Stephen Beale has been a freelance writer and journalist for over 10 years, reporting on presidential politics, government corruption, and other public affairs. He also writes frequently about Church history, spirituality, and theology. He holds an undergraduate from Brown University in classics and history. He currently resides in Providence, Rhode Island.
On some issues it’s clear. We know that abortion is intrinsically evil and never permissible as an intentional act. The same goes for assisted suicide and euthanasia. Same-sex marriage is not marriage as we understand it according to the natural law and sacramental theology. Nuns should not have to pay for contraceptive coverage. And so on.
But contemporary politics has brought a number of new issues to the fore on which we do not have as much experience applying the principles of our faith. Immigration is a big one, but there are others too, especially in the area of criminal justice and foreign policy, which has become ever more complicated since Sept. 11.
With that in mind here are some suggested steps on how all of us can better apply Church teaching to contemporary controversies.
1. What’s really going on? Remember, as Christians we place a particular value on the truth, which is identified with God. If you don’t have your facts straight you could end up supporting the wrong policy even if your heart is in the right place. Have you consulted multiple sources, including ones that disagree with each other? Have you endeavored to understand all the relevant facts and not just some of them? Are you using credible sources? (Some tips: Social media posts are not sources! Something in print or text form is generally going to be more reliable than something you heard on the radio or saw on television. And written stories that cite sources are more reliable than those that don’t.) Now let’s assume you have done all this. Next, check in with what the Church has to say about it.
2. What does the Church say? Start with the Catechism. It will have something to say about almost every major social and political issue. In instances in which it is more abbreviated, consult a relevant social encyclical. Or, if the issue is a local one, check on what your local bishop or the national bishops’ conference is saying. Sounds pretty obvious, right? But when was the last time your first response to the latest controversy was, Let me check on what my bishop or the USCCB says about this? (Here, by the way, is the USCCB’s guide to U.S. politics.)
3. Do I agree or not? No one, except babies, is a blank slate. We all approach issues from a pre-existing perspective. If you agree, the next steps are more about understanding why you believe what you already do. If you don’t then the next steps involve understanding the source of your disagreement, ending with you either revising your position, or perhaps respectfully disagreeing with a bishop. (This is provided that hopefully that it is not a disagreement on a fundamental matter, like the sanctity of life. Otherwise, you may need to reconsider your standing in the Church.) Next you need to investigate the sources of the Church’s teaching.
4. What does the gospel say? Applying your faith in politics ultimately should mean asking what the gospel calls on us to do. Again, how often do we do this when a budget is being debated, a war contemplated, or a controversial policy on race, immigration or crime is blowing up? This question could also be reformulated as: What did Jesus preach? What did Jesus do? And, ultimately, what does Jesus’ example on the cross call us to do?
5. What does Catholic social thought teach? The gospel establishes fundamental principles, such as feeding the hungry and helping the poor. As to how to do this, we depend on the added insight offered to us by Catholic social thought. There are seven key principles, which are outlined and explained succinctly here. They include: respect for the dignity of persons, protection of property rights, and promotion of the common good. Those who wanted the longer version can find it on the Vatican website here.
These can aid us in bringing the gospel to bear on contemporary society. For example, does the command to feed the hungry justify the socialization of the farming industry? Unlikely. Does it mean that the federal government should take on all social welfare functions? Again, unlikely. Here the principle of subsidiarity guides us in how to apply the fundamental gospel command.
Now at this point you might be wondering why no mention has been made of Augustine, the Summa or other traditional sources. Have I excluded them? Far from it! They are the key sources upon which contemporary Catholic social doctrine derives. It is helpful though to read them through the lens of contemporary teaching for two reasons: First, Aquinas, Augustine, and other older sources are not easily understood, mainly because they are just so voluminous.
Second, we are dealing with issues that they were not — such as nuclear war, the modern bureaucratic state, and other uniquely contemporary evils. Conversely they were living in fundamentally different societies than ours — ones ruled by kings or emperors, with no concept of human rights or religious freedom. Aquinas and Augustine are as relevant as they’ve ever been, but we need the Church to help us distill timeless principles from what might be more particular their historical circumstances.
6. What other principles are influencing my views? Still there are some issues where we find ourselves moved by principles beyond the seven big ones mentioned above. For example, on the immigration issue many people see a need for nation-states to maintain the border. From a Catholic context is this a valid concern? It’s worth checking to find out because there are few topics that the global Church has not addressed in some fashion. And sure enough if you look at the USCCB’s 2003 letter on immigration you will find that it recognizes the right of states to control their borders.
7. Am I applying my principles correctly? But you will also come across many other principles that the USCCB says need to be considered along with national security. Some principles are more important than others. For example, the Church teaches that the intentional killing of civilians in war is never licit. If you believe that it is acceptable for the sake of national security your hierarchy of principles is out of order.
8. Am I thinking with the Church on this issue? This might be the most important question of all. Let’s say you’ve done all of the above but you find yourself in disagreement with the local bishop or the bishops conference, or even the pope on some prudential matter. The key question now is whether you are thinking with the Church on the issue. Do you share the same values and principles but just disagree how to apply them?
For example, the USCCB supported national health care reform — minus, of course, what Obamacare did with abortion and contraception. Let’s say you don’t think expanding regulations and increasing Medicaid funding is the way to achieve this. But perhaps you still think society should work together to provide health care to those who afford it? You just think that it should be done a different way, either through tax incentives to businesses, more free-market oriented regulations, or even just through some hypothetical changes to Catholic hospitals so that more people in need can be served.
If that’s what’s going through your head, then you are still thinking with the Church on this issue. But if the sole reason for your opposition is your concern over how your taxes might go up then you’re not thinking with the Church on this issue. Or if you believe that individuals are responsible for their own health care, that poverty is a moral fault, and that there are no circumstances in which someone might legitimately need help paying for health care then you do not share the Catholic Church’s understanding of social reality, its emphasis on the virtue of compassion, and its vision of the human person.