The goal of Catholic social teaching should be clear understanding rooted in theology, not just a call to action.
Editor’s Note: This essay is part of Magisterial Discontents: A Symposium on Catholic Social Teaching
It is appropriate that Catholic Social Teaching is often traced back to an encyclical “on new things,” because it is itself still a fairly new thing. On the Judeo-Christian timeline, it is practically in its infancy, having come into its own only in the late 19th century. At the time, the faithful were rigorously debating practical questions about how they should live in a radically transformed, modern world. The French Revolution, industrialization, Marxism, newly aggressive forms of nationalism, and the decline of the Papal States, were among the many “new things” that had upended the old medieval order. Debates about modernity raged through the Catholic world across the 18th and 19th centuries, but it was Pope Leo XIII who elevated these discussions into a recognized social theory, with the issue of Rerum Novarum in 1891. Pius XI, St. John Paul II, and many other Catholic thinkers continued to move the ball forward in a world that continued to change with dizzying rapidity.
Standing as we are in another fulcrum moment, it is reasonable to ask whether Catholic Social Teaching can still offer something worthwhile. Are its precepts still helpful, or are its central claims now either discredited or archaic? I argue that the Catholic social tradition is potentially still valuable, but that it has floundered somewhat in recent years, in part because our still-evolving social landscape has presented Catholic intellectuals with some very hard questions. Until we can generate more satisfactory answers, it may be difficult for Catholic social teaching to offer the kind of practical guidance Pope Leo most wanted to give.
Neither Nostalgia nor Social Justice
Catholic Social Teaching is not reactionary. Its central contributors all accepted to a great degree that the “new things” in question were here to stay. They sought to explain how Christians could continue to live and thrive in this new order, and to that end, these popes drew freely on all the resources the Church had to offer: Thomistic metaphysics, Christian ethics, the wisdom of holy men and women going back to the Church’s earliest centuries. In a sense then, Catholic Social Teaching is deeply rooted, even though the particular questions it addresses are more contextual. That juxtaposition may help explain why, from our present vantage point, an encyclical like Rerum Novarum can actually seem charming and quaint, like an English country cottage. Reading over Pope Leo’s words, we may find ourselves meditating pleasantly on the benefits of growing up in smallish, culturally homogeneous company towns, where it would seem more feasible to put Pope Leo’s proffered advice into practice.
In truth, that charm is probably part of the attraction for many self-declared apologists for Catholic Social Teaching. Our attention may be drawn to the circumstantial assumptions that motivate it more than the practical prescriptions. Pope Leo worried, for instance, about the impact of repetitive, exhausting jobs on ordinary working men. Today’s right-wing thinkers seem to yearn for a world in which the labors of able-bodied men are absolutely vital to the economy. (Both Leo and his successors called for dignity in labor, but he was focused on the dignity, while they demand the labor.) By a similar token, the pre-conciliar popes urged employers to show holistic concern for their employees’ well-being by promoting church attendance, instilling good morals, and generally protecting the guard-rails. Modern-day integralists often admire those passages, but for them, the real appeal seems to lie in the underlying presumption that commerce will take place in a uniformly Christian society. Very few of us today actually want our employers to display that kind of paternalistic attention.
Catholic Social Teaching will have minimal value if it serves mainly to channel the nostalgic yearning many people feel for older, simpler-seeming times. It is concerning to note how often the label is claimed by movements that take wildly unrealistic positions, rejecting the foundations of modern economics, demanding massive increases in entitlement spending, or ordering us all to decamp to rural regions where we can farm our requisite five acres. These niche groups of Catholic intellectuals can have their interesting features, but their impact on broader conversations tends to be minimal.
For Catholics of a more progressive bent, Catholic Social Teaching is appealing in a very different way. Many progressives treat it as a kind of blanket permission slip to jettison Magisterial teachings anytime they conflict with progressive ideas about social justice. If Pope Leo XIII could make his peace with “new things,” so can we all. Like the American Constitution, Rerum Novarum stands in some people’s minds as a “living document.”
In the end, all of these groups do a great deal of cherry-picking, selecting the bits of Catholic Social Teaching that harmonize most conveniently with their other political commitments. Its authority may be claimed by almost anyone, from Latin-loving traditionalists to Nuns on the Bus. This might be a good thing if the apparent common ground brought together disparate groups in fruitful dialogue. That rarely seems to happen. Bishops continue issuing political statements with flyby references to social encyclicals, but these too often are vague and poorly informed, and may if anything underscore the irrelevance of Catholic social thought. It is reasonable to ask at this point whether there is, in fact, a cohesive Catholic Social Teaching, or whether the label is simply applied at will by just about anyone who wishes to signify that he regards his social and political views as authentically Catholic.
Wrestling with Complexity
Even if Pope Leo’s recommendations haven’t aged particularly well, his broader project still seems extremely relevant. This is a point to bear in mind whenever we are tempted to dismiss Catholic Social Teaching as just so much airy-fairy philosophizing.
On the face of it, it may seem obvious that a helpful social theory must work from a properly nuanced account of human nature, ideally rooted in a long-standing tradition that can provide historical perspective. Isn’t it necessary to understand what human beings are if we want to explain how they should live? It shouldn’t be surprising to find that social problems are at least as complex as human individuals themselves.
In practice, this fact does seem to surprise us over and over again. Modern political ideologies have strong reductionist tendencies. Working from a long-standing Aristotelian tradition, Catholic social thought has tried to diagnose and correct these deficiencies, reminding us again and again that human beings are social and political creatures, with a deep human need for family, friendship, productive activity, and social belonging. If Catholic Social Teaching served no other purpose but to issue this perennial reminder, even that might be worth quite a lot.
We live in a materially wealthy, technologically advanced world that meets people’s material needs quite effectively, while allowing too many to descend into a lonely, hollow, and spiritually desiccated existence. More than at any time in the past, we know how to care for people’s bodies. Socially, emotionally, and spiritually, we aren’t doing nearly as well. Catholic social thinkers have been trying to direct people’s attention towards these growing needs for more than a century. It would seem strange to dismiss this tradition as irrelevant, just as the rest of the world is coming to understand the value of its approach.
Reading over the defining documents of the Catholic social tradition, we find many thought-provoking and uplifting passages. These thinkers offer a wealth of trenchant observations, along with beautiful meditations on the preciousness of each individual human life. Rerum Novarum may have a certain quaintness, but we can still savor the tremendous respect Pope Leo had for ordinary workers. We can admire Quadragesimo Anno’s delicate exposition of the relationship between solidarity and subsidiarity. We can appreciate Pope John XXIII’s keen valuing of community life, while applauding St John Paul II’s appreciation of entrepreneurship. All of this can help to inform and elevate public discussions today.
At the same time, we should acknowledge that the Catholic social tradition is still developing. At this point, it still lacks the kind of internal cohesion that we sometimes glimpse in, for instance, Scholasticism. If we treat the Compendium as a kind of political catechism, we are liable to make some real mistakes. Catholic intellectuals should have the humility to acknowledge how much we still do not understand about the modern world.
Two things in particular must be better understood if Catholic Social Teaching is to move beyond its present, unsettled state. These challenges had not yet clearly presented themselves in the time of Leo XIII, and they pose real obstacles to the development of a comprehensive social theory, such as he hoped to advance.
First, there is the problem of global markets. We are barely beginning to grapple with their bewildering complexity and their wondrous and terrifying power. When we consider the scope of this challenge, we may be tempted to fall back on intuitive, time-honored Aristotelian principles governing justice in exchange. Unfortunately, modern economic models give us good reason to think that many of those principles are just false. As counterintuitive as it may seem, wealth can grow through exchange. When we scale this process up to a global level, our moral compasses become wildly discombobulated. How should we think about these entities called “corporations”? What is this thing called money?
Too often, Catholic social thinkers simply brush economics to the side, racing along to the moral claims that they most wish to discuss. This will not do. Markets have an enormous impact on modern life, but our control over them is limited. We must keep striving to understand this beast if we hope to issue helpful pronouncements concerning economic justice.
The second point concerns human relationships and our perennial need for family, community, and social belonging. Catholic thinkers have always understood that this is extremely important. We have only recently begun to understand how precarious community can actually be in wealthy societies that have largely met most people’s bodily needs. It turns out that human beings don’t reliably form healthy relationships and communities without the immediate spur of material want. In America today we have almost 350 million citizens, along with a rich array of tools to assist us with communication and transportation. Nevertheless, our population is lonelier than ever, and our communities continue to erode. People could marry, start families, or form organizations, but instead they bowl alone. How can we rectify this problem?
Pope Leo does not seem to have anticipated this challenge. Why would he? Across history, most people have been eager to marry or be given in marriage, to find jobs, to gain social standing, and to preserve their family honor. That seems eminently reasonable, given the deep human need to love and be loved. It is only very recently that we have come to recognize how readily people opt out of community, if their material needs are otherwise met. Relationships are essential to human thriving, but they are also daunting and demanding. As personal relationships break down, entire subcultures start developing deeply dysfunctional dynamics, which we cannot hope to heal simply by ordering everyone to get married and go to church.
If it is to remain a source of wisdom, Catholic Social Thought must continue to grapple with new and newer things. The project is difficult because the world continues to change. In many ways, though, it is difficult precisely because the original project, broadly conceived, is both relevant and important. If indeed the Catholic tradition contains insights into the human condition, we owe it to our fellow men to try to apply those insights to contemporary questions, so far as we are able. If Catholic Social Thought ever comes of age, the fruit that it bears will not seem charming or quaint. It will nourish both bodies and souls.