On the Present Disorders Afflicting Catholic Social Teaching

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

In his Wall St. Journal article, “Can Catholic Social Teaching Unite a Divided America?”, Francis X. Rocca neatly captured the views of many American Catholics about Catholic social teaching’s potential to shape the body politic. Much of the focus was on how Catholic social teaching aligned—or didn’t—with the position of conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats.

As a survey of American Catholic political opinion, Rocca’s article provided an accurate overview of the state of play. No one quoted, however, mentioned that Catholic social teaching is presently handicapped by three problems that, until resolved, will continue to sow confusion within and outside the Catholic Church about what Catholic social teaching is and isn’t.

By this, I do not mean that the moral principles which are the foundation of Catholic social teaching are somehow problematic. These principles’ deepest roots lie in Divine Revelation as well as the writings of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, the lives of the Saints, the Church’s magisterial teaching, and the natural law. Rather, I have in mind three difficulties.

One concerns how Catholic social teaching presently muddles the teaching of doctrine with extensive commentary on facts and probabilities that are contingent, variable, and up for legitimate debate among Catholics. A second involves failure to underscore the importance of understanding how the negative and positive norms of Catholic moral teaching apply when addressing social, political, and economic issues. The third concerns a downplaying of the room for legitimate disagreement among lay Catholics about most such questions.

These problems and their deeper causes were outlined in depth by John Finnis in an essay entitled “A Radical Critique of Catholic Social Teaching,” in an edited collection of papers, Catholic Social Teaching (Cambridge University Press 2019). Without substantive resolution of the difficulties identified by Finnis and others writing in the same volume, Catholic social teaching will continue to mean whatever different people want it to mean. That is a sure sign of deep problems in any set of ideas.

An Ambiguous Scope

In modern social encyclicals and bishops’ conference statements on political, social and economic questions, popes and bishops have expressed thoughts on questions like air-conditioning’s environmental effects, the Great Depression’s causes, free trade’s economic impact, etc. Sometimes the person of Jesus Christ gets rather lost in this fray. Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’ doesn’t get around to mentioning, for example, the Second Person of the Trinity who has told us that he is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, until its 83rd paragraph. Instead it devotes pages to issues ranging from the present state of coral reefs to the processes by which gas is formed in the atmosphere, and animal migration patterns, to name but a few.

This isn’t a phenomena peculiar to Pope Francis’s social teaching. Other papal encyclicals contain reflections on subjects about which neither popes nor bishops have any particular expertise or authority qua pope or bishop to speak. John Paul II’s Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (1987), for instance, contains an analysis of Cold War geopolitics that discusses and offers judgments about social trends, historical circumstances, contingent facts, and matters of technique which do not fall within the remit of the Deposit of Faith that popes and bishops have the mandate to pass on to their successors, and proclaim and defend to the world.

The problem here is what might be called episcopal overreach. Anything which falls within the sphere of faith and morals is the business of bishops. But many things—like physics, mathematics, monetary policy’s technical aspects, the science of the weather, World War I’s historical origins, the color I choose to paint a wall etc.—are not faith and moral questions. It is thus unclear why popes and bishops address these types of subjects in their capacity as authoritative teachers of the Catholic Faith.

At a minimum, bishops should ensure that everyone understands that when they are commenting on, say, the economics of urban design, they are doing so in a personal capacity as John Smith, everyday citizen, rather than Cardinal John Smith, Archbishop of Smallville, and successor of the Apostles. Some bishops (and, occasionally, bishops’ conferences like the American Catholic bishops in the 1980s and early 1990s) who address these topics gloss over or even omit such qualifications. Perhaps this is because they know that, absent their clerical office and the status which this may give them in society, no one (including Catholics) has any particular reason to concern themselves with their thoughts about these matters.

Positive and Negative Norms

But even when a question does touch upon questions of faith and morals, Catholic social teaching needs to specify the differences in the way that the positive and negative norms of Catholic moral doctrine apply.

In simple terms, the negative precepts of Catholic moral teaching—summed up in the Decalogue’s Second Tablet, re-confirmed by Christ himself as a condition for entry into eternal life (Mt. 19:16-19), and reiterated by Paul (Rm. 13:8-10)—bind absolutely. There is never a good or proportionate reason to murder, to steal, etc. No amount of known and unknown consequences, circumstances, or proportionate reasons can justify a choice to do evil. As John Paul II once affirmed, “The whole tradition of the Church has lived and lives on the conviction” that “there exist acts which per se and in themselves, independently of circumstances, are always seriously wrong by reason of their object.” These negative commandments are, Aquinas observes in his Commentary on Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, always binding in every situation (semper et ad semper).

An example of such an exceptionless norm is the act whose intended object is precisely to kill a person. Even if such an act might save an entire city from destruction, the act’s object remains intrinsically evil. It can therefore never be freely chosen—period. In short, we may never, as Paul states (Rm. 3:8), do evil that good may come of it.

The positive precepts of Catholic moral teaching—especially as expressed in the Decalogue’s First Tablet, the Beatitudes, and the Great Commandment to love God and neighbor—are also binding. Yet, as Aquinas notes, these often apply variously. Acknowledging this variability involves no denial of the objectivity, universality and absoluteness of the negative precepts stated by Catholic ethics.

We are commanded, for example, to honor our father and mother. But how we give effect to this commandment depends on a range of contingent factors like our age and their age, whether our parents are alive or dead, etc. Or, take Christ’s commandment to love the poor. That Catholics must care for the poor is not in question. Once, however, we consider how Catholics give effect to this positive commandment in politics or economic policy, there is considerable room for reasonable disagreement among Catholics.

The natural law philosophy upon which modern Catholic social teaching draws (albeit insufficiently and without adequate explicitness since the 1960s) has always maintained that while we may never choose evil, it is often possible to identify different options which all confirm to principles of natural reason and justice even if some of these options are incompatible with each other insofar as they embody different risks, strengths, weaknesses, and incommensurable disadvantages and benefits. On most (though not all) policy issues, choice is between not only good and bad options but also several good options, some of which, to cite the late natural law philosopher Germain Grisez, may be “incompatible with one another but compatible with the Church’s teaching.”

Deciding which of these good options is best as we move from the general to the specific is an activity of the practical intellect that Aquinas called determinatio. The answer, for instance, to the question of how a modern society realizes universal healthcare for all its citizens depends partly upon assessments of scientific, empirical and economic information which are reasonably in dispute among specialists as well as people equally well-informed by Catholic teaching.

Having surveyed the available evidence, assessed contingent factors, considered the different trade-offs and side-effects, and then applied the principles of Catholic teaching, some Catholics may determine that universal healthcare is best realized by a predominantly state-funded healthcare system that prohibits particular practices like euthanasia. Other Catholics, having gone through the same process of reflection, might determine that private health insurance, with the state providing a minimum safety net and prohibiting the same practices, is the most reasonable approach.

…popes and bishops should specify that Catholic social teaching is inseparable from Catholic moral teaching and that a crucial part of that moral teaching concerns the distinction between the applicability of positive and negative moral norms.

Grisez is surely correct to say that in these cases no Catholic should imply that their determinatio is uniquely correct or somehow “the” Catholic position. Indeed, bishops could acknowledge this legitimate pluralism by refraining from formally adopting any one determinatio as their preferred position on such topics. That way, no one can mistakenly—or deliberately—invoke the bishop’s authority on topics that Catholics may legitimately disagree about.

In the past, Catholic social teaching has proposed particular political-economic models as the way to realize the affirmative moral norms of the Church’s teaching. One example was Pius XI’s 1931 encyclical Quadragesimo Anno. This went beyond more circumspect statements made in Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum (1891) to present what amounted to a form of corporatism as the way of giving effect to Catholic social teaching. That is how it was understood at the time, as evidenced by the many Catholic lay activists and Catholic-dominated governments in the 1930s and 40s who tried to implement this model.

In subsequent decades, references of a prescriptive character to “vocational groups” and other corporatist ideas were heavily qualified in encyclicals before largely disappearing from magisterial teaching altogether. This may owe something to corporatism’s association with unsavory regimes like Fascist Italy and Vichy France, or the political and fiscal disaster that was Juan Perón’s Argentina. But it also appears to have reflected belated recognition of the need to correct this significant overreach by Quadragesimo Anno.

Suggestions for Reform

How might such problems with modern Catholic social teaching be resolved? In a way, the difficulties indicate the answers. Here are three suggestions.

First, popes and bishops should avoid promulgating Catholic social teaching documents that contain long reflections on historical circumstances, contingent facts, and matters of technique. These subjects fall outside the scope of faith and morals, and bishops have no special competence as bishops to address these topics. It’s one thing to teach the principles that Catholics should bring to bear upon, for example, environmental stewardship, international relations, or economic policy. It’s another matter to ruminate about air-conditioning’s probable effects on climate change, discuss the economic implications of signing particular treaties, or ponder the likelihood of minimum-wage hikes raising living standards or pricing people out of labor markets.

Second, popes and bishops should focus on stating and explaining the principles of Catholic social teaching as part of their responsibility to form Catholics in all the truths of Catholic Faith. As a corollary of this, they should stress that the primary responsibility for applying these principles to the temporal order belongs, as the Second Vatican Council stated, to the laity “as their own special obligation.”

Certainly, bishops should point out when a policy directly violates the exceptionless norms of the Church’s moral teaching. If, for instance, a state healthcare policy actively promoted eugenics, it would be incumbent upon the local bishop to state that this aspect of the policy is morally evil and that no Catholic hospital will engage in such practices. That, however, is very different from a bishops conference presenting an entire policy proposal to Congress for, say, immigration reform or revising the United States-Mexico-Canada Trade Agreement. In other words, while bishops should state the principles of the Church’s teaching, it’s not their responsibility to put forward programs for action.

Third, popes and bishops should specify that Catholic social teaching is inseparable from Catholic moral teaching and that a crucial part of that moral teaching concerns the distinction between the applicability of positive and negative moral norms.

Giving effect to these suggestions would inject much needed stability and coherence into Catholic social teaching and clarify the respective responsibilities of bishops and lay Catholics. Alas, I see little indication of any willingness at present on Rome’s part to do so. Nor do I detect any acknowledgement that the problems detailed above are real, and contribute significantly to the Catholic Church’s reduction in many people’s minds to the status of just another lobby group among thousands of other lobby groups whose concerns are to be humored, manipulated, mocked, or simply ignored.

Many bishops, I suspect, would welcome these and similar suggestions, not least because they would help force some of their confreres in the episcopate to clarify what they believe is more important.

Is it to be known as a political player and consummate schmoozer à la Theodore McCarrick in cities like Washington D.C. and events like the World Economic Forum? Is it to attend conferences in China and then proclaim, absurdly, that “those who are best implementing the social doctrine of the Church are the Chinese” and continually talk about subjects that one plainly knows little about?

Or: is it to focus on their actual responsibility to form Catholics in the truths of Catholic Faith, including all those hard truths presently unfashionable in the faculty lounge and popular culture? Is it to preach the Gospel in all its fullness, a Gospel which clearly states that there are no utopias in this world and that the completeness of the Kingdom of God will only be realized in the world which is to come?

The fact that such questions even have to be posed today tells us something about the lamentable state in which much of the Catholic Church finds itself.