Quick thoughts on the ultimate purpose of canon law and social doctrine

And what is real social justice? The Book of Revelation answers that important question.

In his most recent column, Archbishop Alexander Sample of Portland, Oregon, points out something that every Catholic should know:

The Church’s Code of Canon Law contains 1,752 laws covering everything from the structural organization of the Church as the people of God, the teaching of the Faith, the sacramental life of the Church, the administration of the material goods of the Church, and even penal and procedural law. But lest any of us (especially canon lawyers) forget the purpose of all of this body of law, the very last law (or “canon”) states that the “salvation of souls”, which must always be the supreme law of the Church, must be kept before our eyes.

The salvation of souls. How often do we hear this language in the Church today? Not very often, I am afraid. And yet that is the very mission of the Church!

Quite right. But how often do we hear that the essential point of Christianity is to help the poor, or to seek social justice (more on that in a moment), or implement better programs for healthcare, education, and what not? Quite often. But everything in and of the Church should be oriented toward the ultimate goal of bringing people—by the grace of God, of course—into saving communion with the Triune God. Archbishop Sample says:

Why am I emphasizing this point, you may ask? Because I sincerely think that we are in danger of losing our focus in fulfilling the mission that Christ has entrusted to all of us in the Church. Our ultimate mission is to bring as many people as possible into the one People of God, to incorporate them into the one Body of Christ, and be built up as the temple of God, animated by the Holy Spirit. The gift of eternal salvation is the greatest gift God has given to us, a gift that was purchased at a great price, the blood of his only begotten Son. …

It seems our current environment cultivates the opposite view. Our culture seems to tell us that the way to life is easy and wide, and most people find it, while to find the road to destruction is narrow and hard, and really very few people end up there. I go by our blessed Lord’s words.

Part of the reason I think that we are in danger of losing the essential and primary message of salvation of souls is based on how I see many people defining what it means to be a good Catholic. Many people have reduced being a good and faithful Catholic to being nice, tolerant and doing good works. They think if we do service projects for the poor and needy, and don’t make any judgments about human behavior and sin, then we are fulfilling the Gospel mandate.

“While it is a good and even essential thing that a disciple of Jesus care for the poor and seek justice for the oppressed in this world,” he adds, “there is so much more to the message of redemption in Jesus Christ. We must follow the Ten Commandments, avoid sin, and repent and seek forgiveness when we fail. Our eternal salvation depends on all these things, as Jesus himself taught. ‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments.’ (John 14:15)”. As a certain document of the Second Vatican Council summarized matters:

Christ, having been lifted up from the earth has drawn all to Himself. Rising from the dead He sent His life-giving Spirit upon His disciples and through Him has established His Body which is the Church as the universal sacrament of salvation. Sitting at the right hand of the Father, He is continually active in the world that He might lead men to the Church and through it join them to Himself and that He might make them partakers of His glorious life by nourishing them with His own Body and Blood. Therefore the promised restoration which we are awaiting has already begun in Christ, is carried forward in the mission of the Holy Spirit and through Him continues in the Church in which we learn the meaning of our terrestrial life through our faith, while we perform with hope in the future the work committed to us in this world by the Father, and thus work out our salvation. (LG, 48)

Then there is the matter of “social justice”, which has often become a sort of mindless mantra of those looking to attach deeper meaning to whatever political agenda or ideological project they are pushing, selling, or supporting. Social justice is part of Catholic social doctrine, and that social doctrine—while focused on social relations, politics, institutions, economics, and other related matters—has one ultimate purpose: to proclaim the Gospel and save souls. “With her social teaching,” states the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, “the Church seeks to proclaim the Gospel and make it present in the complex network of social relations. It is not simply a matter of reaching out to man in society — man as the recipient of the proclamation of the Gospel — but of enriching and permeating society itself with the Gospel” (62). And: “The Church’s social doctrine is an integral part of her evangelizing ministry” (66). And the final goal of Catholic social doctrine is the salvation of souls: “With her social doctrine, the Church aims ‘at helping man on the path of salvation.’ This is her primary and sole purpose.” (69).

When I give talks on the Church’s social teaching, I begin those quotes above, and then provide an overview of key topics including the nature of man and society, the personalist principle, authentic rights, the common good, solidarity, subsidiarity, family and marriage, and then conclude with social justice. In concluding, I assert that the essence of social justice is to demand from each individual all that is necessary for the common good. I note that without moral renewal and growth in virtue, real social justice is impossible, and that authentic social justice is rooted in one’s duty to act justly.

And then I ask: “What is the apex of justice for Christians?” It is to give honor, glory, and worship to God. Worship, in short, is justice; it is due God. The Church is both a “visible society and the spiritual community” (CCC 771), and it’s greatest work of justice is to give God everything. That is what we see in The Apocalypse, in the throne room of heaven:

And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to him who is seated on the throne, who lives for ever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before him who is seated on the throne and worship him who lives for ever and ever; they cast their crowns before the throne, singing, “Worthy art thou, our Lord and God,
 to receive glory and honor and power,
for thou didst create all things,
 and by thy will they existed and were created.” (Rev 4:9-11)

As the people sing in the Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom: “It is proper and just to worship the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, the Trinity, one in substance and undivided.” As Lumen Gentium noted, we are made new creations in the Son and through the Holy Spirit in order to worship the Father, as well as to proclaim the Gospel: “Incorporated in the Church through baptism, the faithful are destined by the baptismal character for the worship of the Christian religion; reborn as sons of God they must confess before men the faith which they have received from God through the Church.” (LG, 11).

Or, as Abp. Sample states so well: “Our mission is, only by the grace of God, to seek the salvation of our souls, and to bring as many with us to Heaven as we can, again only as God uses us as his instruments of grace and mercy. The supreme law of the Church is the salvation of souls.”

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About Carl E. Olson 1217 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.