Catholic social teaching in a time of dissolution

Catholics today are divided by character and background, but also by basic understandings that extend not only to general principles but to how concrete realities should be determined and interpreted.

(Image: José Martín Ramírez C |

Catholic social teaching has to do with building a better world, one in which what is good in us is more fully realized. That’s why it talks about “integral human development.”

The goal is evidently correct, but it’s also extraordinarily complex and difficult, and it has to be pursued with limited means in changing situations with doubtful implications and consequences. In such a setting Pope Francis’s emphasis on discernment makes a great deal of sense, as does his flexibility regarding responses to current conditions: “Tradition is the guarantee of the future and not the container of the ashes … The tradition of the church is always in movement … [It] does not safeguard the ashes.

Catholic social teaching thus tells us to take certain basic goals seriously when we are thinking about political issues, but views on what should be done about them can legitimately vary a great deal.

With that in mind, how can Catholic social teaching help us toward its goals today? Let’s start by looking at some of its basic principles:

  • “Every human community needs an authority to govern it. The foundation of such authority lies in human nature.”

  • “Authority is exercised legitimately only when it seeks the common good of the group concerned and if it employs morally licit means to attain it.”

  • Public authority should neither neglect the common good nor try to determine the whole of social life. That excludes both libertarianism and socialism as guiding principles.

  • We pursue our own and others’ good primarily through our own efforts and in cooperation with those to whom we are closely connected.

  • Good government promotes our ability to do so, for example through family law and promotion of appropriate education, and through support for relatively autonomous local, small-scale, and informal institutions (“subsidiarity”).

  • As appropriate, we should also concern ourselves with more distantly connected people, support them, and engage with them in common efforts (“solidarity”).

  • How to apply these principles is mostly a matter of the informed prudence of those involved.

On particular issues, these principles might be thought to point in opposing directions.

Suppose, for example, the World Health Organization says it needs more power to deal with pandemics and global health inequities. Joseph Jones wants to give it to them. Public health is part of the public good, and some aspects require a global response, so there should be a public authority to look after it.

Dorothy Smith, in contrast, is happy to have the WHO do research, present findings, and make proposals, but doesn’t want them to have actual power. They support abortion and cooperate with the gender agenda, so they promote serious public evils, and why trust them with power?

Beyond that—Dorothy says—the WHO is not acting in a vacuum. It’s answerable to an irresponsible global oligarchy that also promotes serious evils and wants to establish a general system of world governance. People say 19th-century global empires were bad. So why, she asks, promote one now that wants to be far more comprehensive? Are today’s imperialists really so much better? And is global bureaucracy really solidarity?

For such reasons she thinks that letting those on the scene deal with their problems directly, with the assistance of others as inspired by need, solidarity, mutual benefit, and habits of self-organization, would be better than giving the WHO the power they say they need to take care of all issues.

Who’s right depends on prudence, and the relative weight of the need for central authority and institutionalized solidarity on the one hand, and subsidiarity and respect for local conditions on the other. That weight is partly a matter of judgment, and partly a matter of the specific facts and likely consequences.

The answer we give will depend on our sense of reality and how we make sense of today’s world. Some (for example) may conclude that a trustworthy system of world governance has something in common with an integral Catholic state: very good in principle, but not doable any time soon and not something to push blindly.

But such issues are contentious, and it is especially the responsibility of the laity to deal with them. As the Catechism tells us:

The initiative of lay Christians is necessary especially when the matter involves discovering or inventing the means for permeating social, political, and economic realities with the demands of Christian doctrine and life.

If rejection of clericalism applies anywhere, it should apply here.

But lay Christians don’t agree on much. That is inevitable to some extent, because of differences in character and background. Joseph (let’s make him a layman) might be a moderate, orderly, socially-minded German who generally has faith in public administration, while Dorothy might be an ardent American woman with little faith in bureaucrats and a great deal of sympathy for anarchists. They may both be closer to sainthood than most of us, but they’re not likely to agree on the risks and benefits of transnational bureaucracies.

Today, though, the disagreements reflect something more fundamental. Catholics are divided not only by character and background but by basic understandings that extend not only to general principles but to how concrete realities should be determined and interpreted. The result is that they inhabit what seem like separate realities.

Some are inclined to trust tradition, experience, common sense, and particular sources that seem trustworthy. They note that people argue for everything imaginable, they all have something to gain or lose in the discussion, and some of them are very good at making bad arguments look good. So we have to use our own judgment, guided by what seems to be true, what’s worked in the past, and what voices seem most reliable. To do otherwise would be to abandon our responsibility as free citizens and rational human beings.

Others are more sympathetic to the technocratic attempt to formalize the pursuit of truth. So they accept what experts say, whose special training and study should make them authorities on questions related to their field of expertise. And when experts disagree, they rely on the consensus view, assumed to be the one adopted by professional societies and bureaucracies such as the WHO and the Centers for Disease Control. To reject that approach, they believe, is irrational: we should “trust the science,” which means trusting institutionalized expertise.

These differences in what it means to be rational come up everywhere: in the Church, with many aspects of the conflict between traditionalists and modernizers, and in politics and society, with regard for example to COVID, transgenderism, and social issues in general. They make it very difficult for opposing parties to discuss issues productively, or even accept that their opponents can be intelligent, informed, and acting in good faith.

For example, scientific expertise claims universality and objectivity, while experience, common sense, and tradition are partly individual and partly embedded in particular communities. As a result, those who favor the former say their opponents’ views are based on individual selfishness and obstinacy combined with ethnocentrism, while their opponents accuse them of suppressing individual and local freedoms on behalf of international oligarchs.

The opposition thus goes to fundamental issues of identity and social order in the modern world. Under such circumstances, how can mutual comprehension and good will be hoped for?

We must try nonetheless. Catholic social teaching can contribute to that effort by providing at least the idea of a common standard: how will this view or that, these measures or those, contribute to a world in which the goal of social teaching—human flourishing—is better realized?

People would still disagree vehemently. Would a borderless world be a better world? Was Black Lives Matter a long-overdue movement toward justice, or a social and moral disaster based on lies that has resulted in thousands of extra murders? We’re not likely to reach an accord on these or many other often inflammatory questions.

Even so, Catholic social teaching can help put opposing positions into a common framework that makes productive exchange possible, at least theoretically, and in some cases it might actually take place. That would be a great step forward from where we are today.

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About James Kalb 147 Articles
James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism(ISI Books, 2008), Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It (Angelico Press, 2013), and, most recently, The Decomposition of Man: Identity, Technocracy, and the Church (Angelico Press, 2023).


  1. Pelosi and Biden have had a life filled with Catholic social teaching, yet they are both unashamedly in lock step with Planned Parenthood and hear no strong reprimand or condemnation from the weak church leaders.

  2. I know one thing for certain: the term “Catholic Social Teaching” has been hijacked to justify hyper-control by large bureaucracies over the lives of individual persons and which has resulted in nothing akin to the “building a better world, one in which what is good in us is more fully realized.”

    Please, somebody, anybody give me some examples where CST has been realized in what its purported goal is said to be.

    And, to be sure, CST is best left in the hands of CATHOLIC laity; the Vatican and its prelates worldwide should stay out of it. It suffices for them to enunciate PRINCIPLES and leave efforts toward their implementation in the hands of laity of their own choosing.

    The worst violators of CST, as I see it, are those who support the murder of the unborn.

    • Anything that is euphemistically titled and poorly defined is subject to personal and subversive construction.

      The fact that so much of the hierarchy are economic illiterates-being as economic life plays a central role in CST does little to help the situation.

  3. There really needs to be a discussion of the global benefit of free markets. To me CST means free lunch for everyone. So what’s the effect, when welfare benefits where exploded for aid to mothers, the family structure in the black community was destroyed. Other examples on the international front, when abundant free food is provide local agriculture and jobs are destroyed, which is conveniently covered up along with other examples. The principles of economics happens whether ones like or not. CST seems to not want to acknowledge this fact. So one ends up with so called
    good works with bad results. This type of discussion needs a credible economist point of view, like Thomas Sowell.

    • I am acquainted with a missionary in Haiti. She has been trying to build a school/program that teaches the children to be self-sufficient, learn a trade, and engage in business–not simply look for handouts from various NGO’s and the like.
      As Catholics/Christians, we really need to rethink how we do our charity–to make sure that it isn’t encouraging sloth or sin.

      • It is good, Kathryn, that you are trying to teach self-sufficiency in learning a trade to these students. Keep up the good work! There is a video (or was) on YouTube of former president Bill Clinton admitting his policy of sending food aid to Haiti totally undermined Haiti’s local food producers and radically undercut their economic self-sufficiency making Haiti a dependency, just as Grand Rapids Mike is warning about. This is not academic speculation or armchair theorizing, but hard historical fact! Often the sin is not in those who may appear to be slothful in their circumstances, but in the powerful who take away opportunities for people to be otherwise.

        • Just to clarify: I am not the missionary, but an acquaintance from my children’s (former) school is. My husband and I have made a donation to her group. Very difficult circumstances in Haiti right now.

    • My understanding is that CST says people should get lunch, but that doesn’t mean we should all be able to go down to city hall, demand lunch, and have an absolute right to get it. Prudence tells us who has the responsibility for what. If making the mayor responsible for feeding everybody turns out to be a bad system, then CST doesn’t say we have to do it anyway. It just says we should take the issue seriously.

    • For any reader who may doubt what Grand Rapids Mike contributes here, there is a video (or was) on YouTube of former president Bill Clinton admitting that his policy of sending food aid to Haiti ended up totally undermining Haiti’s local food producers and radically undercut their economic self-sufficiency making Haiti a dependency. The danger of so-called “good intentions with bad results” is not academic speculation or armchair theorizing, but hard historical fact! I say “so-called” because a part of me suspects that many who push “good intentions” know exactly what the outcome is going to be and sucker well-meaning people to support their schemes which is ultimately aimed at creating dependencies, not mutual solidarities and equally respectful partnerships. Thanks, Grand Rapids Mike!

  4. “Please, somebody, anybody give me some examples where CST has been realized in what its purported goal is said to be.” Not answering, but a way of thinking further about your questions might be these two considerations, fitting for our disrupted times (more under St. Augustine) rather than fitted for other times of synthesis (as under St. Thomas Aquinas):

    FIRST, rather than a CST “goal” is the central premise of the “transcendent human person,” meaning that, ultimately, the ensouled body is a radical and irreducible anomaly within the world. And that whatever we might do under CST, or not, is always incommensurate with our eternal destiny of either Beatitude of Hell.

    So, rather than a catalogue of principles as elaborated in the “Compendium of CST,” 2004), we might consider a more Ptolemaic understanding:
    At the CENTER is the eternal nature and destiny of each “transcendent human person;”
    THEN the orbit of family (the person and the family, each within the other);
    THEN the orbits of solidarity and subsidiarity (each within the other);
    THEN faithful citizenship—citizenship that is also faithful, both);
    THEN the total value of work (as a product, but first an extension of the person, both);
    THEN loving preference for the poor, less politicized than a “preferential option”: “Show neither partiality to the weak nor deference to the mighty, but judge your fellow men justly,” Lev 19:15); and
    THEN care for God’s entire and ecological creation, as if utilitarianism at the global level is an abuse of what is, first, sacral in its origin and therefore in itself.

    SECOND, regarding the problematic path of “dialogue”, Pope Benedict offered an insight regarding some Islamic dialogues, but surely it applies more broadly, that rather than a universal lubricant dialogue sometimes is a “waste of time”:

    “I am urging people to realize that a war has indeed been declared on the West. I am not pushing for a rejection of dialogue, which we need more than ever with those Islamic countries that wish to live in peaceful coexistence with the West, to our mutual benefit. I am asking for something more fundamental: I am asking for people to realize that dialogue will be a waste of time [!] if one of the two partners to the dialogue states beforehand that one idea is as good as the other” (Pope Benedict XVI, “Without Roots: The West, Relativism, Christianity, Islam,” 2006).

    So, CST renders permanent the always incommensurate (!) fit between man and nature, and between what is secular and what is holy. Christ offered a riddle, not a settled formula, with His “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s…”, when in fact all things and especially ourselves are, firstly, God’s.

    The goal of CST is to avoid any lesser ideological reductionism. What Pope John Paul II, instead, called the “negation of [any!] ideology.”

  5. One condition necessary for having a productive exchange on Catholic social teaching is that the leftist hierarchy and its allies in the bureaucracies, academy and media cease misrepresenting their views on highly debatable political issues as being official and binding. Catholic social teaching provides a framework for evaluating all political issues. As Mr. Kalb states, intelligent and faithful Catholics can legitimately draw very different conclusions within this framework when it comes to many matters. The laity must be free to debate and reach settlement on how to apply the principles of church teaching to the facts and circumstances of specific political questions.

    • And, I might add, Tony, for the hierarchy to stay out of the debate regarding implementation. They are most ill-suited for THAT discussion.

      Was the Vatican implementing CST when they invested monies from Peter’s Pence in a London hotel venture?

  6. Is Catholic social doctrine reduced to mere theoretical discourse, if we’re living in a pluralistic world where relativism rules ? [one position is as good as another]. “Catholic social teaching can help put opposing positions into a common framework that makes productive exchange possible, at least theoretically” agrees Kalb with the hope of possibly having positive effect. That amounts to reduction of social doctrine to exchange of ideas with remote possibility of implementation.
    A contributor commented that CST may negate ideology. Again were discussing remote possibles. Although Beaulieu’s what is commensurate between man and nature, the secular and the holy appears what a realistic Christ implied regarding Cesar’s image. Unless mankind converted to Christ en masse CST is at least relevant. Although limited to believers.

  7. Adolf in Mein Kampf criticized Catholic charity efforts for the poor arguing it removed incentive to achieve self sufficiency and contribution to the entire German community. If a man with non benevolent aspirations to perceive that shows the premise, as referred to here by Grand Rapids Mike and others Haiti an example of what Hitler understood, as well as socialist politicians who use the handout as an instrument to control minorities and secure their vote, the minorities left in dire conditions – then we should consider that religion is not economics. That our efforts be best tailored as advisory.
    Presumably, most Catholic economic theorists, popes et al are not credentialed economists. We’re all likely aware of Saul Alinsky’s influence in the Catholic Church beginning in Chicago and eventually reaching Rome and Paul VI. The man was quite convincing, although his ulterior motive was to use the Church to establish a socialist orientation toward the less fortunate and engage in class warfare US style by fostering guilt among the more fortunate.
    Assessing the comments including essayist Kalb it become clear economics is a science with its own basic premises that taking the fact we’re no longer in a feudal system when all was ordered between patron and peasant king and Church [usually] Catholic social doctrine should be more advisory than normative [for example Francis’ proposed norm that there be an equal universal salary that in effect would punish the more productive and reward the less], that James Kalb’s final admission, “Catholic social teaching can help put opposing positions into a common framework that makes productive exchange possible, at least theoretically, and in some cases it might actually take place” is the better Church involvement, in an advisory capacity, a Catholic economic doctrine consisting of good and just ideas for consideration by economists.

    • Note: I interchange social doctrine with economics because the two in politics as in plain living are irresistible to each other.

    • Yes, to economics as a science, and therefore yes to ecclesial remarks more as “advisory…”

      But, then, the CST is basically an expression not of presumed science, but of the moral virtues even as these affect the exchange of stuff through economics–where the moral virtues of “prudential judgment” and “justice” apply, also (political) “courage,” and personal temperance. But, “temperance” not so much in how many hot dogs for lunch, but in terms small and large indirect costs not counted on the balance sheet.

      Prior to Laudato Si, St. John Paul II said such as this (in less than 43,000 words):
      “Man thinks that he can make arbitrary use of the earth, subjecting it without restraint to his will, as though it did not have its own requisites [not unlike economics] and a prior God-given purpose, which man can indeed develop but must not betray,” and “…humanity must be conscious of its duties and obligations toward future generations (Centesimus Annus, n. 37);” and “…This may mean making important changes in establishing lifestyles [the entire culture], in order to limit the waste of the environmental and human resources, thus enabling every individual and all peoples of the earth to have a sufficient [not extravagant nor even equalized] share of those resources” (n. 52).

      So, how to reorient the extraction and exchange of stuff in a way which does not deny economics as a science, nor the “natural ecology,” and yet is not confined to pious platitudes?

      Regarding the interrelated “human ecology,” St. John Paul II anticipates the insidious political economy of some guy in the White House, by teaching (!) against “poisoning the lives of millions of human beings, as if in a form of ‘chemical warfare'” (n. 39).

      • Good, informative quotes and comments. “’Prudential judgment’ and ‘justice’ apply, also [political] ‘courage,’ and personal temperance”. My thoughts here are particularly in regards to abortion, the imposition of LGBT presumed rights especially children.

    • This would be easier to read if sentences were shorter (one had 131 words!) and had punctuation. (Commas, semi-colons, etc.) Reads more like stream-of-consciousness ramblings…the good points are often lost, mired in the wordiness

  8. Correction. Reading over my comments I give the mistaken impression that economics and social doctrine are identical, which they are not. The Church identifies concern with the poor first followed by other issues of social justice such as human dignity, the inviolable right to life.
    “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… Catholic social teaching is based on and inseparable from our understanding of human life and human dignity. Every human being is created in the image of God and redeemed by Jesus Christ and therefore is invaluable and worthy of respect as a member of the human family. Every person, from the moment of conception to natural death, has inherent dignity and a right to life consistent with that dignity. Human dignity comes from God, not from any human quality or accomplishment (Catholic Social Doctrine USCCB).

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