Catholic Social Teaching and the Icon of the Family

Catholic Social Teaching and the Icon of the Family July 3, 2014

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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  • Jesse Chupp

    So good, Mark. One nitpick: the Holy Trinity is an It not a He.

    • Bill

      I’ll pick that nit. Even though They are pure spirit (though in Christ’s case He is a Man) They self-identify in the masculine (the Holy Spirit being a bit more nebulous). It’s far more appropriate to use the masculine.

      • Jesse Chupp

        I’m talking about the Holy Trinity as in its unity, not the Persons. In other words, the Holy Trinity has its Persons.

    • chezami

      No. The Holy Spirit is the Third person of the Trinity. God is masculine in relation to us. The Church refers to him as He.

  • Faithr

    Wow! Love this!

  • Andy

    Well done Mark. I think that with family we can start to see the concepts of solidarity and Subsidiarity displayed out most clearly. If there was more focus on family – not as an accouterment to social standing, nor as a hinderance to social standing – not as “something to be done” – but as a model of support for others we find fewer problems in our country. Thanks for the above.

    • KM

      Love your comment, and would like to add that it’s probably no coincidence that our society started falling apart as our families started falling apart from divorce and social maladies. I grew up as a “latchkey kid” and child of divorce during the tumultuous 1960’s and 1970’s, and became very individualistic and distrustful of authority as did many of that generation. My husband and I are doing our best to raise our kids in a loving, Christian and intact household even though we have problems like every family does.

      • Andy

        Thank you for the compliment – I was a “throw away kid” – my parents knew to be normal they needed a child, but the last thing they wanted was one. So whenever there was something to do – e.g. family weddings, I was not there, it interfered with their social activities. I was the perhaps the ultimate individual – I saw no reason for community or family. Rediscovering my faith allowed me or forced me to recognize my faults – still there – and try to repent an move forward. My wife and I struggled to raise our kids, and we went through many problems but are pleased with the results.

        • BillyT92679

          I’m sorry dude.

          • Andy

            Thank you

        • kmk

          God bless you, Andy…

        • KM

          God bless you and your family, Andy.

  • Jared Clark

    Well said, Mark!

  • Dan F.

    This was extremely useful to my thought processes (such as they are). I wonder if you might expand even further – perhaps a book idea (Catholic Social Teaching, the Family and American political life; subtitled, Why the dichotomy of Left and Right misses the point)? Or something like that.

    • I second the motion.

      • Greg B

        Dan and Lori, there is kind of already a book out of that nature. It’s called the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. It’s a good (and mostly understandable), if somewhat lengthy, enlightening read. I highly recommend it:

        • I’m well aware of the book, Greg. It’s on my Android, in fact. But that doesn’t prevent me from thinking that Mark might do a better job than the curialist writers of relating this teaching to our (pop) culture, American socio-ecnomic-political thinking and the needs of the moment. That’s a book I’d pay for (I didn’t pay anything for the Compendium, come to think of it).

          • HornOrSilk

            Problem is, people do write such books, and get dismissed because, well, “not the Pope.”

            A good book for the educated reader, though a bit “out-dated” in some ways, is Dorr’s “Option for the Poor.”

            • Greg B

              “Problem is, people do write such books, and get dismissed because, well, ‘not the Pope’.”

              Right. Unfortunately true.

            • Marthe Lépine

              At the same time, when the Pope and even priests, bishops and members of religious orders, talk about the family, they get dismissed as not knowing what they are talking about since they are celibate and do not live in the world. And when they talk or write about the poor, they are often dismissed as “not being economists”.

          • Greg B

            Granted. While making the suggestion, I thought to myself, “The only ‘problem’ with the compendium is that it’s not quite ‘local’ enough in terms of what these two (and others) might be looking for.”


  • KM

    Loved this, Mark. The family is where we learn to love each other, despite all the messy differences and problems that divide us. It is a microcosm of how the society functions or does not function.

    Our priest reminded us at Mass that “love your neighbor” starts with our own families. We may say as Christians that we love people but when we fight with and hate our own family members, like that crazy Uncle Joe who is a “rightwing nut,” or that Aunt Jen who is a “damn librul”, we’re not practicing our faith. If we can love and bridge differences within our own families, we can then do that in our communities.

  • Tami Gregory

    The word “family” is a meaningless term these days.

    • Greg B

      Which is why Mark specified…

      “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.”

  • Brent

    1. Why should a nation that denies the Trinity hold to a viewpoint based on the Trinity?

    2. Does the Catechism explicitly state that the Trinity is the root of our existence, or that the family is the root of all social teaching?

    • SteveP

      I’d suggest as the start of answers:

      1. A nation that does not realize that children proceed from a mother and a father will not be a nation within a generation.

      2. First part: CCC 300; second part: CCC 2207.

  • Brent

    Okay, so I agree with this post, however, I’m not sure that we should make the laws align necessarily with Catholic social teaching. In other words, while I *do* favor laws be in regards to individuals, that does not necessarily mean I do not consider the traditional family unit as the original social cell of society, and that it should be promoted. Kind of how I don’t think going to mass every Sunday should be a law, but I still promote it nonetheless.

    Where am I wrong?

    • Greg B

      First, briefly, the fact that the family is the original social cell society is a simple psycho-social basic, all religious perspective on the matter aside. Shy of growing up in an orphanage maybe, our families are the first and foremost places we learn to “socialize.” That’s just a basic, indisputable fact of human life. Ergo, the Catholic teaching that says that the family should actively be protected and nurtured, so as to better be able to crank out the most mature and well-adjusted citizens, is actually pretty bland in this case viz a viz “teachings that one needs a lot of aid from the Holy Spirit to understand.” Know what I mean?

      As for what aspects of Catholic Social Teaching should be passed into law and what aspects should not, basically you want to aim for Natural Law and for the “Social” in Catholic Social Teaching. If a given tenet of Catholic Social teaching is something that is true for everyone and it’s practical, then it’s probably eligible for enactment into law.

      As regards mandatory Sunday Mass attendance, worshiping God and honoring a Sabbath are both in conformity with Natural Law. HOWEVER, in order for one’s Mass attendance to be “meaningful”, they have to first believe in what they’re doing, right? I mean, whether they do or don’t believe, Jesus is there in the Eucharist regardless. But the whole point of the Church mandating Mass on Sunday for fellow Catholics is to ensure that their faith is put into practice at a minimal level. If the faith is not even there to begin with…?? Right? So, for this reason, as well as a number of others, mandating Sunday Mass attendance via civil law would be misguided.

      Prohibiting something like abortion via civil law, on the other hand, is not only entirely acceptable, it’s morally obligatory because there is never ever a tolerable reason for an infant to be executed. Period.

  • Mike Blackadder

    Wow, excellent article Mark!