I am writing a series of columns on Catholic social doctrine. Here’s all of them.
(Note: the series starts with criticism of the status quo, but it gets better, don’t worry.)
In my previous column, I pointed to what I see as a significant problem in much contemporary religious talk about economics, which I dubbed aestheticism: condemning or praising arrangements, neither on the basis of sound empirical judgement, nor on the basis of the Gospel, but simply on the basis of an aesthetic judgement.
This begs the question: how should the Church think of the praxis of its social doctrine? I would argue that if the Church were to recover its best traditions (and the best of Tradition), its social teaching would focus on two things: the use of what I’ll call the prophetic voice and, on the other hand, a relentless empiricism.
When, in a quote that echoed around the world, Pope Francis wrote “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?” in Evangelii Gaudium, he was, oh so rightly, using the Church’s prophetic voice.
When he said this, the Holy Father was not proposing any policy, nor making any judgement about the wisdom of such or such economic arrangement. Instead he was—again, rightly—calling out the egoism that is so pervasive in our society, which ultimately stems from our sinful nature. He was shining a light on a fact that Jesus himself endlessly called attention to: that God’s priorities are not our personal priorities, nor our society’s priorities. It is a call for personal conversion.
In this he follows in the footsteps of many of our greatest saints, like St Basil, who preached: “The bread which you hold back belongs to the hungry; the coat, which you guard in your locked storage-chests, belongs to the naked; the footwear mouldering in your closet belongs to those without shoes. The silver that you keep hidden in a safe place belongs to the one in need. Thus, however many are those whom you could have provided for, so many are those whom you wrong.”
The paradox is that the Church’s all-too-necessary awareness of human finitude has, at times, blunted this prophetic voice. This may change under Francis, but too often the criticism of the world’s economic arrangements on the world’s terms has substituted for the prophetic voice, which critiques the world on God’s terms. Regardless of the merits if the Pope, say, criticizes Europe’s austerity policies, even if he is right (or, “right”) as a matter of economics, that cannot substitute for the holy call to personal conversion to Jesus Christ.
With this being said, a properly Catholic social gospel cannot be content with just this prophetic voice. Of all the Christian denominations, Catholic doctrine is the one that holds reason with the highest regard. Catholic Tradition holds, as has been supremely expressed by Thomas Aquinas, that God’s designs can be discerned by man using reason applied to the natural world. It shouldn’t have to bear saying that this is a tradition the Church can and must still live up to.
Thanks to the heightened Catholic awareness of our rational nature as part of our imago Dei, the Church has been mother to the world’s richest intellectual tradition, founding the great universities of Europe and nurturing brilliant scientists and philosophers too many to count.
In other words, even as it makes no bones in using the prophetic voice, the Catholic Church should, seeing no contradiction whatsoever—because there is not—dedicate itself to a relentless empiricism in its social doctrine. Facts are stubborn things, and any Catholic doctrine worthy of the name must deal with the world as it is in order to teach us things about the world as it should be.
The aestheticism that so often directs the Church’s social rhetoric tries to bridge the gap between the Gospel and the created world, but being properly rooted in neither, it ends up failing at describing both. At the risk of making a provocative analogy, one might say that just as Jesus Christ is both fully man and fully God, instead of being a demigod, the Church’s social doctrine must be unashamedly prophetic and relentlessly empirical, instead of being a little bit of both blended together.