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The Importance of Catholic Social Teaching for Envisioning the Good Society

FOCUSING ON THE PRINCIPLE OF SUBSIDIARITY

By Robert N. Bellah | November 1991
Robert N. Bellah, an Episcopalian, is Elliott Professor of Sociology at the University of California at Berkeley, a Contributing Editor of the NOR, and senior author (with Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler, and Steven M. Tipton) of the award-winning Habits of the Heart and the recently released successor volume, The Good Society.

In both Habits of the Heart and The Good Society, my co-authors and I have alluded to Catholic social teaching as a source and reference for our own reflections. In Habits we drew attention to the American bishops’ pastoral letter on war and peace and in The Good Society we quote extensively from their letter on the economy. In the latter book we try tentatively to use the theme of “subsidiarity” to express one of our central arguments. Here I would like to explain why we were drawn to Catholic social teaching and how we understand it, especially the idea of subsidiarity.1

John Coleman’s paper, “Neither Liberal nor Socialist: The Originality of Catholic Social Teaching,”2 gets at some of the issues important to us, and I would like to begin by expanding and, on one issue, criticizing his argument.

Coleman, speaking as a sociologist, refers to Catholic social teaching as an “ideology,” and finds its ideological location in particular sectors of society. Pope John Paul II in Sollicitudo Rei Socialis specifically disavows the idea that Catholic social doctrine is a “‘third way’ between liberal capitalism and Marxist collectivism” and further disavows that it is an “ideology.” Rather it belongs to the field of “theology and particularly of moral theology” (41). Is there a way of reconciling these two points of view?

I think there is if we take seriously precisely the social strata that Coleman sees Catholic social thought as representing: He speaks of the fact that by the late 19th century the Church in Europe had largely lost the upper-middle and professional classes to liberal capitalism and the working class to Marxist socialism, so tended to speak for its remaining constituency which consisted of “the aristocracy, the peasantry, the small artisan and petit bourgeois classes.”3 Leaving aside the aristocracy, let us consider certain features of the social position of small farmers and the petty bourgeoisie in industrializing societies. Christopher Lasch, in his recent book The True and Only Heaven: Progress and its Critics, seeks to rehabilitate the tradition of what he calls “populism” as expressing precisely the experience of these classes and as, largely alone, challenging the dogmas of enlightened modernity, above all the dogma of material progress, a dogma embraced evenhandedly by both liberal capitalism and socialism, whether in its Leninist or social democratic versions.

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