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Individuals and the State

April 3, 2021 (1,210 words)

Catholic teaching on social justice is a slippery thing in many respects, hard to figure and difficult to pin down. To our modern way of thinking it flip-flops between sticking up for what it refers to as the dignity of the individual, and calling on the state to play a vital role in sorting out what can sometimes be conflicting individual interests.

Take the idea of private property. The Church has always been four-square in favor of maintaining the right to private property, one of many reasons it rejects communism and socialism.

But it does not teach a right to private property that is absolute. This confounds our contemporary understanding on the matter, grounded as it is in the seductive ideologies of (classical) liberalism and libertarianism.

Working from a historical perspective that acknowledges different societies have had different concepts of property, papal teaching points out while no government has the right to abolish private property, there is a role for the state to play in “making clearer” the social duties of property owners – since property has a social as well as an individual character.

In fleshing out this idea, the following explanation was penned by a long-dead pope almost one hundred years ago:

When civil authority adjusts ownership to meet the needs of the public good it acts not as an enemy, but as the friend of private owners; for thus it effectively prevents the possession of private property… from creating intolerable burdens and rushing to its own destruction. It does not therefore abolish but protects private ownership, and far from weakening the right to private property it gives it new strength.
Quadragesimo Anno, no. 49

The take-away being property ownership has duties to the common good and is therefore subject to limits. Zoning laws – though not specifically mentioned in the brief excerpt quoted above – would be an example of ‘the state’ performing the function of making clearer “what is licit and what is illicit for property owners.”


Catholic teaching on social justice is merely an extension of basic Christian anthropology, which understands the human person as being ‘relational’ by nature. We are meant to be in community with others. The individual is never wholly self-sufficient. We need each other to know ourselves, and we are more deeply defined by our membership in a larger unit of humanity.

The family we are born into is the first of many communities we encounter during the course of our lives, and these encounters present opportunities to interact with those whose sensibilities are often very different from our own. This relating can be awkward and difficult, but it produces the empathy that allows us to recognize and respect the inherent dignity of others. This respect expresses itself when we voluntarily restrain/temper our wants and desires to avoid creating intolerable burdens for those around us.

Modern anthropology takes a far different approach to all this. Rather than being relational by nature, the human person is a wholly Independent agent, apart from any “community” he or she may encounter or choose to affiliate with. The family one is born into is of no particular import, since comingling in close quarters is not the first step in a necessary process of learning to acclimate oneself to others.

As the basic entity of human existence – the only natural human entity there is – the individual is inherently free and equal in an ungoverned and non-relational state. In this context achieving social justice and honoring human dignity is a simple matter of being allowed to act on one’s inherent freedom to do whatever one pleases.

Any custom or tradition is likely to impose an unwanted restriction. Any authority or law is an unnatural restraint on the individual’s ability to pursue and achieve his or her own ends. The best form of government is no government at all. The next best form of government (i.e., liberal democracy) is one geared toward expanding the conditions that lead to a further realization of the individual’s wants and desires. The only legitimate goal of public policy, then, is to facilitate the greatest possible pursuit and satisfaction of individual appetites, with no mediating affiliations to complicate things.


No wonder Catholic teaching on social justice makes no sense to us today. It runs directly counter to our contemporary understanding of the individual, and of the proper relationship of the individual to the larger community.

Yet Christian anthropology and modern anthropology do share a common objective: the promotion of justice based on the dignity of the human person – even if their respective paths could not be more divergent. The deep thinkers who dreamed up and continue to refine modern anthropology are surely inspired by a wish to see things improve. But they are also motivated by an unshakeable conviction that what came before has proven itself ineffective, if not downright mid-guided.

The medieval idea of a “Great Chain of Being,” which saw every aspect of reality as reflective of a hierarchy with divine perfection at the top, was not sufficiently egalitarian for their taste.

The old-timey Christian concept of the “common good” also needed an update, since it was based on what might be called ‘trickle down virtue.’ If we all keep the other guy in mind before we act in our self-interest, and if public policy is geared to what’s best for all, the individual will eventually see some amelioration of their circumstances. This process was deemed too slow and unreliable by the deep thinkers and cultural revolutionaries. The new paradigm they came up with doesn’t take any chances, in that it focuses on an individual’s immediate situation right out of the gate.

Following this logic, we modern men and women have come to believe our freedom is the one, true God. We refuse to submit to any authority that does not derive its mandate from the will of the people. Even though this amounts to an unfailing tendency to seek liberation from any limitations on the achievement of desire. Oddly enough, our economic life becomes the primary agent of this liberation – in how it expands opportunities and the materials needed to realize existing desires, and in how it creates new ones we did not know we had.


All this talk of appetites and desires and liberation may prompt the casual reader to think I am discussing sexual gratification. Especially since Catholic anthropology is being referenced, and we all know the Church’s dour reputation for being opposed to people having any fun in their sex lives.

This is a common misunderstanding, and it’s yet another reason the casual reader will be surprised to learn from Catholic teaching on social justice it is our economic life, and not our sometimes-wayward choices regarding sexual mores, that has been the primary agent of liberation from any restraint on behavior.

Even more unexpected is this final irony. The lack of prudence and personal restraint in the economic realm – celebrated as a victory over hidebound tradition and political tyranny, and a major advance in the heralded cause of individual rights – is the very thing standing in the way of achieving the social justice all proponents of modern anthropology and liberal democracy routinely cite as their highest priority.

(Based on my reading of Why Liberalism Failed by Patrick J. Deenen, and An Economics of Justice and Charity by Thomas Storck.)

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr
April 3, 2021

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