Is Catholic Social Doctrine A Set Of Guidelines?

Is Catholic Social Doctrine A Set Of Guidelines? July 29, 2014

The generally interesting review Ethika Politika has an interview with Patrick Deneen. One of the money quotes that has been circulating around the internet (see e.g. my excellent Patheos co-bloggers David Mills and Sam Rocha) is this, regarding Catholic “neo-conservatives”:

They have tended, then, to read the Church’s teachings on sexual ethics to be inviolable, but Catholic social teachings regarding economics to be a set of broad and even vague guidelines

Can I submit that one reason that some people have this reading is because it is correct?

To take a necessarily partial example, here’s what the Catechism of the Catholic Church says (§ 2431) about the state’s role in regulating the economy, quoting from John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus:

Economic activity, especially the activity of a market economy, cannot be conducted in an institutional, juridical, or political vacuum. On the contrary, it presupposes sure guarantees of individual freedom and private property, as well as a stable currency and efficient public services. Hence the principal task of the state is to guarantee this security, so that those who work and produce can enjoy the fruits of their labors and thus feel encouraged to work efficiently and honestly. . . . Another task of the state is that of overseeing and directing the exercise of human rights in the economic sector. However, primary responsibility in this area belongs not to the state but to individuals and to the various groups and associations which make up society.

Stated as such, this statement would almost certainly be agreed to by, say, Elizabeth Warren, Barack Obama, Joseph Biden, Hillary Clinton, but also by (let’s say) Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney, Marco Rubio, Mike Lee, and perhaps even Rand Paul. It would probably also be agreed to by Britain’s Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron and Britain’s Labour Leader of the Opposition Ed Milliband; by François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel. It would be agreed to by Paul Krugman and (yes) Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek. It is–again, by itself–a thoroughly platitudinous statement to the effect that a marketplace is essential to the proper functioning of the economy, but that strong market economies cannot exist without a competent state exercising some form of regulatory authority. By itself, it tells you nothing whatsoever about whether the economic policies championed by the Democratic Party, or the Republican Party, or anybody else, are better for social justice, although it does seem to provide an interesting set of, ah, let’s say, broad guidelines, perhaps even vague ones.

Contrast, if you will, what the Catechism has to say about abortion (§ 2270-2273):

Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception. From the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person – among which is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life. . . . Since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable. Direct abortion, that is to say, abortion willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law . . . Formal cooperation in an abortion constitutes a grave offense. The Church attaches the canonical penalty of excommunication to this crime against human life. “A person who procures a completed abortion incurs excommunication latae sententiae,” . . . The inalienable right to life of every innocent human individual is a constitutive element of a civil society and its legislation

“must”, “absolutely”, “inviolable”, “every”, “unchangeable” teaching, “gravely”, “grave”, excommunication latae sententiae

Is there a difference in the kind of language used? Is it really a figment of the imagination of some people that they might think the Church’s teachings on sexual ethics are “inviolable” (to use the word Deneen skeptically ascribes to conservatives and the word the Catechism itself uses) while the Church’s social doctrine is a “broad” set of “guidelines”?


Let’s go to the Catechism again (§ 2423): “The Church’s social teaching proposes principles for reflection; it provides criteria for judgment; it gives guidelines for action”

“Principles for reflection”; “criteria for judgement”; “guidelines for action”

I’m pretty sure nobody would describe the Church’s stance on abortion as “principles for reflection”.

The Church, speaking in an authoritative voice, describes its own social doctrine on economics as a set of “guidelines”.

It is actually a commonplace of every Papal statement on economic affairs that I’ve encountered (including Francis’s) to be at pains to stress that such statements offer, in the Catechism’s phrase, “principles for reflection” and are not to be treated as blueprints for policy.

Now, it’s possible to take it too far. In Deneen’s interview, George Weigel’s magic pens inevitably come in for condemnation, and I will not defend that. I’ve written that pro-market Catholics need to take an attitude of humility and receptiveness towards Papal statements on economics, even when it hurts (so to speak), although we should also be willing to criticize.

One last thing. After 30 years during which, indubitably, the movement towards economic deregulation has won a number of victories, however partial, and in the wake of a large financial crisis, it’s certainly possible to criticize the free enterprise movement, and I am sure the free enterprise movement would be enriched by such a critique. (I myself am engaged in precisely such a project.) Which is why I would like to actually see an actual critique of actual ideas. Free enterprise Catholics, Deneen informs us, insist “that the Market should have a wardrobe like that of Lady Godiva.” Whatever that may mean, I’m pretty sure it describes no one I know or read. But then again, Deneen correctly notes that Rush Limbaugh has criticized the Pope. Take that, neocons!

No, I don’t think the market is absolute, whatever that may mean, nor do I know anyone who does, I’m pretty sure, but I do easily get tired of strawmanning. And I wish that “anti-neocon” Catholics spent a little more time engaging with actual ideas, and a little less time boxing shadows and straw men.


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