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The Problem with Catholic Social Teaching

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Aug 21, 2014

Long-time readers will know of my respect for Samuel Gregg, director of research at the Acton Institute. Not only do we have a number of his articles on social-economic-political issues in our library, but I favorably reviewed his book Tea Party Catholic last December (see Political principles rooted in Christ? This is not easy.). Now Gregg has a new article in the latest issue of First Things entitled Correcting Catholic Blindness (the full text is not yet available free of charge).

Gregg’s thesis is very much on target. Insofar as Catholic social teaching goes beyond strict principles to assess specific social, economic and political policies, it has too often tended to see the possibilities with a kind of tunnel vision. It sees (or rather its writers tend to see) through the lens of “what might be loosely labeled a mildly center-left Western European consensus.” Gregg would like to move Catholics—including the popes and bishops who formulate and express Catholic social teaching—to be “more attentive to developments that continue, both positively and negatively, to affect millions of peoples’ economic well-being.”

In other words, when it comes to social teaching, Samuel Gregg wants the Church (and Catholics generally) to pay attention to what actually does and does not work.

Catholic social teaching, even at the Magisterial level, invariably addresses two things, only one of which enjoys the protection of the Holy Spirit. The first is the moral principles which must govern our social, economic and political affairs—principles like the universal destination of goods, solidarity and subsidiarity. The second is the prudential application of these principles to real situations in the real world. The former enjoys the protection of the Holy Spirit; the latter depends on practical wisdom.

These prudential judgments may be colored by all kinds of irrelevant and even unworkable assumptions, as when Pope Paul VI stressed the need for government-to-government foreign aid, from first world to third world nations, in Populorum Progressio. This political and economic practice would seem to serve the principles of solidarity and the universal destination of goods. But as a practical matter, it has seldom been helpful and often makes things worse. For one thing, it has a marked tendency to shore up tyranny without ever reaching those it is supposed to help.

I have tried in various ways over the years to address the frequently inadequate practical recommendations found in documents which express Catholic social teaching. How long, for example, did it take twentieth-century popes to recognize the very real problems and even dangers posed by their own constant emphasis on action by the State? Finally, in 1991, John Paul II put his pontifical finger on the problem:

Malfunctions and defects of the Social Assistance State are the result of inadequate understanding of the tasks proper to the State. Here again the principle of subsidiarity must be respected…. By intervening directly and depriving society of its responsibility, the Social Assistance State leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies, which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients, and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending. (Centesimus Annus #48)

Nearly a quarter of a century has passed. But how often do Western bishops in particular continue to ignore subsidiarity in their comments, recommendations and lobbying efforts for action at the highest political level! All too commonly they advocate practical strategies that actually undermine the social strengths they wish to build.

A Caveat about Competence

Now back to Samuel Gregg: Insofar as Gregg might want an awareness of what actually works to be more frequently reflected in official Church documents and episcopal interventions, a caveat is in order. In one sense, this is exactly what we do not want popes and bishops to attempt. They have no special advantage in perceiving what actually works, or in determining which morally-neutral socio-economic policies ought to be pursued in a particular time and place.

By the Church’s own doctrinal teaching, to figure out “what actually works” in the temporal order is the competence of the laity. The essential role of the clergy in this process is to provide the sound spiritual and moral formation the laity need to secure their practical judgments within this context of Christian principles. This is why, as Catholics, we are obliged to adhere to the principles of Catholic social teaching, but not at all obliged to accept or work toward the policy recommendations that popes and bishops may seem to prefer.

Urging popes and bishops to both broaden their pragmatic horizons and become more practically specific might just be a zero sum game. It may emphasize a task for which they have no competence at the expense of a task that is rightfully their own.

On the other hand, insofar as Gregg would prefer that all Catholics, including ecclesiastical teachers, be more attentive to what actually works, and less attentive to the “mildly center-left Western European consensus” that so often seeps unbidden into official statements, this is a consummation devoutly to be desired. Here I will only stress that it is not always easy to see what actually works, or what will work, or what works best. Moreover, we must acknowledge that the social order always involves trade-offs. Every strategy has pros and cons.

For this reason, we can always find some particular problem which remains in, or is exacerbated by, or is even created through any social, economic, or political policy. Thus, driven by my own pet concerns, I am perfectly capable of condemning as a failure (and even as an immoral failure) a system which is wildly successful except for the one thing that concerns me. This, of course, is another example of the problem of blinders—the inability to see the forest because of a disproportionate focus on particular trees, like a race horse that can see the perfection yet to be attained, and not what has already been accomplished.

The key point, again, is to remember there is no doctrinal content, and hence no hierarchical competence, in purely prudential judgments about the social order.

Happily, in the service of a general broadening of Catholic vision, Gregg spends most of his article arguing—no, actually plausibly demonstrating, with plenty of examples—that the heavily interventionist and corporatist policies common both in Western Europe and under various near-totalitarian regimes around the world simply do not work. By contrast, as he also demonstrates, economic growth in otherwise similar settings tends to be robust wherever these policies have been avoided or scaled back. (Note: In this context, “corporatist” does not refer to business corporations. It means State management of the social order as if it were a single corporate body.)

But while this is something Catholics need to see instead of employing the “center-left Western European consensus” as blinders, it is not something on which the Magisterium of the Church can pronounce, nor on which popes and bishops should be . . . pontificating. I do not mean that popes and bishops should never advert to practical reality; their office demands that they prick our consciences and remind us of key principles whenever they see these principles being ignored in real situations, much as a local parish priest ought to call out his parishioners for selfishness or dishonesty. Such a prophetic voice is highly salutary whenever the laity do not, in large measure, have their hearts set on the right things—for example when politics seems to run on moral error, prejudice, private interest, or entitlements.

So Gregg is deeply right in this sense: When our shepherds must speak out in this way, one would prefer that their moral interventions be triggered by a prudent assessment of real causes and effects, and not by any ideology, including the aforementioned “consensus”.

Removing the Blinders

Popes and bishops—just like the rest of us—often fail to see how many of their assumptions are conditioned by the micro-cultures in which they cut their teeth. In any case, apart from the moral principles which always govern Catholic social teaching—which the clergy should by no means allow their flocks to ignore in practice—real competence in social, economic and political policy matters lies with the laity. It may seldom be competence in the sense of true expertise and clear ability, but it is at least a genuine competence by virtue of the design of Almighty God, Who has seen fit to entrust the laity with the ordering of society, for the common good and His own glory.

Therefore, the first responsibility of those who engage in Catholic social teaching by virtue of their office in the Church is to understand the nature and the limits of their own competence, and so to avoid slipping from moral instruction into policy prescription. I do not wish to imply that Gregg misses this point, but I do wish to emphasize it over everything else. There is serious danger in asking Churchmen to be practical. The real need is for practical men to be moral.

With this firmly in mind, I agree with Gregg’s admirable conclusion: The Church needs to recognize that she has “nothing doctrinally invested” in most of the elements which make up the “center-left Western European consensus”.

That consensus is seldom driven by principle, and this recognition would at once enable us more easily to identify where the consensus itself actually violates the very social principles which the Church has always taught. Again, the almost complete absence of the principle of subsidiarity in this consensus comes to mind, for, as a practical matter, every policy founders when subsidiarity is absent.

At the same time, in Gregg’s closing words, this recognition would also allow…

…the “seeing” of Catholic social teaching to take wider account of the empirical without being empiricist, to look at what actually works without lapsing into pragmatism, and to remove some of the conceptual blinkers that have inhibited many Catholics’ vision of how to transform the world’s economies into arenas of human flourishing. The well-being of the poor surely demands nothing less.

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Show 5 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - Sep. 08, 2014 6:18 PM ET USA

    Social problems arise from problems with money. Money problems are caused by powerful people creating advantages for themselves at the expense of others. A solution is offered by Social credit. Social credit was considered in 1933 but a socialistic program funded by taxes was adopted and is our current Social Security program. All know that SS is failing but we have forgotten about Social credit. The power to control people is what government does best.

  • Posted by: skall391825 - Aug. 22, 2014 11:39 PM ET USA

    Too bad we can't make that required reading in all Catholic schools, and Georgetown, too.

  • Posted by: Baseballbuddy - Aug. 22, 2014 3:14 PM ET USA

    Thank you so much for this, Jeff!

  • Posted by: the.dymeks9646 - Aug. 22, 2014 8:46 AM ET USA

    I too hold Mr Gregg in high regard. Theoretically, I also acknowledge the fact the the Church needs to teach and the laity needs to act prudentially. The problem though is that so many of the Church don't know or understand the depth of the Catholic social teaching. I have tried unsuccessfully for years to have a course on these teachings in my parish, but to no avail. Maybe the teaching can begin when a bishop or two start formulating practical solutions that counter the prevailing solutions.

  • Posted by: edward.hadas2857 - Aug. 22, 2014 4:06 AM ET USA

    As a centre-left Catholic European of some years (raised as a secular Jewish left-wing American), I worry about confusing the great virtues of subsidiarity with an enthusiasm for "free markets", a concept which is really hard to reconcile with anything Catholic or with much of any successful modern economy. But I share the frustration with the narrow vision of many bishops!

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