In 2009, a radical Catholic priest with amazing red shoes enraged American conservatives. Writing about globalization’s effect on the economy, he warned of the “grave danger for the rights of workers, for fundamental human rights and for the solidarity associated with the traditional forms of the social State.” It was part of a letter stocked with similar concerns about the perils of unfettered capitalism, the responsibilities of a welfare state, and what some might call the neoliberal abdication of government responsibility. The radical priest? Then-Pope Benedict XVI. (The shoes were handmade, but a rumor spread that they were Prada.)
That a pope said something in support of the welfare state should not be surprising to anyone who’s been following Catholic teaching, particularly anyone who’s paid attention over the past 130 years. Yet if your only experience of Roman Catholicism is the way it plays out in the United States—including some bishops’ recent concerns about Biden—you might be surprised to learn that the Roman Catholic Church cares about things besides abortion and the protection of “family” (conservative code for fighting against LGBT rights).
Especially since the 1990s, the American Catholic Church has become increasingly identified with the religious right, emphasizing the perils of abortion and gay rights. Yet even before Pope Francis put conservative Catholics into a seemingly eternal tizzy, Catholics around the world and in the U.S. have actually cared a lot about the same things our new Catholic president, Joe Biden, cares about; they’ve just gotten a lot less attention than the many conservative Catholics in politics, media, and high positions in the U.S. church. The type of Catholicism Biden practices makes him seem like a peculiar aberration to those in America, but understanding it helps explain the priorities of the new president, and perhaps even points to the ways he’ll win people over to his ideas.
The letter Benedict wrote in 2009 was called “Caritas in Veritate” (“Charity in Truth”), a social encyclical that continued a long tradition of Catholic social teaching, the modern era of which began with Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 publication of “Rerum Novarum” (“About New Things”). As with many of these letters, including “Rerum Novarum,” Benedict’s encyclical emphasizes the need for unions and government obligations toward workers.
Catholic social teaching, like any theology, can get a bit wonky in its specialized vocabulary, but there are two key terms that show up often: solidarity, which references humans’ obligations to one another; and subsidiarity, which emphasizes how, all things being equal, social and political problems should be solved at the level closest to the ground. The left tends to emphasize solidarity, arguing that, as Leo put it when describing rights for the working class, “it cannot but be good for the commonwealth to shield from misery those on whom it so largely depends for the things that it needs.” In contrast, the right tends to emphasize subsidiarity, arguing that anything done by a government could be better done by a community center or a family or even an individual. These debates can sometimes be settled with a prudential agreement to let the evidence win out, but all too often it’s a way for ideologues to insist their way is really the best way for those who suffer.
This is Marco Rubio’s Catholic social teaching, as well as Paul Ryan’s. Inspired by conservatives’ Trumpian (and pre-Trumpian) turn toward acknowledging that capitalism might not always be awesome, various conservative intellectuals have turned to CST to provide a not-socialist framework. And they’ve come to the right place! All the way back to “Rerum Novarum,” the Catholic Church has struggled to find a middle way between the cruelties of the free market and the many problems it identified in godless socialism. (For what it’s worth, there are plenty of Catholic socialists who think the two work together just fine).
The problem is that for many conservative Catholic Americans, like many conservative Americans in general, socialism has come to just mean any government aid at all. America is a country where Sen. Elizabeth Warren—a woman who claims to be capitalist to her bones—can be called a socialist because she wants a welfare state roughly equivalent to the median in Western Europe, something even conservatives in every other developed country take for granted.
That hostility to government responsibility, to government solidarity, means that conservative Catholics in the United States go all in on subsidiarity. I’ve heard this myself, over and over, as a leftist Catholic in ongoing conversations with conservative friends and family members: Sure, fine, we get it, Jesus came to bring good news to the poor, they say. But why does the government have to do that? Let’s just let local charities figure it out. And then when those charities don’t figure it out, or when they go underfunded because those same conservative Catholics would rather give their extra money somewhere else, well, “the poor you will always have with you,” right?
Biden calls out these conservatives’ bullshit. He knows chapter and verse of the Catholic social teaching Francis’ fame has brought back to the fore. There’s a reason Biden put a bust of Cesar Chavez in the Oval Office: Like Chavez, Biden has been a tireless advocate for workers, inspired in no small part by their common Catholic faith. And what’s even more troubling for conservative critics is that Biden’s Catholic centrism protects him from any meaningful accusation of socialism.
Biden’s meliorism is frustrating for a leftist like me, who would rather see a Democratic president go big for big government. Yet it’s also worth acknowledging that Biden’s middle way is quite different from Clintonian triangulation: Biden’s not trying to square any political circles here. Instead, he’s trying to reconcile the ongoing tension outlined in Catholic social teaching, between solidarity and subsidiarity, between what the state owes its people and what those people owe one another.
Those competing responsibilities can create some strange combinations, leading to a Catholic progressivism whose suspicion of government initially seems conservative. The Catholic Worker Movement, co-founded by Dorothy Day, emphasizes that everyone is immediately responsible for those who suffer, and so paying taxes to pass off the job to someone else is an abdication of responsibility. All of us have to do the works of mercy ourselves: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, shelter the traveler, visit the sick and imprisoned, and bury the dead.
There’s something important about that reminder, something that a leftist like me would often rather forget: Somebody actually has to do all the work that my fellow progressives keep saying the government should pay for. And the people we hire to do that caring work might not actually care all that much themselves. I worked for a child services agency in my first year out of college, and it’s the closest I’ve come to becoming an anarchist. The raw power of the state to take children away from their parents was terrifying, and the brutal indifference of bureaucracy was sometimes even worse.
This is where conservatives want to end the story—that the state is always a behemoth, unwieldy and cruel. Yet Catholic social teaching emphasizes that the state—like anything else, including and especially the economy—is made of people, and it’s those people the state is intended to serve. The purpose of both government and economy is to ensure flourishing human lives, not the other way around. If the state gets too big, we cut it back. If the economy gets too cruel, we put in protections. These are means, not ends; sets of practical problems, not ideological goals.
Which goes back to the heartless bureaucrats I encountered working at a child services agency. Part of the challenge is simply a set of practical, technical questions: Perhaps these workers need better wages, different training, or reduced caseloads. But, CST would say, there’s also the much bigger question of how these workers (and anyone else) engage social life itself. Those engagements, according to CST, must always be rooted in relationships, a key insight of the Catholic intellectual movement known as personalism, which claims the politically distinct Popes Francis, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI as members, alongside Dorothy Day and, well, Joe Biden. It might actually be the case that we need to throw money at the problem. Indeed, that’s Biden’s bet with the COVID relief bill. But personalism insists that money is never enough. For that matter, an ambitious plan or a clever organizational chart isn’t enough either. Everything has to be rooted in relationships, in the constant reminder these are real people with real stories.
Joe Biden’s faith in relationships might well be naïve. (Look at what his faith in the collegiality of the Senate has gotten him so far.) But it’s hard to miss the Catholic quality of it, the sense that big projects also need big hearts. And we keep heart through keeping up with one another, in conversations and in care, and in what appears to be 10 million phone calls a day. Look at the way Biden swore in his staff on Inauguration Day, insisting that he’d fire on the spot anyone who was disrespectful: As quoted in Politico, he said, “Everyone, every single person, regardless of their background, is entitled to be treated with dignity.”
Biden’s centering of individual lives—and our individual obligations to check in on those lives—gets to the heart of Catholic social teaching, the heavy weight of it, the personal responsibility of it. That’s an important reminder for liberals who’d rather let the state solve society’s problems and conservatives who’d rather trust the market. In either case, you’ve still got to be invested in actual people’s lives. Especially people who are different from you. Especially people who are suffering. You’ve still got to make the calls. This is Biden’s ongoing accomplishment and his ongoing hope: a big state with a big heart.
That bigheartedness can also be a huge pain. Sometimes we don’t need to wait to make sure everyone’s heard. Sometimes we simply need to use our power. Still, many Americans, Catholic or not, are a lot like Biden: They’re suspicious of the big state, and that suspicion manifests in the suggestion that we just solve our problems together. Recent talk of “coming together” can be either naïve or suggested in bad faith, but it reveals an ongoing American obsession with something like Catholic subsidiarity. And remember: Subsidiarity is not anti-government. It’s not, despite how conservatives might describe it, “government as necessary evil.” At its simplest, subsidiarity is a recognition that politics is simply the way we come together to solve our problems, at “the lowest level possible and the highest level necessary.” To progressives, that might sound as maudlin as a since-scrapped Bruce Springsteen Super Bowl ad, but there’s no doubt that it plays to a big crowd.
In his response to Benedict’s “Caritas in Veritate,” the conservative Catholic George Weigel was so incensed that he insisted the letter could be highlighted with red and gold markers, the gold representing the parts that are really from Benedict and the red representing socialist junk forced upon him by the hippies. Weigel’s argument was widely criticized, especially for attacking a pope not really known for needing intellectual aid. Yet this desire to split Catholic social teaching into the conservative bits and the wrong bits is about as old as the current fusion of Catholic theology and Republican politics, all the way back to William F. Buckley Jr. insisting that the Catholic Church might well be his mother, but she’s not his teacher.
Conservatives often accuse Catholic progressives of being “cafeteria Catholics,” picking and choosing what they want from church teaching. Yet regardless of what constitutes cafeteria Catholicism, it seems clear that conservatives are there too, and well before Francis had them admitting it. Conservatives might want to claim Biden writes his Catholicism in a red pen. The problem is that Catholic teaching has been written in that color all along.