What Next? 3 Popes’ Political Principles


“Trump was the one man strong enough to beat Clinton’s unstoppable Democratic juggernaut.”

“Clinton and the Democrats were so weak even a poorly prepared, compromised candidate like Trump could beat her.”

I have heard both these argument made in the wake of the historic November 8 election. I refuse to choose between them. One theory accounts for both: The two parties are both broken and everyone knows it.

So where do we go from here? What should politics look like? The last three popes have principles that can guide us.

John Paul II: Stop handing freedoms over to the state and market.

Critics of the Republican party often complain that it is the party of the market that wants to end regulations, unleashing corporate greed on the little guy, cutting his wages to prop up big business.

Critics of the Democratic party often complain that it is the party of the nanny state that wants to intrude on the independent citizen, curtailing his freedom and making him a pawn of the leviathan.

Both criticisms are right. As St. John Paul II put it in Centessimus Annus, “The individual today is often suffocated between two extremes represented by the state and the marketplace.”

Both belittle us, he said. The government sees us as “an object of state administration” — we are pawns, important insofar as we are voters or taxpayers; means to power.

The market sees us as “a producer and consumer of goods” — we are dollar signs; someone to market to; a consciousness with a wallet.

St. John Paul II says both the state and the market fail us: “People lose sight of the fact that life in society has neither the market nor the state as its final purpose, since life itself has a unique value which the State and the market must serve.”

The answer, he says is to put the family in the first place. The family gives the individual an identity and a buffer of love between the impersonal state and market. It is also the place where solidarity and subsidiarity meet.

Pope Benedict XVI: Balance the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity.

Pope Benedict XVI in Caritas in Veritate stressed two political principles that form a kind of check on each other: solidarity and subsidiarity.

“Solidarity is first and foremost a sense of responsibility on the part of everyone with regard to everyone,” he writes (No. 38).  In other words, solidarity says “We owe it to others to help them.”

He describes the principle of subsidiarity by referencing the Catechism, which says: “a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions” (No. 1883).

In other words, while solidarity says “we owe it to others to help,” subsidiarity says “we owe it to others not to interfere.”

These two principles can also be associated with the extremes of right-left politics: Leave us alone vs. fix all our problems. The popes refuse to choose between them.

Writes Benedict: “The principle of subsidiarity must remain closely linked to the principle of solidarity and vice versa, since the former without the latter gives way to [radical individualism], while the latter without the former gives way to paternalist social assistance that is demeaning to those in need” (No. 58).

Pope Francis wants to put human life in the center of our politics.

If John Paul, formed as an anti-communist in Poland, worried about the state and the market and Benedict, formed as an anti-Nazi in Germany, worried about solidarity and subsidiarity, Pope Francis, formed in the economic turmoil of Argentina, is against economic systems that exist for the sake of the few at the expense of the many, which happens to dovetail with both.

He particularly sees this in the technological cast society has taken in our time. His first sentence (after a brief introduction) in Evangelii Gaudium, is his mission statement:

“The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience.”

He sees technology as a sparkling distraction from what is real — and what satisfies. In fact, he sees technology as something far worse.

“We were created with a vocation to work. The goal should not be that technological progress increasingly replace human work, for this would be detrimental to humanity,” he writes in Laudato Si (No. 128). “To stop investing in people, in order to gain greater short-term financial gain, is bad business for society.”

He even has a n answer. “In order to continue providing employment, it is imperative to promote an economy which favors productive diversity and business creativity,” he says (No. 129.) “Business is a noble vocation, directed to producing wealth and improving our world. It can be a fruitful source of prosperity for the areas in which it operates, especially if it sees the creation of jobs as an essential part of its service to the common good.”

So there you have it. Three popes’ principles. Together they don’t add up to a political plan, but they are an important political critique that can guide Catholics facing the new realities in America.

This article first appeared at Aleteia.

Photo: Wikimedia commons composite.

The Gregorian Institute is Benedictine College’s initiative to promote Catholic identity in public life by equipping leaders (the Gregorian speech digest), training leaders (the Gregorian Fellows), defending the faith (the Memorare Army for Religious Freedom), and celebrating Catholic identity (the Catholic Hall of Fame).

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes, author of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II and The Fatima Family Handbook, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas and hosts The Extraordinary Story podcast about the life of Christ. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, he served as press secretary of the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as executive editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in Catholic publications such as Aleteia.org and the Register. He and his wife, April, have nine children and live in Atchison, Kansas.