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Against ‘autonomy’ that denies human dignity

Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley speaks at “Erroneous Autonomy: The Dignity of Work,” Jan. 10. CNS photo/Dana Rene Bowler, CUA


“The Church must work in the coming months with unions, workers, the elderly, and the poor to counter the growing imperialism of market mechanisms within American public life,” said Bishop Robert W. McElroy of San Diego at the third “Erroneous Autonomy” conference hosted Jan. 10 by the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America.

Bishop McElroy outlined a series of imminent threats he believes the nation is facing: deregulation of the financial sector, the elimination of regulations that protect the environment and public health, the undermining of the social safety net, and the rolling back of rights and fair compensation for workers. Bishop McElroy’s critique of an increasingly unfettered free market, however, is fundamentally a critique from within capitalism, as he affirmed “that free markets have a vital role to play in the creation of wealth, the generation of jobs, and the advancement of human dignity.” But the moral worth of markets is purely instrumental, he said. From the perspective of Catholic social teaching, markets are only moral when they are placed within a broader framework that promotes the dignity of the human person and the common good. When disconnected from such a framework, grave threats to the dignity of the human person emerge.


But distorted notions of autonomy and the hyper-individualism present in American life are not confined to a misunderstanding of the role of the market. Bishop McElroy also warned of what Pope Francis calls the “technocratic paradigm” — the temptation for those with power and wealth to use technology only for their own advantage, turning a blind eye to the consequences — and its impact on God’s creation, as well as of certain Obama administration policies that have affected religious communities, cultural traditions and familial patterns.

Finally, Bishop McElroy contrasted “true patriotism” that aims at justice and freedom with the merger of populism and nationalism that can result in pride, isolationism and discrimination. He expressed concern about the exclusionary and nativist populist nationalism that has gained strength recently and that was present in the presidential campaign.

Against all these currents in American life, Bishop McElroy held up the importance of Catholic principles — the dignity of the human person, the pursuit of the common good, the principle of subsidiarity and the call of solidarity — as the antidote to erroneous autonomy and the libertarian policies that follow in its wake.

Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley, OFM Cap., archbishop of Boston, centered his keynote address on the dignity of labor. Cardinal O’Malley traced the historical roots of the Church’s close relationship to the labor movement and unions, from the industrial revolution to the recent teachings of Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis. Highlighting John Paul II’s teaching on the dignity of work and Francis’ Laudato Si’, Cardinal O’Malley explained that workers are participating in the unfolding work of God’s creation through their labor.

Protecting this dignity of labor offers new challenges in an era of globalization. “John Paul II recognized the positive potential of globalization, but refused to believe that its own dynamics would produce a just global economy, arguing that political and legal limits need to be set within states and nations, in order to protect social and distributive justice,” he said.

This Catholic understanding of economic justice, rooted in the core principles of Catholic social teaching, creates certain moral imperatives. Thus, Cardinal O’Malley discussed the need to address wage stagnation, increase the minimum wage, ensure that all Americans have access to affordable health care and enact comprehensive immigration reform. Having worked closely with workers who had been exploited, he made it clear that this is where the Church belongs: on the side of workers, safeguarding their dignity and ensuring that they are treated justly.

Threats to health, family

The event also featured a panel discussion on consumer capitalism and the mission of the Church. Sister Carol Keehan, the president of the Catholic Health Association, began her remarks by explaining that Catholic teaching is crystal clear that health care is a basic human right. Yet the U.S. remains the only highly developed nation that fails to ensure universal access to healthcare. The result is that tens of thousands of Americans have died unnecessarily, while many others have faced financial ruin so that they could receive necessary treatment. The Catholic approach to health care, which can be instituted through a variety of public policies with different forms and levels of government intervention, offers a stark contrast to one rooted in excessive individualism and indifference to the vulnerable.

Joan Rosenhauer, executive vice-president of U.S. operations for Catholic Relief Services, described the serious global challenges that stand as obstacles to the common good: nearly 800 million people are living in extreme poverty, and over 3 million children die each year from hunger and malnutrition. Rosenhauer explained that addressing poverty, hunger and other threats to human dignity is not merely a matter of charity but justice. And she described the ways CRS tries to uplift and empower people in developing countries by providing essential capital, tools and skills that allow them to work and build stronger communities.

The final two members of the panel were two theologians, David Cloutier of Catholic University, who discussed consumer capitalism and the environment, and Holly Taylor Coolman of Providence College, who described the impact of erroneous autonomy on family life. Cloutier called for conscientious moral stewardship on all levels of society, rather than embracing the values of a society with no “acquisitive ceiling.” Only by checking out-of-control consumerism, in our personal lives and through public policy, can we respond to threats facing the environment, he said. Coolman explained the intense pressure and stress on modern families across the socioeconomic spectrum, from those who are anxiously working hard to barely make ends meet to those who are relentlessly seeking “enrichment” so that their children are prepared to compete in the marketplace and achieve the material success that our society prizes so heavily. Some families are breaking under this pressure, while issues like addiction and isolation are growing.

As a whole, the conference provided a clear message: Catholic social teaching, with its commitment to solidarity and the common good, presents a clear, superior alternative to notions of autonomy and individualism that weaken the family, abandon the sick, degrade the environment, ignore the dignity of workers and perpetuate global injustice.

Robert Christian is editor of Millennial Journal. He writes from Maryland.

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