Read like a Catholic: Avoid category mistakes in assessing the new encyclical.

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jun 17, 2015

Tomorrow we will have a new encyclical. Based on the earlier version leaked to Sandro Magister, it is going to be a fairly long one. Responsible commentators are using the leaked version to be able to respond more quickly to the encyclical when it appears, but they are holding their fire until they ascertain what is different in the final text. But the most important preparation for a new encyclical is to rid ourselves of our characteristic prejudices and reactions.

I’ve mentioned before that most Western readers—and certainly this is true of most Americans—tend to read papal social encyclicals through a lens which resolves all socio-economic and political issues into liberal and conservative characteristics. The primary interpretive framework is the secular left-right dialectic, because this is what we have inherited from the culture in which we have been formed. That culture does not see Christianity as a fertile ground for concepts which transcend the categories of left and right, concepts which are rooted first and foremost in Christ.

Another problem of receptivity is our fundamental discomfort with the nature of the Church’s social teaching, which is an exercise in the application of Divine principles (as revealed through Jesus Christ and the natural law) to the constantly changing situations we face “on the ground”. The truths which define Catholic social teaching are every bit as immutable as the truths which define the salvific plan of God and those which describe the moral law. The principle of the universal destination of goods is as certain as the Resurrection of Christ and the immorality of murder. The social requirement of solidarity is as clear and authoritative as are the Immaculate Conception and the condemnation of theft.

But the priorities which cause Church leaders, including the Pope, to bring some issues to the fore while paying relatively little attention to others are determined by an assessment of how serious various kinds of problems actually are right now. Moreover, the particular policies a Church leader, including the Pope, might recommend at any given moment depend on a prudential assessment of the causes of the identified problems and a practical selection of the most promising feasible solutions.

Category Mistake 1: Reading with Blinders

I am continually astonished at how often those who claim to be serious Catholics react against Catholic social teaching because it strikes them as either “conservative” or “liberal”. Nothing could be more calculated to demonstrate how captive they are to the categories of thought of the dominant secular culture. Thus an ostensibly Catholic reader may insist that the comments of Church leaders on the problem of immigration are to be rejected because they are “liberal”, or they may condemn the connections Church leaders draw between the decline of the family and poverty as “conservative”.

Catholic thought strives to perceive all of reality in the light of Christ, giving rise to a deeper understanding of human nature, the human condition, and human responsibility. Catholic thought is therefore especially fruitful in formulating principles and policies which tend toward human flourishing. Catholic faith, moral habits and thought give rise to all the various productive elements of a Catholic culture. Even though useful insights can come from any quarter, the last thing that one ought to do is to subject Catholic thought to the constraints of the weak and narrow categories common to cultures which attempt to describe reality without the help of God and grace.

The shadows of conservatism and liberalism looming over Catholic thought continually create problems, because these are essentially secular shadows. If your knees jerk when you read the new encyclical Laudato Si (Praise Be), beware. You are almost certainly committing this first category mistake.

Category Mistake 2: Reversing the Elements of Social Teaching

I am also continually astonished by the number of times people confuse the prudential judgments of Church leaders, including the Pope, with settled Catholic teaching. The moral principles at work in Catholic social teaching are binding on all. The prudential judgments are binding on nobody. Yet what we find is that people often elevate particular policy recommendations to the status of required Catholic teaching, while ignoring the principles which led to the recommendation as optional.

In some cases, this mistake is born quite simply and honestly of our desire to know exactly what we are supposed to do. If a pope writes (as Pope Benedict did write) that an international agency should be established to better ensure the moral regulation of international trade and finance, there will always be some Catholics who trumpet this idea as a requirement of the Faith. Yet they are blind to the principle of subsidiarity which does bind all Catholics. That principle does suggest that an international problem would require international cooperation, but it does not tell us whether the establishment of an international agency is prudent, or even feasible, at this time.

To take another case, if a pope writes (as Pope Leo XIII did write) that workers are entitled to living wages, there will always be some Catholics who insist that every employer is morally obliged to pay his employees no less than (say) $25.00 per hour. Here the principle of the universal destination of goods is binding on all Catholics and all employers, but how this translates into the ability of any particular employer to pay staff in particular circumstances involves many prudential complexities.

Similarly, if a pope writes (as Pope John Paul II did write) that severe deprivations of freedom and responsibility plague the modern “social assistance” State, there will always be some Catholics who insist that all welfare programs must be abolished. But it is a huge leap from the concepts of freedom (rooted in subsidiarity) and responsibility (rooted in solidarity) to particular political implementations of these principles, about which Catholics can and do disagree.

Of course, sometimes our reversal of what we are obliged to hold is not so honest and sincere. Thus, both conservatives and liberals tend to absolutize particular policy recommendations which fit their pre-conceived notions. Both also demonstrate an amazing selectivity concerning which principles they are willing to employ as the starting points of a fruitful discussion.

In any case, if you find your reception of Laudato Si is determined primarily by the specific prudential judgments it contains, then you have got hold of the wrong end of the stick. Understand and accept the principles at work in these judgments. Make sure you employ them going forward in figuring out your own best policy recommendations. But as for practical recommendations, Catholics are obliged only to take the Pope seriously and prayerfully, as befits his role as pastor and the resources of his office. They are not obliged to agree that his particular social policy recommendations are best suited to improve that actual situation on the ground. In fact, this sort of practical judgment is primarily the province of the laity.

Conclusion

In a nutshell: First, accept and learn from the principles; do not discount them through the application of categories of thought foreign to the Faith. Second, let the principles bear fruit in your own practical ideas and policies; seek to develop a Christian vision of the social order while recognizing that specific prudential proposals are always open to disagreement.

Finally, do not pre-judge Laudato Si. Beware of all advance commentators, all hasty conclusions, and all excitable readings which fail to recognize these category mistakes. Instead, when the encyclical is released, read it serenely, intelligently and prayerfully. Read it like a Catholic.

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 CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Jim.K - Jun. 19, 2015 9:45 PM ET USA

    This reminds me of the "debate" over Capital Punishment. After 40 or more years of differing opinions from priests and bishops I have no idea if the magisterium of the Church has actually taught a binding truth on that matter. I think this new encyclical will spark new debates between sincere Catholics about what we are "required" to believe. And what about JEB? Agree or disagree, were his comments acceptable or not for a practicing Catholic? Are observations on the weather a matter of Faith?

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Jun. 19, 2015 6:50 PM ET USA

    garedawg: I am very sorry that I took your comment as humor. To respond more seriously: Since the judgment of whether the globe is warming, and the judgment of whether human actions are causing it, depend entirely on human knowledge, and not on any revealed truth, papal infallibility does not come into play at all. Our moral response to whatever facts we can ascertain, of course, must (as always) be guided by the requirements of the natural law as elucidated by the Magisterium.

  • Posted by: garedawg - Jun. 19, 2015 1:51 AM ET USA

    Actually, I'm not joking this time. It's not clear to me which side of the line a statement of fact like "human activity is causing global warming" falls on. My apologies if it happens to be a stupid question; I'll take some time to read the encyclical itself.

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Jun. 18, 2015 5:39 PM ET USA

    garedawg: Hopefully, you're joking. Would such a determination come from Divine Revelation or natural law, or would it come from a prudential judgment based on one's finite grasp of human studies? The former lies within the Church's special competence over faith and morals; the latter is a purely human conclusion, subject to disagreement and revision. So the question answers itself.

  • Posted by: garedawg - Jun. 18, 2015 11:19 AM ET USA

    So if the encyclical states that man's activities are a major cause of global warming, is that a statement which is infallible or "to be definitively held by the Faithful"?