Reflections on Catholic social teaching (2)

Rob Gasper
June 5, 2013
Reproduced with Permission
American Life League

Part 2: Human dignity and the twin scourges

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 reestablishing a culture of life and common pitfalls to which Catholics fall prey.

In part one of this series we discussed the Church's social mission and her competence to pronounce authoritatively on temporal and economic matters despite the objections of many from all parts of the ideological spectrum. We will now move on to discuss briefly the foundational principles of Catholic social teaching. Obviously, the few paragraphs written here will only serve as an introduction and outline. The Church has published an excellent resource, the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, as well as numerous authoritative encyclicals which give a much fuller treatment.

Catholic social teaching as instituted by Jesus in the gospels, lived by the Apostles and the fathers, advanced by the scholastics and saints, and finally codified in the great social encyclicals is founded upon the bedrock principle that God creates each human person in His own image and has given man the Earth for the use and enjoyment of the whole human race. Man, as created in the image of God, has dignity by this fact, and his natural rights flow directly from God and not from any other power. Man's ultimate destiny is to know, love, and serve God, and to be with Him in Heaven. (John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae)

On an individual level, each human person possesses by his dignity the right to life from the moment of biological beginning until death, the right to freely pursue his ultimate destiny with God, the right to procure what is necessary to sustain life and, flowing from this, the right to hold privately that which he has labored to procure.

Furthermore, man was not created to be alone. The fundamental society of man is the family. Leo XIII, in Rerum Novarum, states clearly: "No human law can abolish the natural and original right of marriage, nor in any way limit the chief and principal purpose of marriage ordained by God's authority from the beginning: 'Increase and multiply.' Hence we have the family, the 'society' of a man's house - a society very small, one must admit, but none the less a true society, and one older than any state. Consequently, it has rights and duties peculiar to itself which are quite independent of the state."

The family provides the basic building block of the larger community first locally, then nationally. The purpose of each community is to serve, safeguard, and strengthen its members in light of the common destiny and rights of all. This is known as promoting the common good. The national state has as its primary duty the upholding of the common good - protecting and preserving the rights of the individuals and communities that encompass it and harmonizing each sector with the requirements of justice.

From these basic principles, the Church has developed a body of authoritative teaching that expounds upon the nature of the liberty and freedom of man, the natural rights of man in the workplace and in the community, the role and limitations of the state in regard to the family, and other principles that give us the framework of what a just society and culture look like. There are multiple ways these requirements of justice can be met in a society, and the Church recognizes society's primary role in developing models that reach toward the ideal orientation that the Church has provided. However, where these models created by society tread on the basic rights of man, where they crush human dignity and true freedom, where they destroy the family and create a diabolical disorientation against the true good of man, the Church can and must speak. And she has.

Here, we will consider two such models and how they both have contributed to the creation of the culture of death. Both have divorced God from the public sphere and both have reduced man in his dignity to servitude. These condemned models are liberal capitalism and socialism.

A distinction in regard to liberal capitalism needs to be made at the outset. Definitions and meanings change over time. Pope John Paul II recognized in Centesimus Annus that when people speak of capitalism they often mean any system that is not socialism. When discussing whether capitalism ought to be proposed to third world countries as a model to follow, he said:

The answer is obviously complex. If by "capitalism" is meant an economic system which recognizes the fundamental and positive role of business, the market, private property, and the resulting responsibility for the means of production, as well as free human creativity in the economic sector, then the answer is certainly in the affirmative, even though it would perhaps be more appropriate to speak of a "business economy," "market economy," or simply "free economy." But if by "capitalism" is meant a system in which freedom in the economic sector is not circumscribed within a strong juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality, and which sees it as a particular aspect of that freedom, the core of which is ethical and religious, then the reply is certainly negative.

We are not speaking of capitalism in the sense of a free market economy informed by a strong ethical framework. We are speaking of a godless form of capitalism where economic life is absolutized, where production and consumption form the center and value of social life. This form of capitalism will not allow ethics a seat at the table and complains that the Church views God and His law as the ultimate authority over the use of private property. To illustrate this point, in the early 20th century, a Catholic priest named Heinrich Pesch created a system called Solidarism which rightly recognized the right of man to hold private property, but stated that this right must be understood in light of God's law which is even more fundamental. Ludwig von Mises, a proponent of "value free" capitalist economics, responded as follows in his book Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis:

[Solidarism] places above the owner an authority - indifferent whether law and its creator, the state, or conscience and its counselor, the Church - which is to see that the owner uses his property correctly. The authority shall prevent the individual from exploiting "urestrainedly" his position in the economic process. . . . Thus state or Church, law or conscience, become the decisive factor in society. Property is put under their norms, it ceases to be the basic and ultimate element in the social order.

Under Mises' form of Godless capitalism, man and his labor are often reduced in dignity to a mere commodity and means of production. Little regard is placed toward the wage earner's family life, and society suffers as a result. Furthermore, when consumption and production form the center of life, man is reduced to the level of a consumer and is viewed and targeted as such. In a consumer society devoid of ethics, the baser instincts and concupiscence of man are preyed upon in a constant bombardment. Thus, what John Paul II termed as the "human ecology" is gravely damaged, and people are led to view their lives as a "series of sensations to be experienced rather than as a work to be accomplished."

This form of consumerism infiltrates family life, and even human persons become objectified. Divorce becomes natural - a new wife, husband, or lover seen as an "upgrade." The stability of this basic institution is undermined, and finally even children themselves are seen as commodities in competition with other possibilities or as fashion statements among the elite in society. Contraception and abortion are promoted as easy remedies for those who do not wish their parade of sensations interrupted by real-world concerns.

Socialism presented itself to the world as the cure for the real evils created by liberal capitalism in the 19th century. Unfortunately, this cure proved to be even worse than the sickness preceding it. In brief, socialism views man's ultimate end in the creation of a utopian materialistic society, free from any authoritarian force including God. Man himself is viewed as a mere element of society, his good subordinate to the public authority. Private property, the means of production, and those decisions sovereign to the family are usurped and placed into the hands of the collective, or as more often tends to be the case, a bureaucratic totalitarian dictatorship.

Pope John Paul II states:

The fundamental error of socialism is anthropological in nature. Socialism considers the individual person simply as an element, a molecule within the social organism, so that the good of the individual is completely subordinated to the functioning of the socio-economic mechanism. Socialism likewise maintains that the good of the individual can be realized without reference to his free choice, to the unique and exclusive responsibility which he exercises in the face of good or evil. Man is thus reduced to a series of social relationships, and the concept of the person as the autonomous subject of moral decision disappears, the very subject whose decisions build the social order. From this mistaken conception of the person there arise both a distortion of law, which defines the sphere of the exercise of freedom, and an opposition to private property.

The Church has condemned socialism in its various forms, even so-called "moderate socialism" definitively due to its false view of the nature of man and rejection of God. Pope Pius XI made this abundantly clear in Quadragesimo Anno: "We make this pronouncement: Whether considered as a doctrine, or an historical fact, or a movement, Socialism, if it remains truly Socialism, even after it has yielded to truth and justice on the points which we have mentioned, cannot be reconciled with the teachings of the Catholic Church because its concept of society itself is utterly foreign to Christian truth."

Contraception and abortion play a key role in socialist policies. Socialism, in its attempt to eradicate the traditional family structure and "liberate" women into the collective workforce, has historically made abortion a cornerstone of its program. Lenin legalized abortion in Russia in 1920. Socialist systems have also used abortion and contraception as part of forced population control systems, such as is the case in China. Only when population decreases warrant do the socialist controllers reverse course. Stalin outlawed abortion for a time following a demographic collapse in Russia in the 1930s.

Socialist author Li Onesto provides a chilling bit of imagination that aptly demonstrates the hostility of socialism toward the family:

At this point, we can only stretch our imagination and speculate about what such a world would actually look like. It is impossible now to say how humanity in a communist world will continue to deal with different contradictions in all the different realms of society. But we can say that human relationships, including sexual relations, and the production and rearing of new generations of children, will be completely and radically different.

And we can also say that the family, as a relatively small economic and social unit which fulfills the functions of raising and socializing children, will no longer exist. It will no longer correspond to economic and social relations in society overall. And it will have become not only unnecessary - but a hindrance to the further development of society. Institutions that allow for and enable far richer human relationships and the mutual flourishing of individuals in the context of the whole society will have emerged through the course of long struggle and transformation.

Onesto's socialist vision of the family could not be any further from the Church's true view, as stated by John Paul II: "It is necessary to go back to seeing the family as the sanctuary of life. The family is indeed sacred: It is the place in which life - the gift of God - can be properly welcomed and protected against the many attacks to which it is exposed, and can develop in accordance with what constitutes authentic human growth. In the face of the so-called culture of death, the family is the heart of the culture of life."

It is only through a correct understanding of the human person and his God-given dignity that we can correct the abuses and idolatry of both these condemned systems and progress toward a culture of life.

This series of articles has touched upon some of the more fundamental points of Catholic social teaching, and only in a basic way. Catholic social teaching is a beautiful and coherent body of doctrine, and we should not fear delving into its depths because some have perverted it and used it for their own ends. Instead, the pro-life community should embrace it, learn it, and work to apply it as a true remedy against the culture of death while examining our own biases and alliances toward systems which may in fact be contributing toward the evil we seek to defeat.