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A “Better Way” for Whom? The Threat To CST’s Moral Vision for the U.S. Economy

In 1986, the USCCB wrote the most significant CST document on the U.S. economy to date, Economic Justice For All. It presents a methodological model of how all the core themes of CST are to be employed in a spiritual, theological, and moral critique of a political-economy that manipulates an economic privilege over against the well being of poor and working families and over against society as a whole.

First, the document turns the economic principle of self interest on its head by placing the dignity and well being of the human person at the center. The bishops ask: What impact does the economy have on people, their ability to support their families, and society as a whole? This is the spiritual, theological, and moral attitude in which the bishops approach their critique and applause of the U.S. economy.

Secondly, the bishops identify key problems: structural inequality, environmental injustice, racial unemployment and underemployment, and poverty.

Thirdly, the bishops call for a “moral vision” of the economy where the needs and well being of the aforementioned be met.

What’s most critical in this document is the presentation of two key CST themes: solidarity and subsidiarity.

This document argues that solidarity is a collective moral act that places the fundamental needs and economic well being of poor and working families, especially families of color, at the center of our political-economy—not the economic privileges of the wealthy and elite. CST demands a relatively equal distribution of natural resources, income, and wealth. Private property of wealthy and elite persons is only legitimate if it is at the service of the common good. If it conspires against the common good, in virtue of its negative consequences on poor and working families, then it is not only economically unjust, is it theologically and morally unjust also.

Moreover, this document makes plain that society should ensure minimum levels of well being for all of us, and that there should be an attempt do so at all levels of society—from the lowest levels to the highest levels, the highest of which would be national government. This is the CST principle of subsidiarity, which argues that fundamental needs and economic well being should be met in society from the bottom up, but if there is no local and intermediate infrastructure to ensure this is the case, or local and intermediate institutions have failed to ensure it, then top down structures must close those gaps.

Solidarity and subsidiarity are foundational CST principles that ensure a “moral vision” of our political-economy.

These two principles, however, have been misappropriated by “free market” and “limited government” Catholic theologians and thinkers who want to preserve an economic advantage for the wealthy and elite. In the name of “solidarity and subsidiarity,” they fight to ensure the inequality gap between the rich and the rest of us stay permanent, and that the collective bargaining power of poor and working families remain impotent and incapable of transformational change.

One of the most well known Catholic politician and proponent of the CST principles of “solidarity and subsidiarity” is Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan (R-WI). Paul Ryan is one of those “free market” and “limited government” CST advocates that proposes federal budgets in the name of poor and working families, but that significantly cuts social programs that these poor and working families depend on for their livelihood and well being.

The morally bankrupt argument goes like this: Welfare programs keep poor and working families dependent, and in “solidarity” with the them, and in the name of their God-given “dignity,” we cannot continue let them depend on “government.” So, we need to reduce the welfare state—“limit government” programs for them— and let local food banks, private charities, the church, and the “free market” close the income inequality gap from the bottom up, what CST calls “subsidiarity.”

What is ironic here is that social programs in a democratic society ensure that the fundamental needs and economic well being of poor persons and working families not be at the sentimental whims of the wealthy and elite. Rather, social programs provide those “minimum requirements” that the bishops speak of here, that ensure that access to resources and participation in society of all persons are not contingent upon the charity of others. Only in this way can we politically ensure the universal worthiness and equality of us all.

The biggest threat to the CST tradition and “economic justice for all” is Paul Ryan’s anti-Christian economic policies—what he calls “A Better Way”—that have their foundation in Ayn Rand’s oxymoronic moral theology of selfishness and greed. Many have argued that his “Better Way” makes things worse for the poor. That’s because Paul Ryan’s theology of economic justice for all is the theology of trickle-down theories that Pope Francis has recently condemned.

Politicians like Paul Ryan use all the right CST words but do so in the wrong form and for the wrong reasons.

As CST theologians and social justice advocates we need to ensure that the misappropriation of CST not be used for the god of the market and only be used in the service of the Christian one. How can we identify the appropriate use of key CST themes like “solidarity and subsidiarity” in candidates’ and their party’s economic policies? Which god and whose theology does the candidate advocate for, the god of the market or the Christian God of the poor and marginalized? Who is Paul Ryan’s budget “A Better Way” better for?

USCCB CST Document, Economic Justice For All

Speaker Paul Ryan’s “A Better Way”

Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ Analysis of “A Better Way”

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