Recovering Catholic Social Teaching

Editor’s Note: This essay is part of Magisterial Discontents: A Symposium on Catholic Social Teaching

On May Day 130 years ago, Pope Leo XIII published his now famous encyclical letter Rerum Novarum, which analyzed the conflicts between capital and labor through the lens of Catholic thought. His successors continued similar interventions on social questions such that, forty years later, Pius XI could think of the Catholic Church’s social doctrine as a unified set of teachings. Subsequent popes continued to develop Catholic social teaching (CST) into a powerful tool for thinking about faith and politics. However, Catholic pronouncements on contemporary social questions have become increasingly incoherent. The founding principles of CST are still present, but the Church’s varied attempts to weigh in on pressing issues make it seem like a kind of conceptual grab bag in which policy preferences are clear, justifications murky, and apparent contradictions unacknowledged.

This is present in recent social encyclicals, such as last year’s Fratelli Tutti, and in the Catholic faithful’s reception of CST. In America at least, the breakdown of Catholic discourse—especially on Twitter—has turned CST into a weapon for attacking the religious bona fides of one’s opponents. Yes, you oppose gay marriage and abortion but, gotcha!, what about the death penalty and health care—or vice versa. It need not be so. Real strengths remain in CST, but changes in its development are necessary in order for it to deliver what it promises.

Social Thought and Theology

The strongest critique of CST comes from one of its greatest scholars. In a recent lecture, Russell Hittinger, sometime Warren Chair of Catholic Studies at the University of Tulsa, traces out how CST went from being a coherent body of doctrine to a “confetti of principles.” The coherent body of doctrine began under Pope Leo XIII, most notably in Rerum Novarum. Leo’s successors developed his thinking and, beginning with Pius XI, considered the Church’s social doctrine as a unified set of teachings. This was because they shared “a common philosophical infrastructure,” that of the Thomistic neo-scholasticism regnant at the time, with the precision of its many distinctions and definitions.

Before Vatican II, popes addressed their social encyclicals to all bishops. But John XXIII and Paul VI wrote for “all people of good will.” In Octagesima Adveniens, his letter marking the eightieth anniversary of Rerum Novarum, Paul VI abandoned the Leonine philosophical infrastructure and its universal validity for something more locally applicable:

In the face of such widely varying situations it is difficult for us to utter a unified message and to put forward a solution which has universal validity. Such is not our ambition, nor is it our mission. It is up to the Christian communities to analyze with objectivity the situation which is proper to their own country, to shed on it the light of the Gospel’s unalterable words and to draw principles of reflection, norms of judgment and directives for action from the social teaching of the Church.

This vision of CST calls for a local application of principles of the Gospel but in fact became part of a broader shift away from any precise moral instruction according to eternal principles toward an ever-changing pastoral discernment of “the signs of the times.”

More recent social encyclicals tend to be written in the wooden language of the United Nations and NGOs, perhaps indicating that their primary audience is “men and women of good will” of the international governing elite.

John Paul II attempted to check this trend by arguing in his own encyclicals that social doctrine was part of Catholic moral theology: a reflection on human experience founded on the gospel’s eternal principles and the Catholic tradition, especially that of Thomas Aquinas. But the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church that John Paul called for only succeeded in cataloguing the accumulated principles of CST without organizing them according to a coherent philosophical infrastructure, Leonine or otherwise.

For example, in their definition of the common good—an essential principle of Thomistic thought and CST—the compilers of the Compendium find a more recent definition from the Catechism of the Catholic Church and Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes as well as an older, more precise definition from the Leonine tradition. They therefore define the common good as follows:

a. The common good indicates “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfilment more fully and more easily.”

b. The common good does not consist in the simple sum of the particular goods of each subject of a social entity. Belonging to everyone and to each person, it is and remains “common”, because it is indivisible.

Note that the Compendium simply juxtaposes these different definitions without reconciling them—perhaps, Hittinger suggests, because the editors lacked the capacity to synthesize them. They might have clarified that the first definition concerns social conditions, while the second is a definition in the stricter, stronger sense. Or they might have said, as V. Bradley Lewis has argued, that the first definition is “not a complete formulation of the common good, but one that is appropriately tailored to the circumstances of modern political institutions and practices.”  But they did not. Hittinger concludes that this lack of clarity about one of CST’s foundational principles is emblematic of its loss of philosophical coherence more broadly, which in due course has contributed to its loss of moral authority.

More recent social encyclicals exhibit confusion in language and non-theological principles as well as philosophy. They tend to be written in the wooden language of the United Nations and NGOs, perhaps indicating that their primary audience is “men and women of good will” of the international governing elite. These encyclicals alternate between embracing the vision of that elite and rejecting it—with little sense that their attitude toward the Church is in most cases not one of good will.

Thus in Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate, one finds sentences like this one: “In order to defeat underdevelopment, action is required not only on improving exchange-based transactions and implanting public welfare structures, but above all on gradually increasing openness, in a world context, to forms of economic activity marked by quotas of gratuitousness and communion.” What exactly is a “quota of gratuitousness and communion”? Later Benedict calls for a reform of the UN, “so that the concept of the family of nations can acquire real teeth”; there is no recognition that those teeth would be used with vigor against the Church and those who seek to act on her teachings.

The Confusion of Fratelli Tutti

Pope Francis famously wrote that the Catholic Church is the Body of Christ and not a NGO. His most recent encyclical Fratelli Tutti is strongest in those passages that perform the primary ecclesial function of interpreting scripture and the Catholic theological tradition. Chapter 2 offers a moving exegesis of the parable of the Good Samaritan and uses it to think about the Christian obligation to care for the poor and suffering in our own time. Later, Francis offers salutary reminders about the nobility of business activity and the importance of both the right to private property and its accompanying duty to put that property at the service of the universal destination of goods—principles elaborated by his predecessors in their social encyclicals.

Unfortunately, the Church’s attempts to sound like an NGO might be the best argument against her being one. Early on, Francis decries the rise of “a myopic, extremist, resentful and aggressive nationalism.” In the next paragraph, he decries how globalization “promotes individual interests and weakens the communitarian dimension of life” and lines the pockets of powerful corporations. In one place Francis opposes “narrow forms of nationalism” that see immigrants as “usurpers who have nothing to offer,” concluding: “Only a social and political culture that readily and ‘gratuitously’ welcomes others will have a future.” He then writes that encountering others requires that we remain rooted in our own people and culture and that the finest help we can give to the poor is to provide opportunities for employment. Which is it, then: Budapest, Brussels, or a third way? Should a country welcome migrants with few restrictions at the expense of its people’s national identity and employment opportunities, or not? Instead of offering a thoughtful synthesis of these apparently conflicting principles, Francis offers differing exhortations with little awareness of the conflict.

The Leonine tradition of Thomistic thought on which CST was founded remains the richest, most coherent, and most rigorously precise for CST’s purposes.

Worse still, in two cases Fratelli Tutti employs embarrassing argumentation. In speaking of capital punishment, Francis restates his opposition and that of his immediate predecessors, but quotes a previous address in which he likewise opposes life imprisonment as “a secret death penalty.” One need not be zealous for punishment to wonder what, then, societies are to do with unrepentant, dangerous criminals. He concludes by writing that Christ’s command to Peter to sheathe his sword (Mt 26:52) is an echo of the ancient warning: “I will require a reckoning for human life. Whoever sheds the blood of a man, by man shall his blood be shed” (Gen 9:5–6). An echo may be there, but Francis ends multiple paragraphs against capital punishment with the first of many divine commands for it.

Francis also dismisses the entire just war tradition in a footnote as one “that we no longer uphold in our own day.” “War can easily be chosen by invoking all sorts of allegedly humanitarian, defensive or precautionary excuses,” he writes—though John Paul II called for exactly such intervention to stop atrocities in Yugoslavia. Francis continues: “Every war leaves our world worse than it was before. War is a failure of politics and of humanity, a shameful capitulation, a stinging defeat before the forces of evil.” This will be news to the citizens of South Korea, or to those of Great Britain, whom Benedict XVI thanked for “courageously resisting the forces” of Nazi tyranny. Francis concludes with an exercise in magical thinking, arguing that money spent on military expenditures should be used to “establish a global fund that can finally put an end to hunger and favor development in the most impoverished countries, so that their citizens will not resort to violent or illusory solutions, or have to leave their countries in order to seek a more dignified life.” What should morally serious men and women of good will do with such remarks except pass over them?

Toward a Recovery

If these are the problems facing CST, what would make it more coherent and effective? First, if CST is the Church’s effort to apply Catholic truth to pressing social problems, it needs to be drafted by people who take its theological and philosophical tradition seriously. There are, of course, many strains within that tradition, but the Leonine tradition of Thomistic thought on which CST was founded remains the richest, most coherent, and most rigorously precise for CST’s purposes. The people that draft the documents of CST should therefore have a deep knowledge of the Leonine tradition and be experts in its philosophical language and concepts as well as its interpretation of scripture. This, in turn, means that Catholic universities and seminaries should offer instruction in the Leonine tradition as part of their curricula in moral theology—not because Thomism is the only truth, but because it is a powerful tool.

Second, those drafting CST should actively engage real experts in the social problems that the Church wishes to address. These experts should understand what those problems are and how they might be solved in practical—not fanciful—ways. Jacques Maritain applied the metaphysical distinction of essences vs. existents to Catholic political thought. Thus, a theological principle like the freedom of the Church looks different when applied to different societies throughout the Church’s history. In order to accomplish its goals, CST needs to avoid generic preaching about essences and to focus on how they appear in the existents of the present moment. This means consulting economists, political scientists, experts in peace and development, and scholars of the just war tradition (which, in fact, we still uphold in our day). Many of these experts will necessarily be members of the laity, whose primary job is to sanctify the world as it is, not as it might be.

Third, those who develop CST need to do serious thinking. Their goal should be clear understanding, not just a call to action. Juxtaposing conflicting or competing moral principles for the reader to sort out is not sufficient. For example, calling for a right to healthcare does little good without acknowledging that second-generation rights like healthcare operate differently from first-generation rights like the right to life. In addition, a future pontificate should complete the task at which the Compendium failed and seek to refine CST according to its Leonine infrastructure. Such refining would increase the great strengths still present in its defining documents. It would help CST be what it was intended to be: a corrective lens to modernity, a challenge to our pet political projects and ideological proclivities, and a proclamation of the truth to a world wounded by lies.