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A Question about Catholic Social Teaching

05/02/2013 Comments (41)

A reader writes:

I can personally vouch for your observation that prudential judgment is to right-wing cafeteria Catholicism as primacy of conscience is to left-wing Catholicism.  I discovered Church teaching from a right-wing, indeed a libertarian, position, and so was guilty of dismissing select Church teaching as mere prudential judgment myself for years.  Most of my friends and relations are right-of-center, as are most of the people I encounter in comboxes online.  Unfortunately, I still find this objection raised, chiefly when the discussion turns to economic issues.

Now I intuit that the social teaching is more than merely a prudential judgement, and that it is false to claim that it can be compartmentalized from the theology behind it.  I find the assertion that knowledge or the times have superceded that which has been taught by the Magisterium to be most troubling.  To that end I went looking for some guidance, which I think I've found to a degree in the Catechism and in some of the more recent encyclicals:

From the Catechism:

2421 The social doctrine of the Church developed in the nineteenth century when the Gospel encountered modern industrial society with its new structures for the production of consumer goods, its new concept of society, the state and authority, and its new forms of labor and ownership. The development of the doctrine of the Church on economic and social matters attests the permanent value of the Church's teaching at the same time as it attests the true meaning of her Tradition, always living and active.201
2422 The Church's social teaching comprises a body of doctrine, which is articulated as the Church interprets events in the course of history, with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, in the light of the whole of what has been revealed by Jesus Christ.202 This teaching can be more easily accepted by men of good will, the more the faithful let themselves be guided by it.

Pope Benedict writes in Caritas in Veritate concerning Populorum Progressio, but also of the social teaching in general:

"In this sense, clarity is not served by certain abstract subdivisions of the Church's social doctrine, which apply categories to Papal social teaching that are extraneous to it. It is not a case of two typologies of social doctrine, one pre-conciliar and one post-conciliar, differing from one another: on the contrary, there is a single teaching, consistent and at the same time ever new[20]. It is one thing to draw attention to the particular characteristics of one Encyclical or another, of the teaching of one Pope or another, but quite another to lose sight of the coherence of the overall doctrinal corpus[21]. Coherence does not mean a closed system: on the contrary, it means dynamic faithfulness to a light received. The Church's social doctrine illuminates with an unchanging light the new problems that are constantly emerging[22]. This safeguards the permanent and historical character of the doctrinal “patrimony”[23] which, with its specific characteristics, is part and parcel of the Church's ever-living Tradition[24]. Social doctrine is built on the foundation handed on by the Apostles to the Fathers of the Church, and then received and further explored by the great Christian doctors. This doctrine points definitively to the New Man, to the “last Adam [who] became a life-giving spirit” (1 Cor 15:45), the principle of the charity that “never ends” (1 Cor 13:8). It is attested by the saints and by those who gave their lives for Christ our Saviour in the field of justice and peace. It is an expression of the prophetic task of the Supreme Pontiffs to give apostolic guidance to the Church of Christ and to discern the new demands of evangelization. For these reasons, Populorum Progressio, situated within the great current of Tradition, can still speak to us today."

Pope John Paul II writes of Rerum Novarum in particular in Centesimus Annus:

"A re-reading of this kind will not only confirm the permanent value of such teaching, but will also manifest the true meaning of the Church's Tradition which, being ever living and vital, builds upon the foundation laid by our fathers in the faith, and particularly upon what "the Apostles passed down to the Church"5 in the name of Jesus Christ, who is her irreplaceable foundation (cf. 1 Cor 3:11)."

"The present Encyclical seeks to show the fruitfulness of the principles enunciated by Leo XIII, which belong to the Church's doctrinal patrimony and, as such, involve the exercise of her teaching authority."

I went to my pastor and asked him how to answer such an assertion.  He told me that it involved a certain willingness on the one making the assertion.  Do they really believe that the Magisterium is guided by the Holy Spirit and that the Tradition is alive and continues to develop, and are they willing to submit to the same?  He speculated that pride is frequently the source of such a position, pride that one thinks they know more or are wiser than the Church.  He reminded me that the Church has only rarely declared something infallible, mainly regarding matters Christological, so there isn't anywhere you can point to that states such things to require assent.  Indeed, he said, if the Church were to get into that business of explicitly affirming which parts of the Deposit of Faith are current or require assent, we'd soon go the way of the Protestants.  Now I think he's right, but I don't know how much good repeating that will do; I suspect it will probably just invite dudgeon and sanctimony.

Anyway, this really long email serves as the prelude to a much shorter question: Do you have any advice, or are you aware of teachings, that would help to correct the dismissal of the social teaching as prudential judgment by right-of-center people?  Or do you have charitable and/or engaging way of challenging this notion?

You lift my heart with your willingness to embrace the whole of the Church's teaching.  Well done!

My basic advice about engaging all of the Church's teaching, but especially teaching that makes us uncomfortable or challenges our most cherished presuppositions is summed up in this little piece I wrote on the (for Americans) dirty word "Docility".  Chesterton remarked that the Catholic Church is the only thing that can rescue somebody from the degrading slavery of being a child of his age.  I think there is a profound insight in that. All ages are prey--and historiically illiterate post-modernity supremely so--to the notion that all of history has been leading up to Wonderful Us and that all who went before us were just holding the ladder so we could climb to the heights of superiority and then kick the ladder down behind us.  So those with pelvic issues pat our ancestors on the head when it comes to sexual matters and those with Mammon issues do the same when they teach about money.  And, notably, both of these groups typically use language about being "on the right side of history" (as though they stand at the pinnacle of all of human evolution.

As we survey a culture with a soaring abortion, divorce, and STD rate that is going broke, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, I tend to question this modest self-assessment.  And because I retain a certain faith that even the most obtuse post-modern may yet look at our civilizational achievement as it teeters on the brink of yet another epic catastrophe, I maintain the hope that it will bear fruit if I pursue a plodding project of a) educating myself in the Church's full teaching (not just the bits that affirm me in my okayness) and b) trying to pass along what I learn once it penetrates my own thick skull.  Beyond that, I don't have any program or formula.  My basic recommendation with all the Church's teaching is "Assume the Church is smarter than I am and to look for ways to listen and obey it, rather than look for ways to explain it away and ignore it."  Since I'm not the Holy Spirit, I can't make anybody choose to do that.  But the assurance of the gospel is that there are people out there willing to listen, our job is to scatter the seed on the ground in the confidence that some of it will fall on good soil.  Meanwhile, as an oaf and sinner whose heart is often the hard ground, the shallow soil, and the weed-choked garden, it's not my business to judge those who don't seem to respond.  That's God's business.  Ours is to speak the Tradition as best we can and, most important, to live the Tradition as best we can.

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About Mark Shea

Mark Shea
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Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.