the right reason, and doing so as a matter of habit — all of which makes for freedom rightly understood. Moreover, the Church teaches that human happiness is found through making our lives into a gift for others, rather than merely asserting ourselves and our willfulness against others.
This view of what makes for human flourishing and these bedrock principles of the Church’s social doctrine suggest that there are three priority issues that Catholics should promote in Campaign 2016 — and at every level: local, state and federal.
The first of these, of course, is the right to life from conception until natural death. Ours is now a society in which entire classes of people can be subjected to lethal violence because they’ve been declared beyond the reach of the law’s protection. That’s what the Supreme Court declared in its 1973 and 1992 decisions creating and then reaffirming the abortion license; that’s what various states have done in permitting euthanasia; and we can be sure that pressures are going to increase for removing the “burdensome” — those who are physically disabled or cognitively handicapped — from our midst. Against this culture of death, Catholics must propose a culture of life that cherishes life at all stages and in all conditions, and that cares for those who are experiencing crisis pregnancies or the burdens of age, illness or handicap.
The second priority issue is religious freedom in full. There have been unprecedented assaults on religious freedom over the past seven years at every level of government. Catholics must insist — and must persuade all people of good will — that religious freedom is not simply freedom of worship (although it surely includes that). Religious freedom includes the freedom of religious institutions to be themselves and to conduct their educational, charitable and social service ministries according to the standards set by their conscientiously held religious convictions. Absent a robust renewal of religious freedom, Catholic institutions risk becoming mere extensions of the state. That would be bad for the Church and bad for American democracy (click for a related story).
The third priority issue is the restoration of limited, constitutional government. The modern state seems to have an inexorable tendency to expand the reach of its power and to swallow up both free associations and smaller governmental units. Pope Pius XI recognized this tendency in the 1920s and addressed it in his landmark social encyclical Quadragesimo Anno in 1931 when he cemented the principle of subsidiarity into the foundations of the Church’s social doctrine. In American terms, our federal system is an expression of that principle. That is why Catholics are called upon to defend the prerogatives of state and local government over the encroachments of federal power and to resist the rapid expansion of the administrative state — those bureaucracies that increasingly govern our lives.
In promoting these principles in American politics, Catholics should bring to Campaign 2016 the Church’s longstanding conviction that voting is an exercise in moral reasoning and moral judgment, not an exercise in raw emotion. In doing so, Catholics can elevate our politics and help rebuild our increasingly tattered culture, proving once again that U.S. Catholics are the best Americans they can be when they’re the best Catholics they can be.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.