Skip to main content
Listen to Acton content on the go by downloading the Radio Free Acton podcast! Listen Now

Sirico Parables book

    The Acton Institute has begun a series of lectures eight in Rome and one in Poland celebrating the fifteenth anniversary of Centesimus Annus, Pope John Paul II's landmark social encyclical. The lecture series started in October of 2005 and will continue through 2007. For the next year, Religion & Liberty will feature excerpts from these conference lectures.

    The following is taken from Catholic Social Teaching on the Economy and the Family: an alternative to the modern welfare state, delivered on January 21, 2006, at the Pontifical North American College in Rome.

    People unfamiliar with Catholic social teaching may be surprised to learn that the church has consistently condemned socialism. The Catholic Church has never embraced “equality” the way socialism has. The church is not indifferent to the poor. Rather, the church proposes an alternative principle for helping them. Instead of “make everyone equal” as a guiding premise, the church proposes “defend the weak” as the appropriate posture toward the poor. These approaches have different factual foundations and distinct policy implications, especially with regard to society's most basic institution: the family.

    Beginning with Pope Leo XIII and continuing until Pope John Paul II, the church has consistently condemned socialism. Pope Leo XIII realized that the godlessness of socialism is not an incidental flaw in an otherwise noble ideal. Godlessness is at the core of the ideology because socialism created idols out of the state and the idea of equality. This creates deep and subtle problems. While the state is a necessary institution, it is a limited institution, incapable of solving every human problem. By replacing God with the state, socialists will almost certainly over-empower the state and take even its legitimate functions to illegitimate extremes.

    In Pope Leo XIII's words from Rerum Novarum, “Let it be laid down in the first place that a condition of human existence must be borne with, namely that in civil society the lowest cannot be made equal with the highest.” Leo understood that creating economic equality was a fool's errand. While it is true that some forms of inequality are unjustified, a certain amount of inequality is inevitable and even justified. By making equality the summum bonum of society, socialists take the noble ideal of compassion for the poor and twist it into a form of idolatry.

    The church's alternative to the idolatry of equality is the defense of the weak. As Pope John Paul II said in Centesimus Annus, “Leo XIII is repeating an elementary principle of sound political organization, namely, the more that individuals are defenseless within a given society, the more they require the care and concern of others, and in particular the intervention of government authority.”

    Focusing on the weak is realistic in a way that focusing on inequality is not. All of us begin our lives as helpless infants, completely dependent on the care of others for our survival. If we are lucky, we live long enough that we again need the assistance of others just to manage our basic bodily needs. In between, all of us get sick some of the time and temporarily need help. Any of us could get a bump on the head that would render us permanently dependent on others.

    The progression from infancy to adulthood is not some freak occurrence that could be somehow eliminated by proper social engineering. This is the story of every human life. Aging, accidents, and illness can never be eliminated, either. Yet our modern world, it is safe to say, is profoundly uncomfortable with weakness and dependence. We fear it in ourselves. We tend to distance ourselves from it in others.

    Jesus told us, “The poor you will always have with you.” It is not possible to eliminate completely all differences in the material conditions of every person in society, as the socialists propose. At the same time, the continued existence of the weak demands a continual response from the Christian.

    It is now abundantly clear that “defend the weak” is a very different ethical mandate from “create equality.” For equality is not a stand-alone objective that always and everywhere legitimately takes priority. Equality requires a referent. The political system must make some judgments about who must be equal to whom, for what purposes, and in what contexts.

    As the socialist impulse has unfolded throughout the industrialized world, many people have been necessarily excluded from its concern with equality. The young cannot be made economically equal to the old, so the young are excluded from the labor market. The non-voting immigrants need not be made equal to the native-born citizens.

    Even more chillingly, the physically weak and incapacitated can never be made equal to the strong. Throughout the world, where equality has been made into an idol, powerful political forces operate to completely exclude these people from the most basic protections of law. In the Netherlands, “voluntary” euthanasia – which is not always voluntary – relieves society of the ill and the old. And of course, the infant in the womb has been excluded in many secularized countries from any legal protections whatsoever.

    One of the most destructive applications of political equality is the drive to make men and women equal. This essentially political impulse has poisoned relationships between men and women inside the family and in the public square. Modern women believe they do not need husbands for financial support or any other kind of help. Young parents seem surprised to find that mothers and fathers are not truly interchangeable. Society is on the verge of claiming that gender is an irrelevant category for marriage, for child-rearing, or even for sex itself. In other words, there are voices in our modern culture trying to convince us that we ought to be indifferent as to whether we prefer a same-sex partner to an opposite-sex partner. This is truly equality gone out of control.

    The Catholic vision of the family sees men and women as complementary to each other, not as competitors with each other. Marriage is inherently a gender-based institution, because it helps men and women bridge the natural differences between them. Marriage is the school and household of love. Within the household, men and women learn to help each other, to cooperate with each other, and to understand each other. This is a very different vision than the image of husbands and wives at each other's throats, in competition for dominance and power inside their own homes.

    Catholic social teaching insists on supporting the family, economically and politically. Catholic social teaching defends the family as a pre-political reality independent of the state and with claims against the state. In Centesimus Annus, John Paul reiterates this point, originally made by Pope Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum:

    He (Leo XIII) frequently insists on necessary limits to the state's intervention and on its instrumental character, inasmuch as the family and society are prior to the state, and inasmuch as the state exists in order to protect their rights and not stifle them.

    The ethical principle of defending the weak places distinct demands upon us as individuals and as a society. The Catholic vision respects the family as the great pre-political social institution, and marriage as the most basic unit of social cooperation. The family can accommodate the inherent inequalities across the generations and across the sexes. Inside the family, the strong are naturally inclined to take care of the weak.

    By contrast, the state plants itself firmly against the organic reality of the family. The state demands the right to redefine the family in the name of equality. Equality for women means unlimited legal entitlement to abortion. Marriage equality has come to mean any combination of adults, participating in any form of sexual activity, for any length of time, with or without the possibility of begetting children.

    Equality for adults means misery for the weak. It is time to abandon the quest for equality. Defending the weak should be our guiding Christian principle.

    Most Read

    Dr. Jennifer Roback Morse is a Senior Fellow in Economics at the Acton Institute and regular contributor to National Review Online and The National Catholic Register, received her Ph.D. in economics from the University of Rochester. Until recently, she was a Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution. She has been on the faculty of Yale University and George Mason University, and is the author of Love and Economics: Why the Laissez-Faire Family doesn't work.