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The Popes Warned Us Against Excessive Government

Peter Souza

Stephen M. Krason - published on 10/03/13 - updated on 06/08/17

At a time when there are so many laws that enforcers can't agree on what the law requires, some think the solution is more laws. Really?

We are familiar enough with left-of-center Catholics like Catholics United and the professors who publicly opposed House Speaker John Boehner’s honorary degree from The Catholic University of America in 2011, beating the drum for governmental – especially federal government – “solutions” to problems. We also witness it, however, from some Catholics known for being committed to the orthodox teaching of the Church. When someone is too insistent about reducing the role of government or even just raises questions about certain public policies, there are those who are quick to put him into such categories as “neoliberal” or “neoconservative.” There is a tendency to slip into the practice of absolutizing public policy approaches or other matters of prudential judgment and treating them like they are doctrinal mandates.

A reviewer of one of my books – apparently an orthodox scholar, although not well-known in those circles – is a case in point. He took me to task for asserting, after a considerable discussion about Catholic social teaching in a 700-page book, that legislation should be adopted only when “absolutely needed.” He insisted that such a view was not “magisterial” and collided with Aquinas’s argument that the legislator is needed to move a people to the common good. While Catholic social teaching holds that the securing of the common good is a main task of the state, it nowhere says that this means that legislation or enacting a new public policy or program is the singular way to do this. Sometimes – even frequently – government is best able to help fashion good social conditions by stepping back. If one can think of a scenario that might best depict what Catholic social teaching, in its essence, aims for it would be this: the building up of a moral culture and citizenry, a basic juridical framework to protect economic and other rights, and a healthy and vital civil society to carry on most economic and social welfare matters. The state’s role would be to enact appropriate legislation to head off likely problems, like the labor legislation Pope Leo XIII called for (Rerum Novarum, 39), and working with the private sector on such things as economic planning to head off unemployment problems (Laborem Exercens, 18), and to always “oversee” things with an eye to the common good, ready to intervene to stop serious abuses such as the growth of destructive monopoly.

Moreover, a smug assurance about the value of more legislation and public policy in solving social problems is easily undermined by the repeated reality of unintended consequences and interest group government, where even failing policies cannot be dislodged because special interests begin to profit from them.  

My phrase “absolutely needed” indicates the urgency today of restraining runaway government. It’s hard to claim in an era of 75,000 pages of federal regulations with their increasing complexity, vagueness, and contradictoriness. Or that, when enforcement people in government and authorities outside it can’t agree on what laws and regulations actually require, we end up getting more laws. Should we really be legislating when it’s not clearly needed? While the reviewer may be correct in identifying the high calling of the legislator according to Aquinas and Aristotle before him, isn’t it clear that so many of them today don’t measure up? This is not an era marked by great statesmanship. Moreover, is the role of a legislator just to pass laws? Senator Howard Baker in the 1980s lamented the much-diminished role of the U.S. Senate as a great debating body, which had once helped to explore, clarify, and better understand great national questions. Isn’t that part of what the legislator does to further the common good?

To believe that government will necessarily act rightly – without looking at its track record or the context of a time – is simply foolish.

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