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What Is Catholic Social Teaching? A Review Essay on An
Introduction to Catholic Social Teaching | Mark Brumley
It is a cliché in Catholic circles that the Catholic Churchs
social teaching is her "best kept secret." But like many clichés,
theres a great deal of truth to it. Few Catholics seem aware that
the Church even has a body of social teaching and fewer still seem to
know what that teaching includes. That shouldnt surprise us, really,
since surveys of Catholics over the last thirty years reveal a general
decline in knowledge of the faith. Why should knowledge of Catholic social
doctrine be exempt from the trend?
thats the bad news. The good news is that Oxfords Jesuit Father
Rodger Charles wants to reverse the trend and has done something about
it. A decade and a half ago, he wrote The Social Teaching of Vatican
II (Ignatius Press), a large-scale summary of Catholic social teaching
in light of the Council. Recently, he published a hefty two-volume work,
Christian Social Witness and Teaching: the Catholic Tradition from
Genesis to Centesimus Annus (Gracewing). That monumental contribution
to Catholic learning wont make much of an impact at your local parishat
least not right away. Written primarily for those doing graduate work
in theology, the two tomes that comprise the project would probably be
as intelligible to the average, even otherwise well-educated Catholic
as an academic paper on quantum mechanics. And not because Father Charles
prose is denseit isnt. But because the average, even otherwise
well-educated Catholic must start from scratch when it comes to Catholic
social teaching, while Father Charles two-volume work necessarily
assumes a fair amount of theological background.
Not so the hundred-and-so-page distillation of Father Charles work
recently published by Ignatius Press. Titled An Introduction to Catholic
Social Teaching, the book is a much-needed primer on the subject,
written for the non-theologian. In fact, a good deal of the book consists
of excerpts from magisterial documents, so the layman can become acquainted
with the original doctrinal sources as he gains a basic overview of Catholic
An Introduction to Catholic Social Teaching is just the sort of volume
that can and should be used to good effect in parish adult faith formation.
It presupposes only the rudiments of Catholic theology. It is written
in straightforward, explanatory prose. And it covers the terrain very
well. Furthermore, unlike many other volumes that purport to give us Catholic
social teaching, this book presents the real thingauthentic Catholic
teaching, not modish theories and dubious mixtures of Catholicism and
radical political ideologies of either the right or the left.
Catholic social teaching is about at least two thingspersonal morality
and social morality or ethics. Personal morality concerns how I act with
respect to moral norms, including how I act toward you and toward others.
Some personal moral acts may have little or no social impact. In other
cases, they can have tremendous impact. For example, if I were the head
of a major corporation that employed hundreds of thousands of people and
I arbitrarily decided to relocate the corporation in another country and
hire all new workers, my personal moral act would have far-reaching social
implications, especially on the workers and their dependents.
Social ethics or social morality, on the other hand, isnt primarily
concerned with my personal morality or ethical choicesalthough it
is concerned with that indirectly. Rather, it concerns the ordering of
society as such, not merely my individual moral actions, however great
a social impact they may have. Social ethics tackles the question, How
should society be structured to protect the dignity and rights of the
human person, to foster justice and to limit or eliminate injustice, to
encourage and promote the common good? The answer involves not only my
individual moral choices; it also involves you and everyone else in our
An Introduction to Catholic Social Teaching is relevant to both personal
morality and social ethics. The focus of the book is, as it should be,
primarily on social ethicson what kind of society ought to exist.
But the conscientious reader will ask himself about his own role in fostering
a good and just society. He will consider how his own personal, moral
choices either help or hinder realizing such a society. The books
final chapter aids the reader to discern his personal responsibilities
in that regard.
Father Charles begins by mapping out three regions of common life that
Catholic social teaching addresses: civil society, political society and
economic society. Civil society is the larger, less formalized society,
including social units such as the family or cultural groups and institutions.
Political society refers specifically to the state and the government
of a society, which exist to serve civil society. Finally, economic society
refers to organization of human economic lifethe society that results
from mans efforts to earn a living and develop his material conditions
of life by agriculture, industry, trade, etc. We will examine Father Charles
treatment of each of these three areas. But first let us look at his summary
of general principles.
Starting with Principles
Father Charles identifies a number of fundamental ethical principles that
should govern the ordering of any human society, including civil, political
and economic society. First, the human person is the end and purpose of
every social organization. In other words, societies exist to serve the
people who comprise them, not the other way around. This principle is
based on the fact that man is made in the image of God. He is, in other
words, a person, and therefore the subject of rights.
The second basic social principle, according to Father Charles, "is
that human beings are by nature social, and that they need to live in
an organized society with others so that they can develop socially, intellectually,
economically and spiritually." With few exceptions, human beings
need others to thrive and to develop fully their basic human potentialities.
Related to human beings social nature is the family, which Father
Charles calls "the first society." Here the author explains
that this once seemingly self-evident notion is under attack today. Whats
more, people are no longer clear about what, in fact, constitutes a family.
He argues that a stable society needs the model of family based on monogamous
marriage and the family needs the recognition of its unique status as
the foundation of society in order to flourish. Later, Father Charles
explores the impact of sexual permissiveness and contraception on the
family, but more on that in a moment.
The third principle of social organization, writes Father Charles, "is
that man is born into freedom and for freedom." He links this basic
human freedom to mans obligation to obey Gods law. Because
man is obliged to obey God, he must have the political and economic freedom
by which he may do so. Thus, according to Father Charles, political and
economic freedom rest ultimately on what might be called a primordial
religious freedom, the freedom (and therefore the responsibility) to obey
That brings us to Father Charles fourth principle of social organization:
the idea that freedom must be lived according to Gods law as known
to man through his conscience. It is not enough that man is free; he must
use his freedom properly. In this regard, Father Charles distinguishes
between the objective and subjective aspects of conscience. In his earlier
work The Social Teaching of Vatican II, he more precisely referred
to "the ultimate and objective ethical norm," which is the law
of God, and the "proximate and subjective ethical norm," which
is the judgment of mans conscience. In his more popular treatment
here, he refers to the "objective, true conscience," which reflects
in ones conscience the law of God, and the "subjective conscience,"
which, "is the faculty, the power of the intellect and will, which
enables man to apply the objective law of God to particular circumstances."
Failure to distinguish the objective and subjective aspects of conscience
in discussions of the obligation to follow ones conscience has led
to enormous problems in the modern world as well as the contemporary Church.
Why? Because the subjective conscience is fallible, hence liable to error.
It can, as Father Charles points out, "err through ignorance or through
conditioning in evil by outside influences. It can also err by the decision
to close the mind to a moral truth that could be know if the individual
so wished." That is why the conscience operates soundlypeople
make sound moral judgmentsonly when the conscience is properly formed.
And conscience is properly formed only when it is informed by knowledge
of Gods law, the objective norm on the basis of which we should
make our subjective judgments about right and wrong.
Dimensions of Social Life: Civic, Political and Economic
Three Having outlined these basic principles of social ethics, Father
Charles then applies them to each of the three dimensions of social lifecivil
society, political society and economic society. He begins his treatment
of civil society with a discussion of, "the family as the foundation
of Church and Society."
In this respect, Father Charles is not timid; he states at the outset,
"The family is the most important and basic of human societies, and
it is founded on the sexual love between man and woman from which love
new human life is born." Sexual love must be
Furthermore, marriage is ordered to procreation and
the education of children. "Through marriage new life comes into being:
with children raised by loving parents, who educate them with the support
of society, to live by the standards that make good citizens, that society
can be assured of a healthy future," writes Father Charles.
- between a man and a woman, which rules out so-called
- monogamous, which means exclusive and faithful;
- lifelong, which means permanent and therefore excludes
divorce and remarriage.
He then spells out how any other form of sexual activity, besides marital
sex, violates the moral law. Genuinely marital sex for couples means, "using
their sexual faculties in a way which is worthy; in particular, both the
unitive and procreative aspects if the sexual act must be preserved in each
and every act . . . Sex in marriage which deliberately denies conception
at a time when conception is possible (approximately one week in four) denies
the Creators procreative plan."
While that last point may seem perfunctory, even mundane, to orthodox Catholics,
many treatments of what purports to be Catholic social teaching ignore,
obscure, or simply reject Catholic teaching on contraception and family
planning. It is refreshing that a popular book about Catholic social teaching
regards that doctrine as essential to stable, healthy family life, even
as stable, healthy family life is essential to a stable, healthy society.
The Middle Ground
After the family, Catholic social teaching is concerned with what are often
called "intermediate organizations" or "mediating structures."
Intermediate and mediating between what, we might ask. The answer: between
the individual and the state or between the basic unit of society, the family,
and the state. Intermediate organizations are groups, associations or organizations
privately founded and perpetuated. Examples of such organizations include
your bowling club or, more prosaically, businesses, trade unions and employer
associations, educational and charitable institutions, cultural or professional
associations, political parties, entertainment and sports activities, etc.
From one perspective, churches are "intermediate organizations."
Such organizations serve important purposes in civil society, writes Father
Charles. Ordinarily, they should be given maximal freedom to operate and
to fulfill their purposes, being aided by the state, where appropriate,
to further public ends and to promote the common good. The principle that
regulates state involvement with "intermediate organizations"
is known as subsidiarity. Father Charles quotes the classic statement of
the principle, found in Pius XIs encyclical Quadragesimo Anno:
"It is an injustice and at the same time a great evil and disturbance
of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser
and subordinate organizations can do. For every social activity ought of
its very nature to furnish help to the members of the body social, and never
destroy or absorb them" (no. 79).
Some formulations of the principle of subsidiarity suggest only the negative
aspect of that definition, i.e., that greater and higher associationsusually
governmentshould leave lesser and subordinate organizations and individuals
alone. Often that is taken in the libertarian sense of maximizing freedom
from restraint for its own sake. But in such a scenario the rationale for
the principle of subsidiarity often goes unstated, even ignored. It is that
rationale that provides the positive principle behind subsidiarity, one
contained in the Latin derivation of the word itself. Subsidiarity comes
from subsidium, which means "help" or "subsidy,"
to use an English derivation.
Father Charles discussion makes clear that subsidiarity means that
greater organizations or social units should help lesser ones, not merely
be indifferent to them. The form which that help should take, according
to the principle of subsidiarity, is to allow the lesser organization or
social unit the maximal liberty to pursue its purpose. But the underling
notion is to aid, not to avoid or ignore.
Thus, the principle of subsidiarity is tied to another central theme of
Catholic social teaching, the principle of solidarity. In his encyclical
Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, Pope John Paul II described solidarity
as "a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common
good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because
we are all really responsible for all" (no. 38). Put more colloquially,
solidarity is the recognition that "were all in this together."
Consequently, where we can, we are obliged to help one another, especially
when others are in need and cannot help themselves. The extent of our obligation
to help others is defined by fundamental human dignity and basic human rights
and responsibilities, which are in turn rooted in mans being created
in the image and likeness of God.
Because man has an inherent dignity and value and needs to act according
to that dignity and value, the principle of solidarity implies that people
in need should be helped in such a way that, if possible, they will eventually
be able to help themselves. Solidarity involves helping others, but subsidiarity
specifies an important aspect of how they should be helped. As Father Charles
writes, subsidiarity "states that persons, families and smaller organizations
who need help in overcoming the problems which prevent them from fulfilling
their potential, must be given it; the help given, and the manner in which
it is given, should have the aim of making those who receive the help independent
again as soon as possible." The greatest help, then, is to enable another
to function without our help.
Read Part Two of
"What Is Catholic Social Teaching?"
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