Catholic Social Teaching: An Account of Reality

Published January 29, 2022

The Catholic Thing

One of the challenges preventing a wider reception of the Church’s modern social teaching is that there is some confusion about just what Catholic social teaching is. In the most general sense, it’s that particular collection of papal teachings dealing with questions of politics and economics, beginning with Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum (1891) and continuing up through Pope Francis’ Fratelli Tutti (2020).

Of course, Leo XIII was hardly the first to teach about such things. Anyone with a passing familiarity with Aquinas, or Augustine, or John Chrysostom, or, for that matter, the Scriptures, knows this. Indeed, anyone who reads a social encyclical would know this, since the constant references to Scripture and Tradition are hard to miss.

The Church’s modern social teaching came about in response to a fundamental shift – a “revolution,” in the worlds of Rerum Novarum – in the way the world understands nature, particularly our own human nature. This revolution upended our conception of nature – and thus of society, the family, even the Church herself.

The result is a sort of Catch-22: while the Church could draw on her deep tradition to correctly diagnose the crisis facing society, she did so by relying on precisely the vision of human nature that the acids of modernity were dissolving. This dissolution was occurring as much through the influence of bad philosophy as through destructive habits and ways of living – not just “immorality” but also inhumane work conditions, economic hardship leading to family dissolution and dislocation, and more recently, the uncritical embrace of what Pope Francis has dubbed the “technocratic paradigm.”

Before the Church’s social teaching is prescriptive it is descriptive; before the Church tells us how human society ought to be ordered or arranged, she tells us something about what it means to be human and what it means to be social. Absent this anthropological grounding and this social ontology, the Church’s social teaching simply doesn’t make very much sense. Absent this grounding, the principles of Catholic social teaching – of all the Church’s moral teaching – are most at risk of being reduced to “a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently,” as Pope Francis once put it.

The result is that the Church offers an elegant, sustained diagnosis for a profound human crisis, but her remedies mostly rely on philosophical and theological foundations that the same crisis has rendered unintelligible. Insofar as people find social teaching unintelligible (or, at best, arbitrary) they simply stop paying attention.

Those less inclined to dismiss the Church’s teaching can make a different mistake, common even in Catholic circles. The Church’s social teaching is perceived to be as a collection of prohibitions and affirmations – policy positions, essentially – cobbled together by various popes over the years, to let Catholics and others know what we are for and what we are against. Such a collection of moral policies can change from one pontificate to the next the way a political party’s platform changes from one convention to the next or one administration to the next.

But the Church is not a political convention; her social teaching is not a party platform. When Catholics treat the social magisterium in this way, they only reinforce the notion that doctrine is at best a species of moralizing, at worst an act of power and manipulation, rather than what it is: an account of reality.

The primary challenge, then, is this: much of the world not only rejects Christian anthropology and social ontology – most of the world doesn’t even know what all those words (anthropology? ontology?) are supposed to mean.

The Church can talk all she wants about “intrinsic human dignity,” but if all the world hears is “People are special and have the right to be affirmed in their choices,” what good is that? The Church can insist that the “common good” is both real and discernable (however imperfectly) but what help is that if the world hears, “Majority opinion determines what is right”? The Church can speak all she wants about “natural law,” but what does that help if nature (including human nature) is presumed to be intrinsically meaningless and therefore ours to manipulate as we will?

And as Pope John Paul II insisted throughout his pontificate, anthropological questions are, in the Church’s understanding, always theological questions. This, too, is part of Catholic social teaching. In fact, it is the very heart of Catholic social teaching: “[The Church’s social teaching] proclaims God and his mystery of salvation in Christ to every human being, and for that very reason reveals man to himself. In this light, and only in this light, does it concern itself with everything else.”

In this light, we understand both our origin (created imago Dei, “in the image of God”) and our end (communion), both imperfectly here on Earth and in beatitude in the life to come. In this light, the irreducible dignity of the individual person shines out brighter when understood in the context of the communion for which he is made, and which constitutes his ultimate common good. In this light, the ordering of society – the family, the political community, the Church – ceases to be an exercise in conflict and becomes a harmony within a peaceful order. Sin mars all of this and precludes its fulfillment in this world. But the vision and the promise are there. The whole makes sense of the parts.

And yet. . .haven’t we just landed back where we began? With an elegant – and true – but ultimately ineffective answer to the crisis of the modern world?

Perhaps. But if a false notion of nature can be learned largely by living one way, then surely a true vision of human nature can be learned by living virtuously. The Church’s account of human nature is compelling, but unless it finds expression in saintly living, it remains an elegant abstraction.

That thought should be both an encouragement to hope. . .and a wake-up call to each one of us on whom that mission rests.

© 2022 The Catholic Thing.

Stephen P. White is executive director of The Catholic Project at The Catholic University of America and a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

*Image: The Transfiguration by Duccio (di Buoninsegna), c. 1307-11 [National Gallery. London]

Stephen P. White is a fellow in the Catholic Studies Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Mr. White’s work focuses on the application of Catholic social teaching to a broad spectrum of contemporary political and cultural issues. He is the author of Red, White, Blue, and Catholic (Liguori Publications, 2016).

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