In Robert Bolt’s play, A Man for All Seasons, the aging Cardinal Wolsey admonishes Sir Thomas More: “You’re a constant regret to me, Thomas. If you could just see the facts flat on, without that horrible moral squint; with just a little common sense, you could have been a statesman.” Wolsey’s heirs are quick to upbraid our latter-day Mores for their sentimental “moral squint” at public policy. Yet even statesmen of Wolsey’s stripe seldom see the “facts” flat on. Invariably, our perceptions betray our moral squints and prejudices.
Beginning with Leo XIII’s magisterial encyclical on the rights of workers to a living wage (Rerum novarum, 1891), the Roman Catholic Church looks at public policy through the moral squint of its social teaching. In the words of Benedict XVI’s “Message for the 92nd World Day of Migrants and Refugees,” “the Church sees” the suffering of our sisters and brothers “through the eyes of Jesus, who was moved with pity at the sight of the crowds wandering as sheep without a shepherd. (Cf. Mt 9:36).” How then, as citizens of faith, do we fulfill the Gospel’s prophetic mandate, in our present day?
Inspired by the great biblical injunctions of justice or righteousness (sedaqah), right judgment (misphat), and love of neighbor (agape) marking the reign of God, modern Roman Catholic social teaching turns to the distinctively modern idiom of human dignity and the rights that follow from it. The bishops elaborated on these rights in their 1986 pastoral letter:
Catholic social teaching spells out the basic demands of justice...in the human rights of every person. These fundamental rights are prerequisites for a dignified life in community. The Bible vigorously affirms the sacredness of every person as a creature formed in the image and likeness of God. The biblical emphasis on covenant and community also shows that human dignity can only be realized and protected in solidarity with others.
The appeal to human dignity “in solidarity with others” serves as a proximate foundation of human rights, permitting us to speak prophetically to the world. Yet in specifying the “minimum conditions” for the realization of such dignity, the bishops not only ratify, but enrich our notion of rights. For in the church’s social teaching, basic human rights encompass not merely the “negative” civil-political liberties enshrined in our American tradition—e.g., the freedoms from interference or coercion, such as our rights to freedom of worship, assembly and speech—but the “positive” socio-economic rights of security and subsistence, including employment, minimal health care and education: rights necessary for “a dignified life in community.” The theme is echoed in Faithful Citizenship (2007):
The basic right to life implies and is linked to other human rights to the goods that every person needs to live and thrive–including food, shelter, health care, education, and meaningful work. The use of the death penalty, hunger, lack of health care or housing, human trafficking, the human and moral costs of war, and unjust immigration policies are some of the serious moral issues that challenge our consciences and require us to act.Free to Serve
Christian freedom, then, is not merely the freedom from interference by others, but our freedom for service to the community in love: the “end” of freedom is thus not merely private satisfaction, but the “common good” of every person. Solidarity, writes John Paul II, is the characteristic virtue of the common good. In modern Catholic teaching, the common good is conceived distributively, not en masse, as “the sum total of those conditions of social living” that protect and promote the dignity and rights of every person. The common good thus comprises the institutional protection of basic human rights including, a fortiori, the rights of effective participation of those historically denied place and voice.
While recognizing legitimate plurality in a democracy like our own, the common good sets a threshold for dignified life in community. In Faithful Citizenship, our bishops write, “While the common good embraces all, those who are weak, vulnerable and most in need deserve preferential concern. A basic moral test for our society is how we treat the most vulnerable in our midst” (2007: no. 50).
In other words, our moral entitlement to equal respect or consideration, in concert with the ethical ideal of the common good, justifies preferential treatment for those whose basic rights are most imperiled—in Camus’s phrase, our taking “the victim’s side.” Aquinas’s observation that a servant who is ill merits greater attention than a son who is not, is pertinent here: the fulfillment of equal basic rights, in materially dissimilar conditions, justifies a discriminate response. Precisely our concern for equal dignity and equal rights requires that we ask, Whose dignity and rights are unequally threatened? The church’s moral squint, her “option for the poor,” bids us ask: “Who is missing from the table of policy, whose voice suppressed?”
Finally, as our bishops observe, our solidarity, ordered to the common good, bids us to “be careful stewards of “God’s creation and to ensure a safe and hospitable environment for vulnerable human beings now and in the future.” How, then, does our “moral squint” guide our thinking on public policy? What lessons for voting might we draw?Lessons for voting
A. Worthy persuasion: The norms that govern personal choice, such as my opposition to abortion or racism, likewise govern social choice, but differently. For personal choice, I must ask what moral rules, attitudes and beliefs form my conscience. And these rules, attitudes and beliefs may be distinctively religious. If I believe certain actions are wrong, especially if they are always wrong (intrinsically evil), I can never perform them—or intentionally (formally) cooperate in their performance—whatever the consequences might be. I am categorically obliged by the dictates of my conscience.
But suppose, as in politics, the question is not merely my obligation to form my conscience, but my obligation, as a citizen of faith, to influence yours. I must, as Dignitatas Humanae (nos. 7, 4) reminds us, engage in “worthy persuasion.” I must find the very best arguments that will persuade you. For those who share my Christian or Catholic beliefs, I will look to Scripture and Tradition, including magisterial pronouncements. In a religiously pluralist society, however, worthy persuasion will typically entail public reasons: reasons that we share, or should share, as citizens. And here we appeal to the modern lingua franca of dignity and human rights. On questions of immigration, abortion, or health care, for instance, we appeal to the basic human rights of the most vulnerable in our midst. As citizens of faith, then, we seek not to impose or legislate our particular morality, but rather to legislate morally, in accordance with the basic human rights that underlie the legitimacy of law and public policy.