3.1.1 What should government do?

Unit 3 Contents

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At the end of Unit 1, I introduced three basic questions we can ask about what should be done in politics.  In Unit 2, our study of the ‘just government strand’ in the Bible was organized around these questions (2.2).  Remind yourself of what they are by opening 1.4.2.

These questions will continue to organize our study, especially in this unit and Unit 4.  I hope that you’ll find that the path we’ll take is easy to follow and brings clarity.

This unit is about the first of those questions.  Putting this more fully than in 1.4.2, it is the following:

What is the proper purpose or end of political authority, and what, therefore, should be its role or tasks?  And what are the proper limits to this role? In other words, what ought government do, and not do?

There are two main reasons why Christians should be interested in the question of what government ought to do:

1.  The first is that the Church teaches that some people are given a vocation to seek and exercise political office.  For those who have this calling, it an excellent form of Christian service – and a very difficult one.

We looked at the ‘political vocation’ in Unit 1 (1.2.5), and you were asked to read a passage with this heading from a publication by the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales.  You might like to look at this again now.

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Re-reading (2pp)

CBCEW, The Common Good, ##57-61, headed ‘The political vocation’

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Clearly, people who do have such a calling need a good understanding of what government should do, and therefore of what they should aim to achieve if they get to positions of power.  If they lack this, they won’t be able to act coherently or wisely.  They will be liable to fall into such traps as mere populism – which is going along with popular demands, regardless of whether these are just or wise – or succumbing to those who are best at lobbying.

2.  The second reason relates to all of us, not only to those who ‘go into politics’.  At least this is true if we can vote, i.e. if we live where there is a democratic political system.  When we vote, we need to have some view of what government should do – because to vote is precisely to express support for such a position.  We are saying: I back the view of what government should do that this party (or specific politician) advocates; I am supporting what this party plans to do if it gets into power – or at least I support them more than the other parties.

As citizens in a democracy, then, Christians need, like everyone else, to think about what government ought to do and not to do.  CST includes much on this, even though it is careful not to prescribe support for any one particular political party.

To sum up, those Christians with a specific calling to go into politics clearly need to know what government is supposed to do.  Yet all citizens need to have some understanding of this too, if they are going to be able to vote in an informed way.

You will recall that in Unit 2 we studied in some detail Jesus’ famous statement, ‘Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God’ (Mark 12:17, NAB) (2.2.6).  This points us towards another way of putting the question that this unit addresses.  As well as communicating forcefully that what matters most is what is owed to God, Jesus’ statement referred also to the things of Caesar that should be ‘repaid’ to him.

Something really is owed to ‘Caesar’ – to those who govern, to the political authorities.  In particular, taxes are owed to Caesar (mere taxes, not worship).  And the reason for this is that, under God, Caesar has authority, and therefore a proper role.

But what is this?  What is Caesar authorized to do?  What are taxes we pay supposed to finance?

This is the topic of this unit.

Learning outcomes for Unit 3

By the end of this unit, you should be able:

  • to outline the meanings of distributive justice, commutative justice, retributive justice and the rule of law
  • to explain the principle of subsidiarity
  • to summarize three main aspects of CST’s understanding of the role of government
  • to discuss and assess CST’s view of the role of government in relation to liberalism, conservatism and socialism.

 

We shall return to these at the end of the unit.

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End of 3.1.1

Go to 3.1.2 Answer: justice

Module B outline

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