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Are You Entitled to Food, Housing & Healthcare? Examining the Role of Government and the Public Order

There is no shortage of elements in Romney’s statements to investigate. In particular, his ridiculously inaccurate statements about taxes are being addressed by journalists and analysts like Ezra Klein in today’s Washington Post. But behind his statement about victimhood and the dismissal of almost half the country as dependent upon the government without any contribution to civil society is a revealing ideology of the public order that I find most disturbing.

What is the proper role of government? This is really the overriding ideological question of the 2012 Presidential race. In both Tampa and Charlotte each side made their case of what is the proper role and scope of the federal government and by extension, for state and local governments.  Most often the role of government is contrasted with the proper functioning and flourishing of families, parishes, and other intermediary community groups. I would like, ever so briefly, to take a step back from this debate and begin from a point on which there appears to be agreement – – it is the proper role of government to secure the public order.

The role of the government in securing the public order is central to the way Catholic moral theology understands the role of government in relation to the broader common good. The public order, argued Dignitatis Humanae and John Courtney Murray, was more limited than the fullness of the common good, which is the realm of all of civil society (including religion). This then begs the question – what is the public order?  Reflecting on this distinction, David Hollenbach and Thomas Shannon stated in America Magazine:

“The criteria are the standards of “public order.” Public order includes three elements:  justice, which secures the rights of all citizens; public peace, which itself is grounded in justice; and those standards of public morality on which consensus exists in society. Public order is a moral concept—the minimal level of morality that protects the most basic prerequisites of social life. These prerequisites include protection of the levels of  justice and peace required for a civil society to exist at all.”

The public order, then, goes beyond basic law and order or protection of property to the securing of basic justice.  And what is basic justice? In 2012, at its very minimum, this must begin with promotion and protection of the basic human rights of all citizens.  Now, on one level the rights of all citizens is a constitutional question and thus civil rights come front and center. On another more fundamental level, we in the United States are bound by the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Rights of all citizens must be viewed as beginning with those rights laid out in the Universal Declaration (to which the United States of America is bound).

So if the public order involves basic justice and basic justice must begin with human rights – what is properly a matter of the public order?

Article 3: Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

That is an easy one…and I hope I am not being presumptuous by assuming agreement there. Life, liberty, and security of person is properly a matter of the public order.

Article 12: No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family,       home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the   right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

Article 17: (1) Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others. (2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.

Here too…this seems to be readily agreed as part of the public order. But the UN Declaration does not end there, it goes on (and this is where it gets a bit more complicated…)

Article 22. Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.

Article 23. (1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment. (2) Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work. (3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if  necessary, by other means of social protection. (4) Everyone has the right to form  and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.

Article 24. Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.

Article 25. (1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.  (2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.

Social security, worker protection, the right to form unions, healthcare and education are all a matter of the public order.  The right to an adequate standard of living, including food, clothing, housing and medical care is properly speaking a matter of the public order. It is a matter of basic justice, it is a matter of respect for human rights, and it is properly speaking within the proper role of government.

Is justice ONLY the role of government? No, obviously Catholic social teaching has a broader understanding of the common good and is not limited to the mere minimum. We are all responsible for our neighbors. Human flourishing must be understood as being greater than mere survival.

This is often presented as a “personal/private charity” vs. “government” in which charity and justice are put up in a false dichotomy. Pope Benedict XVI reiterated in Caritas in Veritate “I cannot “give” what is mine to the other, without first giving him what pertains to him in justice. Not only is justice not extraneous to charity, not only is it not an alternative or parallel path to charity: justice is inseparable from charity[1], and intrinsic to it. Justice is the primary way of charity or, in Paul VI’s words, “the minimum measure” of it[2], an integral part of the love “in deed and in truth” (1 Jn 3:18), to which Saint John exhorts us. On the one hand, charity demands justice: recognition and respect for the legitimate rights of individuals and peoples.”

Yet, in all these debates about the proper role of government it MUST be pointed out that within Catholic moral theology – healthcare, unemployment provisions, social security and food stamps are all properly a matter of the public order (and thus, legitimate avenues to be addressed through taxation.)

Note: While this post is not about “ACA or Obamacare,” I do wish to point out that from the perspective of Catholic social teaching this legislation cannot be attacked as the government extending beyond its proper role into healthcare. One may wish to oppose the legislation for a host of other reasons (some of which are debating the limits of public order and religious freedom); but, access to and distribution of healthcare is a matter of justice for Catholic social teaching and therefore also a matter of the public order. (the USCCB has reiterated over recent decades that access to healthcare is a basic human right and not a privilege.)

This brings me to this morning’s major news story and Governor Mitt Romney’s speech first reported on Motherjones.com. In this now infamous video, Romney states:

“There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them.”

There is no shortage of elements in Romney’s statements to investigate.  In particular, his ridiculously inaccurate statements about taxes are being addressed by journalists and analysts like Ezra Klein in today’s Washington Post. But behind his statement about victimhood  and the dismissal of almost half the country as dependent upon the government without any contribution to civil society is a revealing ideology of the public order that I find most disturbing.  His first incredulous claim about Obama’s supporters are that they “believe they are entitled to healthcare, to food, to housing, to you name it. That that’s an entitlement.” Now, we can have a debate about “entitlement programs,” to which Romney is specifically referring at another time – but on a more fundamental philosophical level YES THESE ARE ENTITLEMENTS AND YES, YOU ARE ENTITLED TO THEM AS HUMAN BEINGS.

Yes, I deeply believe that I am entitled to safe housing, food, basic education, and healthcare. As a full and equal human person I am entitled to those things and the government has 2 direct responsibilities as a result. First, the government has the responsibility to create the conditions whereby I can achieve safe housing, adequate food, education and access to healthcare. And second, if I cannot obtain these things on my own through employment, the government had a responsibility to direct resources so that my basic needs are met. This is a matter of basic human rights. It is that simple.

Take Medicaid as an example:  the vast majority of those receiving Medicaid are the elderly and children. Yes they are entitled to their basic human rights being met irrespective of any participation they may have in the market. They are entitled to them not because they are “workers” entitled to a wage but because they are human beings entitled to be respected as such.  It is also a violation of the distinctions between the public order and the common good to insinuate that if one is not paying federal income tax one is not contributing to society and is therefore a dependent drain upon the resources of others. Luckily Catholic social teaching has long held that human persons are valued and have dignity simply because they are created in the image and likeness of God and not for their utility. This same principle of human dignity is legally enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And it is primarily the responsibility of the government to defend and protect those human rights. We all have a responsibility to respect the human rights of others; however, we claim those rights against the government – which in safeguarding the public order, is responsible for their protection.


Meghan J. Clark is Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at St John’s University (NY) and a member of www.catolicmoraltheology.com

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