What is Catholic Social Teaching? (Part 2)

Part 1 Part 2

By Mark Brumley

Not Politics as Usual

From civil society Father Charles moves to political society, where informal conventions become formalized into laws and mechanisms for enforcing them. A number of points bear mentioning here. First, according to Catholic teaching, the purpose of civil society is to promote and secure the common good which “embraces the sum total of those conditions of social life which enable individuals, families and organizations to achieve complete and efficacious fulfillment,” to quote Vatican II’s constitution Gaudium et spes (no. 74). The common good, so defined, includes all basic human rights of citizens. By that measure, a so-called political society governed for the benefit of the few who govern, rather than for the good of those who are governed, is invalid and unjust. For it fails to pursue the end for which political society exists–the good of all the people, not the few. And that good is secured only when the rights of all are secured.

A second point Father Charles stresses regarding political society is that genuine political society gets its authority from God. In that sense, it isn’t a purely human authority. Disobeying that authority without just cause amounts to disobeying God, while obeying that authority is an act of submission to God. On this point Father Charles quotes Pope John XXIII’s encyclical Pacem in Terris:

“Political authorities derive their authority from God. Is every ruler appointed by God? No, but his authority as such is. That a ruling authority should come about is a provision of divine wisdom” (no. 46) …” Representatives of the state have no power to bind men in conscience unless their own authority is tied to God’s. Obedience to civil authority is in reality an act of homage paid to God. We do not demean ourselves in showing due reverence to God; we are lifted up and ennobled, for to serve God is to reign” (nos. 49-50).

Even so, the divine authority to govern comes to the ruler or rulers through the people, not directly from God. Some traditionalist Catholics of a certain brand and many non-Catholics may be surprised by that notion, thinking perhaps that Catholic teaching favors the “divine right of kings” or similar ideas–or at least that that represents the ideal political order. But in fact this is not so. On this point, Father Charles quotes St. Robert Bellarmine in his work De Membris Ecclesiae: “The political power rests immediately, as in its subject, in the whole multitude of the people, for the power comes from God, and God, having assigned it to no particular man, must have given it to the multitude.”

Thus, the ruler rules, in this sense, by the consent of the governed (otherwise known as “popular sovereignty”). Moreover, not only the particular ruler but even the particular form of government is determined by the governed: “It is obvious that it rests with the people as a whole to decide whether they should have a king, or consuls, or other magistrates. Furthermore, the people can change their government from a monarchy to an aristocracy or democracy or the other way round. It is quite true that all power comes from God, but that of temporal princes is derived from God, not immediately but through the consent of human wills” (as quoted in James Brodrick S.J., The Life and Work of Blessed Robert Bellarmine, 1542-1621, vol. 1).

Vatican II also teaches that rulers govern with the consent of the governed: “The political community and the public authority are based on human nature and so belong to an order established by God; nevertheless, the choice of political regimes and the appointment of rulers are left to the free decision of the citizens” (Gaudium et spes, no. 76).

Father Charles’ treatment of the political order covers other terrain we can mention only briefly here, including the value and dangers of the “social assistant state,” the grounds for a “just war” (he prefers the term “justified war”), and international relations. Two things that we must look at in more detail here, though, are 1) the relationship of Church and state, and 2) the extent to which there is a specifically Catholic political agenda.

On the first point—the relationship of Church and state – Father Charles presents what is called the Gelasian view. This view is based on the ideas of the fifth century Pope Gelasius, who held that God had established two powers on earth, the temporal power of the state and the sacred power of the hierarchy of the Church. Each had a relative independence and autonomy, under God. The Church has a certain primacy, of course, because she deals with the things of grace and the Age to Come. But that doesn’t mean she “calls the shots” in the secular realm or that she doesn’t have to submit to secular authority in its own domain.

Father Charles contrasts the Gelasian view with a society in which the Church and state are fused, whether in theory, in practice or both. Invariably, one or the other is distorted, usually the Church. That, in fact, is what eventually happened in a number of Catholic countries, argues Father Charles: “[A]fter the Protestant reformation, the need to obtain the co-operation of the Church monarchs for the evangelization of the new worlds being discovered, and to secure the faith in Europe from its enemies, put the Church and the Papacy in the thrall of [certain] monarchs.”

The French Revolution brought the end of that thralldom, contends Father Charles, only to threaten another one — secular or anti-religious states seeking to subordinate the Church. At first, the Church had trouble distinguishing genuinely democratic states open to, if not socially and culturally built upon, religious institutions and churches, from sheer secularism, religious indifferentism or anti-religious governments cloaking themselves in democratic garb. Only in the 1940s, writes Father Charles, did the Church become convinced that democratic countries could operate with the context of the natural and revealed moral law. Vatican II acknowledged the relative autonomy of the two spheres, the temporal power of the state and the spiritual authority of the Church’s hierarchy. Father Charles writes:

“So it was that the second Vatican Council could confidently reaffirm both the Church’s ancient belief in popular sovereignty and her own freedom in dealing with the political authorities, they respecting its autonomy and the Church respecting that of the secular order. Thus she could teach her children accordingly.”

A Political Agenda?

Vatican II clearly distinguishes between the purpose of the Church and the purpose of the state. That distinction brings us to a second important issue in the political realm–whether the Church has a specific political agenda. By “special political agenda,” I don’t mean general principles or ideals to be pursued, but concrete political objectives and policies. In this regard, Father Charles quotes a number of conciliar texts, two of the most important coming from Gaudium et Spes no. 74:

“The Church, by reason of her role and competence, is not identified in any way with the political community nor bound to any political system. She is at once a sign and a safeguard of the transcendent character of the human person.”

“The Church and the political community in their own fields are autonomous and independent from each other. Yet both are concerned with the personal and social vocation of the same men. The more that both foster healthier cooperation, the more effective will their service be exercised for the good of all.”

To these, we could add Gaudium et spes no 42: “Christ did not bequeath to the Church a mission in the political, economic or social order; the purpose he assigned to it was a religious one.”

An important corollary to these texts is the idea that bishops and priests should avoid partisan politics. “Members of the Church’s hierarchy do not have any direct authority over secular society,” writes Father Charles, “the role of popes, bishops and priests is to guide the laity through the moral problems involved in social living, not to play an active part themselves in solving them  … The clergy are entitled to their political opinions as private citizens, but they must not be politically partisan in exercising their office.”

Thus, it seems that the Church, as such, has no specific political agenda in the sense of concrete political objectives or policies. For the Church is not a political party, with a political platform. Nor are members of her hierarchical leadership ordinarily to participate in party politics or hold political office. The Code of Canon Law states, “Clerics are not to have an active role in political parties and in the direction of labor unions unless the need to protect the rights of the Church or to promote the common good requires it in the judgment of the competent ecclesiastical authority” (CIC 287 § 2). (CIC 288 exempts permanent deacons from this restriction.)

Yet should we conclude that Catholicism has nothing to say to the temporal order? Not at all. For, as we have seen, the Church proclaims the principles that promote the dignity and rights of the human person and the common good of society. Furthermore, according to Gaudium et spes, lay Catholics are specifically called “to impress the divine law on the affairs of the earthly city” (no. 43). The idea here is that laity, properly formed in the faith by the Church’s Magisterium, will apply the Gospel to the problems of the world and work for solutions compatible with God’s law. While it isn’t usually the business of the Church’s hierarchy to get involved in specific political proposals, it is very much the right and the duty of the laity to do so.

There is another way to consider the fact that the Church has no specific political agenda–from the diversity of political views among her members. To be sure, the Church’s social teaching gives us some essential principles for a just political community, principles that every Catholic should accept; nevertheless, there is no elaborate schema of the one and only Catholic official political order every Catholic should embrace. Catholics can and do often differ about how best to apply their principles to the concrete political order. Again, Father Charles quotes Vatican II and then Pope Paul VI on the point:

“Christians must recognize the legitimacy of different opinions with regard to temporal solutions, and respect citizens who, even as a group, defend their points of view by honest methods” (Gaudium et spes, no. 75).

“In concrete situations, and taking account of the solidarity in each person’s life, one must recognize a legitimate variety of possible options. The same Christian faith can lead to different commitments. The Church asks an effort at mutual understanding of the other’s position and motives: a loyal examination of one’s behavior and its correctness will suggest to each one an attitude of profound charity” (Octogesima Adveniens, no. 50).

Thus, two Catholics, equally committed to the Church’s social teaching, might arrive at very different conclusions about how best to implement that teaching and what sort of laws and public policies will do so. Unless a law or situation is itself the embodiment of a Catholic principle or a violation of it — as, say, in the case of legalized abortion – or unless the solution to a problem is obvious and without room for legitimate differing judgments of fact, there will not be a single Catholic position on a political issue. Thus, as Gaudium et Spes stated:

“Often enough the Christian view of things will itself suggest some specific solution in certain circumstances. Yet it happens rather frequently, and legitimately so, that with equal sincerity some of the faithful will disagree with others on a given matter. Even against the intentions of their proponents, however, solutions proposed on one side or another may be easily confused by many people with the Gospel message. Hence it is necessary for people to remember that no one is allowed in the aforementioned situations to appropriate the Church’s authority for his opinion. They should always try to enlighten one another through honest discussion, preserving mutual charity and caring above all for the common good” (no. 43).

Make no mistake. The hierarchy of the Church has the right and responsibility to denounce particular evils — even particular laws and public policies that promote evil – when fundamental human rights or the salvation of souls requires it (GS 76 § 5; CCC 2420). For example, the U.S. bishops are well within their rights, as a matter of church law as well as civil law, to criticize laws permitting abortion or euthanasia. Moreover, there is nothing in church law or in the nature of the episcopal office that forbids a bishop from denouncing a particular public policy, even a particular politician or party, when a grave evil is being promoted. Indeed, one can argue that, all other things being equal, a bishop is obliged to do so in such a circumstance.

What Catholic social teaching rejects is the idea that there is an elaborate platform on the wide range of social issues which represents “the” Catholic position on all important social and political matters or that the hierarchy, as such, is competent to provide specific policy solutions to all of those issues. It is the provenance of the laity, not the clergy, to develop and propose such solutions, and at times members of the laity may differ about what constitutes the best solution, even though they agree about the principles the correct solution should rest upon.

Imposing Religion?

But does Christian involvement — whether by the hierarchy or the laity – violate the relative autonomy of political society? Does it amount to an unjust imposition of a particular religious point of view on others who don’t share that religious perspective? The answer to both questions is “no” for the following reason.

As Father Charles makes clear, the principles of Catholic social teaching are, by and large, accessible to non-Catholics. They are found in the natural law, inscribed in the human heart. When the Catholic Church presents social principles or when well-formed Catholic laymen espouse certain public policies, they do so in terms that are at least, in principle, public. That is, capable of being understood and agreed upon, without prior commitment to articles of a particular religious faith. Consequently, it is sheer nonsense when a so-called Catholic politician says, for example, “I accept the Church’s social teaching. And I am personally opposed to abortion. But I can’t impose my religious views on others.”

First, because one doesn’t have to be a Catholic or accept the teaching authority of the Church to see that abortion is wrong. People of other religious traditions or no religion at all oppose abortion. Second, because if someone truly accepts Catholic social teaching, then he also accepts the idea that unborn children are human persons with a natural right to life that the state is obliged to protect. For the genuine Catholic politician, then, opposition to legalized abortion can’t be merely a matter of personal religiosity or private faith; it must also be a matter of public policy and natural human rights — the right to life for all human beings. That is something a truly Catholic politician can no more ignore than he can ignore the basic human equality of the races or of men and women.

It’s the Economy

Controversies regarding Catholic teaching on civil and political society often pale compared to disputes about the economic sphere. The 1970s and 1980s saw the rise of liberation theology, which tried to synthesize Marxism and Christianity. About the same time and at the other end of the ideological spectrum, some proponents of economic liberalism or free market capitalism attempted to reconcile Catholicism and their economic views. The collapse of Communism, in 1989, sounded the death knell for liberation theology, already gravely wounded by the Magisterium’s staunch opposition through the 1980s. The effort to harmonize free market capitalism and Catholicism, however, persists. While some see Pope John Paul II’s 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus as vindication of that enterprise, others reject the claim, arguing against the idea that there have been any radical revisions of Catholic teaching by the Polish Pope in favor of free market capitalism.

An Introduction to Catholic Social Teaching avoids taking explicit sides in the finer points of that debate, although it is certainly sensitive to the problems big government and the “social welfare state” can cause. Instead, it focuses on what the Magisterium has actually said about the economic sphere and the social principles that ought to operate therein. Father Charles begins by explaining the purpose of the economy, quoting a 1952 address by Pope Pius XII:

The purpose of the economic and social organization is to provide its members and their families with all the goods which the resources of nature and of industry, with the social organization of economic life, can produce for them. And, as is made clear in Quadragesimo Anno, these goods ought to be plentiful enough to satisfy all reasonable needs and to raise them to that level of comfort which, if used wisely, is far from being an obstacle to virtue but rather a valuable help to it.

Thus, Catholicism is not pie-in-the-sky-in-the-sweet-by-and-by-when-you-die religion. Catholics should not be embarrassed by the fact the economy exists for people to make money and to tend to their material needs. Nor should we be bashful about advocating that everyone should have a basic level of material wealth sufficient to meet his fundamental human needs. Christians aren’t supposed to be “heavenly minded” in such a way that we’re “no earthly good.” Our Lord’s words, “Blessed are the poor,” don’t mean that human poverty and want are inherently good or that the Church ought not to seek to encourage social conditions that alleviate them. Neither do they mean that charity and charity alone is to be the mechanism by which man’s material needs are met.

The Church’s economic teaching begins with man and his work. Writes Father Charles, “If the end of the economy is to satisfy the human need for the goods required for decent existence, then the essential means to that end is labour.” He goes on to note, “Work has a spiritual as well as an economic significance. It is man, made in God’s image, who works and so shares in the creative activity of his maker, who is depicted in the scriptures as working in the creation of his world.”

Thus, work is man’s way of collaborating with God in creation. In Christ, it has been elevated to a participation in the new creation. But work also has a punitive element, observes Father Charles. The toil aspect of work is the result of man’s Fall, and work remains liable to inflicting hardship on man. When such hardship can’t be eliminated, it can be united to the work of Christ and thereby can become redemptive.

Father Charles stresses the Church’s teaching on priority of the laborer over his labor, the producer over his production. This runs against materialism of any form, whether Marxism or free-market consumerism. At the same time, the Church affirms the right to own property and to make a profit in business. Although God gave the whole world to man for common use, this “universal purpose of created goods,” as it is sometimes called, doesn’t preclude private ownership and profit making. Indeed, private ownership of goods is a natural right and businesses need to make a profit in order support the owner and to ensure the stability of employment for workers.

Yet when private business arrangements and the free market do not ensure people that basic standard of material existence which every man should have, there is a role for the state to intervene. As John Paul II has taught, “The market must be appropriately controlled by the forces of society and by the state so that the basic needs of the whole society are satisfied” (Centesimus Annus, no. 35). The twin principles that we have already considered, solidarity and subsidiarity, both require that, and regulate how, the state should intervene. As we have seen, the principle of subsidiary aims at aiding people in such a way that they eventually cease to need assistance. But that doesn’t relegate such assistance to the private sphere alone. Where necessary, the state can and must intervene.

Father Charles also stresses the importance of freedom in the economic order. While no neo-liberal or economic libertarian, he nonetheless asserts, “Economic society must be based on responsible freedom if it is to do its job of meeting the material needs of the people in a manner which respects the human needs of those who work within it. Individuals must have the freedom to choose what work they do, and the freedom to own productive goods and work them for profit.”

While the economy of a nation is important, economic issues aren’t restricted to the market within a country; they also arise on the international level. There are issues of poverty and economic underdevelopment in specific countries, and there is also the issue of wealthier countries’ responsibilities with respect to helping poor nations to develop. With respect to development, the question of overpopulation is often raised.

Father Charles debunks the myth of global overpopulation, but also addresses the reality of underdevelopment, especially in Third World countries. He doesn’t ignore the impact of population on the standard of living, but he argues, “Every country needs a population policy, some to check decline, others to control growth, according to different circumstances – but the means must always be worthy of human dignity and not contrary to it.” That proviso excludes abortion and contraception as legitimate means to control population growth in a country.


Thus, Catholic social teaching has much to say to the three dimensions of social life–the civic, the political and the economic. We have only considered the highlights of that teaching, contained in Father Charles’ slim volume. We have seen that the teaching of the Church doesn’t provide a blueprint for the perfect society, nor a detailed political agenda to be implemented through the ballot box. What it does provide are concrete principles that should operate in any society, based on the fact that societies are composed of people, made in the image of God and persons, the subjects of rights and responsibilities. And we have also seen that Catholic principles apply to civil, political and economic societies.

This essay began by noting a gross ignorance of Catholic social teaching among typical, Mass-going Catholics. An Introduction to Catholic Social Teaching is one effort to reduce that ignorance. In addition to such introductory works, magisterial documents on Catholic social teaching should also be read. Two good places to begin are the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the newly released Compendium of Catholic Social Teaching. If Catholics use such valuable resources Catholicism’s “best kept secret” will be secret no longer.

Read Part One of “What Is Catholic Social Teaching?”

Mark Brumley is a former member of the Catholics for the Common Good Advisory Board and President of Ignatius Press

Copyright © 2008 by Ignatius Press, posted with permission

This article originally appeared in The Catholic Faith magazine.