What is Catholic Social Teaching?

What is Catholic Social Teaching? May 22, 2018

We develop as natural persons and are supernaturally saved through the practice of the virtues: in the first place the natural virtues of temperance, fortitude, prudence, and justice, and in the second place the supernatural virtues of faith, hope, and charity. These are all, in some measure, interpersonal virtues—but of the natural virtues, there is none more intrinsically interpersonal and social, or more important to natural perfection, than justice. St. Thomas Aquinas, following Aristotle and the whole tradition of ancient philosophy, considers it to be the most important and best of all the natural virtues, and key to our development as persons and Christians. Aquinas, too, takes from Plato his essential definition of justice: “to give to everyone what is his due.”

In this form, justice is the primary basis both for political society, and for economic exchange. Indeed, in a real sense, justice is most immediately an economic norm, since the whole complex of terms related to justice, in Greek, Latin, English, and every other language derived from them, including “rights” and “obligations” and the very term “justice,” are taken from the language of economics, buying and borrowing and lending. The question of “justice,” both personally and collectively, as Plato in the Republic makes clear, is always and most basically: what do I owe, and to whom?

There are various ways, of course, to answer this question: one approach is derived from philosophy, another through law, and so on and so forth. From the beginning, though, this question of justice has been not just at the core of philosophy, but also at the very core of divine revelation. One of the earliest books of the Hebrew Bible, Amos, represents an urgent cry by a Prophet of Israel for the establishing of justice on earth—a justice that is necessarily and intrinsically economic: “Hear this, you who despise the poor, and make to oppress the needy, saying: ‘When will the new moon be over, so that we may sell our wares, and when will the Sabbath be over, so that we may open our granaries? Let us make the amount smaller, and the price larger, and set up deceptive measures, so that we may possess the needy with silver, and buy the poor for a pair of shoes. And let us sell shit for grain. Thus swears the Lord: see if I will ever forget, even till the end, their works.” (Amos 8:5-7). In Jesus’ teaching, too, justice is always not just personal, but also economic and political in nature; and when he goes beyond this to command not just natural justice but supernatural and Christian mercy, it, too, is seen in economic and political terms, in the commands to “give to whoever asks” (Luke 6:30, etc.), to “lend expecting no repayment” (Luke 6:35, etc) and to pray each and every day “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Matthew 6:12).

In the Church’s guarding and application of divine revelation within history, too, economic judgments have always played a key role. Two of the four traditional “sins that cry out to heaven for vengeance” are economic in nature: the oppression of widows, orphans, strangers, and those without economic means, and defrauding workers of their wages. The frequent and repeated condemnation by the Church, on the grounds of natural law, of usury and of usurers is only the most obvious example of a much larger body of thought and interventions regarding the virtue of justice in economic life from so many of the Church’s Popes and Doctors and Saints. There is, though, no need and space here to go through all the treatments of justice throughout the history of Israel and of the Church; but all of them, every single one, has had at its heart provision and commandment for what we would call economic justice. There is nothing at all remarkable about this, nothing at all surprising.

The only thing that makes Catholic Social Teaching, as a modern phenomenon, interesting or in any way different from what came before, is its context, which has involved the repeated necessity of responding to the novel idea, proposed by Enlightenment thinkers, that economic questions were intrinsically non-moral and ought to be evaluated on purely “objective” and “scientific” bases, rather than on the ethical basis of justice. This gradual removal of economic questions from the purview of justice and ethical development over the last centuries is now, in our day, essentially complete: the very terms “economic justice” and “social justice” have become for many simply contradictions in terms, alternately denied or else abused as signs for the merely arbitrary and unlimited extension of voluntaristic “rights” to more and more people. In the view of many “scientific” economists, the only possible sense of “justice” in economics is in the completely arbitrary terms set down in a voluntaristic legal contract, or at best the “objective” quantitative measures of monetary exchange and economic growth contained in things like GDP—any external, objective ethical norms beyond these are not only illegitimate, but absurd and self-contradictory.


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