Erroneous Autonomy: A Conversation on Solidarity & Faith

by Michael Sean Winters

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Next Monday, the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies will convoke a conference, co-sponsored and hosted by the AFL-CIO, called “Erroneous Autonomy: A Conversation on Faith & Solidarity.” I am a visiting fellow at the Institute and have been working on this conference for about eight months. The keynote this year will be given by Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the Archbishop of Washington, with a response from Fr. Clete Kiley, a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago who works with the union UNITE HERE. The cardinal will be introduced by Mr. Richard Trumka, President of the AFL-CIO. One panel will feature an inter-faith discussion about the theological roots of solidarity. A second panel will look at how solidarity crosses borders, with a special emphasis on Latin culture.

This is the second such conference:  the first was held last June with the title “Erroneous Autonomy: The Catholic Case Against Libertarianism.” At that event, the keynote was given by Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez, Archbishop of Tegucigalpa and chairman of the Holy Father’s Council of Cardinals. Cardinal Rodriguez was also introduced by Mr. Trumka and the respondent last year was then-Bishop Blase Cupich of Spokane, who has since become the Archbishop of Chicago. At the end of last year’s event, our friends in organized labor were powerfully moved by the content and the passion of our speakers and the seed of next Monday’s conference was born.

This conference is important on the merits. I do not see how anyone can look around at American society and culture and fail to see that we suffer from a deficit of solidarity and a surfeit of erroneous autonomy. For example, we see the way some Republicans have made entitlements a bad word, a millstone around the neck of the federal budget, the source of all our economic woes. But, as Catholics, we do believe that people are entitled to a secure retirement, that they are entitled to adequate health care, that they are entitled to a living wage. Our friends in organized labor agree.

The lack of solidarity will not be addressed solely by governmental action, although governments can, and should, do what they can to facilitate solidarity. Government, in traditional Catholic Social Teaching, exists to serve the common good and yet how many people vote based on their own interest, with little regard for the common good? Some of my conservative friends like to talk about the importance of subsidiarity, and I agree it is an important idea, but unions and churches are surely among those mediating institutions in society by which subsidiarity is given flesh, and those same conservative friends seem not very fond of unions.

For my politics, everything I care about gets easier if the alliance between organized labor and the Church is strengthened, and everything is more difficult if that relationship is allowed to atrophy. The Church once stood arm-in-arm with labor. We did not, like many churches in Europe, lose the working classes in this country. Now, the record is more uneven. In states where legislators have proposed right-to-work laws, sometimes the state Catholic conference firmly defends the right to organize, as articulated in papal encyclicals for more than 120 years now. In other states, not wanting to offend Republican legislators or governors who support the Church on other issues, the response is more muted or even non-existent. The Church should teach what it believes, and let the political chips fall where they may. My heart warms to the prospect of pro-choice Catholic politicians being made uncomfortable when they spout the rhetoric of NARAL. My heart warms, too, when anti-union Catholic politicians are made uncomfortable when confront with the explicit teachings of popes Leo XIII, Pius XI, John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis.

Everything that I think is wrong with American culture and politics is, in one way or another, rooted in our much-vaunted hyper-individualism. In the 20th century, and in response to the obvious horrors of totalitarianism, an ideology of individualism was born, libertarianism. Strangely, it exhibits the totalitarian itch it claims to deplore. Libertarians see personal freedom as the only preeminent value. They wax enthusiastic about the Constitution’s guarantees of personal liberty, but neglect the Preamble’s words about “promot[ing] the general welfare.” They view economics as the key to unlocking the meaning of the universe. They worship the supposedly free market which, as Pope Francis points out, is not very free at all if you are not born into the right family.

I have long been suspicious of libertarianism, but there came a moment when I realized how horrific it truly is. It was during a GOP presidential primary debate when Wolf Blitzer posed a question to Congressman Ron Paul about caring for an uninsured man who has a heart attack. Blitzer asked, “Do you just let him die?” There were cheers in the audience. My blood ran cold. Be sure to listen to the entirety of Cong. Paul’s reply. It is insidious, ideologically coherent, morally repugnant, and ultimately evasive when it comes to the real world situation Blitzer was discussing. Here is the video to refresh your memory:



They cheered the prospect of a man being left to die. If that does not scare you about the excesses of libertarianism, nothing scares you.

As Catholics, of course, our commitment to solidarity is not rooted in our political preferences. It is rooted in the very specific experience we call grace. It is rooted in the fact that God has first shown solidarity with His people Israel, and with the Church, and with the whole human race. As we have received, so should we give. But, even unbelievers should be able to see that the problems that beset our nation, from its increasingly vast income inequality, our mistreatment of immigrants, our for-profit prisons, our still crazy health care system, the lack of a living wage, the environmental challenges we face, none of these can be improved with a libertarian approach and all require a body politic more attuned to the importance of solidarity. It is my hope that come next Monday, that will be even more clear than it already is.  




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