Applying Catholic Social Teaching is the Duty of Laymen

In baseball, there are “unwritten rules.” They cover things like how you react after hitting a home run, what you do after your star player is hit by a pitch, and whether you can bunt in the late innings of a no-hitter. As the name suggests, these “rules” are vaguely defined; fans will debate what constitutes a violation of the unwritten rules. Yet any perceived infringement of the unwritten rules will result in wrathful denunciations from its passionate defenders.

The idea of Catholic Social Teaching is enveloped in a similar ethos. Even though the definition of Catholic Social Teaching can often be hazy, any deviation from the perceived orthodoxy will result in its defenders charging the mound to set the violator straight. This is particularly true during election cycles, and this year is no different. But what is Catholic Social Teaching, and how should a Catholic apply it to his voting decisions?

Catholic Social Teaching: What Is It?
Here is how the USCCB defines Catholic Social Teaching:

Catholic social teaching is a central and essential element of our faith. Its roots are in the Hebrew prophets who announced God’s special love for the poor and called God’s people to a covenant of love and justice. It is a teaching founded on the life and words of Jesus Christ, who came “to bring glad tidings to the poor … liberty to captives … recovery of sight to the blind” (Lk 4:18-19), and who identified himself with “the least of these,” the hungry and the stranger (cf. Mt 25:45). Catholic social teaching is built on a commitment to the poor. This commitment arises from our experiences of Christ in the eucharist [sic].

So, basically, Catholic Social Teaching is important (“central” and “essential” even), and involves the poor and love and justice. Does that clear it up for you? Me, neither. Two people could have an equal love for the poor, and one could advocate for the welfare system, while the other could argue that such a system hurts, not helps, the poor. Which one is following Catholic Social Teaching? Or, a Catholic might believe that in order to help lower-class families, the minimum wage must be increased to $15/hour. Another Catholic might just as sincerely believe that such a wage increase would harm more lower-class people by leaving them unemployed. Which view aligns with Catholic Social Teaching?

In spite of these two realities—the vague definition of Catholic Social Teaching and the fact that people with opposing political positions can both claim to base their arguments on it—most advocates of Catholic Social Teaching today firmly believe that it is comprised of one particular set of policy positions. How did we get into this confusing situation? A look at the development of Catholic Social Teaching and the limits of the Church’s competence when it comes to politics and economics can help answer this question.

The Development of Catholic Social Teaching
What people now mean by “Catholic Social Teaching” is a relatively new phenomenon in the history of the Church, only dating back to the late nineteenth century with the publication of Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum. However, the foundations were laid long before 1891. Historically, the Catholic Church did not advocate for a separation between Church and State; rather she taught that the ideal State will be one that embodies the principles of the Church in its laws and outlook. A Catholic State promotes justice, allows the Faith to be practiced freely, and provides an environment where the poor are cared for and citizens are encouraged to live moral lives. Since the time of Constantine, attempts to make this happen have occurred, some more successful than others. However, with the rise of specifically secular nations in recent centuries, the Church has adjusted her emphasis, and instead of explicitly advocating for a Catholic State, she now promotes “Catholic Social Teaching” as a way to influence rulers and legislators.

So far, so good. Why shouldn’t the Church work to influence the direction of nations, promoting the teachings of Jesus as fundamental principles for making and enforcing laws? However, things get tricky when it comes to the application of these principles, as we saw from the examples cited earlier. Two Catholics with an equal desire to apply the teachings of Jesus and the Church to the public square could have radically different ideas on how to do so. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with this disagreement; in this imperfect world, we must struggle to find the best way to achieve justice in our societies.

Yet recently, people—both Catholic and non-Catholic—have come to see Catholic Social Teaching as the Church’s endorsement of specific policy positions; these particular positions usually involve government intervention in economic affairs. Because of this, they have become known as “Catholic” positions, simply because many Catholic leaders—particularly bishops (and even popes)—endorse them. The problem is that in such cases these leaders have applied Catholic Social Teaching beyond its reach, entering arenas where the Church has no competence.

The Church’s Competence
So in what arena does the Church have competence? Catholic doctrine states that the Church cannot err when teaching on faith or morals. When the Church defines that God is three divine persons, then Catholics believe this cannot be in error. When the Church declares that abortion is immoral, then, again, Catholics believe this cannot be in error. But if the Church tries to define the distance of the earth from the sun, or advocate for a specific economic theory, then the Church could err just like any human could. Christ only gave authority to his Church in areas that would impact our salvation, and I don’t need to know the distance of the earth from the sun in order to be saved.

Thus, the Church promotes important political principles, but does not advocate for specific political solutions. These principles are based primarily on the moral teaching of the Church, which, as we noted, is an arena in which the Church has competence. For example, it is a moral teaching of the Church that each person has an inherent dignity because he is created in the image and likeness of God. This dignity extends to all people, with no exceptions. It doesn’t matter if one is rich or poor, old or young, healthy or disabled. He has dignity. Thus, any law which directly violates that dignity is one Catholics should not support.

But Catholic Social Teaching, as it is currently promoted, often goes much further than just basic Catholic moral teaching and political principles. It reaches into areas outside the Church’s competence and advocates for specific political solutions. For example, many of the most vocal advocates of Catholic Social Teaching support at least some form of government welfare assistance. A Catholic is free to hold such a position, of course, but problems arise when welfare proponents go further, arguing that support for such programs is the “Catholic” position, based on Catholic Social Teaching, and that all faithful Catholics must agree. For some Catholics would argue that government welfare programs actually harm the poor, attacking their inherent dignity by making them dependent upon the state. Defenders of both positions might be equally committed to caring for the poor, but their specific ideas about how best to do so are diametrically opposed.

Let the Laity Decide
So, who is right? The official Catholic answer is … we’ll let you lay people figure it out. That’s right, it is the job of the laity to determine the best political solutions to political problems, not the Church hierarchy. This might seem remarkable considering the high-profile support many prelates in the Church give to specific (usually government-based) solutions. However, their support for such programs has no greater authority than the average man on the street. Being a Catholic prelate does not give a person special divine competence in politics or economics.

Vatican II emphasized the essential role of the laity in these matters:

All those things which make up the temporal order, namely, the good things of life and the prosperity of the family, culture, economic matters, the arts and professions, the laws of the political community, international relations, and other matters of this kind, as well as their development and progress, not only aid in the attainment of man’s ultimate goal but also possess their own intrinsic value…. The laity must take up the renewal of the temporal order as their own special obligation. Led by the light of the Gospel and the mind of the Church and motivated by Christian charity, they must act directly and in a definite way in the temporal sphere. As citizens they must cooperate with other citizens with their own particular skill and on their own responsibility. (Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, 7, emphasis added)

Despite this emphasis on the role of the laity at Vatican II, strong clericalism still exists when it comes to Catholic Social Teaching. Instead of trusting in the laity to determine the best solutions to political and economic problems, some promoters of Catholic Social Teaching want to farm the issue out to the bishops and the pope.

During this election, or during any policy debate, remember that there is no “Catholic” position on most political issues. There are important underlying principles, but not defined policy statements. Study these principles and then use your own prudential judgment to advocate for the best way to apply them in current situations.

(CNS photo/Giancarlo Giuliani, Catholic Press Photo)

Eric Sammons


Eric Sammons is the Editor-in-Chief of Crisis Magazine and the Executive Director of Crisis Publications.

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