Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Heart of Catholic Social Teaching: Its Origins and Contemporary Significance

Edited by David Matzko McCarthy, 213 pages, Brazos Press.

Why do so many people hate the Church? Why do they see the pope as a stern disciplinarian and arrogant judge? Or as “medieval”? Why do they insist on saying, “I have my rights, and the Church can't take them away!”

Perhaps the following words, from John Donovan in The Heart of Catholic Social Teaching, will help: “In social contract theory, associations are always secondary and derivative. Their function is to serve the needs and desires of individuals. Viewed from this vantage point, notions of the human person as essentially part of groups and as incomplete without communities appeared to be unjust limitations on human freedom.” The debate over individualism is the starting point for the Catholic Church's dialogue with capitalist and socialist societies on the nature of society and the economy. The Catholic vision opposes the notion that society is merely contractual, and that relationships, including marriage, depend on nothing more than the goodwill of those involved, which can be withdrawn at any time. The sacramental view places God in our relationships, implying something much more profound than fragile human agreement.

Using Pope Leo XIII's 1891 social-economic encyclical Rerum novarum as the starting point, then, the authors in this book examine ensuing Catholic social teaching. As reflected in The Heart of Catholic Social Teaching, Catholic social teaching identifies two central points, the dignity of the individual and the need for a functioning society. This society embeds this individual in a meaningful network of social relations that offers security yet allows for individual creativity and initiative.

The popes, including Leo XIII, Pius XI, Paul VI, and John Paul II, are remarkably consistent on these two points. Since the Enlightenment and the nineteenth-century development of capitalism and socialism, the same issues keep reappearing in their writings. Regarding Rerum novarum, then, Donovan notes that late nineteenth-century European Catholics – the audience for Leo XIII - faced a dilemma: “Could they affirm the reality of the modern economic order in a way that was congruent with their Catholic faith? Or were they forced to choose between them?”

Leo and subsequent popes affirmed the right to private property, but they also promoted the dignity of workers, and their right to organize themselves independently. This leads to other important themes in Catholic social thought, again well-covered in The Heart of Catholic Social Teaching. Individuals need to organize themselves into self-governing groups. These groups should not be built from above, as by the state or a large company.

Grassroots organizations should have freedom from interference from more powerful organizations. This is the principle of “subsidiarity,” first named by Pope Puis XI. He envisioned groups similar to the medieval guilds, which were active economically but were also educational and social organizations. Guilds would seek the mutual benefit of their members, so competition, such as encouraged by capitalism, would be kept to a minimum, and social harmony would be built.

Subsidiary is a theme in John Paul II's 1991 encyclical Centesimus annus, written to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of Rerum novarum. John Paul is not only consistent with previous papal teaching, but integrates this with Vatican II and his own vision of the dignity of the human person. No modern political system has the power to negate human dignity, he argues. Centesimus annus, quoted in The Heart of Catholic Social Teaching, claims: “[T]he guiding principle of Pope Leo's encyclical, and of all of the church's social doctrine, is the correct view of the human person.” David McCarthy in his essay thus concludes: “Catholic social teaching challenges us precisely because it puts social relationships before economic theory.”

As with other good Catholic writings on society today, the book's authors note how both left-wing and right-wing economic and political viewpoints undermine the family. The family is the core of society, yet the atomistic view in politics, society, and economics damages all social groups and gives enormous power to the state (left-wing) or to large corporations (right-wing), something that attacks the Catholic concept of subsidiarity. Modern society, and both capitalism and socialism, devalue individuals by lifting them out of their social network, where real meaning is found, and by commodifying their work.

Somewhat unique for a work of this sort, The Heart of Catholic Social Teaching includes sections on love as taught by Pope Benedict XVI and St. Augustine. Modern living replaces love with the commodification of the human. Evil, for Augustine, is the wrong ordering of things that are not bad in themselves. Evil comes from loving something in the wrong way. While Christianity is a profoundly materialistic religion, it denounces as sinful the human tendency to love things and money more than people. William Collinge sums up well Augustine's view: “All human communities ... are based on shared love.” Collinge notes that friendship, which means friendship in God, was central to Augustine's life. He never went about his day without a few friends in toe. He knew where he was in his society, and saw the Christian meaning of this.

The Heart of Catholic Social Teaching shows very clearly how, through the economic policies of Adam Smith and the individualism promoted by John Locke and J.J. Rousseau (and their social contract theory), we have lost the sense of love and responsibility for each other, even within the family.

Catholic thinkers begin at the beginning – with Christian love and the family, grassroots groups, and the charity and transformational love of people like Dorothy Day, who followed the Little Way of Therese of Lisieux. The richness of the Catholic Church's social teaching on display in this book comes out of the depth of the whole tradition.

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