One of the phrases that I’ve seen tossed around a lot this election cycle is “personal responsibility.” It’s usually used to mean that people need to be encouraged to take more responsibility for their own situations, to work harder and to rely less on the government.
Obviously, personal responsibility is good. The Catechism teaches that taking responsibility for the things that are in our immediate sphere of concern (family, work) is the first step toward conscientious participation in public life. However, Christianity does not pit the obligation to care for ourselves against our obligation to care for others. Our notion of responsibility is not “each man for himself,” but rather “all are responsible for all.”
As Christians we believe that we are created for communion. We are the “image and likeness” of a God whose very nature is community: the Father, Son and Holy Spirit form a Trinity, bound by love into a unity so profound that three persons form a single being.
St. Paul uses the image of a body to show how we are also called to profound unity with one another: “there should be no division in the body, but its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it” (1 Cor. 12:25-26).
Within this unity we must always acknowledge our interdependence. “The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable” (1 Cor. 12:21-22).
The metaphor of the body works not only for the Church, the Body of Christ, but also for the whole human race — including the political order. Every person that we encounter in society is “another self,” someone equal to ourselves in dignity who we care for with the same kind of willing solicitude that we direct toward ourselves and our families.
According to Catholic tradition, self-sufficiency, independence, equal opportunity and radical liberty — the foundations of the “American dream” — are not only impossible to achieve, they’re actually not desirable. “On coming into the world, man is not equipped with everything he needs for developing his bodily and spiritual life. He needs others. Differences appear tied to age, physical abilities, intellectual or moral aptitudes, the benefits derived from social commerce, and the distribution of wealth. The ‘talents’ are not distributed equally” (CCC 1936).
The Church does not see these natural inequalities as an injustice, but as part of the divine order. “These differences belong to God’s plan, who wills that each receive what he needs from others, and that those endowed with particular ‘talents’ share the benefits with those who need them” (CCC 1937).
Why would God want people to be unequal? Basically so that we will be bound together by love. Mutual interdependence invites us to gratitude, compassion, kindness and charity. If we were related only by a social contract founded on rational self-interest, there would be no cause for genuine compassion. The moment that it stopped really being in my best interests to uphold and support you, it would be reasonable to cast you off.
In a body, on the other hand, all of the parts contribute to the good of the whole because that’s what they were made for. If one part becomes sick, weak or injured, the rest of the body immediately reacts by protecting, defending and healing the wounded part. Every part exists for the sake of the others in a mutually enriching relationship.
Of course this means that each part depends on the workings of others in order to function properly. If the arteries become clogged, the lungs get gunked up with tar or if the kidneys don’t remove toxins from the bloodstream, the muscles will become sluggish and sore. For a while it may be possible to get them going simply by pure force of will, or to stimulate them with caffeine and cheap sugar rushes, but sooner or later, if you don’t resolve the cause of the problem, the body will just shut down.
It’s the same with the body politic. The desire to work, to contribute to society in a meaningful way is a natural psychological drive. When you have entire classes of people who are increasingly reliant on government aid and black-market painkillers, the problem does not generally originate in those people. One common cause is a massive accumulation of wealth, built up like a sticky plaque inside the arteries that feed the heart of a civilization.
This is why simply appealing to “personal responsibility” is not an adequate response. On the contrary, such an appeal actually enables the problem to continue because in practice it involves blaming the poor for their poverty rather than demanding that the rich take responsibility for making sure that wealth circulates through the system in a healthy way.
Melinda Selmys is the author of Sexual Authenticity: An Intimate Reflection on Homosexuality and Catholicism. She blogs at Catholic Authenticity.