What Catholic Social Teaching Isn’t

By John Zmirak Published on August 22, 2017

This is the last piece I’ll write about what Catholic Social Teaching isn’t. I promise. Unless Pope Francis writes something new and alarming. In that case all bets are off.

I hope to be helpful here. To deflate a few Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade Float-sized misconceptions that have slipped loose and are hurtling down Fifth Avenue. They’re threatening to crush Santa Claus. Or at least his elves.

A few years back I published a piece with a fun (that is, willfully provocative) title. I called it “The Myth of Catholic Social Teaching.” That phrase attracted attention. It raised readers’ hackles.  But it also limited its influence.  So Stream executive editor Jay Richards thought I should rehearse the article’s arguments here under a harmless generic title. (But he wouldn’t let me call this essay “Harmless Generic Title.”)

I didn’t mean that Catholic Social Teaching (CST) is a myth, per se. But there are many myths encrusting it. In fact, almost always when I’ve heard some use those three words together, they were pointing to some jumped-up, exaggerated, or false idea. It’s like when someone tells you, “It’s not about the money… .”

The field is full of imposters. Imagine that a real Santa Claus in fact existed. But we’ve got the job of distinguishing him from all of his “helpers.” In such a case, your sad task almost all the time would be to point to some bearded man in a red suit and say, “Not him.”

Catholic Social Teaching (CST) is a set of natural law principles and their general applications. So they should be comprehensible to any person rational enough to believe in God and orderly thought. They ought to be persuasive, at least potentially, to any sober citizen. You should argue for them from reason, not from authority. The latter will only (sometimes) persuade people who already docile enough to bow to that authority. Or, if your arguments are obnoxious enough, it will instead lead them to doubt it. Pope Francis’ sweeping, idiosyncratic statements on immigration, economics and the environment are having this effect on many Catholics.

Catholic Social Teaching (CST) is a set of natural law principles and their general applications. So they should be comprehensible to any person rational enough to believe in God and orderly thought. They ought to be persuasive, at least potentially, to any sober citizen.

The core of the argument I made in “Myth” was that several grave misconceptions float around in the Catholic world. They throw us into confusion and discredit us to outsiders. I’ll devote a section to each, quoting sections from the original article as needed (sometimes with tweaks for context).

Myth One: God’s Party Platform, 2017

Some people think that a prescribed, detailed Catholic political and economic platform exists. It’s written between the lines of past papal statements. Our job as believers is to identify it, advocate it, and impose it on our fellow citizens. In light of it:

Defenders of market economics, or opponents of mass immigration, can be tarred with the same brush as those who favor women’s ordination or homosexuality. Indeed … we are led to believe that we can actually build up a detailed Catholic political economy that is a “third way” between capitalism and socialism, which bravely “cuts across” the lines dividing Left and Right, and between America’s political parties….

 There are smart, sincere people out there who struggle seriously with the idea that the papacy is a 2,000-year-old Delphic oracle, that a “spirit-led Magisterium” inspires and guards from error the statements of popes about economics and politics. Even if such statements are not infallible, we are obliged to grant them a docile “religious submission.”

But politics and economics are not very much like doctrine. Nor is empirical science. They weren’t revealed from heaven. So they don’t just develop. They change. Sometimes radically. Revelation ended with the death of St. John on Patmos. Every single article of Christian faith was present, at least implicitly, among the apostles. That isn’t true of economics, politics or other fields such as natural science. Those fields find out new things and overturn false beliefs. Like the law of supply and demand. The time value of money. The centrality of individual rights. The earth revolving around the sun. Those are radical discoveries. Even innovations. In doctrine, the correct word for an innovation is a “heresy.”

There’s a price for treating the papacy as an oracle that settles every question.

We can (and must) use basic moral principles known via natural law to understand economics, politics, even natural science. Those areas obviously aren’t value-neutral, to be left to technocrats. They affect most areas of life. Most times, popes have had wise and insightful things to say — because they were intelligent men, operating within a sophisticated tradition. Not because they were popes.  

Myth Two: Father Knows Best

I’ve seen solid and sensible people, even wise priests, suggest the following: Your local bishop (in theory at least) serves as the authoritative teacher on divinely revealed doctrine. So he can serve the same role on Catholic Social Teaching. Even better if dozens of bishops in your country get together. They can compare notes and issue public statements. Best of all if a pope weighs in and issues a political manifesto. As this plays out among Catholics trying to build a Church party platform:

We can start, of course, with Belloc and Chesterton, who laid the groundwork for an “officially” Catholic system of economics, distributism. We can move forward bravely by reading the fruits of bishops’ conferences and statements by the Vatican’s various social justice officers. As we proceed, compiling divinely approved answers to each burning current question, we can fill in the empty spaces of politics and economics, then present it to a rudderless world like a completed crossword puzzle. …

The big problem with bishops and popes weighing in on immigration, economics, or climatology: It’s outside their competence. They have no special knowledge. Or authority. So they become like a traffic cop who stops you — to offer you orthodontic advice. Or like a Hollywood starlet testifying before Congress. The human temptation in such situations: shrill and reckless moralism instead of morality.

Let’s say that all you understand about an issue is the part that you’re upset about. Sometimes it works to pound your fist and insist that it’s the only part that matters. That’s human, all too human. Not divine.

Even on moral issues, bishops and popes only claim protection from error in a few narrowly circumscribed situations. To wit:

  • When they repeat, almost verbatim, some apostolic teaching (like the Church’s ancient abhorrence of abortion). And
  • When they invoke the protection of infallibility in a council or ex cathedra statement.

There has never been a papal ex cathedra statement on politics, economics, or empirical science. There probably never will be. The pope or the bishops might be right to (say) condemn socialism or approve of immigration. But there’s no divine guarantee.

Myth Three: Oceania Has Always Been At War with Eurasia

Some people crave divine certainty. Others feel tempted to make Catholicism into an all-purpose ideology. Or the creed of a pugnacious tribe. So they make mistakes typical of tribalists and ideologues. They stuff inconvenient facts down the Memory Hole. They pretend that outright reversals are “adjustments” or “developments.” They imagine that when the facts don’t match the theory, so much the worse for the facts.

On a decent-sized list of subjects, popes and councils over the centuries have taught plainly different things. Those teachings are different because the Church is not a rigid ideology but a living body. Hence She’s capable of learning. When the underlying realities of economics or politics change, the Church responds — if slowly.

That doesn’t happen with fundamental doctrines. Those were taught to us from heaven. They reside there, unchanged and unchanging. But it does happen with real-world applications of core moral principles.

Some people crave divine certainty. Others feel tempted to make Catholicism into an all-purpose ideology. Or the creed of a pugnacious tribe. So they make mistakes typical of tribalists and ideologues. They stuff inconvenient facts down the Memory Hole.

Whole books have been written on each of the following subjects. But as my old article said: It’s only honest to say that the Church’s application of moral principles changed radically on the following:

  • Lending at interest. Condemned for centuries by popes and councils (Clement V; Lateran II, III, IV & V) as usury, a sin against nature akin to sodomy (Dante, following Aquinas, put bankers alongside pederasts in Hell). …. Pius VIII and Pius XII each allowed for lending at interest, and the Vatican runs its own bank, which charges interest.
  • Several popes (Gregory I, Urban II, Nicholas V, Paul III) explicitly allowed for the owning of slaves by Christians and Pope Pius IX’s Holy Office was still defending the moral licitness of slave-owning as late as 1866. … The Catechism of the Catholic Church now calls the practice “intrinsically evil.”
  • Religious liberty. A long list of papal statements in the 18th and 19th centuries … reaffirmed the positive duty of Catholic rulers, whenever prudent, to repress and punish heretics. This is completely contradicted by the Second Vatican Council.
  • In service of the repression of heresy, countless popes were knowingly complicit in the use of torture to extract confessions, and a means of execution (burning at the stake). Pope Innocent IV explicitly called for such use of torture. The Catechism of the Catholic Church now teaches that torture is intrinsically evil (2297).

Is the fact that the Holy See changed course on such issues a scandal? It shouldn’t be. The Church is not an oracle that produces new divine revelations. Nor did Christ issue popes a crystal ball to see the future. Popes do their best to apply revelation and the rationally-knowable principles of natural law to particular cases. Sometimes they get it wrong. Sometimes the facts change radically, and new answers are needed.

Some Questions Are Open. Many Are Closed.

The way we know the limits of divine guidance over Church statements is by looking back retrospectively. The Body of Faith that all Catholics should believe (sometimes called the Ordinary Magisterium) consists of beliefs that meet one of two criteria:

  • They were taught infallibly by a council or pope. Or:
  • They’ve been affirmed universally by the Church since the age of the apostles.

Let’s say that something has never been decided infallibly. We might still consider it settled. But a Church council or pope could come along and reexamine it. That in itself would disrupt the consensus of the ages. It would tell us that the subject is not part of the Body of Faith. It’s open to question, development, and change. That’s what happened on each of the four political or economic questions listed above. The Church can’t change its teaching on dogmatically settled issues. We consider some cases closed because of the witness of the Bible, the apostolic Church, and infallible Church statements. Those include abortion, polygamy, same-sex marriage, and genocide.

None of this is a sign that the Church is incoherent. It just means that Church is alive. Wits used to quip that the Bourbon monarchy “learned nothing and forgot nothing.” That’s not the governing principle of Catholic Social Teaching.

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