What is Catholic Social Teaching?

What is Catholic Social Teaching? May 22, 2018
An icon of King David. Flickr.


The following was written by my dear friend, Nathan Smolin, a PhD student in Classics at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.


“I will show to you, O Man, what is good, and what the Lord requires of you: to do justice, and love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)

“There resides in Us the right and duty to pronounce with supreme authority upon social and economic matters.” -Pope Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno


This past week, Pope Francis, through the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, released a new document of Catholic Social Teaching: Oeconomicae et pecuniariae quaestiones, “Economic and Monetary Questions.” The document, so far, has garnered very little attention, for a few obvious reasons and a few not so obvious ones. First, and most obviously, is the fact that this is a document about economics—and economics, in our post-modern world, is largely concerned with an immensely complicated financial system run by algorithims, overseen by a small number of technical experts, and having little to do with ordinary people or ordinary life. Then, of course, this is a document written by the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, under the supervision of Pope Francis, rather than by Pope Francis himself, and so it mostly lacks the straightforwardness and address to ordinary life typical of his writings. Both in topic and in manner, then, it is far from popular.

These, then, are the obvious reasons why you may not have heard very much about this document. As for the not-so-obvious ones, first and foremost is the fact that we do not live in a time, after all, when almost anyone actually reads Papal documents as they are released; we live in a time, rather, when Catholics follow, at best, professional lay interpreters of the Church, and, at worst, just CNN. It is the interest, endorsements, or rejection of these people and institutions that are ultimately decisive in the reception of any Papal document. In this case, the treatment of our document by all these experts, and those who listen to them, is largely dictated by the fact that it is a document endorsed by Pope Francis, and about economics, and for both of those reasons something which large numbers of American Catholics have trained themselves to ignore or outright reject simply and as a matter of course.

What makes this document revolutionary, then, is not so much what it adds, but rather what it re-states, yet again, for the hundredth or thousandth or ten thousandth time: that economic affairs are intrinsically ethical, and that each and every economic action, system, institution, and actor must be evaluated and conducted on a moral basis, according to the norm of justice. This particular document authoritatively applies the norms of justice found in Catholic Social Teaching to the contemporary financial system, and in doing so comes up with some decidedly negative judgments of many aspects of that system and the actions of people within it—but none of this should, if we know anything of the history of the Church and the Magisterium, be particularly surprising. It is simply the latest in a long line of similar judgments and applications, by the Holy See, for the past 2000 years.

Many people have made their livings writing and talking about Catholic Social Teaching as a modern phenomenon; and there is a great deal of value in this literature. Still, the popular narrative of Catholic Social Teaching, beginning with Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum and continuing through the other Social Encyclicals of the 20th and now 21st century, is in some regards rather deceptive. Many people, including many Catholics, view these encyclicals as radical or innovative acts on the part of the Papacy: the Pope and the Church getting involved in areas they had been previously uninvolved in. Many Catholics, indeed, of whom the most strident, if not always the most eloquent, is John Zmirak, consider Catholic Social Teaching for this reason to be nothing more than a myth, inasmuch as it is nothing more than the Popes’ imprudent attempts to meddle into the essentially prudential and scientific domain of economics, in which they are not experts—let alone authoritative judges—but simply ignorant amateurs like any other.

If we take Catholic Social Teaching in the sense that even some of its modern defenders take it, then these people have a point; if the Popes suddenly, after 1800 years, decided to start discussing economics, then it is not implausible that their intervention in these matters might prove as ill-advised as their famous intervention into astronomy with Galileo.

If we do take this tack, though, then we are rather quickly met with a straightforward reductio ad absurdum; for if this is in truth our position, we will quickly find ourselves entirely unable to understand, let alone interpret, not only the encyclicals and Magisterial acts of the last two centuries, but many other Saints and Doctors and Popes besides. If we take this tack consistently and pervasively and to its logical conclusion, we will be ultimately forced to reject, not just some helpful advice by our “Holy Grandpa,” the Pope, but judgments relating to the very core of our ethical development as persons in society, the very heart of our salvation.

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