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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