Christian Realism, Subsidiarity, and the Economic Crisis

Over the weekend, the the Murphy Institute for Catholic Thought, Law and Public Policy at the University of St. Thomas Law School in Minneapolis hosted a conference entitled “Realism in Christian Public Theology: Catholic and Protestant Perspectives.” It was an interdisciplinary conference bringing together law professors, theologians, ethicists and political scientists. I spoke on Friday, presenting a paper entitled “Christian Realism, Subsidiarity and the Economic Crisis.” 

The point of the paper is that the economic crisis – or really any crisis – presents a danger for the makers of law and policy. They may overreact both in terms of “fighting the last war,” i.e., overemphasizing whatever is thought to be the present danger, or in seeing the crisis as an opportunity to remake society, i.e., to usher in a Kingdom on earth.

My argument is that there are two important theological concepts that can at least help us avoid this. The first is the Catholic notion of subsidiarity. i.e., the idea that a higer order should not do what a lower one can do for itself. I qualify that idea by arguing that subsidiarity is not simply a principle of jurisdiction but a recognition of the moral importance of human agency. Law and policy should help people and the associations that they form exercise freedom and creativity. It is, I argue, intertwined with the notion of solidarity, i.e., the imperative of concern for all persons.

This can have implications for both “liberal” and “conservative” positions. If we are to have George W. Bush’s Ownership Society, ownership must be more than a theoretical possibility. Social assistance that is conservative must also be compassionate.

Health care reformers ought to remain mindful of the need for innovation and the moral value of individual choice and of human life. Efforts to fight global warming should not forget that much of what has improved the quality of our environment was not developed by centralized command and direction.

The second helpful theological concept is Christian Realism, a broad and sometimes amorphous body of thought associated with the Lutheran theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. I take two things from Niebuhr. The first is the call for Christians (but this could apply to persons of other faiths as well) to engage the world but to do so as they find it and not as they wish to be. The second is to recognize that human beings are sinful and broken and that efforts to, in the words of Bill Buckley, “immanentize the eschaton” are almost certain to fail and likely to bring unforseen danger.

Again, there are lessons for both conservatives and liberals. We ought to have known that efforts to create democracy in countries that had never been democratic would be harder than we expected. This is not to say that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were necessarily wrong, but we should have expected the unexpected.

On the other side of the aisle, President Obama claims that Niebuhr is his favorite philospher and he seems to understand the tension in Christian Realism between the call for engagement and the admonition to humility. But, as William Schambra explains in the inaugural issue of the journal National Affairs, Obama also seems to be what Daniel Patrick Moynihan called a “Policy President.” He is in the tradition of early twentieth century Progressives who believed that “everything is related to everything” and that, as a consequence,”there are no social interests about which the national government does not have some policy or other.”

Just as importantly, the policy approach eschews the notions of divided government and limited powers – as well as the rough and tumble of politics – because it will tend to prevent finely tuned comprehensive reform driven by technical experise. As Schambra puts it:

Echoing Moynihan’s understanding of the implications of the policy approach, Obama suggests that tackling only isolated pieces of the problem, or trying to solve only one problem at a time, will merely introduce further distortions into what should be treated as a unified and coordinated system. A comprehensive policy approach will enable us to take maximum advantage of natural- and social-science expertise, displacing expensive or ineffective local practices by spreading system-wide those programs that have proven to be more effective and less expensive, as documented by thorough research and experimentation.

Of course, the “top down” nature of this approach raises subsidiarity concerns. But Realism also suggests that we view it with a critical attitude. During the campaign, President Obama suggests that we could create a Kingdom right here on earth. Realism suggests otherwise.

This doesn’t mandate any particular policy approach. As the Popes have frequently said, the Church has no models to propose and God is neither a Democrat nor a Republican. Perhaps Obamacare – or something like it – can be justified in these terms. My modest suggestion is that subsidiarity and Christian Realism are useful heuristics.

Cross posted at Shark and Shepherd.

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