Wednesday, February 3, 2021
What does Catholic social teaching have to say about America’s collapsing levels of social trust, which underlie the rise of conspiracy theories, the rejection of expertise, and the hollowing out of the political center? Put differently, if we read David Brooks’ recent essay on our nation’s moral convulsion through the lens of CST, what insights might we gain? (Last year, [non-Catholic] Brooks called CST “the most coherent philosophy that opposes a philosophy of rampant individualism,” but I don’t think he’s addressed this topic at any length.) We often invoke elements of CST in debates about particular policy issues, but what light might CST shed on a prudent path forward through this cultural moment?
Two questions might be helpful conversation-starters. First, while solidarity compels us to care about and for others, what does it tell us about the primacy of trusting -- and of being trustworthy -- as a necessary condition of such care? As we know, solidarity “is not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress” at others’ misfortunes, but rather “a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all.” (Sollicitudo rei socialis ¶ 38) What is needed is “a commitment to the good of one’s neighbor with the readiness, in the gospel sense, to ‘lose oneself’ for the sake of the other instead of exploiting him, and to ‘serve him’ instead of oppressing him for one’s advantage.” (Id.) The freedom made possible by solidarity is not “achieved in total self-sufficiency and an absence of relationships,” but only “where reciprocal bonds, governed by truth and justice, link people to one another.” (CDF, Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation ¶ 26) The freedom made possible by solidarity “can be articulated only as a claim of truth.” (Id.) Do we need to talk more about solidarity and social trust?
Second, does subsidiarity require us to pay attention to expertise as part of identifying the appropriate level of society at which problems should be addressed? The importance of the free, meaningful, and efficacious operation of mediating institutions presents the “most weighty principle” of subsidiarity:
Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do. For every social activity ought of its very nature to furnish help to the members of the body social, and never destroy or absorb them.
(Quadragesimo anno ¶ 79) What does this mean, if anything, for a rising tide of anti-expert populism?
I'm just starting to think about the answers, and I welcome suggestions of helpful resources (rkvischer [at] stthomas.edu). These and related questions will be a significant component of CST's relevance to American life for the foreseeable future. As Brooks observes,
The cultural shifts we are witnessing offer more safety to the individual at the cost of clannishness within society. People are embedded more in communities and groups, but in an age of distrust, groups look at each other warily, angrily, viciously. The shift toward a more communal viewpoint is potentially a wonderful thing, but it leads to cold civil war unless there is a renaissance of trust. There’s no avoiding the core problem. Unless we can find a way to rebuild trust, the nation does not function.
I believe that Catholic social teaching will provide important insights as we navigate these painful cultural shifts. We need to discern and articulate those insights, and convene conversations that give the insights broad visibility and optimal opportunities to gain traction in the debates to come. This could and should be a years-long project.