The United States bishops have called for a new social contract in a time of globalization. While it would be an exaggeration to say that Catholics are obliged to vote for Democrats this November, the principles espoused by the Magisterium are not found in most of the Republican and Tea Party slogans.
Based on the English meaning of Rerum Novarum, the 1892 pioneering papal encyclical of Catholic social justice, the document describes globalization as the “new thing” that demands rethinking of the economy and the setting of new economic priorities. Just like you should understand the terms of a contact before signing, the bishops urge a reevaluation of our political commitments at this juncture of history. Famously, both the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution were influenced by Jean Jacques Rousseau and John Locke. They interpreted “social contract” through the prism of a business deal: people agree to obey a ruler because they will “profit” from good government. According to Locke, people form governments to seek “life, liberty and the pursuit of property.” “Whenever government becomes destructive of these ends,” runs the thought, the people have the right to dissolve the contract with government. Although few would express it this way, the logic implicit here means that loyalty to your country is ultimately based on an individual’s economic advantage.
Catholic theology about the social contract is older than Rousseau and Locke. As expressed by the Spanish Jesuit, Francisco Suarez, the social contract is like marriage. Playing on the feminine gender of “patria” (= motherland), Suarez argues that love of country is like the love of a man for his wife. Patriotism is “for richer or poorer, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health,…” Thus, Cardinal Spellman of New York was to say during the Vietnam War, “My country, right or wrong, but my country.”
The Catholic preference is to work patriotically within the system rather than adopt Tea Party slogans that government is an “enemy.” Citing Benedict XVI, the bishops would remedy social injustice by “just laws and forms of redistribution governed by politics.” Rather than “less government” the bishops call for “better government” in regulating the economy. The Catholic teaching in favor of the redistribution of wealth, or course, is not the same as “more welfare.” By focus upon the dignity of the person, Catholics are able to criticize both dependency on a nanny state as well as the Ebenezer Scrooge effects of Capitalism.
We have our priorities, however. For instance, it would be against Catholic teaching to insist “unemployment benefits must be sacrificed in order to keep down the federal deficit.” That is a relatively common theme of the Republican Party today, but the deficit is not a person: the unemployed worker is. To be true to our faith, Catholics are conscious bound to place highest value on the person.
In a similar fashion, the policy of hiring only part-time to avoid paying for health insurance benefits or to escape union labor runs against Catholic teaching – even if such abuses are widespread in our economy. Moreover, in a global economy, we are called to be as concerned for workers in other countries as we are for those in our own. Care for the environment rather than for corporate profits is another issue addressed by the bishops.
The culprit here is not a political party or a single issue: what has to be changed is a materialistic and consumerist society with false values. Thankfully, you don’t have to be Catholic to agree. Recently, Catholic moral theologians have spelled out the implications for such a new global ethic. Catholic America, therefore, is called by pope, bishops and theologians to emphasize the environment, health care, safety in food production and education. These values replace maximizing corporate profits, or nickel-and-dime savings based on exploitation of child workers abroad.
Sadly, Catholic America faces a political terrain where Republicans and the Tea Party have defined an agenda for return to past economic policies and AGAINST these “new things,” perhaps only because Democrats are for them. Thus, Catholic voters this November will have to decide if they will follow the Magisterium or just want to vote to protest the future.