Catholic Courier

Posted: December 21, 2009

Katrina and social justice

The hurricane Katrina and its aftermath have dealt an unspeakably cruel blow to the U.S. Gulf Coast and to hundreds of thousands of people of all ages, races and economic strata who have resided and worked there for all or most of their lives.

But this is not the time to meditate on the meaning of human suffering or the mystery of life. This tragedy, although the product of nature, could have been substantially mitigated by adequate preparedness beforehand and an effective plan to deal with its aftermath.

In the face of the subsequent torrent of widespread and angry criticism, the Bush administration's strategy became one of repeating, mantra-style, the line that it did not want to "play the blame game." Now is the time, it said, to address the problems created by the hurricane and the subsequent flooding and evacuation of New Orleans. The determination of what went wrong and who was responsible can wait until later.

As Thomas Friedman pointed out in The New York Times, "An administration whose tax policy has been dominated by the toweringly selfish Grover Norquist -- who has been quoted as saying: 'I don't want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub' -- doesn't have the instincts for this moment. ...

"The Bush team has engaged in a tax giveaway since 9/11 that has one underlying assumption: There will never be another rainy day. ... Besides ripping away the roofs of New Orleans, Katrina ripped away the argument that we can cut taxes, properly educate our kids, compete with India and China, succeed in Iraq, keep improving U.S. infrastructure, and take care of a catastrophic emergency -- without putting ourselves totally into the debt of Beijing." ("Osama and Katrina," 9/7/05)

The concern of this column is with the administration's failures, antecedent to the hurricane, when measured against the standards of Catholic social teachings.

A tax policy that favors the rich to such an excessive degree is contrary to the principle of distributive justice, which is a cornerstone of Catholic social teaching. Governments must impose obligations and distribute benefits in an even-handed way, while demonstrating particular concern for the poor (in his encyclical Centesimus annus, Pope John Paul II called it the "preferential option for the poor") and concern also for the young, the old and the sick -- in other words, for the most vulnerable members of society.

The pope characterized "the poor distribution of the goods and services originally intended for all" as "one of the greatest injustices in the contemporary world" (Solicitudo rei socialis, n. 28).

It is an immoral tax policy that is designed to "starve the beast" of government, as some of its advocates have put it, so that the government will be forced to cut back on programs designed to meet the economic, educational, housing and medical needs of these very constituencies. Such a policy also violates the principle of social justice, which requires us to work for the systemic reform of societal institutions, like tax policies, so that they will work not simply for the good of the wealthy and the powerful few but for the common good.

Government is not a beast that needs to be starved or drowned in some proverbial bathtub. We are our brothers' and our sisters' keepers. That is the mystery we need to be contemplating as the fetid waters slowly drain from New Orleans.

Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.

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