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Rules for Good Catholic Social Teaching

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles ) | Jul 12, 2012

Last year’s convention of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars was devoted to “Catholic Social Teaching and Economics”. The proceedings have just been published, and the lead essay (originally a “paper” read at the Convention), by Notre Dame professor Gerard V. Bradley, is entitled “The USCCB and Catholic Social Teaching”. This is a topic dear to our hearts, and Bradley’s exposition is brilliant. But as it is not available online, I will take the liberty of summarizing Dr. Bradley here. This is not my own work.

Rules of Engagement

Bradley begins by noticing (along with everyone else) that the American Catholic Bishops have created a large and diverse body of documents and pronouncements under the loose heading of Catholic social teaching, and that while some of it is quite good, much of it is confusing, deficient or simply irrelevant. Therefore he recommends the following rules to ensure that the bishops will consistently do a better job. He discusses these at some length, going beyond what I can cover in this space. But the following will give a good indication of their merit.

  1. In making social statements, the bishops must not misstate or mangle Catholic doctrine. Bradley regards documents such as Always Our Children (1997) (which was actually corrected by the Vatican), the 2000 pastoral on criminal justice (Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration) and When I Call for Help: A Pastoral Response to Domestic Violence Against Women (2002) as stellar examples of ignorance of this first rule.
  2. No bishop should vote in favor of a social document unless he has read every line of it, and unless he is convinced that everything asserted in it is true. This would solve the problem of runaway staffs and vacuous compromises. If the USCCB cannot speak clearly, it should not speak at all.
  3. The USCCB should limit itself to three modes of expression in Catholic social teaching:
    • The Prescriptive Genre: Stating the moral norms relevant to a social question, and perhaps also applying them but, if so, applying them to “hypothesized factual scenarios”, because this clarifies moral teaching by eliminating reliance on a potentially faulty or contested understanding of actual conditions.
    • The Incompatibility Genre: Identifying the anthropological, metaphysical and ethical presuppositions of a particular proposal, practice, institution, or body of political or social thought, in order to indicate in what ways a particular approach may be incompatible with Catholic teaching.
    • The Discernment Genre: Interpreting what we might call the “signs of the times”, that is, emerging situations and needs, which call for a particular Catholic moral response. Pope Paul VI gave an example of this when he articulated a growing concern about globalism as it affected the integral development of peoples. But Bradley rightly points out that such discernment is by its very nature uncertain and must be done with great care. It carries a severe danger of bishops overstepping their bounds, and must be used sparingly.

Timely Social Teaching

Next, Bradley turns his attention to the question of when the bishops should engage in social teaching. He rightly points out that a USCCB intervention in a matter of Catholic social teaching is never required by canon law or by “inalienable pastoral responsibilities”. After all, the entire purpose of the USCCB is to be a support and aid to the ministries of individual diocesan ordinaries. Pastoral responsibility is theirs alone. Therefore the key question is not whether Catholic social teaching by the USCCB is ever necessary, but rather under what circumstances it is appropriate.

Here Bradley advises that it is appropriate when and only when three conditions can be met: First, the topic must be one of national scope, such that a common pronouncement would not interfere with the pastoral needs and concerns of bishops in particular local areas. Second, the bishops must be able to “conscientiously” issue the document in question. That is, they must have the necessary understanding of the topic, and the presentation of the text and the interventions which go into the discussion of the text must form a body of material which it is reasonable for a bishop to read, evaluate and critically judge. Second, a very substantial majority must be able to affirm a clear and vigorous text as true and pastorally needed, as opposed to creating consensus documents which get through by watering things down and amending them until the meaning and purpose is no longer clear.

Reasons for a Limited Competence

In the third part of his essay, Bradley explains that the very limited competence he ascribes to the bishops when contemplating Catholic social teaching is actually rooted in the nature of Catholic social teaching itself, but in a way that is often neglected. There are several reasons for this. The first is that the prudential character of the proper application of Catholic social teaching—the need to assess real situations and their possibilities—is actually the province of the laity. If the bishops do not proceed very carefully in their own articulation of social teaching, they will frequently run roughshod over the laity in many areas in which it is really the layman’s competence to choose the best feasible course of action.

Second, as Bradley puts it, “it is precisely by being ‘the Church’ that its pastors contribute mightily—and distinctively, and irreplaceably—to the political common good.” A strong and healthy Church, populated by well-formed, courageous and active laity, is the greatest gift the bishops can possibly bestow upon the larger social order. The Church’s pastors have the primary responsibility, rooted in the will of God and the Church’s fundamental constitution, of teaching, ruling and sanctifying the souls in their care for their spiritual growth, union with Christ and eternal salvation. Bishop are oriented to the Church herself, not outward to the larger social order. This latter orientation, again, belongs to the laity, and when it becomes the preoccupation of bishops and priests, the Church is weakened and becomes far less helpful to the world.

Finally, the separation of Church and State is original to Christianity; it is part of the Christian vision of man. In this sense, the limited competence of the bishops on social questions should not be seen as an unfortunate restriction but an important feature of the whole Christian dispensation. In this context, for example, teaching about religious liberty is absolutely essential, but teaching what legislation must be passed to assist the poor steps over a line that the American bishops have been far too prone to cross.

Intrinsic Morality

In the fourth and fifth sections of the essay, Dr. Bradley applies his principles to critique the American bishops’ performance in the recent political struggles over universal health care. This particular evaluation need not concern us here. Instead, I proceed to the sixth section, in which the author has been inspired particularly by the thought of Pope John Paul II. Here he stresses the importance of absolute moral norms to the health of the social order, and therefore the key role they must invariably play in Catholic social teaching.

In Evangelium Vitae, John Paul II wrote that “each individual in fact has moral responsibility for the acts which he personally performs; no one can be exempted from this responsibility, and on the basis of it everyone will be judged by God himself.” Now, as Bradley points out, the mission of the Church is to ensure that as many people as possible will be saved—to, in effect, prepare souls for judgment. And the Church’s greatest moral gift to the larger world is the certainty that no one is exempt from moral behavior: Not the rich, not the powerful, not the intellectual elite, not “the State”.

This is why John Paul taught in Sollicitudo Rei Socialis that the social doctrine of the Church “belongs to the field, not of ideology, but of theology and particularly of moral theology.” Therefore, Bradley suspects that the most important papal encyclical for Catholic social teaching is actually Veritatis Splendor, and in particular this passage:

When it is a matter of the moral norms prohibiting intrinsic evil, there are no privileges or exceptions for anyone. It makes no difference whether one is master of the world or the ‘poorest of the poor’ on the face of the earth. Before the demands of morality we are all absolutely equal…. [The] commandments of the second table of the Decalogue in particular—those which Jesus quoted to the young man of the Gospel (cf. Mt. 19:19)—constitute the indispensable rules of all social life…. [E]ven though intentions may sometimes be good, and circumstances frequently difficult, civil authorities and particular individuals never have authority to violate the fundamental and inalienable rights of the human person. (96-97)

This revolutionary Christian vision of man and society goes farther toward ensuring the common good than any ideology, or any specific prudential judgment, can possibly go. It is critical, Bradley argues, that the American bishops keep this vision firmly in mind.

Ways to Teach

Bradley concludes his outstanding essay by identifying three ways in which the bishops can and should promote Catholic social teaching without issuing documents, ways which may actually be more important than the documents themselves:

  1. The bishops must keep their own house in order, that is, those institutions which are quasi-branches of the Church, by which the Church participates in civil society. He is referring to officially Catholic institutional apostolates such as hospitals, universities and social services. If run properly, they provide a powerful witness to Catholic social teaching. Run improperly, as they have often been in America, they are poisonous.
  2. The bishops should educate the laity in their clear responsibility for taking the lead in implementing Catholic social teaching, by preaching and teaching about personal vocation.
  3. The bishops must inculcate an appreciation for the vision of the nascent Kingdom of God expressed in Vatican II’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes), which I will close this summary by quoting. This vision will serve as both an antidote to utopianism and an inspiration for a vibrant social order:
When we have spread on earth the fruits of nature and our enterprise—human dignity, sisterly and brotherly communion, and freedom—according to the command of the Lord and in his spirit, we will find them once again, cleansed this time from the stain of sin, illuminated and transfigured, when Christ presents to his Father an eternal and universal kingdom of truth and life…. Here on earth the kingdom is mysteriously present; when the Lord comes it will enter into its perfection. (39)

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Show 3 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Cornelius - Jul. 16, 2012 10:23 AM ET USA

    I haven't read Prof. Bradley's original treatment, but the summary of it here presents a healthy corrective, particularly the point about the Bishop's doing the laity's job and vesting particular prudential solutions (and very flawed ones at that) with the authority of the Episcopate. Few things (other than the sex scandal, of course) have done more to deflate the Bishop's moral authority than this masquerading of relentlessly statist solutions to every problem as irreformable teaching.

  • Posted by: ronaldruais1947 - Jul. 15, 2012 7:09 AM ET USA

    Dr. Mirus, thank you for the summary of Notre Dame Professor Gerard V. Bradley’s “The USCCB and Catholic Social Teaching”. I am looking forward to finding and reading the entire paper. I am not convinced that it is the sole responsibility of the Bishops to teach Catholic Social Teaching (CST). Too many Catholics do not pay attention at that level. That is after their minimum duty has been fulfilled they rarely if ever bother to look up, access or read a pastoral letter, not to mention an Encyclical.

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Jul. 13, 2012 12:33 PM ET USA

    You treat the whole subject matter far too mildly. The destructive consequences of the American bishops' over-reaching their legitimate authority in the American culture is already upon us. What is needed is a radical and immediate reversal of direction. That the bishops' governance of the Church in America has been sub-par is an understatement. To confess sin and place ourselves at the mercy of God is the only hope.

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