God, Government and Freedom—A Response to ‘None of the Above’

By Harold Fickett

Posted 3/11/08 at 11:45 PM


When we discuss the role of government in protecting the common good, especially the poor and the weak, Catholics can and do have differences, as evidenced by Angelo Matera’s recent article and its comments.

I’d like to lay out a few principles in order to take a somewhat different tack. There’s no doubt that capitalism is the greatest force for wealth creation the world has ever seen.  It accords with Catholic social teaching in respect to the right to private property, and personal freedom. We are meant to be co-creators with God and to extend his creation personally. Individual freedom—not merely in terms of conscience, but in all dimensions, including economics—must never be so subordinated to the collective so as to destroy freedom or make its exercise futile. Pope Benedict emphasized this in his recent encyclical, Saved by Hope.

At the same time, capitalists (and so capitalism) are subject to original sin and therefore the free hand of the market place is not a magic wand against all social ills, as libertarians are tempted to believe. Order—the rule of law—is essential to a just society.

The conversation among Catholics seeking a just government centers in how we reconcile order and freedom: the competing interests of individuals, their various forms of legitimate association, particularly the family, voluntary associations, trade unions, intermediary governing bodies (such as states in the U.S.), and the common good. Each has an integrity which must be respected.

The Catholic Church does not have—nor should it—a politics per se; just as it does not have a philosophy per se, although Thomism came pretty close for a long time. Rather, our faith calls us to recognize principles that are obvious inferences from the Gospel and then apply these, as well as we can, in our own social situations.

My own decisions on voting and the various issues that have come up in relation to Angelo’s article are more tied than some to the importance of order, or the rule of law.

My travels and experiences at home have taught me just how important this is. Every lower-middle class neighborhood in Mexico City, for example, is virtually an armed camp, with its own guard house, access barriers, and heavily-barred homes. When Hurricane Rita struck East Texas not too long ago, people in a local town shot each other over disputes at the gas pumps. That didn’t happen in our town only because the police set-up checkpoints all over town.

This is one of the great lessons of Iraq as well. Donald Rumsfield succeeded in knocking over Saddam Hussein’s government with a quick, highly-technological force, but maintaining public order proved far more difficult. Once the rule of law breaks down civilization can disappear overnight.

Because the rule of law is so valuable, I believe more in the importance of the nation-state than our new friend Joe Shriner seems to (see www.voteforjoe.com.)  As part of immigration reform, he suggests instituting a North American alliance similar to the EU. Given Mexico’s history of statist economics, which has contributed so much to the poverty there, such an alliance would be disastrous in my opinion.

I’m also more worried about the Supreme Court and other federal appointments than Angelo seems to be—at least, I think getting two more pro-life Supreme Court justices and other conservative appointments to the federal bench makes up for a world of sins. I acknowledge that John McCain’s pro-life position doesn’t runs very deep; I know such appointments are not a lock. On the other hand, the pro-abortion position of Clinton and sadly Obama are so firmly embedded that the character of their potential appointments is a dead certainty, and such appointments will continue to affect the culture long into the future. That weighs heavily. (So if McCain is in fact the Republican nominee, I’ll be voting for him.)

What I really want to say here, as a response to Angelo’s article and all the comments it’s generated, is that while we know the broad principles of Catholic social teaching, particularly solidarity with the poor, and subsidiarity, as Angelo has ably adduced, we have only begun the conversation about how these ought to be applied to the contemporary American scene, especially in terms of what reforms would be valuable.

Before I end this post, let me say a word on behalf of liberty. That’s the great American idea, and it has a profound correspondence to the freedom of conscience and freedom of initiative that God has granted to the human person through making us in His image.  I don’t want to be so intent on guaranteeing outcomes in our society—however just we take them to be—that we over-reach and institute a well-intentioned tyranny. This is Hillary Clinton’s problem, and it’s very much the result, in her case, of embracing a deracinated social gospel—one that has long forgotten and in fact become indifferent to its historical origins in Christianity. Her politics have now become a substitute for religion and thus unwittingly totalitarian.

God has given us freedom to the extent of letting us perpetuate great evil, while calling us to join God in redeeming the same. I think there’s an analogy there, if an imperfect one, for government; government is an agent of justice, but government’s coercive powers must be used as sparingly as possible so as not to destroy the free character of the people it serves, nor other vital social structures, such as the family.