Archive for January, 2019


January 8, 2019 Comments off

Neither Left nor Right, but Catholic


 By Stephen M. Krason

A few months ago when I was on a panel at my university on the topic of evaluating American liberalism and conservatism in light of Catholic social teaching, the question came up of what that teaching would say about affirmative action—defined by a leading law dictionary to be the conferring of special rights in hiring or advancement to ethnic minorities to make up for past discrimination. The social encyclicals, the authoritative sources for the magisterial teaching on social questions, have never addressed this subject. (The USCCB has addressed it—for example, in its 1979 pastoral letter on racism, where it claimed that “racism is sometimes apparent” in opposition to affirmative action—but, of course, statements of episcopal conferences are not magisterial statements.) We perhaps can gain some sense of how affirmative action can be viewed in light of different teachings in the encyclicals.

There is no question about the Church’s repudiation of unjust discrimination. As Pope St. John Paul II made clear in his social encyclical Laborem Exercens (#19-23). when speaking about determining remuneration for work—and, inter alia, this would apply to other aspects of employment—nationality, religion, or race have no place (when religion is mentioned, he obviously didn’t mean that a religious body or institution has to compromise its religious character when making employment decisions). He even said that it would be unacceptable to discriminate against disabled persons when it involves work they are capable of doing. Women should not be discriminated against when being considered for work that their nature would permit them to undertake (in fact, in light of the Church’s concern about family life, work should even be structured in such a way that if women take time away from it to pursue a family calling they should still be able to advance in it). The Church also says that immigrants should receive equal treatment with indigenous workers (this is while she also makes clear that there is no absolute right to immigrate—there have to be “just reasons for it” and nations have an obligation to accept immigrants only to the extent that their common good dictates and can set conditions for it [see Pacem in Terris [#25, 106; Catechism #2241].)

The Church’s teaching about discrimination is grounded on her more basic teaching about upholding human dignity. As Pope St. John XXIII says in Pacem in Terris, all human persons “are equal by reason of their natural dignity” (#44). That, of course, does not suggest egalitarianism. As Pope Leo XIII says in the first major social encyclical Rerum Novarum, “there will ever be differences and inequalities of condition” since “it should not be supposed that all can contribute in the like way and to the same extent” (#34). The result of this is that people will have different levels of wealth and social standing—something that socialism cannot tolerate. The Church says that no one should be in deprivation or at the margins—Pacem in Terris (#20, 11, 29) says that everyone has the right to a decent standard of living, a just wage, and security when deprived of the means of subsistence through no fault of his own—but there cannot be economic leveling.

While the rights of ethnic and racial minorities must be respected, Pacem in Terris exhorts those minorities—it discusses this in the context particularly of decolonization, although it ostensibly has applications outside of that context, as well—not to exalt themselves or their culture or to view what is advantageous to them as advantageous to everyone, even if they do so as a reaction to their present problems or to past injustices (#97). Paul VI’s Populorum Progressio says that a better world must be brought about “without one group making progress at the expense of the other” (#44).

So, how can we evaluate affirmative action in light of these passages? It does not seem that  affirmative action would be either precluded or expected as far as the Church is concerned. It does seem that it would have to be approached with considerable prudence, however. As a prominent Catholic social scientist once told me, there is no problem with working to elevate whole groups of people who are considerably disadvantaged. The issues, however, are apparent. One cannot just routinely see people as part of a disadvantaged group and so consider them worthy of special preferences without considering what they have done themselves, whether their actions or inaction has helped put them in their position. Again, as John XXIII said, people have a right not to be deprived of economic sufficiency when their situation has resulted from no fault of their own. Catholic social teaching does not require the rewarding of irresponsibility. As Paul VI said in Populorum Progressio when speaking about foreign aid—it this applies to populations of nations, also applies to groups of people or individuals within a nation—there can be no encouraging of  “parasites or the indolent” (#54).

Then, there is the problem that Paul VI also mentions, as noted, of one group making progress at the expense of another, which he raises in the context of the attempt to rectify past injustices—exactly what the rationale of affirmative action has been. If policies like this become set and proceed for a long enough period of time, they can easily create new injustices. So, we see surveys now showing that a significant percentage of Caucasians now saying—not just because of affirmative action, but for a range of reasons—that they believe they are discriminated against. Indeed, we hear enough said nowadays about “favored groups,” which are typically demographic groups that were previously viewed as being disadvantaged or on the margins. Then there is the question, along the lines that Pope John raises, about groups who are reaping the advantages of affirmative action beginning to exalt themselves. This seems increasingly a likely possibility when the advantageous treatment granted by it continues for a substantial period of time. Human nature being what it is, people can easily come to think of themselves as better than others.

There is also the problem of certain groups making claims to be treated on par with ethnic or racial groups, even though they are constituted as groups in the first place only because of prevailing, immoral ideologies—such as homosexuals and so-called transgenders. People, then, who are defined as legitimate demographic groups only because of immoral and unnatural behavior or serious psychological problems will seek to make the claim that they have been discriminated in order to cash in on the advantages that affirmative action can bring.

We certainly have seen a lot of minority groups exalting their culture beyond what can be called reasonable. We can appreciate the good aspects of what might be called “black culture” for example, but we cannot just embrace everything that some in the black community tout just because it is part of that culture. Gansta rap is an example. Nor can we even go so far as to accept the legitimacy of something like the “gay culture” because what it is grounded on is morally reprehensible in the first place. To be sure, it is not clear that something like affirmative action is responsible for this, but a routine practice of favoring certain groups—for whatever reason—can have the effect of emboldening some from those and other groups to make unreasonable claims or, in effect, to exalt them.

Then, there is simply the issue of whether—even if the aim is to correct past injustices—it is just to effectively disadvantage, even if to a limited degree, current persons in the “majority” group for actions or discrimination that occurred decades or even centuries ago before they were born.

The most gnawing questions about affirmative action are whether they have the effect of favoring the less qualified in employment just because they are members of a minority group and whether, in any event, it simply constitutes discrimination against those not in the group. The former may be avoided if care is taken in every hiring decision to make sure that candidates being considered are equally qualified before deciding to go with a minority person. The latter has to be weighed carefully in light of Catholic social teaching, which we have seen is squarely opposed to unjust discrimination—that is, disadvantaging persons just because they are members of certain groups. Then, there’s the issue of whether affirmative action—supposedly to benefit minorities—doesn’t actually have the effect of hurting certain minorities. This is seen currently with the claim that affirmative action-type practices in the academy, supposedly to benefit black and Hispanic students are harming clearly better-qualified East Asian students. It can even hurt the minority groups it is aiming to help. For example, it may motivate them to apply to colleges that are not suited to their academic abilities, resulting in high minority dropout rates. It may also encourage a smug attitude that they are somehow owed something.

In short, while affirmative action may not be excluded by Catholic social teaching it creates a number of troubling and “sticky” issues and should be approached with care and caution.

Stephen M. Krason’s “Neither Left nor Right, but Catholic” column appears monthly (sometimes bi-monthly). He is Professor of Political Science and Legal Studies and Associate Director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville. He is also co-founder and President of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists and a lawyer. Among his books are: Liberalism, Conservatism, and Catholicism; The Transformation of the American Democratic Republic; Catholicism and American Political Ideologies, and a Catholic political novel, American Cincinnatus. The views expressed are his own. This column originally appeared in and may be freely reproduced so long as the place of its original publication is noted.