Catholic Culture Dedication
Catholic Culture Dedication

Principled Catholic Social Action

By Peter Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Nov 02, 2005

I’ve now written two articles on Catholic social principles, and no doubt to many of you it sounded like theory for persons, but left out personal activity. Many are frustrated at the fact that I’ve left out all the “solid stuff”. Basically, I’ve committed the sin of criticizing without providing a solution, or at the least, I’ve charged people up without giving practical suggestions about how to convert energy into action.

I’m not about to offer up my blueprint for a successful modern society that is founded on the truths of Christ (not for free, anyway). But I can tell you what all Catholics are responsible for, and then break down specific additional responsibilities by group.

All Catholics: Faith, Hope, Charity

For the purpose of this discussion, let’s assume this: we’re all aware that Catholics are required to exercise the theological virtues of Faith, Hope, and Love. The extent to which we cultivate these virtues will determine the extent of our success in bringing society to Christ.

All Catholics are called to believe in everything that the Church teaches in matters of faith and morals without exception. We are called to be firm in our Faith, to not permit it to become corrupted in our minds and hearts. No Catholic may sacrifice any portion of the Faith in favor of other false goods, whether these are individual goods or common goods.

All Catholics are called to hope in the resurrection of the just, and reaffirm our Faith by means of that hope. No Catholic may despair of the saving power of grace that comes from our loving Creator.

All Catholics are called to love the Lord our God with our whole heart, soul, and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. No Catholic is permitted to hate (or, in other words, hold in contempt) God or his neighbor.

Basically, personal conversion and evangelization are at the heart of social justice. For a fuller treatment read The Truth About Catholic Social Teachings.

The Clergy and the Laity

John Paul II wrote, “It goes without saying that part of the responsibility of pastors is to give careful consideration to current events in order to determine the new requirements of evangelization. However, such an analysis is not meant to pass definitive judgments, since this does not fall within the Magisterium’s specific domain.” (Centesimus Annus)

So conversion and evangelization are at the heart of social justice, but it does not fall within the bounds of the Magisterium to pass definitive judgments on its specific implementations. This relates to a point made in my previous article: the Church (Magisterium) rarely gives a particular judgment on the inherent goodness of a particular social structure, but will make a judgment regarding its fruits if the evil being produced by it is gravely manifest. Indeed, this leads one to ask:

What roles are allotted to the clergy and the laity in social action?

The bishops and the clergy fulfill the primary roles of being instructive and supportive: instructive, in that they are required to form men in the teachings of Christ, to “influence the heart and mind” (Leo XII, Rerum Novarum); supportive, in that the clergy nourishes the actions of the laity with approval of good works, spiritual guidance, and the administering of the sacraments.

However, the bishops and the clergy as the intermediary of the Church are restricted in scope. The Congregation for Doctrine and the Faith (CDF) summarizes this quite clearly:

It is not for the pastors of the Church to intervene directly in the political construction and organization of social life. This task forms part of the vocation of the laity acting on their own initiative with their fellow citizens…. The distinction between the supernatural order of salvation and the temporal order of human life must be seen in the context of God’s singular plan to recapitulate all things in Christ. Hence in each of these spheres the lay person, who is at one and the same time a member of the Church and a citizen of his country, must allow himself to be constantly guided by his Christian conscience. (Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation)

In other words, it is up to the clergy to form the human conscience; it is up to the laity to act in accordance with its properly formed conscience and select the policies and structures necessary to carry out particular tasks. The CDF further states that the education derived from the Church’s social teachings has a stimulating effect by which man may form his character, deepen his spiritual life, and acquire technical and scientific skills.

The Laity, Deconstructed

For the purposes of this discussion, I’m dividing the laity into three groups. Please note that persons may belong to more than one group (either simultaneously, or sequentially), and that individuals belonging to each group have the ability to act as an individual or as part of the group, or a subset of the group as joined together by common interest. In this section, I’m drawing heavily on Rerum Novarum.

The first group is our elected leaders. As has been stated in previous articles, they have the primary responsibility of establishing just laws without making the government structure an end in and of itself. Read the previous article for general principles by which these persons are expected to operate in their pursuit of the common good. This group is also referred to as “the State”.

The second group is those with positions of eminence: those who by virtue of their intellect, position of influence, or wealth are ideally situated to champion the interests of society, particularly the less for fortunate. Leo XII writes of those in this group who rightly exercise their duties, “They have taken up the cause of the working man, and have spared no efforts to better the condition both of families and individuals; to infuse a spirit of equity into the mutual relations of the employer and the employed.”

The third group is the workers. The importance and the dignity of work are stressed continuously in the social teachings of the Church, and working men and women are to be highly respected as those who compose the fabric of society. In the interests of furthering the common good, or also assisting in the establishment of this “spirit of equity”, the workers may unite. In these instances, they are bound to abide by the tenets of the Gospel and refrain from hatred or violence.

In this endeavor of the working man, both those in positions of eminence and the State have an obligation to render appropriate assistance.

Persons of eminence offer supportive aid, whether it is through charitable giving, counsel, or advocacy—for it is a common goal of all mankind that each man of integrity be provided with “fitting and profitable employment”. Leo XIII comments on the role of the working man as being important to the health of the nation, stating that while they might not affect the nation’s future as directly as men of greater influence, the latter owe a devotion to the interests of the former.

Leo XIII comments on the role of the state, “The State should watch over these societies of citizens banded together in accordance with their rights, but it should not thrust itself into their peculiar concerns and their organization, for things move and live by the spirit inspiring them, and may be killed by the rough grasp of a hand from without.” Again, from Leo XIII:

To sum up, then, We may lay it down as a general and lasting law that working men's associations should be so organized and governed as to furnish the best and most suitable means for attaining what is aimed at, that is to say, for helping each individual member to better his condition to the utmost in body, soul, and property. It is clear that they must pay special and chief attention to the duties of religion and morality, and that social betterment should have this chiefly in view; otherwise they would lose wholly their special character, and end by becoming little better than those societies which take no account whatever of religion.

The driving force behind these portions of the social encyclicals, particularly Rerum Novarum, is not to argue for the abolition of societal classes (as viewed from an economic or intellectual standpoint). Rather, the Pope desires that all men be united in common interest (sanctification and respect for human dignity, the latter including the right to pursue honest and profitable labor), and that all “classes” strive to live the tenets of the Gospel.

Final Points

First, I hope that this article has helped to add some practical dimension to earlier discussion. Those who were looking for particular judgments on current national policies will not find them here. However, among these articles I hope you will find the basis for making your own sound judgments.

Second, I know that some of the statements in the previous section of this article will generate a lot of comments and questions regarding the United States government’s allowance of the outsourcing of jobs to foreign workers living either in the U.S. or overseas. This is a topic for another article, which would examine the Church’s teachings and recommendations regarding human good, national good, international good, the relationships among these terms, and what the Church has had to say about them. Finally, for those who will make the argument that one who has never been poor cannot understand the plight of the poor (and therefore has no business writing this article), I can only state that my ability to understand the plight of the poor is less limited than my ability to understand the sufferings of Christ. I admit that I fail to fully comprehend the sufferings of Christ, and that because of that I have without a doubt contributed to His sufferings. The same could be said of myself vis-à-vis the poor. However, that does not prevent me from accurately relating to you what the Church has had to say about the matter.

Once again, for edification and also enjoyment, I encourage all to read the documents in question.

Rerum Novarum Centesimus Annus Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation


Peter Mirus is a business, marketing, and technology consultant with more than 20 years of experience working with companies and nonprofits, ranging from start-ups to large international organizations. From 2004-2014 he contributed articles on the Catholic Faith, culture, and business to the website.
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