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The USCCB, Social Injustice, and that Pesky Principle of Subsidiarity

Jeffrey Bruno

Stephen M. Krason - published on 09/19/13 - updated on 06/07/17

The mention of immigrants gets us to another major public issue that requires better analysis by the bishops and their staff. If the bishops’ health care statement meant just legal immigrants, there really is no issue: they are eligible to shop for insurance on the new exchanges. Why should illegal immigrants be given this same prerogative, however? Nothing in Catholic social teaching requires that special government benefits be provided to persons who are not even citizens, much less those who have broken the law. Moreover, the statement perhaps wrongly identifies access to health care with health insurance. In fact, the ACA provides additional federal funding for community health centers that HHS concedes will now primarily serve illegal immigrants.

The USCCB’s major recent statement on immigration, Strangers No Longer, makes a number of sensible policy recommendations, such as promoting family reunification and a foreign-born worker program. However, its readiness to propose or embrace specific policy proposals at all – as opposed to focusing on opposing the ones which collide with Catholic teaching – may be problematical, since there can be a large range of morally acceptable policy approaches. These are mostly matters of prudential judgment. As the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church states, it is not the Church’s prerogative “to enter into questions of the merit of political programmes, except as concerns their religious or moral implications” (424). The statement echoes well what Pope Benedict said in 2008 about the need to address economic problems within countries in order to eliminate the need of their people to emigrate. However, at its website, the USCCB’s Office of Migration Policy and Public Affairs incredibly laid the responsibility for accomplishing this squarely on the U.S.: “Congress should examine the root causes of migration, such as under-development and poverty in sending countries, and seek long-term solutions.” What authority, obligation, right, or even capability does the U.S. Congress have to try to solve what may be deep-seated or even intractable problems in other countries? Don’t these countries’ own political and economic leaders bear the basic responsibility for that? It is also troubling that neither Strangers No Longer nor the website hold illegal immigrants blameworthy for violating the immigration laws which, while in need of improvement, cannot be called simply unjust. Even though the Church consistently emphasizes the importance of the rule of law, there is no concern expressed that the massive influx of illegal immigrants and a lax response damages the rule of law.

Another subject is minimum wage laws. The bishops’ support for minimum wage increases is decades old, but support for a federal minimum wage specifically may be problematical in light of subsidiarity. Some argue that economic conditions vary considerably around the country and so, if legislating a minimum wage is indicated, it is perhaps best handled at the state level or it should be allowed to vary according to local conditions. The website of the USCCB’s Justice, Peace, and Economic Development Department at least mentions one of the usual criticisms of raising the minimum wage that it results in jobs being eliminated by employers, but then quickly dismisses it. It also doesn’t address the important issue of the effect of minimum wage hikes on youth unemployment levels. While I’ve never been an anti-minimum wage advocate, it is reasonable to ask if a particular policy approach, even if long-standing, may be the best one. This suggests an even a more basic question that Benestad wondered about: does the conference still look too automatically for legislative solutions? There is no question that the providing of a just wage – or what since Bl. John Paul II has been called a “family wage” – is a moral imperative of Catholic social teaching. Does looking so readily to government cause other solutions to be ignored? Should the Church preach more about the obligations of businessmen and corporate leaders to provide a just wage? Should the notion of economic restructuring, which captivated Catholic social thinkers of an earlier era and who argued that governments should step back but in no way take a laissez faire approach – be given renewed consideration? Should there be more stress on the need to shape entrepreneurial attitudes and the virtues connected with them, as specifically recommended by Centesimus Annus – to help people build themselves up economically? Should more basic economic and financial reforms be considered that would promote a truly just wage, which the website acknowledges is not at all synonymous with a minimum wage? Looking at a bigger picture, more analysis and “thinking outside of the box” seems to be called for.

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