What is Catholic Social Teaching? | Mark Brumley | IgnatiusInsight.com
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?
Well, 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.
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.
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Links/Articles:
"Can Catholics Be 'Real Americans'?" | Mark Brumley
On Being Catholic American | Joseph A. Varacalli
The State Which Would Provide Everything | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Speaking Up For Life | An Interview with Deirdre McQuade, the
USCCB's Director of Planning and Information
On Being Neither Liberal nor Conservative | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
The Role of the Laity: An Examination of Vatican II and
Christifideles Laici | Carl E. Olson
Mark Brumley is President
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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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