Towards a Global Definition of Our Personal, Political, and Economic Responsibilities

By: David Hollenbach

January 26, 2015

Why Catholic Social Thought Matters for the Future of Global Development

A central theme of Catholic social thought that can make a key contribution to debates about global development is the conviction that all persons are brothers and sisters in a single human family no matter what their nationality, ethnicity, religion, or economic status. Every person has been created in the image and likeness of God. All possess a shared dignity and worth that reaches across the boundaries that divide our world into the haves and the have-nots. Ethical concern for human development, therefore, should be global in scope, extending to every member of the human community. This calls for what Pope John Paul II called the “globalization of solidarity.” It requires resistance to what Pope Francis has called the “globalization of indifference.”

Of course, not all agree that there actually is a global human community reaching across political and cultural borders. For example, some years ago the distinguished political philosopher Michael Walzer argued that a global moral community that includes all men and women everywhere does not, in fact, yet exist. He maintained that solidarity can have meaning only among people already bound together by political bonds within a state or the bonds of a shared culture. Seeking a global ethic to guide development, therefore, is an illusory quest.

The Catholic tradition roundly rejects this skepticism about the existence of global community for several reasons. First, membership of all men and women in the human species gives each of them an inherent human dignity. Their shared dignity ties them together as brothers and sisters with real duties toward one another. Second, since the 1960s the Catholic tradition has noted that the interdependence of people across borders has been growing. The internal life of states and cultural groups is both supported and threatened by decisions taken in other countries and by other peoples. Third, this de facto interdependence gives rise to deepening moral interdependence. When decisions have empirically visible impact across borders, ethical responsibility reaches across borders as well. 

It is true, of course, that states as well as distinctive cultural and religious communities continue to play very important roles in our globalizing world. The importance of such distinctive communal identities is what leads Walzer to question the existence of global community. The Catholic tradition fully recognizes the importance of these less-than-global communities and of the moral bonds that shape them. Both St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas recognized the moral importance of special relationships with the members of our own families and political communities. But the fact that we can have special duties to those who are closer to us in no way negates the responsibilities solidarity toward those who are more distant, especially when they are in grave need. Indeed, needy neighbors who are distant from us can have a greater claim on our response that those nearby with lesser needs. 

Catholic social thought also appeals to the principle of subsidiarity to affirm both that we have special duties toward smaller and more proximate communities and that we have responsibilities to larger or more distant bodies as well. The principle of subsidiarity calls for addressing the challenge of development first at the local or regional level. But the principle also states that when there is serious need and when local communities cannot or will not respond to this need, responsibility moves to larger communities and ultimately to institutions on the global level. Both local duties and duties across the larger political, cultural and economic divisions of our world are crucial in the development debates. The Catholic community is today one of the strongest voices stressing these global, trans-border responsibilities.

Specifying the nature of these duties across borders will be one of the key challenges of this project. Do we need more development aid, improvement of governance in developing countries, reform of the global institutions that shape international trade and finance, or some combination of such initiatives as well as others? Addressing these questions requires attending to the empirical evidence on what works. But most fundamentally, it calls for the recognition that the global future of development requires a genuinely global definition of our personal, political, and economic responsibilities. Helping to define the scope and content of these responsibilities is probably Catholic social thought’s most important contribution to the development debate.

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