Justification for the Social Doctrine
At one time it would have been taken for granted that the Church—whose business is to guide and form the profound aspects of man’s being—would also have something to say about his mundane economic activities. Unfortunately, this is no longer the case. Men today are trained to imagine various compartments in life: one “personal” and one “spiritual,” one “recreational” and one “professional,” one “public” and one “private.” As a result the Church and the State, and even more so the Church and “the market,” are cordoned off and told they have nothing to say about one another. Thus, we find ourselves reduced to a position from which we must justify the very existence of the doctrines we are about to explore. Before we can say what the Church teaches about economic and political life, we must convince the reader of Church’s right to have any opinion whatsoever in these matters. Fortunately the task is not difficult.
a. Grace presupposes nature
If it be asked why the Church should concern itself with “worldly affairs” and issues seemingly so far-removed from religion as economic theory, we can respond plainly that these two spheres are not really as distant from one another as the materialists and technocrats would have us believe. Yet a more comprehensive explanation is called for if we are to understand not only why the Church is justified in formulating this doctrine, but also why, once formulated, it deserves to be obeyed.
We may find such a justification by referring to the maxim of St. Thomas Aquinas, that grace presupposes nature.
That is to say, the spiritual dimension of man’s being, in which his true happiness is to be found and which is the supreme concern of the Church, is not to be imagined as existing in some other world, sharply divided from the “ordinary” world in which we live out our daily lives. The Christian tradition does not buy into such a dichotomy. It teaches that man is neither material body nor incorporeal soul, but is rather a union of body-and-soul. Grace, then, or the life of the spirit, presupposes and is built upon the foundation of nature. And while it is true that the foundation is hierarchically inferior to the superstructure (grace), it is still the foundation, and foundations are something of a necessity to the structures that rely them. Taking this premise into account, the suggestion that spiritual authorities should not concern themselves with economic and political affairs and instead “stick to religion” is evidence that the speaker has made one of two great errors.
First, it is possible that he imagines that the higher order of reality (spiritual life) has nothing to do with the lower order (the physical world). From such a point of view, it is possible to conceive of a Church whose “sphere of competence” is religion alone, and whose business therefore has nothing to do with earthly life. This is probably the more common mistake. It is closely connected with the modern tendency already mentioned above, to try and organize (“systematize”) life into neatly divided categories. Unfortunately, given such a view of life, and because physical realities press themselves upon our senses incessantly, sooner or later the material concerns begin to claim most, if not all, of one’s attention. By going down this road, a man begins by dividing two orders of reality into separate worlds, and he ends by losing one of those worlds entirely as it fades from his consciousness. His point of view becomes an implicit, and sometimes also and explicit, materialism.
If we avoid the first mistake and manage to retain both orders of reality in our considerations, we must also guard against a second error, which comes from a misunderstanding of the hierarchical relationship between the spiritual and the material orders. In this case, even though the spiritual order is not lost, it is still hopelessly alienated from “worldly affairs” due to imagining the two orders as being “separate but equal,” when in fact they can only be comprehended hierarchically.
To understand the nature of this second error, consider two strangers who meet on the street. They are distinct and roughly equal—and for this reason it is improper for one to interfere with the business of the other. This is an appropriate view of two men on the street, but it is not an appropriate view of the relationship between the Church and the State, because this latter is one of hierarchy and not of equality. This type of relationship can be illustrated interpersonally by imagining a father and child. The father can and should interfere in the life of the child. And from the point of view of the child, the reverse is true: he cannot command the father, but instead should listen to what the father commands because he is by nature in a subordinate position.
Such is the nature of all hierarchical relationships. While the inferior cannot comprehend or inform the superior, the superior can always comprehend and should inform the inferior. And so, while the lower cannot transgress into the higher, the higher is in a legitimate position to guide the lower. Traditionally speaking, this is the proper view of the relationship between the Church and authorities of a strictly worldly order.
b. The “soul” of the social body
We must be careful here. Although we have said that the spiritual authority is the superior and that it may speak into the inferior, we must also be clear that it only speaks to the affairs of the inferior regarding universal principles, since these are its area of expertise. It does not, as we shall note below, provide “technical solutions” to economic or political problems, for these technical and “practical” solutions are the proper domain of political authorities. It is precisely at this point that the Church acknowledges their autonomy. This hierarchical relationship, which carefully combines desire for unity with respect for autonomy, has been called the “Gelasian dyarchy,” named after a letter from Pope Gelasius I to Emperor Anastasius in the year 494 AD, when the pope advised the emperor as follows:
“There are two powers, august Emperor, by which this world is chiefly ruled, namely, the sacred authority of the priests and the royal power. Of these that of the priests is the more weighty, since they have to render an account for even the kings of men in the divine judgment.”
Pope Leo XIII affirmed this tradition when he said that “the Almighty…has given the charge of the human race to two powers, the ecclesiastical and the civil, the one being set over divine, and the other over human, things,” but he also made sure to note that there must “exist between these two powers a certain orderly connection which may be compared to the union of the soul and body in man.” No one familiar with the connection between body and soul would suggest that the soul should disregard the activity and function of the body.
c. Faith and morals
Many of the Church’s critics tend to parrot tirelessly certain phrases whenever a pope speaks about economic or political problems. They say that the Church’s competence lies in “faith and morals,” the obvious implication being that socio-economic issues are excluded from these two categories. Unfortunately, this is not the traditional understanding of social, economic, and political life. Morality, in fact, pervades all of these areas. Justice is the foundation of morality, and it is undeniable that economic affairs in particular are riddled with problems of justice. If these problems are left unanswered, they may result in chaos. This is why canon law claims:
“To the Church belongs the right always and everywhere to announce moral principles, including those pertaining to the social order, and to make judgments on any human affairs to the extent that they are required by the fundamental rights of the human person or the salvation of souls.”
d. When the worldly undermines the eternal
Returning to our principle that grace presupposes nature, we can say that the Church has concern for the worldly, not because she wishes to dictate the details of its technical operations, but because man needs a healthy material foundation if his spiritual life is to thrive to its utmost. The Church concerns itself with temporal affairs only insofar as they threaten spiritual affairs, which means that her concern will necessarily expand in times of turmoil and economic confusion. Particularly when the conditions of man’s earthly existence drop below a certain minimum, the Church cannot and will not remain silent. It was precisely this situation which gave birth to, and fuels, the further development of CST:
“…it is not rash by any means to say that the whole scheme of social and economic life is now such as to put in the way of vast numbers of mankind most serious obstacles which prevent them from caring for the one thing necessary; namely, their eternal salvation.”
Woe to the man who claims that economic and political conditions have no bearing on the spiritual life. Clearly it is due precisely to the Church’s eternal concerns that she refuses to remain indifferent to temporal ones.
 Trans. John S. Ott, Portland State University, from Andreas Thiel, ed., Epistolae Romanorum pontificum genuinae et quae ad eos scriptae sunt a S. Hilaro usque ad Pelagium II., vol. 1 (Brunsberg: Eduard Peter, 1867), Letter no. 12, pp. 349-358.