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Catholics Are Not Anti-Government: Government Shutdown - but Governing Continues

By Deacon Keith Fournier
October 9th, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

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. (Catholic Catechism)

WASHINGTON, DC (Catholic Online) - We are in the second week of the Government Shutdown in the United States. The rancor is increasing in the heated debate as both 'sides' claim the high ground and accuse the other. I do not write to pile on. Rather, I point out what should be obvious; governing continues.

What is happening is that the huge Federal Bureaucracy is stalled - while a political battle runs its course. However, Catholics should not get pulled into the narrow notion that what is called government actually always means the Federal Government.  

I write to address the role of governance in civil society. I write as a Catholic citizen whose views on the current administration are well known. I am not a fan. However, I am leery of a creeping anti-government approach emerging in some of the circles within which I move in my work at the intersection of faith and culture.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes some observations concerning human society and governing which bear consideration:

"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 social teaching of the Catholic Church elaborates a 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)

We need to understand the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity, and how they work together for the promotion of good governance. It is time to articulate an alternate approach to governance which will enable us to discharge our duty of solidarity through applying the principle of subsidiarity. We need a vision of good governance. Good government recognizes the existence of higher moral values, defers to its smallest units first in governing, and functions as a servant and not a despot.

This can best be done by recognizing and empowering the vital role of mediating associations and their participation in governance, as properly understood. We do not need a bloated federal bureaucracy. We do need good government. We are, by nature, social. Governing is necessary. It  can and should serve the common good while respecting and promoting human freedom.

Catholics should be cautious of parroting the rhetoric of either political conservatism or what now calls itself liberalism/progressivism. We should offer another way, one that is desperately needed in a Nation which has forgotten God - and, as a result, is becoming dehumanized. We are losing authentic human and social freedom precisely because we have forgotten the moral basis of a truly free society.

We have lost our understanding of our social obligation and good government. We have all too often abdicated our responsibility for one another to an impersonal system of centralized governing which is becoming oppressive and dehumanized.

Some identified with the political left have become so used to the ever increasing role of big federal government in the provision of charitable services to the needy that they forget there can be another way to care for one another. Not all government happens in Washington, DC. In fact, as the current shutdown demonstrates, the bloated federal bureaucracy is not very good at either governing or providing compassionate care.

Subsidiarity (from the Latin subsiduum meaning providing help) refers to an ordering principle wherein communities of a higher order should not usurp the rightful role of smaller governing units but provide help and assistance. Governing is happening around dinner tables,in the meetings of private and public associations, in town halls, in churches and places of religious gatherings, in co-ops and everywhere we join together to collaborate. 

Some identified with the political right oppose an overly federalized approach to government but can tend to forget another principle of governance, that of solidarity. We have an obligation in solidarity to one another, and, especially to those in need. We are our brother and sisters keepers. We simply must work that obligation into a way of life which demonstrates and dispenses that care in the social order.  

Whether we are labeled left or right, and even though we can disagree over the proper application of the principle of subsidiarity, we cannot deny the obligations of solidarity.It is part and parcel of being human. We are created in the Image of God and one part of the multi-faceted meaning of that truth is that we must manifest our concern for one another in a proper ordering of our social life.   

Some on the right offer an approach to governance which is, in effect, anti-government. That seems to especially be the case when these folks use rhetoric which places the isolated individual at the foundation of human freedom. This very concept of human freedom is deficient. It is also at odds with the insights summarized in the Catholic Catechism. We are social by nature and called to family and community. We progress in human freedom only in our realtionship with others. These folks seem to imply, at least in their rhetoric, that the very existence of government is the real problem.

They quote phrases such as he who governs best governs least, the source of which is unclear, and then use it to promote a disdain for all government. This can reveal a failure to understand both the essential need for - and value of - good and effective government. When the political right views government as the problem, the right goes wrong.

Some on the left want to federalize just about everything by giving it all to an increasingly huge, ineffective and uncaring federal bureaucracy. They seem to think that our obligation in solidarity always means establishing another federal government program to discharge it. They are wrong. They have also forgotten the vital role of mediating institutions in governing and the furthering the common good. They also fail to acknowledge the demonstrable failures of big, overly centralized government.

Further, they are wrong when they question the empathy of anyone who disagrees with them. They seem to be growing increasingly fond of using this tactic in the public debate. It is evident in the shrill rhetoric accompanying so much of the media coverage concerning the partial shutdown of the Federal government in the United States.  

Those on the left can end up, directly or indirectly, supporting a collectivist and statist model of government. Such an approach can stifle human freedom, initiative, creativity and human flourishing. They can also undermine the essential role of mediating institutions - the first of which is the family, the smallest governing unit and first vital cell of human society.

An overly federalized and centralized form of government is a disaster waiting to happen morally, politically, socially and economically. The bad fruit is becoming clear as the United States moves toward a form of collectivism in the delivery of health care services under the so called Affordable Care Act which could have serious consequences. 

While purporting to care for the poor, the Act seems to offer little help to the poor. It even fails to hear the cry of the poorest of the poor, children in the womb, actually providing means to take their life under the banner of reproductive services. In addition it is overtly undermining the rights of the Church. 

Catholics affirm that governing is meant to be a good, in the fullest sense. God governs and invites us all to participate in 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 which we govern and care for one another. In those communities we flourish, grow in virtue and care for one another, together.

Catholic teaching affirms that we are not fully human unless we are in relationship with one another. It rejects the notion of the isolated individual as the ground of human freedom. We were made for communion. We are one another's neighbors and we are called to stand together in solidarity. We are also responsible for one another and called to 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 possible in the broader social communities in which we participate. Thus the family must always be the guide, polestar and measuring stick for any broader social and governing structure above it.

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.

In evaluating government we should ask some questions concerning its structure, its operation and its application. They can help us to ascertain if whether it is good, in several senses of the word. Is it Moral? Does it recognize the existence of the higher law, a Natural Moral 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 it respect this dignity of every human person, recognize the primacy of marriage and the family and society founded upon it and serve the common good? Does it promote genuine human freedom, flourishing, creativity and initiative among citizens?

Then, we consider if government is 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 empowering them to provide assistance and help before assigning the task to the centralized or federal government?

Catholics should be leery of the rhetoric of the right when it mischaracterizes government as evil. We should also be leery of the rhetoric of the left when it promotes statism and collectivism as government.

It is time to take the principles set forth in the Social teaching of the Catholic Church and build a new citizen movement which applies them and offers solutions to our current social needs.

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.

I will end by a personal opinion which attempts to apply what I proposed in my discussion above.
Beside the violation of the fundamental human right to life and the right to religious freedom undeniably present in the application of the Affordable Care Act through the notorious HHS regulations, rendering it an unjust law - the Act also violates the principle of subsidiarity.

Thus, it is NOT an example of good government.

We need to reform health care in the United States of America. However, we need a vehicle for the delivery of health care services which respects the dignity of life, defers to the family, respects religious freedom and conscience, utilizes mediating associations, and promotes economic freedom.

The current Federal Government shutdown in the United States confirms my own opinion that the Federal Government should be the last place, not the first place, to which we should look in our efforts to govern ourselves and care for one another.

Catholics are not Anti-Government. The Federal Government may be shutdown - but governing continues.We need to learn from what is happening and build a better way.

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