Toward a new synthesis of Catholic Social Teaching
In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis issued the following challenge:
“We need to develop a new synthesis capable of overcoming the false arguments of recent centuries. Christianity, in fidelity to its own identity and the rich deposit of truth which it has received from Jesus Christ, continues to reflect on these issues in fruitful dialogue with changing historical situations. In doing so, it reveals its eternal newness.”
This article, which marks the first section in a complete treatment of Catholic Social Teaching, represents one attempt by a member of the laity to meet that challenge. That being the justification for such a project as this, it is also necessary to state clearly the approach we will take in the articles that follow, because it may differ substantially from that to which the reader is accustomed.
In order to describe this approach, we may simply borrow the words of Harold Robbins, who opened his most excellent book, The Sun of Justice, by saying:
“This book is not an analysis of what the Church tolerates, and in tolerating guides. It seeks to be a statement of what the Church wants…The distinction, which seems self-evident, is made surprisingly seldom. The Church has her negative standards, to fall below which is to fall into sin. These standards are necessarily minimum standards, for Moral Theology is conditioned by Charity. But she has also her positive standards, which are very different. I am informed by my clerical friends that the only name for these is Ascetic Theology. It seems strange to me that to want to do what the Church approves should be a striving after Asceticism, at least in its ordinary sense. Please God the desire is more general than that would imply. But we need not discuss this further. The point is that our outlook on society has been too much in terms of the confessional, and too little in terms of the City of God. A man could avoid the sin of being theologically drunk every night of his life, and give a very poor impression to his neighbours of the Virtue of Temperance. And millionaires are not excommunicated for being millionaires, but no one who is familiar with the blistering phrases of Popes Leo XIII and Pius XI can suppose that they are at all pleased that millionaires should exist. I see no reason why the laity should be pleased, either.”
That having been said, we can add that this series of articles will hopefully serve to dispel the fog of ignorance that has settled on the faithful in our period; an ignorance which, although understandable for men and women who must work for their bread, and who therefore do not have the time, energy, or desire to thumb through hundreds of years of papal statements, is nonetheless very dangerous.
We no longer live in the age of obedience when the unlearned would turn with childlike openness to the Church, ready to trust Rome’s counsel. On the contrary, in democratic ages every man is told to “think for himself.” He is led to believe that the opinions he arrives at by the power of his own judgment are the supreme measure of truth in his world, with the end result that his opinions are formed almost entirely by voices emitting from his television set. For there is no such thing as an opinion formed “independently.” We are all of us under the influence of a million pressures external to ourselves; it is only a matter of which of those influences we allow to guide our reasoning.
And so, in this “age of information,” every man in America knows about the latest earthquake in the third-world, able to cite the “death toll” down to the last woman and child; he knows about the most recent mass-shooting or terrorist plot; he knows which celebrities are getting divorced: but this same man has no idea whatsoever of the Catholic doctrines related to subsidiarity, solidarity, the universal destination of goods, and private property. Even if he has heard of them, they have been filtered through the political medium, which is to say they have been mutilated beyond recognition. Not for a thousand dollars could he name the magnificent documents in which these principles are elaborated, even though they are every one of them at his fingertips, thanks to the internet.
Thus, we find that although we have more information at our disposal than during any previous period, it seems that the truths of Catholic Social Teaching have been enveloped by an ocean of talk shows, radio broadcasts, and webpages, leaving us in the dark to stumble haphazardly through every problem that arises. In this situation, we cannot help but recall the lamentation of Pius X, which applies to our time much more than it did his:
“[T]he will cannot be upright nor the conduct good when the mind is shrouded in the darkness of crass ignorance. A man who walks with open eyes may, indeed, turn aside from the right path, but a blind man is in much more imminent danger of wandering away…How many and how grave are the consequences of ignorance in matters of religion!…It is indeed vain to expect a fulfillment of the duties of a Christian by one who does not even know them.”
The larger purpose of this project, then, is to inject the truths of the Christian tradition into the ocean of incoherence in which the modern man is forced to live—to beat back the waters of confusion and ignorance, even if only a little, and give him the opportunity to breath the clean air of Catholic doctrine.
Anyone who makes the claim that “the Church teaches such-and-such” ought to be ready immediately to produce the appropriate documentation as support for their assertion. Therefore, we will attempt to provide a handful of references for each subject we address. The task has not been difficult, thanks to the constant labor of the Church through the centuries to address problems as they arise. Indeed, we can rest confident that there are few social questions that the Church has not wrestled with in her history. Because of this diligence, any claims as to her opinion one way or the other on some specific issue are almost always readily verifiable.
The explanation for the various debates that persist on so many issues is not, we must admit, due to silence on the part of the Church, but rather ignorance on the part of the public. There was perhaps a time when it was legitimate to blame the Church for the ignorance of her people, but today there is simply no excuse for it.
The Vatican has taken steps to make thousands of its texts readily available online, including the excellent Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. Truthfully, while we could mention a few valid disagreements about the nature of Church teaching, the vast majority of such disputes could be dispelled in a moment if the participants would simply pause to reference their sources. It is our hope that the present work may encourage and facilitate this process.