One of the things that has amazed me in my study of Catholic theology is the truly brilliant amount of work that the Popes going back to the 1800s have done in the field of economic social justice and economics. I have read nothing even remotely on the level of sophistication from any Protestant theologian.
For those interested, the Papal encyclicals (some are better than others) in chronological order:
Rerum Novarum is particularly amazing, though it is rather lengthy. and you have to understand the global fragmentation that was going on at the time due to the Industrial Revolution between Laissez-Faire Capitalism and Marxist-Communism. John Paul II's stuff is also worth a read, as he was truly a top notch philosopher who does not get nearly enough credit for his brilliance and orginality in that field.
Most Americans tend to see economics in very black and white terms. Though Communism has largely fallen off the radar of world powers with the exception of possibly Red China (which is no longer truly Communist in that people can own property and the elites can make money hand over fist). the economic systems that still exist in the minds of most Americans are either Capitalist (good) or Communist (bad). There can be some combination of those in some sort of socialist system, which is itself also viewed as bad to many (see my previous post.) My point is that Americans can simply not comprehend a modern and viable economic system that largely is not that black or white (or pinko/red and white as the case may be).
When one delves into the Papal encyclicals above, to quote another Twilight Zone episode, the writings are often viewed from the Eye of the Beholder.
I again quote that bizarre Rod Serling classic because in many ways, modern Americans have just as skewed a view of ecnomic beauty, as the pig people in the clip have of the poor lady who to our eyes is beautiful but to them is something to be feared as hideous. We like money; we like making money. Our whole economy is largely premised on selling things: the more the better, the bigger the better, even if people do not need what we are selling. Even if we are raping the planet of resources for material gain in the form of junk we do not need, we sell it. Individual consumer freedom is the cry of our age.
This is why you start having Christmas decorations and ads after Labor Day. If Christmas sales are really bad, our economy goes into deep recession. Nothing says the birth of our Saviour like holding people ecomically hostage with the patriotic tune of "Buy more junk, lest our economy goes down the tubes!" That is as morbidly twisted as the Twilight Zone episode I linked to above: what must be truly ugly to God is beautiful to our eyes because in the Western City of Man, Money is our graven image.
Many people delve into Catholic Economic philosophy (see encyclicals above) and take away from them that they are anti-Capitalist, ergo they must be some sort of pie-in-the-sky liberal socialism to be ignored. Ironically, Communists and socialists read the same documents and come away with an equally negative view of them, believing them to be anti-Communist or anti-Socialist. In some ways, these assessments are right because Catholic economic teachings are very clear to denounce the excesses of both Capitalism and Communism because they devise to create a City of Man where the economic ideology in central and people's God given rights and dignity are not respected. In some ways, criticisms of what Catholic teachings on this issue envision are likewise completely wrong assessments because what the encyclicals envision is the 3rd way of creating an economic system, that is neither Capitalist nor Communist, but is a just society that is closer to the City of God. To paraphrase how John Paul II puts it in one of his encyclicals: the economy is made to serve man, not man to serve the economy. Any economic system where people are the cogs to the system and a means to an end that is something other that God is an immoral economic system.
To make a long, theological argument short, basically the governing principles laid out in papal encyclicals that ensure as fair a system as possible are the two Christian principles of subsidiarity and solidarity.
Solidarity is simply Christian charity(i.e. Solidarity with the poor). This form of charity is expanded beyond the individual and the church into the realm of politics, into the very City of Man in the hopes of turning the City of Man into the City of God through God's ultimate plan. Christian charity plays out in the social order both through the private sector and through the public sector. It's how we, as a civilised and Christian people, work together to take care of the poor and weakest among us. Solidarity is not an option but a necessity because Jesus tells us clearly to love one another as I have loved you. This is not simply something for individuals nor is it for only those in the church body or even other Christians. We are called upon to use all means available, including the tools of the state when necessary and appropriate, to help those in need.
Now, here is the kicker in Catholic economic teaching: Can you have too much solidarity (charity)? In a word: yes. Solidarity in and of itself can spin out of control when not governed by other principles. How can this be? Look at Venezuela for instance. Hugo Chavez "nationalized" virtually every sector in the economy in the name of solidarity for the poor. He took over private corporations and public utilities. He basically ended up running the entire Venezeulan economy into the ground because he forcibly seized businesses without giving the owners any compensation, those companies fled. Chavez did not know how to run any of those industries, and the companies basically collapsed from his dictatorial control. Unrestrained solidarity can lead to oppression because there is no due process, and a whole bunch of innocent people lose what little jobs they had because solidarity was used to justify a dictator coming to power.
To counter there centralization of power by dictators, catholic moral theology also advocates subsidiarity as the counterbalance to solidarity. Subsidiarity is the Christian principle that governments and economies should be decentralized. The government that governs best, is not the government that governs least (that would be anarachy), but rather the government that governs closest to home, where the people have the most say in the governing of themselves or their company. In other words, the more centralised a government or business becomes, the less Christian it becomes because it loses touch with the common man.
This is where the human family is so central in Catholic theology because the most important form of government is the traditional human family. Husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, make up the basic building block of government. That's why this institution must be supported at all cost. Beyond that, higher forms of government are to take a subsidiary role to the lower (and thereby smaller) forms, as the lowest level of government that can adequately combat a problem is the one that should do it.
The same is also true of a business and the economy, the lowest level that is connected to the problem and the people is the best way to run a business. The same is true of the economy, local is better if the local can adequately deal with a problem.
I think I will end this post here, as I have already pontification too long. This is a good introduction to solidarity and subsidiarity as balancing pillars of a just economy. Digest that, and I will attempt to apply this to the Healthcare issue in coming blog entries.