Saturday, October 2, 2010

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

Edited by David Matzko McCarthy, 213 pages, Brazos

Pope Leo XIII in his 1891 encyclical Rerum novarum developed a "communal notion of the person in a way that is congruent with the emerging culture of rights," writes John Donovan in The Heart of Catholic Social Teaching. The Church, according to the book's authors, had to face the tension of accepting and developing the notion of the dignity of the person and of human rights, on the one hand, and the fact that humans need a strong social identity and network, on the other.

One of the missions of Catholic social teaching is to speak to the modern world's over-emphasis on individual rights, but to do so without damaging those rights. Pope Leo stressed the importance of workers' rights to organize themselves into unions and other associations, independently of large corporations or the socialist state.

Popes in their important social encyclicals have consistently encouraged people's right to organize. In fact, Pope Puis XI developed the idea of subsidiarity, which claims that the best organizations are the ones closest to the people. If possible, the state should not be organizing such groups. Grassroots groups should be free and independent of such interfering from stronger social organizations.

Puis XI referred to the medieval guilds as a model for worker organization in capitalist societies. The guilds were worker associations that also provided social, educational, and religious support. Young men were trained under the rules of the guilds (including as masters of arts and theology in the new universities of the Middle Ages).

Catholic social teaching grew up in a time when St. Thomas Aquinas' theology reigned supreme, from the late nineteenth century until Vatican II. Therefore, Aquinas' notion of the natural law appears throughout Catholic social thought, including in The Heart of Catholic Social Teaching. The natural law is the idea that universal moral truths exist, and reason can discern these truths independently of revelation. God has written them on the human heart.

Social justice, the notion that all people are deserving of their fair share, goes back to Aristotle, who greatly influenced St. Thomas. Aristotle connected justice to good laws. Pope John Paul II, influenced by both Thomas Aquinas and by the twentieth-century's advocacy of human rights and the importance of the individual, “links the Catholic natural law tradition to the notion of promoting human freedom, the freedom of living a life according to the truth,” writes Joshua Hochschild in his chapter.

In other words, Catholic social thought is part of a holistic Catholic view that considers God, creation, and the nature of humans. The Heart of Catholic Social Teaching, then, includes discussions of the Catholic view of love, such as by the current pontiff. Pope Benedict calls for the Church not to have a directly powerful role in politics, but to form Catholics so that when they as individuals get involved in politics, they pursue the proper, just ordering of society. Their Catholic faith should inform who they are as politicians. For Pope Benedict, it is the task of laypeople to pursue social justice based on how the Church has taught them to think about love, human nature, and society.

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