Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

Catholic Social Teaching: Buried in the Bunker?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jan 04, 2010

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I get the bunker mentality, and I’m tempted to dig myself into a deeper hole. I’m referring here to a reflexive desire to hide from those issues which are raised first and most loudly by people who generally don’t share my values. Considerable experience tells me that I’m not the only one with this problem. For example, it affects almost all political discourse. If the opposition brought it up, it can’t be good. Sometimes it’s just a case of Not Invented Here syndrome. At other times, there are real obstacles to fruitful discussion.

Politicians frequently wait until their own group is in power, and then they bring up the opposition’s old ideas and call them their own. When you’re out of power, there is generally more to be gained by pointing out the hopeless inadequacy of the incumbents, which usually means denouncing some of the ideas you’ll take up later when you can lay a proper claim to them. But for those of us who pride ourselves on Catholic thought and commentary, that approach is self-defeating. A Catholic has no credibility if he takes a cafeteria approach to truth. A Catholic ought not to shop for ideas at a convenience store.

A couple of examples are in order. Consider Pope Benedict’s frequent addresses urging greater concern for the environment. Is he inadvertently aiding and abetting those who make a religion out of environmentalism, those who prefer whales to humans? The same problem arises with respect to concern for the poor. The Church’s social encyclicals always include passages that trouble those of us who have little love for secular liberals. Often it is secular liberals who propose the most aggressive social action on behalf of the poor, and they are the same people who are working overtime to destroy the family and eliminate the influence of Christianity in public life. It is particularly galling that those who talk most about remediation for the marginalized are generally in favor of the unrestricted slaughter of unborn children. Do we really want to strengthen their hand?

Benedict, of course, has a fourfold advantage over most of us lesser souls. He’s calm. He’s reflective. He’s concise. And he’s always on point. Gather me grace as I will, I don’t do nearly as well. In a recent audience Benedict said again that decisive action is essential to protect the environment and face the problems posed by dwindling resources. I’d have been just as likely to take the occasion to warn people that man’s influence on global warming is far from certain (which, characteristically, makes little difference to the Pope’s message). But the Pope said “all of us are responsible for the protection and care of the created world” and that “we can no longer do without a real change of outlook which will result in new lifestyles.”

Strip away the veneer of secular popularity from these ideas, and you’ll find hard-core Christianity. At the level of the veneer, we might say we can all handle new lifestyles as soon as the price of hybrids comes down, and this will put us one up in the neighborhood pecking order, too. But Benedict seems incapable of letting us glide comfortably along the surface of things. He continued: "If we should care for the creatures that surround us, what consideration should we have for people, our brothers and sisters! What respect for human life!” The particular context here was a plea to those in armed groups to forsake violence, but the message resonates strongly with his social encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, in which the Pope stated point blank that we can’t separate the social issues and the life issues. They depend on each other.

Unfortunately for most of us, however good our intentions and however comprehensive our ideas, it is difficult to avoid the crossfire of conflicting positions. Religious conservatives (I am using these words loosely; they aren’t universally descriptive) are very strong on the life issues, and they’re even statistically substantially more generous to the poor with their own funds than their secular liberal counterparts, but they typically do not have a strong public social message. Even if they believe that many liberal public policy recommendations on social problems are counter-productive, they spend little time promoting and emphasizing public policy options that will help. I raise my own hand here; my sights are mostly aimed elsewhere. But on the other side, things are even worse. Many if not most social programs proposed by secular liberals pose grave moral problems. Secular liberals don’t just ignore marriage, family and the right to life the way religious conservatives sometimes ignore the poor; they attack them at every turn.

This is enough to drive even the most well-meaning into the bunkers, complete with a steam shovel to dig them even deeper. Please, no more lame ideas from outside the comfort zone! Yet climbing out of the bunker is essential to forming an authentic Catholic culture. So what are we to do? That’s an excellent question for the new year. Bit by bit, expect answers at

Next in series: The First Principle of Catholic Social Concern

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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