Reflections on Catholic social teaching

Rob Gasper
April 3, 2013
Reproduced with Permission
American Life League

Part 1: The Church's Social Mission and Authority

We can walk as much as we want, we can build many things, but if we do not profess Jesus Christ, things go wrong. We may become a charitable NGO, but not the Church, the Bride of the Lord. . . . When we do not profess Jesus Christ, we profess the worldliness of the devil, a demonic worldliness. - Pope Francis' homily preached to the cardinal electors the day following his election

Rarely a week goes by where I do not receive a call from a Catholic pro-life activist frustrated with the errors and excesses of fellow Catholics, be it a Catholic politician promoting abortion or a Catholic funding group giving money to causes allied directly with the culture of death. However, we Catholics in the pro-life movement must be humble enough to make sure there are no logs in our own eyes concerning our adherence to Catholic teaching. In this series of articles, we will examine Catholic social teaching in some detail, especially as it applies to re-establishing a culture of life and common pitfalls to which Catholics fall prey.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI succinctly laid out the threefold responsibility of the Church - proclaiming the word of God, celebrating the sacraments, and exercising the ministry of charity. As stated in the encyclical Deus Caritas Est, "These duties presuppose each other and are inseparable."

Resistance to this fundamental unity in the Church's mission has arisen in various forms from all parts of the ideological spectrum. On one hand, individualists and those of a more libertarian mindset would have the Church confined to only spiritual affairs, saying that she does not have the competence to pronounce with authority on temporal and economic matters. On the other, collectivists and those of a reductionary progressive bent proclaim agnosticism concerning spiritual things such as sin and would have the Church focus primarily on philanthropic work and on the liberation of peoples from political structures.

In response to the former, Pope Pius XI in Quadragesimo Anno answered that the Church does indeed have the competence to pronounce with authority on temporal and economic matters where there is an intersection with the moral law:

That principle which Leo XIII so clearly established must be laid down at the outset here, namely, that there resides in Us the right and duty to pronounce with supreme authority upon social and economic matters. Certainly the Church was not given the commission to guide men to an only fleeting and perishable happiness but to that which is eternal. Indeed "the Church holds that it is unlawful for her to mix without cause in these temporal concerns"; however, she can in no wise renounce the duty God entrusted to her to interpose her authority, not of course in matters of technique for which she is neither suitably equipped nor endowed by office, but in all things that are connected with the moral law.

Pius XI adds the caveat that the "techniques" or practical applications of economics and other temporal projects are subject to well-informed prudential judgment by competent authorities so long as the methods conform to the authoritative principles as set forth in authoritative Church teaching. So, for example, regarding immigration reform, a number of solutions could be morally entertained and debated so long as they conform to fundamental principles of human dignity and other authoritative moral teachings.

In response to those who would reduce the work of the Church to focus primarily on temporal liberation and philanthropic work, Pope Paul VI answered in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi :

We must not ignore the fact that many, even generous Christians who are sensitive to the dramatic questions involved in the problem of liberation, in their wish to commit the Church to the liberation effort are frequently tempted to reduce her mission to the dimensions of a simply temporal project. They would reduce her aims to a man-centered goal; the salvation of which she is the messenger would be reduced to material well-being. Her activity, forgetful of all spiritual and religious preoccupation, would become initiatives of the political or social order. But if this were so, the Church would lose her fundamental meaning. Her message of liberation would no longer have any originality and would easily be open to monopolization and manipulation by ideological systems and political parties. She would have no more authority to proclaim freedom as in the name of God.

Pope Francis in his homily to the cardinal electors echoes this crucial point more succinctly: "When we do not profess Jesus Christ, we profess the worldliness of the devil, a demonic worldliness."

It is easy enough to see how various Catholic politicians and theologians have become monopolized by ideology to the point of becoming proponents for the culture of death. However, the risk of monopolization by ideological systems and political parties is very real for us in the pro-life movement as well. If we blindly hitch our wagons to particular political parties or ideologies out of expedience, over time our core principles run the risk of corrosion by convenience. Party must never trump principle, lest we betray those innocent human persons we have pledged to protect. We would do well to reflect on our alliances and whether or not we have watered down our message or adopted ideas contrary to Church teaching.

God bless you all in this Easter season, and we will hopefully pick up next month with a discussion on the human person and the twin scourges of liberalism and socialism.