What Is Catholic Social Teaching? (Part 1)

A Review Essay on An Introduction to Catholic Social Teaching
Part 1 Part 2

By Mark Brumley

It is a cliché in Catholic circles that the Catholic Church’s social teaching is her “best kept secret.” But like many clichés, there’s a great deal of truth to it. Few Catholics seem aware that the Church even has a body of social teaching and fewer still seem to know what that teaching includes. That shouldn’t surprise us, really, since surveys of Catholics over the last thirty years reveal a general decline in knowledge of the faith. Why should knowledge of Catholic social doctrine be exempt from the trend?

Well, that’s the bad news. The good news is that Oxford’s Jesuit Father Rodger Charles wants to reverse the trend and has done something about it. A decade and a half ago, he wrote The Social Teaching of Vatican II (Ignatius Press), a large-scale summary of Catholic social teaching in light of the Council. Recently, he published a hefty two-volume work, Christian Social Witness and Teaching: the Catholic Tradition from Genesis to Centesimus Annus (Gracewing). That monumental contribution to Catholic learning won’t make much of an impact at your local parish – at least not right away. Written primarily for those doing graduate work in theology, the two tomes that comprise the project would probably be as intelligible to the average, even otherwise well-educated Catholic as an academic paper on quantum mechanics. And not because Father Charles’ prose is dense — it isn’t — but because the average, even otherwise well-educated Catholic must start from scratch when it comes to Catholic social teaching, while Father Charles’ two-volume work necessarily assumes a fair amount of theological background.

Not so the hundred-and-so-page distillation of Father Charles’ work recently published by Ignatius Press. Titled An Introduction to Catholic Social Teaching, the book is a much-needed primer on the subject, written for the non-theologian. In fact, a good deal of the book consists of excerpts from magisterial documents, so the layman can become acquainted with the original doctrinal sources as he gains a basic overview of Catholic social teaching.

An Introduction to Catholic Social Teaching
is just the sort of volume that can and should be used to good effect in parish adult faith formation. It presupposes only the rudiments of Catholic theology. It is written in straightforward, explanatory prose. And it covers the terrain very well. Furthermore, unlike many other volumes that purport to give us Catholic social teaching, this book presents the real thing — authentic Catholic teaching, not modish theories and dubious mixtures of Catholicism and radical political ideologies of either the right or the left.

Catholic social teaching is about at least two things – personal morality and social morality or ethics. Personal morality concerns how I act with respect to moral norms, including how I act toward you and toward others. Some personal moral acts may have little or no social impact. In other cases, they can have tremendous impact. For example, if I were the head of a major corporation that employed hundreds of thousands of people and I arbitrarily decided to relocate the corporation in another country and hire all new workers, my personal moral act would have far-reaching social implications, especially on the workers and their dependents.

Social ethics or social morality, on the other hand, isn’t primarily concerned with my personal morality or ethical choices – although it is concerned with that indirectly. Rather, it concerns the ordering of society as such, not merely my individual moral actions, however great a social impact they may have. Social ethics tackles the question, How should society be structured to protect the dignity and rights of the human person, to foster justice and to limit or eliminate injustice, to encourage and promote the common good? The answer involves not only my individual moral choices; it also involves you and everyone else in our society.

An Introduction to Catholic Social Teaching
is relevant to both personal morality and social ethics. The focus of the book is, as it should be, primarily on social ethics – on what kind of society ought to exist. But the conscientious reader will ask himself about his own role in fostering a good and just society. He will consider how his own personal, moral choices either help or hinder realizing such a society. The book’s final chapter aids the reader to discern his personal responsibilities in that regard.

Father Charles begins by mapping out three regions of common life that Catholic social teaching addresses: civil society, political society and economic society. Civil society is the larger, less formalized society, including social units such as the family or cultural groups and institutions. Political society refers specifically to the state and the government of a society, which exist to serve civil society. Finally, economic society refers to organization of human economic life – the society that results from man’s efforts to earn a living and develop his material conditions of life by agriculture, industry, trade, etc. We will examine Father Charles’ treatment of each of these three areas. But first let us look at his summary of general principles.

Starting with Principles

Father Charles identifies a number of fundamental ethical principles that should govern the ordering of any human society, including civil, political and economic society. First, the human person is the end and purpose of every social organization. In other words, societies exist to serve the people who comprise them, not the other way around. This principle is based on the fact that man is made in the image of God. He is, in other words, a person, and therefore the subject of rights.

The second basic social principle, according to Father Charles, “is that human beings are by nature social, and that they need to live in an organized society with others so that they can develop socially, intellectually, economically and spiritually.” With few exceptions, human beings need others to thrive and to develop fully their basic human potentialities.

Related to human beings’ social nature is the family, which Father Charles calls “the first society.” Here the author explains that this once seemingly self-evident notion is under attack today. What’s more, people are no longer clear about what, in fact, constitutes a family. He argues that a stable society needs the model of family based on monogamous marriage and the family needs the recognition of its unique status as the foundation of society in order to flourish. Later, Father Charles explores the impact of sexual permissiveness and contraception on the family, but more on that in a moment.

The third principle of social organization, writes Father Charles, “is that man is born into freedom and for freedom.” He links this basic human freedom to man’s obligation to obey God’s law. Because man is obliged to obey God, he must have the political and economic freedom by which he may do so. Thus, according to Father Charles, political and economic freedom rest ultimately on what might be called a primordial religious freedom, the freedom (and therefore the responsibility) to obey God.

That brings us to Father Charles’ fourth principle of social organization: the idea that freedom must be lived according to God’s law as known to man through his conscience. It is not enough that man is free; he must use his freedom properly. In this regard, Father Charles distinguishes between the objective and subjective aspects of conscience. In his earlier work The Social Teaching of Vatican II, he more precisely referred to “the ultimate and objective ethical norm,” which is the law of God, and the “proximate and subjective ethical norm,” which is the judgment of man’s conscience. In his more popular treatment here, he refers to the “objective, true conscience,” which reflects in one’s conscience the law of God, and the “subjective conscience,” which, “is the faculty, the power of the intellect and will, which enables man to apply the objective law of God to particular circumstances.”

Failure to distinguish the objective and subjective aspects of conscience in discussions of the obligation to follow one’s conscience has led to enormous problems in the modern world as well as the contemporary Church. Why? Because the subjective conscience is fallible, hence liable to error. It can, as Father Charles points out, “err through ignorance or through conditioning in evil by outside influences. It can also err by the decision to close the mind to a moral truth that could be know if the individual so wished.” That is why the conscience operates soundly — people make sound moral judgments — only when the conscience is properly formed. And conscience is properly formed only when it is informed by knowledge of God’s law, the objective norm on the basis of which we should make our subjective judgments about right and wrong.

Dimensions of Social Life: Civic, Political and Economic

Three Having outlined these basic principles of social ethics, Father Charles then applies them to each of the three dimensions of social life – civil society, political society and economic society. He begins his treatment of civil society with a discussion of, “the family as the foundation of Church and Society.”

In this respect, Father Charles is not timid; he states at the outset, “The family is the most important and basic of human societies, and it is founded on the sexual love between man and woman from which love new human life is born.” Sexual love must be

  1. between a man and a woman, which rules out so-called “same-sex unions”;
  2. monogamous, which means exclusive and faithful;
  3. lifelong, which means permanent and therefore excludes divorce and remarriage.

Furthermore, marriage is ordered to procreation and the education of children. “Through marriage new life comes into being: with children raised by loving parents, who educate them with the support of society, to live by the standards that make good citizens, that society can be assured of a healthy future,” writes Father Charles.

He then spells out how any other form of sexual activity, besides marital sex, violates the moral law. Genuinely marital sex for couples means, “using their sexual faculties in a way which is worthy; in particular, both the unitive and procreative aspects if the sexual act must be preserved in each and every act … Sex in marriage which deliberately denies conception at a time when conception is possible (approximately one week in four) denies the Creator’s procreative plan.”

While that last point may seem perfunctory, even mundane, to orthodox Catholics, many treatments of what purports to be Catholic social teaching ignore, obscure, or simply reject Catholic teaching on contraception and family planning. It is refreshing that a popular book about Catholic social teaching regards that doctrine as essential to stable, healthy family life, even as stable, healthy family life is essential to a stable, healthy society.

The Middle Ground

After the family, Catholic social teaching is concerned with what are often called “intermediate organizations” or “mediating structures.” Intermediate and mediating between what, we might ask. The answer: between the individual and the state or between the basic unit of society, the family, and the state. Intermediate organizations are groups, associations or organizations privately founded and perpetuated. Examples of such organizations include your bowling club or, more prosaically, businesses, trade unions and employer associations, educational and charitable institutions, cultural or professional associations, political parties, entertainment and sports activities, etc. From one perspective, churches are “intermediate organizations.”

Such organizations serve important purposes in civil society, writes Father Charles. Ordinarily, they should be given maximal freedom to operate and to fulfill their purposes, being aided by the state, where appropriate, to further public ends and to promote the common good. The principle that regulates state involvement with “intermediate organizations” is known as subsidiarity. Father Charles quotes the classic statement of the principle, found in Pius XI’s encyclical Quadragesimo Anno:

“It is an injustice and at the same time a great evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do. For every social activity ought of its very nature to furnish help to the members of the body social, and never destroy or absorb them” (no. 79).

Some formulations of the principle of subsidiarity suggest only the negative aspect of that definition, i.e., that greater and higher associations – usually government – should leave lesser and subordinate organizations and individuals alone. Often that is taken in the libertarian sense of maximizing freedom from restraint for its own sake. But in such a scenario the rationale for the principle of subsidiarity often goes unstated, even ignored. It is that rationale that provides the positive principle behind subsidiarity, one contained in the Latin derivation of the word itself. Subsidiarity comes from subsidium, which means “help” or “subsidy,” to use an English derivation.

Father Charles’ discussion makes clear that subsidiarity means that greater organizations or social units should help lesser ones, not merely be indifferent to them. The form which that help should take, according to the principle of subsidiarity, is to allow the lesser organization or social unit the maximal liberty to pursue its purpose. But the underling notion is to aid, not to avoid or ignore.

Thus, the principle of subsidiarity is tied to another central theme of Catholic social teaching, the principle of solidarity. In his encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, Pope John Paul II described solidarity as “a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all” (no. 38). Put more colloquially, solidarity is the recognition that “we’re all in this together.” Consequently, where we can, we are obliged to help one another, especially when others are in need and cannot help themselves. The extent of our obligation to help others is defined by fundamental human dignity and basic human rights and responsibilities, which are in turn rooted in man’s being created in the image and likeness of God.

Because man has an inherent dignity and value and needs to act according to that dignity and value, the principle of solidarity implies that people in need should be helped in such a way that, if possible, they will eventually be able to help themselves. Solidarity involves helping others, but subsidiarity specifies an important aspect of how they should be helped. As Father Charles writes, subsidiarity “states that persons, families and smaller organizations who need help in overcoming the problems which prevent them from fulfilling their potential, must be given it; the help given, and the manner in which it is given, should have the aim of making those who receive the help independent again as soon as possible.” The greatest help, then, is to enable another to function without our help.

Continue to Part 2