Social Security

Parish Diary

Fr. Peter Daly

March 15, 2005


            Do Catholics have anything to bring to the current debate about the Social Security system? I think so.

            We have a one hundred year tradition of Catholic social teaching on economics and social justice. We have some very important principles, based on our faith and our philosophy, which grow out of our reading of the scriptures and the experience of the Church.

            Catholic social teaching on economics stretches from Pope Leo XIII and his 1893 encyclical on the rights of labor, Rerum Novarum to John Paul II and his encyclical Centesimus Annus.

Along the way, in our own country, Catholic social teaching included prophetic leaders like Caesar Chavez and Dorothy Day. It also includes the writings of people like Msgr. John A. Ryan who drafted a 1919 letter on “Social Reconstruction” which was issued as a statement of all the U.S. bishops. That letter advocated, among other things, a system of social insurance for old age. Ryan became the apostle of social security and an advisor to President Roosevelt. In 1937, not long after Social Security began, he gave the invocation at Roosevelt’s second inauguration.

            So what is Catholic about Social Security?

            The fact that it is “social” not “personal” or “private” security.

            Catholic social teaching has a few basic principles which grow out of the biblical concept of justice.

            Three principles relevant to this issue are solidarity ,the common good and the fundamental option (choice) in favor of the poor.

The word “solidarity” comes up everywhere in Catholic social teaching. It figures so prominently in the thinking of John Paul II that the Polish labor movement chose it for its name.

Solidarity is a Christian virtue, says John Paul II. It is based upon the idea of the communion, communion with Christ and communion with others. That is the basis of the Church itself.

Solidarity sees every other person as another self, with the same needs and dignity.

Solidarity is closely related to the common good. If we have a sense of solidarity, then we will put a high premium on the common good of society. Common good takes precedence over personal gain.

In recent years, the principles of solidarity and the common good have been coupled with what the Church has called the “fundamental option for the poor.”  This scriptural notion follows the prophets. It says that we should choose policies that “hear” the cry of the poor since the Lord hears the cry of the poor.

If we take the principles of solidarity, the common good and the fundamental option for the poor seriously, it is not enough for me just to worry about myself. I should also be concerned about the good of others.

In structuring a retirement system we should be concerned about the old age needs of the whole society. Society is made more just when everyone is protected from poverty in old age.

This includes widows, orphans, and the disabled. It also means that sometimes the poor will receive more and the rich may receive less than they pay into the system. This was a feature of the early church described in the Acts of the Apostles.

Why should the rich be in favor of such a thing? Because they have a sense of solidarity. Because they value the common good. Because, like Christ, they choose in favor of the poor. 

Although Catholic social teaching values and protects private property, we recognize that when government gets involved, it should be for the common good, not the personal or private good. Government is supposed to be about guaranteeing the prosperity and security the whole society.

What is Catholic about Social Security is that it is social not personal security. Catholic thinking from Leo XIII to John Paul II would want to keep it that way.