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The State Which Would Provide Everything | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | October 3,
"The State which would provide everything, absorbing everything into itself, would
ultimately become a mere bureaucracy incapable of guaranteeing the very thing
which the suffering person--every person--needs: namely, loving personal
concern." - Pope Benedict XVI,
Deus Caritas Est, par 28b.
What is the state? What, if any, are its limits? These are ancient and ever perennial
questions, each with a long theoretical and practical history. Lest we think
that the dubious principle of the "separation of church and state" means that
popes cannot speak of politics, we can look to Benedict XVI's first encyclical,
in which he speaks most directly, even bluntly, of the State. The notion that
the only people who cannot talk accurately and philosophically about the state
are clerics or believers needs to be put to rest. It is not true that only
politicians know what the State is, just as it is not true that politicians
know nothing about the spiritual life. Nor is it to be denied that some clerics
speak of the State with much ignorance and naivete.
In his first encyclical,
Deus Caritas Est, which seems to take up a theme left by John Paul II, Benedict
XVI chooses the delicate topic of love, of eros, as needing the most profound
attention. He speaks beautifully on the topic. He seeks nothing less than to
"purify" it by understanding what it is in all its dimensions. In reflecting on
charity, one cannot help relating it to that virtue with which it is most often
compared or confused, that is, justice.
At first sight, this almost overly discussed topic of love will seem to be clearly a
non-political document. The Pope seeks nothing less than to claim, or reclaim,
a sphere of life that has been secularized, usually as "rights," so that all
human relationships are seen to be aspects of justice or power. To see it this
way is a utopian temptation. That the state and justice are necessary and
related is not denied. But in the course of their very definitions, we see
their own limits or insufficiencies, limits based on the truth of that they
half of the encyclical is a brilliant treatise on the nature and limits of the
State and what lies beyond it. "We do not need a State which regulates and
controls everything," Benedict writes, "but a State which, in accordance with
the principle of subsidiarity, generously acknowledges and supports initiatives
arising from different social forces and combines spontaneity with closeness to
those in need" (par 28b). Valid sources of truth and action are found both in the
family and in what transcends the State, even what goes on within it.
can turn the statement around and wonder if the "State we do not need" arose
from theories that denied the principle of subsidiarity. This principle is from
Pius XI's 1931 encyclical, Quadragesimo Anno. It means that all social activity
should be left to function at the level of initiative closest to the free human
person. We do not "need" that State that sees its function of gathering
"different social forces" into its own bureaucracy and abstract functioning. We
need institutions and individuals that can manifest their own inner
"spontaneity," something that requires personal initiative.
for a consuming justice has been made, perhaps too often, in modern religious
circles; we think of the sad case of "liberation theology," about which Joseph Cardinal
Ratzinger wrote so well in the document Instruction on Certain Aspects of
Liberation Theology (1984). The Pope is concerned that charity is not turned into an ideology. "Christian
charitable activity must be independent of parties and ideologies. It is not a
means of changing the world ideologically, and it is not at the service of
worldly stratagems, but it is a way of making present here and now the love
which man always needs" (par 31b). This "what man always needs" cannot directly
come from the State.
What has been neglected by an over dependence on justice and the State is that many of
the most important things in our lives need to be left to our own personal
initiatives and responsibilities. These latter may also be supernatural in
origin. But these higher aspirations, when secularized as rights and laws,
become claims on the State to bring about by State means what can only be
accomplished by charity. Thus, the State grows precisely from a hidden, even denied,
impulse of charity dormant in our culture, But the essential personalness of
charity that makes it effective is lacking. This latter personal level is what
the Pope seeks to restore, or perhaps call to our attention for the first time
in our contemporary experience.
Caritas Est is not
an "anti-state" document. "The just ordering of society and the State is a
central responsibility of politics" (par 28a). There are "things" of Caesar. The
"temporal sphere" has its own area or "autonomy." But other organizations also have
their autonomy, especially (but not exclusively) the Church. "For her part, the
Church, as the social expression of Christian faith, has a proper independence
and is structured on the basis of her faith as a community which the State must
recognize" (par 28a). "Recognize" here means allow to exist, encourage to flourish.
The very existence of charity with in the State makes it better without the
State's being in control of its sources.
while charity can perhaps function in a disordered or even tyrannical polity,
justice provides a place for it in any polity to do what justice cannot do,
most often deal with the "here and now" of things. "Politics is more than a
mere mechanism for defining the rules of public life: its origin and its goal
are found in justice, which by its very nature has to do with ethics. The State
must inevitably face the question of how justice can be achieved here and now"
(par 28a). But this very point brings up the experience of the State, particularly
the modern State, that has a "certain ethical blindness" that sees justice in
terms of "power and self interests."
understands that the problem with the State, whether ancient or modern, in
claiming more for itself than is due to it, reflects the Fall -- something
about which the political thought of Augustine was acutely aware. Faith is thus
seen as "a purifying force for reason itself. From God's standpoint, faith
liberates reason from its blind spots and therefore helps it to be ever more
fully itself. Faith enables reason to do its work more effectively and to see
its proper object more clearly" (par 28a). Clearly this comment deals with an
understanding of a rationalism that would lock reason into itself and proudly
proclaim its own self-sufficiency. This move turns reason into its own god,
allowing no entrance of being except to that which its narrow methods
political philosophy point of view, I would consider the most important
intellectual contribution of this encyclical of Benedict XVI to be his
awareness that the Gospel revelation of charity was not intended to result in
an expansion of the State to include, in a secularized way, the impulses and
institutions of charity. "It is very important that the Church's charitable
activity maintains all of its splendor and does not become just another form of
social assistance" (par 31). Because of a failure to understand the immediacy of
charity, something has been missing from our families, our schools, our dealings
with the poor, weak, and dying, and with new life and old life.
conclusion, I would recall one final temptation that has its origins in our
failure to have a clearer place for active charity in our culture. "When we
consider the immensity of others' needs, we can ... be driven towards an
ideology that would aim at doing what God's governance of the world apparently
cannot: fully resolving every problem" (par 36). Whether it be our dealings with
wars, disasters, poverty, health, education, or a hundred other things, we come
back to this most subtle insight: we claim the power to "resolve" every problem
by ourselves. We blame God's "governance" when we do not accept the dimensions
of the charity that is put into the world. Ideology is indeed behind much of
our understanding of the State and its scope. We have here a spelling out of a
different form of "divine governance," one that begins with understanding the State
and its limits. We do not, in short, want a State that "would provide
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Links/Articles:
Deus Caritas Est (Vatican website) | Pope Benedict XVI
God's Eros Is Agape | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
First Musings on Benedict XVI's First Encyclical | Fr. Joseph Fessio, S.J.
Some Comments on Deus Caritas Est | Mark Brumley
Did I Read the Same Encyclical as the NYTimes? | Carl E. Olson
The Love Behind the Rules | Mary Beth Bonacci
On Reading the Pope | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
for Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI)
James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown
He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture,
and literature including Another
Sort of Learning, Idylls
and Rambles, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing,
Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing,
and A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning.
Read more of his essays on his
the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by
IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies,
and news in the Church!
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