Catholic Social Teaching and the Icon of the Family

According to Catholic teaching, one of our principal functions as laypeople in the Church is participation in the secular world and renewing the face of the earth. However, many lay members of the Church remain perplexed by Catholic social teaching and how to view the American political scene in relation to it. To some, the Church appears to be arch-conservative (largely due to its positions on sexuality and the ordination of women), while to others there seems to be a curious “liberal” tint due to its tendency to side with the disenfranchised and to raise a voice against consumerism, laissez faire capitalism and the notion that the proliferation of violence (whether by the death penalty or physician-assisted suicide) is a “solution.” This is a source of tremendous confusion, especially since many (though not all) of these positions are not dogma, but a series of prudential judgments (the repudiation of abortion and euthanasia being a notable exception). Is Catholic social teaching all then a mish-mash of contradictions? Or a compromise between conservatives and liberals? Many Catholics remain unsure as to what constitutes the unifying principle behind Catholic social thought and how to proceed when evaluating the positions taken by political parties which always seem to affirm one part of Catholic teaching while denying some other.

The confusion lies in the fact that the doctrines of both Left and Right have certain things to recommend them. For instance, it is quite right to say with the Left that there are times when economic power becomes so concentrated in the hands of a few rich people that the State must act to bust the monopoly in order to ensure justice to the poor. Likewise, it is true to say with the Right that power sometimes becomes so concentrated in the hands of the State that it must be redistributed to the people so that meddlesome bureaucrats do not ruin our lives. Both of these healthy tendencies to resist the concentration of power are (whether those on the Right or Left realize it or not) rooted in the Catholic dogma of original sin. Thus, Catholic belief is quite amenable to the American system of checks and balances since the system which acts to prevent any few people from holding all the chips is the system which will most likely prevent a few fallen people from tyrannizing all the rest of us.

However, Catholic belief does not simply consist of restraining sin. It has a many-sided positive vision as well. And it is here that we also often run into confusion. For the ideologies of Left and Right, however much they astutely perceive the menace of their foe’s ideology, do not do as well at perceiving what is good. The Left, left to its instincts, tends to confuse “society” with the State and act as though all power should be concentrated in the hands of the State (for the good of “society” of course). As Hillary Rodham Clinton so eloquently expressed the statist instinct, “It takes a president” to raise a child. In contrast, those on the Right tend to act as though all power should be concentrated either in the hands of the individual (or in the hands of a sort of fictional legal individual called the Corporation) untrammeled by government interference.

So how does Catholic teaching look at it? What is at the center? Corporation, State, Society or the individual?

None of these. For at the center of the Church’s social thought is the family. It is this, and none of these idols, that constitutes the basic building block of human welfare.

This comes as a jolt to those on both the Left and the Right very often. Leftists are used to thinking of life in postmodern categories of “subjective truth” and “My right to choose” untethered from what they believe to be the fiction of moral norms. “Society” to this mindset is often conceived of as a sort of “oppressor class” whose chief occupation is the creation of new “victims.” So those on the Left often conceive of themselves as individuals at odds with an outmoded traditionalism and as shapers of a new “power dynamic” in which the Victim is to be “liberated” with the help of a Nanny State. On the other hand, Rightists often conceive of themselves in terms of a rugged individualism that, ideally, ought to need and owe nothing to others. In a sense, both ends of the ideological spectrum are attempting the exaltation of the individual contra some sort of “society” they perceive as The Thing That Holds Me Down.

Catholic thought, however, is more subtle. It conceives of human beings not as “individuals” but as persons. “Person” is not synonymous with “individual”. For a person is not a set of subjective impulses and opinions untethered from any objective truth. Nor is a person one who needs and owes nothing to others. Nor is a person simply a ward of the State or an independent wage earner. A person is made in the image of a Trinity Who is, in His very essence, a kind of Holy Family united in love. Therefore, persons are, of their very essence, members of family themselves and such families are a sort of Icon of the Holy Trinity. In short, persons are made to live in love and union with another and cannot exist without participating in that reality to some degree. Nor can they be adequately explained apart from that mystery.

This explains the first and most fundamental difference between Catholic social teaching and the growing postmodern worldview that is gaining ascendancy in the West. The Church emphatically denies that “all relationships are essentially about power.” On the contrary, the Church holds (and has always held) that all power is God’s and that this power is given to us so that we might love, not so that we might merely acquire more power. For since the Trinity and not “my personal truth of the moment” or “the rights of the Individual against the Government” is at the root of our existence, it is this love, expressed in the family, which is the earthly Icon of the Holy Trinity. Therefore, it is the family which forms the unifying basis for all the Church’s prudential (and occasional dogmatic) social teaching. Social policy which fosters the family (that is, the revealed understanding of family as one man, one woman and children living in self-giving love) is at the heart of Catholic social teaching.

From a Catholic perspective then, the ideologies of Left and Right have a quality a bit like those of pagan deities. Like all pagan deities, the gods of liberalism and conservatism are partial insights that have been made into idols. It is true, as conservatives insist, that we must beware of a Nanny State that dehumanizes human being by a constant diet of bread and circuses. It is also true, as liberalism notes, that the market is no more immune from human evil than anything else and will tend to create dehumanizing exploitation of persons if we let it (just take a look at that shining fount of spiritual health called the entertainment industry). But both these insights are, like all of paganism, in need of supernatural revelation to supplement and complete them. For they do not have a real understanding of what the Good is. The Catholic worldview does: the Icon of the Holy Trinity that is the family. Start with that sacramental Icon, rooted in the Eternal Love, and not in individualism nor victimism nor “my rights” nor “market forces” and you will find interesting things happen to your traditional liberal/conservative notions. Grace builds on and perfects nature, including liberal and conservative nature.


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