Economic stimulus can be found in Catholic social doctrine

  • December 11, 2008
{mosimage}OTTAWA - As Ottawa contemplates how to respond to the economic crisis, Catholic social teaching offers some guidance, but not enough to shape a consensus even among Catholic thinkers.

“The issue of how much fiscal stimulus the Canadian economy requires right now is very much a matter of prudential judgment,” said Richard Bastien, Catholic Civil Rights League National Capital director, who spent 31 years as an economist advising the Department of Finance.

“Someone who is considering economic issues from the perspective of Catholic social doctrine could be in favour of either minimal stimulus or maximum stimulus. There is no magic formula.”

Bastien, however, advocated prudence. “There is a role for the state in some redistribution of wealth but how far can you go in order not to create disincentives to work and without discouraging self-reliance?”

The preferential option for the poor is a guiding principle for Citizens for Public Justice executive director Joe Gunn, who until 2005 directed the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (CCCB) social affairs secretariat.

“Even at a time of distress or difficulty in the economy, it’s really important for people to focus on assisting neighbours, especially those neighbours who are particularly vulnerable,” he said, noting that Catholics would be interested in stimulus to “enhance employment” and to cushion the effects on those already living in poverty.

Jesuit Father Bill Ryan, an economist and founder of the Centre of Concern in Washington, agreed. If  government programs are not helping the weak and the poor, “then you have to look at your policy.”

Catholic social doctrine can be compatible with some kind of government assistance to the needy, Bastien said, but “it is certainly opposed to the wholesale assistance of the type foreseen by people who associate themselves with the left.”

He raised concerns about how a “shot in the arm” can increase the role of the state, and make people increasingly dependent upon it.

Too much government intervention can violate another principle in Catholic social teaching, that of subsidiarity, said Fr. Robert Sirico, co-founder of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, an American think tank. He quoted Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Centesimus Annus, which describes the principle of subsidiarity this way: “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.”

“It always amazes me that well-intentioned Catholics from the left-of-centre parties have so much trust in the state, bureaucracies and politicians and so little confidence that citizens, acting in local, private and voluntary ways can more creatively, more knowledgeably and more charitably, organize for the common good,” said Sirico.

Gunn does not discount the role of civil society in helping the poor. When he was working for the CCCB he learned how much work individuals, parishes and dioceses did in directly helping the poor, through collections for food banks, running soup kitchens and other charitable activities.  He, too, does not want to see the state rob people of incentive.

He described “public justice” as the role government has to play “where people can’t change those societal injustices on their own.”

Ryan said some free marketers are “ideologues” who see little or no role for the government except to get the banking system working again, because they believe government should be as small as possible.

“I’m always a bit afraid as soon as people say that they have a bias against government,” he said.  “In Catholic social teaching there is a role for government.”

He added that “the principle of subsidiarity is a protection against totalitarianism, whether the right or the left, and government taking over everything.”

In his view government is not doing enough and is “too much controlled by big business.”

“What we have is socialism for the rich and capitalism for the poor,” he said.

Ryan called the credit crisis a short-term problem. The bigger crisis concerns the ecology.

Gunn said a stimulus package should also include concern for the environment; that would mean any bail-out for the auto industry should include provisions for making greener cars. Infrastructure spending could focus on public transportation and a housing program could retrofit homes to be more energy efficient.

While Catholic social doctrine calls for a free market economy, it is a regulated free market economy, said Bastien.

“You cannot have a healthy economy if you do not have a virtuous society,” Bastien said. That means ethical businessmen, and having, for example, accountants who are honest, and “not having any Enrons.”

Though he realizes it is a tough sell, Gunn would also like a focus on international development and aid for the nearly one billion people who are hungry.

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