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"What Is Catholic Social Teaching?" | Mark Brumley | Part 2 | Part 1
Not Politics as Usual
From civil society Father Charles moves to political society, where informal
conventions become formalized into laws and mechanisms for enforcing them.
A number of points bear mentioning here. First, according to Catholic teaching,
the purpose of civil society is to promote and secure the common good which
"embraces the sum total of those conditions of social life which enable
individuals, families and organizations to achieve complete and efficacious
fulfillment," to quote Vatican IIs constitution Gaudium et
spes (no. 74). The common good, so defined, includes all basic human
rights of citizens. By that measure, a so-called political society governed
for the benefit of the few who govern, rather than for the good of those
who are governed, is invalid and unjust. For it fails to pursue the end
for which political society existsthe good of all the people,
not the few. And that good is secured only when the rights of all are secured.
A second point Father Charles stresses regarding political society is that
genuine political society gets its authority from God. In that sense, it
isnt a purely human authority. Disobeying that authority without just
cause amounts to disobeying God, while obeying that authority is an act
of submission to God. On this point Father Charles quotes Pope John XXIIIs
encyclical Pacem in Terris:
"Political authorities derive their authority from God. Is every ruler
appointed by God? No, but his authority as such is. That a ruling authority
should come about is a provision of divine wisdom" (no. 46) . . . "Representatives
of the state have no power to bind men in conscience unless their own authority
is tied to Gods. Obedience to civil authority is in reality an act
of homage paid to God. We do not demean ourselves in showing due reverence
to God; we are lifted up and ennobled, for to serve God is to reign"
so, the divine authority to govern comes to the ruler or rulers through
the people, not directly from God. Some traditionalist Catholics of a certain
brand and many non-Catholics may be surprised by that notion, thinking perhaps
that Catholic teaching favors the "divine right of kings" or similar
ideasor at least that that represents the ideal political order. But
in fact this is not so. On this point, Father Charles quotes St. Robert
Bellarmine in his work De Membris Ecclesiae: "The political
power rests immediately, as in its subject, in the whole multitude of the
people, for the power comes from God, and God, having assigned it to no
particular man, must have given it to the multitude."
Thus, the ruler rules, in this sense, by the consent of the governed (otherwise
known as "popular sovereignty"). Moreover, not only the particular
ruler but even the particular form of government is determined by the governed:
"It is obvious that it rests with the people as a whole to decide whether
they should have a king, or consuls, or other magistrates. Furthermore,
the people can change their government from a monarchy to an aristocracy
or democracy or the other way round. It is quite true that all power comes
from God, but that of temporal princes is derived from God, not immediately
but through the consent of human wills" (as quoted in James Brodrick
S.J., The Life and Work of Blessed Robert Bellarmine, 1542-1621,
Vatican II also teaches that rulers govern with the consent of the governed:
"The political community and the public authority are based on human
nature and so belong to an order established by God; nevertheless, the choice
of political regimes and the appointment of rulers are left to the free
decision of the citizens" (Gaudium et spes, no. 76).
Father Charles treatment of the political order covers other terrain
we can mention only briefly here, including the value and dangers of the
"social assistant state," the grounds for a "just war"
(he prefers the term "justified war"), and international relations.
Two things that we must look at in more detail here, though, are 1) the
relationship of Church and state, and 2) the extent to which there is a
specifically Catholic political agenda.
On the first pointthe relationship of Church and stateFather
Charles presents what is called the Gelasian view. This view is based on
the ideas of the fifth century Pope Gelasius, who held that God had established
two powers on earth, the temporal power of the state and the sacred power
of the hierarchy of the Church. Each had a relative independence and autonomy,
under God. The Church has a certain primacy, of course, because she deals
with the things of grace and the Age to Come. But that doesnt mean
she "calls the shots" in the secular realm or that she doesnt
have to submit to secular authority in its own domain.
Father Charles contrasts the Gelasian view with a society in which the Church
and state are fused, whether in theory, in practice or both. Invariably,
one or the other is distorted, usually the Church. That, in fact, is what
eventually happened in a number of Catholic countries, argues Father Charles:
"[A]fter the Protestant reformation, the need to obtain the co-operation
of the Church monarchs for the evangelization of the new worlds being discovered,
and to secure the faith in Europe from its enemies, put the Church and the
Papacy in the thrall of [certain] monarchs."
The French Revolution brought the end of that thralldom, contends Father
Charles, only to threaten another onesecular or anti-religious states
seeking to subordinate the Church. At first, the Church had trouble distinguishing
genuinely democratic states open to, if not socially and culturally built
upon, religious institutions and churches, from sheer secularism, religious
indifferentism or anti-religious governments cloaking themselves in democratic
garb. Only in the 1940s, writes Father Charles, did the Church become convinced
that democratic countries could operate with the context of the natural
and revealed moral law. Vatican II acknowledged the relative autonomy of
the two spheres, the temporal power of the state and the spiritual authority
of the Churchs hierarchy. Father Charles writes:
"So it was that the second Vatican Council could confidently reaffirm
both the Churchs ancient belief in popular sovereignty and her own
freedom in dealing with the political authorities, they respecting its autonomy
and the Church respecting that of the secular order. Thus she could teach
her children accordingly."
A Political Agenda?
Vatican II clearly distinguishes between the purpose of the Church and the
purpose of the state. That distinction brings us to a second important issue
in the political realmwhether the Church has a specific political
agenda. By "special political agenda," I dont mean general
principles or ideals to be pursued, but concrete political objectives and
policies. In this regard, Father Charles quotes a number of conciliar texts,
two of the most important coming from Gaudium et Spes no. 74:
"The Church, by reason of her role and competence, is not identified
in any way with the political community nor bound to any political system.
She is at once a sign and a safeguard of the transcendent character of the
"The Church and the political community in their own fields are autonomous
and independent from each other. Yet both are concerned with the personal
and social vocation of the same men. The more that both foster healthier
cooperation, the more effective will their service be exercised for the
good of all."
To these, we could add Gaudium et spes no 42: "Christ did not
bequeath to the Church a mission in the political, economic or social order;
the purpose he assigned to it was a religious one."
An important corollary to these texts is the idea that bishops and priests
should avoid partisan politics. "Members of the Churchs hierarchy
do not have any direct authority over secular society," writes Father
Charles, "the role of popes, bishops and priests is to guide the laity
through the moral problems involved in social living, not to play an active
part themselves in solving them . . . The clergy are entitled to their political
opinions as private citizens, but they must not be politically partisan
in exercising their office."
Thus, it seems that the Church, as such, has no specific political agenda
in the sense of concrete political objectives or policies. For the Church
is not a political party, with a political platform. Nor are members of
her hierarchical leadership ordinarily to participate in party politics
or hold political office. The Code of Canon Law states, "Clerics are
not to have an active role in political parties and in the direction of
labor unions unless the need to protect the rights of the Church or to promote
the common good requires it in the judgment of the competent ecclesiastical
authority" (CIC 287 § 2). (CIC 288 exempts permanent deacons from
Yet should we conclude that Catholicism has nothing to say to the temporal
order? Not at all. For, as we have seen, the Church proclaims the principles
that promote the dignity and rights of the human person and the common good
of society. Furthermore, according to Gaudium et spes, lay Catholics
are specifically called "to impress the divine law on the affairs of
the earthly city" (no. 43). The idea here is that laity, properly formed
in the faith by the Churchs Magisterium, will apply the Gospel to
the problems of the world and work for solutions compatible with Gods
law. While it isnt usually the business of the Churchs hierarchy
to get involved in specific political proposals, it is very much the right
and the duty of the laity to do so.
There is another way to consider the fact that the Church has no specific
political agendafrom the diversity of political views among her members.
To be sure, the Churchs social teaching gives us some essential principles
for a just political community, principles that every Catholic should accept;
nevertheless, there is no elaborate schema of the one and only Catholic
official political order every Catholic should embrace. Catholics can and
do often differ about how best to apply their principles to the concrete
political order. Again, Father Charles quotes Vatican II and then Pope Paul
VI on the point:
"Christians must recognize the legitimacy of different opinions with
regard to temporal solutions, and respect citizens who, even as a group,
defend their points of view by honest methods" (Gaudium et spes,
"In concrete situations, and taking account of the solidarity in each
persons life, one must recognize a legitimate variety of possible
options. The same Christian faith can lead to different commitments. The
Church asks an effort at mutual understanding of the others position
and motives: a loyal examination of ones behavior and its correctness
will suggest to each one an attitude of profound charity" (Octogesima
Adveniens, no. 50).
Thus, two Catholics, equally committed to the Churchs social teaching,
might arrive at very different conclusions about how best to implement that
teaching and what sort of laws and public policies will do so. Unless a
law or situation is itself the embodiment of a Catholic principle or a violation
of itas, say, in the case of legalized abortionor unless the
solution to a problem is obvious and without room for legitimate differing
judgments of fact, there will not be a single Catholic position on a political
issue. Thus, as Gaudium et Spes stated:
"Often enough the Christian view of things will itself suggest some
specific solution in certain circumstances. Yet it happens rather frequently,
and legitimately so, that with equal sincerity some of the faithful will
disagree with others on a given matter. Even against the intentions of their
proponents, however, solutions proposed on one side or another may be easily
confused by many people with the Gospel message. Hence it is necessary for
people to remember that no one is allowed in the aforementioned situations
to appropriate the Churchs authority for his opinion. They should
always try to enlighten one another through honest discussion, preserving
mutual charity and caring above all for the common good" (no. 43).
Make no mistake. The hierarchy of the Church has the right and responsibility
to denounce particular evilseven particular laws and public policies
that promote evilwhen fundamental human rights or the salvation of
souls requires it (GS 76 § 5; CCC 2420). For example, the U.S. bishops
are well within their rights, as a matter of church law as well as civil
law, to criticize laws permitting abortion or euthanasia. Moreover, there
is nothing in church law or in the nature of the episcopal office that forbids
a bishop from denouncing a particular public policy, even a particular politician
or party, when a grave evil is being promoted. Indeed, one can argue that,
all other things being equal, a bishop is obliged to do so in such a circumstance.
What Catholic social teaching rejects is the idea that there is an elaborate
platform on the wide range of social issues which represents "the"
Catholic position on all important social and political matters or that
the hierarchy, as such, is competent to provide specific policy solutions
to all of those issues. It is the provenance of the laity, not the clergy,
to develop and propose such solutions, and at times members of the laity
may differ about what constitutes the best solution, even though they agree
about the principles the correct solution should rest upon.
But does Christian involvementwhether by the hierarchy or the laityviolate
the relative autonomy of political society? Does it amount to an unjust
imposition of a particular religious point of view on others who dont
share that religious perspective? The answer to both questions is "no"
for the following reason.
As Father Charles makes clear, the principles of Catholic social teaching
are, by and large, accessible to non-Catholics. They are found in the natural
law, inscribed in the human heart. When the Catholic Church presents social
principles or when well-formed Catholic laymen espouse certain public policies,
they do so in terms that are at least, in principle, public. That is, capable
of being understood and agreed upon, without prior commitment to articles
of a particular religious faith. Consequently, it is sheer nonsense when
a so-called Catholic politician says, for example, "I accept the Churchs
social teaching. And I am personally opposed to abortion. But I cant
impose my religious views on others."
First, because one doesnt have to be a Catholic or accept the teaching
authority of the Church to see that abortion is wrong. People of other religious
traditions or no religion at all oppose abortion. Second, because if someone
truly accepts Catholic social teaching, then he also accepts the idea that
unborn children are human persons with a natural right to life that the
state is obliged to protect. For the genuine Catholic politician, then,
opposition to legalized abortion cant be merely a matter of personal
religiosity or private faith; it must also be a matter of public policy
and natural human rightsthe right to life for all human beings. That
is something a truly Catholic politician can no more ignore than he can
ignore the basic human equality of the races or of men and women.
Its the Economy
Controversies regarding Catholic teaching on civil and political society
often pale compared to disputes about the economic sphere. The 1970s and
1980s saw the rise of liberation theology, which tried to synthesize Marxism
and Christianity. About the same time and at the other end of the ideological
spectrum, some proponents of economic liberalism or free market capitalism
attempted to reconcile Catholicism and their economic views. The collapse
of Communism, in 1989, sounded the death knell for liberation theology,
already gravely wounded by the Magisteriums staunch opposition through
the 1980s. The effort to harmonize free market capitalism and Catholicism,
however, persists. While some see Pope John Paul IIs 1991 encyclical
Centesimus Annus as vindication of that enterprise, others reject
the claim, arguing against the idea that there have been any radical revisions
of Catholic teaching by the Polish Pope in favor of free market capitalism.
An Introduction to Catholic Social Teaching avoids taking explicit
sides in the finer points of that debate, although it is certainly sensitive
to the problems big government and the "social welfare state"
can cause. Instead, it focuses on what the Magisterium has actually said
about the economic sphere and the social principles that ought to operate
therein. Father Charles begins by explaining the purpose of the economy,
quoting a 1952 address by Pope Pius XII:
The purpose of the economic and social organization
is to provide its members and their families with all the goods which
the resources of nature and of industry, with the social organization
of economic life, can produce for them. And, as is made clear in Quadragesimo
Anno, these goods ought to be plentiful enough to satisfy all reasonable
needs and to raise them to that level of comfort which, if used wisely,
is far from being an obstacle to virtue but rather a valuable help to
Thus, Catholicism is not pie-in-the-sky-in-the-sweet-by-and-by-when-you-die
religion. Catholics should not be embarrassed by the fact the economy
exists for people to make money and to tend to their material needs. Nor
should we be bashful about advocating that everyone should have a basic
level of material wealth sufficient to meet his fundamental human needs.
Christians arent supposed to be "heavenly minded" in such
a way that were "no earthly good." Our Lords words,
"Blessed are the poor," dont mean that human poverty and
want are inherently good or that the Church ought not to seek to encourage
social conditions that alleviate them. Neither do they mean that charity
and charity alone is to be the mechanism by which mans material
needs are met.
The Churchs economic teaching begins with man and his work. Writes
Father Charles, "If the end of the economy is to satisfy the human
need for the goods required for decent existence, then the essential means
to that end is labour." He goes on to note, "Work has a spiritual
as well as an economic significance. It is man, made in Gods image,
who works and so shares in the creative activity of his maker, who is
depicted in the scriptures as working in the creation of his world."
Thus, work is mans way of collaborating with God in creation. In
Christ, it has been elevated to a participation in the new creation. But
work also has a punitive element, observes Father Charles. The toil aspect
of work is the result of mans Fall, and work remains liable to inflicting
hardship on man. When such hardship cant be eliminated, it can be
united to the work of Christ and thereby can become redemptive.
Father Charles stresses the Churchs teaching on priority of the
laborer over his labor, the producer over his production. This runs against
materialism of any form, whether Marxism or free-market consumerism. At
the same time, the Church affirms the right to own property and to make
a profit in business. Although God gave the whole world to man for common
use, this "universal purpose of created goods," as it is sometimes
called, doesnt preclude private ownership and profit making. Indeed,
private ownership of goods is a natural right and businesses need to make
a profit in order support the owner and to ensure the stability of employment
Yet when private business arrangements and the free market do not ensure
people that basic standard of material existence which every man should
have, there is a role for the state to intervene. As John Paul II has
taught, "The market must be appropriately controlled by the forces
of society and by the state so that the basic needs of the whole society
are satisfied" (Centesimus Annus, no. 35). The twin principles
that we have already considered, solidarity and subsidiarity, both require
that, and regulate how, the state should intervene. As we have seen, the
principle of subsidiary aims at aiding people in such a way that they
eventually cease to need assistance. But that doesnt relegate such
assistance to the private sphere alone. Where necessary, the state can
and must intervene.
Father Charles also stresses the importance of freedom in the economic
order. While no neo-liberal or economic libertarian, he nonetheless asserts,
"Economic society must be based on responsible freedom if it is to
do its job of meeting the material needs of the people in a manner which
respects the human needs of those who work within it. Individuals must
have the freedom to choose what work they do, and the freedom to own productive
goods and work them for profit."
While the economy of a nation is important, economic issues arent
restricted to the market within a country; they also arise on the international
level. There are issues of poverty and economic underdevelopment in specific
countries, and there is also the issue of wealthier countries responsibilities
with respect to helping poor nations to develop. With respect to development,
the question of overpopulation is often raised.
Father Charles debunks the myth of global overpopulation, but also addresses
the reality of underdevelopment, especially in Third World countries.
He doesnt ignore the impact of population on the standard of living,
but he argues, "Every country needs a population policy, some to
check decline, others to control growth, according to different circumstances
but the means must always be worthy of human dignity and not contrary
to it." That proviso excludes abortion and contraception as legitimate
means to control population growth in a country.
Thus, Catholic social teaching has much to say to the three dimensions
of social lifethe civic, the political and the economic. We have
only considered the highlights of that teaching, contained in Father Charles
slim volume. We have seen that the teaching of the Church doesnt
provide a blueprint for the perfect society, nor a detailed political
agenda to be implemented through the ballot box. What it does provide
are concrete principles that should operate in any society, based on the
fact that societies are composed of people, made in the image of God and
persons, the subjects of rights and responsibilities. And we have also
seen that Catholic principles apply to civil, political and economic societies.
This essay began by noting a gross ignorance of Catholic social teaching
among typical, Mass-going Catholics. An Introduction to Catholic Social
Teaching is one effort to reduce that ignorance. In addition to such
introductory works, magisterial documents on Catholic social teaching should
also be read. Two good places to begin are the Catechism of the Catholic
Church and the newly released Compendium of Catholic Social Teaching. If
Catholics use such valuable resources Catholicism's "best kept secret" will
be secret no longer.
This article originally appeared about ten years ago in The Catholic Faith magazine.
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Brumley is President of Ignatius
Press and associate publisher of IgnatiusInsight.com. A former staff apologist with Catholic Answers, Mark is the author of
Not To Share Your Faith (Catholic Answers) and contributor to The
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InsightScoop web log. He has written articles for numerous periodicals and has appeared on FOX NEWS, ABC NEWS,
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