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On Catholic Social Encyclicals (and the Election)

On Catholic Social Encyclicals (and the Election) November 2, 2020

As the calendar would have it, I am scheduled to post today, one day before the election. I suppose I could weigh in on American politics. But I have decided otherwise. Tomorrow, in one of my courses, I am teaching John Paul II’s encyclical, Centesimus Annus, published in 1991, the year of the breakup of the Soviet Union. (An “encyclical” is a papal letter addressing a particular topic or concern from the standpoint of Catholic theology.)

Centesimus Annus is a remarkable document and a major contribution to Catholic Social Teaching, a rich tradition of thought and social analysis traceable to Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum (1891), the centenary of which John Paul II was recognizing in 1991. The Latin of Pope Leo’s title means “new things,” which in the context of the late nineteenth century referred to the rapid industrialization of society and the cruel labor practices faced by many urban workers. It was also a response to Marxism, which was becoming more popular throughout Europe at that time—as it is today in some circles.

On the one hand, Pope Leo XIII wanted to call out the moral deficiency of laissez-faire capitalism and its labor practices. Yet on the other, he wanted to say that Marxism was not the solution. In fact, he held that it might be a cure far worse than the disease. Consequently, ever since Leo’s time, Catholic social encyclicals have tended to appeal to the left and the right in this country for different reasons. This was certainly the case with Centesimus Annus, which took stock of the failed Soviet experiment even as it warned against free-market triumphalism . . .

Alas, I misspoke (or mis-wrote): there is a connection to the election. As I have watched evangelicals debate ad nauseam why they should or should not vote for Donald Trump, I have been reminded anew of how remarkably shallow most evangelical thinking about politics actually is—with much of it boiling down to the blunt, impossible question of how one’s vote lines up with “the Bible.”

To be sure, one ultimately wants the Bible on one’s side, but the Bible is not meant instantly to address all things: one cannot find in it a recipe for clam chowder nor instructions to fix one’s car. Thinking well and wisely about politics is perhaps more like these things than many evangelicals would care to admit.

Fortunately, Catholic Social Thought presents no doctrinal barriers that would prevent it from being taken up by evangelicals. It is an ecumenical gift from Catholicism that evangelicals would do well to consider and learn from. It addresses a variety of modern political, social, and economic matters, and it does so on the basis of a compelling anthropology: the dignity of every human being. Furthermore, it demonstrates the richness of a tradition—that is to say: a cumulative, perspicacious wisdom developed over long periods of time. Protestant Christianity possesses nothing quite like it, and some strands of Protestantism positively work against reasoning from a tradition, preferring the narrow pipestem of individual judgment.

To be sure, one should vote one’s conscience tomorrow. But me permit to suggest sometimes afterwards, diving into to either Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum or John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus. If more Americans read and pondered these documents, we might not be in the sorry shape that we’re in.

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