Reading Octogesima Adveniens, Part II

Reading Octogesima Adveniens, Part II February 7, 2021

This blog post is my second one on Octogesima Adveniens, the last CST document from Paul VI. You can read Part I here.  We finished the document at this discussion, though we did get distracted initially.

In the break between meetings of our reading group, I stumbled on an article (PDF) by Sr. Mary Elsbernd, OSF (a fellow Franciscan), on paragraph 4 of Octogesima Adveniens.  It would seem that this paragraph, which I had passed over in my first reading of letter, contained some interesting things.  I quote it here in full:

In the face of such widely varying situations it is difficult for us to utter a unified message and to put forward a solution which has universal validity. Such is not our ambition, nor is it our mission. It is up to the Christian communities to analyze with objectivity the situation which is proper to their own country, to shed on it the light of the Gospel’s unalterable words and to draw principles of reflection, norms of judgment and directives for action from the social teaching of the Church. This social teaching has been worked out in the course of history and notably, in this industrial era, since the historic date of the message of Pope Leo XIII on “the condition of the workers”, and it is an honor and joy for us to celebrate today the anniversary of that message. It is up to these Christian communities, with the help of the Holy Spirit, in communion with the bishops who hold responsibility and in dialogue with other Christian brethren and all men of goodwill, to discern the options and commitments which are called for in order to bring about the social, political and economic changes seen in many cases to be urgently needed. In this search for the changes which should be promoted, Christians must first of all renew their confidence in the forcefulness and special character of the demands made by the Gospel. The Gospel is not out-of-date because it was proclaimed, written and lived in a different sociocultural context. Its inspiration, enriched by the living experience of Christian tradition over the centuries, remains ever new for converting men: end for advancing the life of society. It is not however to be utilized for the profit of particular temporal options, to the neglect of its universal and eternal message. (par. 4)

The gist of her argument is that

The letter, in particular its paragraph 4, was heralded as a central expression of a historically conscious methodology in magisterial teaching. Paul VI there highlighted the historically constituted nature of the social teaching of the Church, the role of the local community, and the difficulty as well as the undesirability of a single universal papal message or solution to problems. (Elsbernd, Theological Studies 56, 1995)

The bulk of her article is devoted to an analysis of the appearance and use of this paragraph in the writings of John Paul II, and whether this pope still adhered to this paragraph (or more precisely, her reading of it) or whether he had shifted the foundations of Catholic social teaching towards a more centralized, universal, and ahistorical formulation.   I don’t want to dive into her argument–I have read her paper but have not devoted the thought to it that it requires.  Her theses about Pope John Paul II appeal to some of my preconceived notions (I almost wrote prejudices!) about his theological writings, but there is a lot going on here and I need to read more of his encyclicals on CST (I have just started Laborem Exercens) before I can comment.

But I shared my article with my reading group, and we got off to a rollicking good start and we kept circling back to it as our discussion progressed.   Is CST “historically constituted” and evolving on multiple levels, as Sr. Elsbernd argued, or is just the application of universal principles to specific situations.  I lean to the former reading:  back when we were discussing Rerum Novarum, one of my criticisms was that Leo XIII took an ahistorical approach to the problems brought on by the industrial revolution and the rise of capitalism, and never analyzed the historic contingencies which underlay concepts such as “property” or “capital.”  One of the things I have witnessed in reading the subsequent encyclicals is the ways in which the Popes (and the Fathers at Vatican II) began to wrestle with real historical phenomenon and draw not try to make them fit into a narrow, ideological framework.  A good example of this is the evolving treatment of “Marxism” and “socialism” (see below).   Each Pope has confronted it and rejected its major foundational principles, but in each iteration it was clear that they were dealing with it in the historical situation in which it then existed.

One member of my group, however, argued strongly that Catholic social teaching is historical, but its application has become more local.  As he noted, Paul VI talks about the local Church judging and acting on problems in “the light of the Gospel’s unalterable words and to draw principles of reflection, norms of judgment and directives for action from the social teaching of the Church.”  This suggested to him that there was a universal teaching, but here a recognition that both problems and solutions must be read and acted upon (in light of this teaching) by local parties who fully understand the problem and its context.

Another member of our group pointed at a later passage on economic justice:

But, as we have often stated, the most important duty in the realm of justice is to allow each country to promote its own development, within the framework of a cooperation free from any spirit of domination, whether economic or political. The complexity of the problems raised is certainly great, in the present intertwining of mutual dependences. (par. 43b)

The quest for economic justice requires local solutions that are tailored to its own situation, then the other aspects of Catholic social teaching need to be worked out similarly.   This would conform to what Paul VI said at the beginning of the passage quoted above:  “it is difficult for us to utter a unified message and to put forward a solution which has universal validity.”  But this just begs the question as to whether the principles have changed, or only their application.  When we were talking about Populorum Progressio (see Part I) we confronted the fact that the treatment of private property seemed to have evolved considerably, and what Paul VI was condemning in the developing world in the 1967 seemed at odds with what Leo XIII was defending in Europe in the 1891.   Had CST changed, evolving in response to historical contingency, or was it just the application that was changing?  Can we use CST from now to go back and condemn what had happened (and been approved of, or at least tolerated) in the past?  The more I think about this, the less sure I am.

Perhaps, in the end, it is not an either/or kind of question:  material things change, but the Gospel message does not, but our understanding of both grows (hopefully) under the prompting of the Holy Spirit.  I am, however, happy that Paul VI, in this passage. seems to see subsidiarity applying to the development of CST, at least in application.   CST is complex, and requires nuance and reflection, and in each time and place we need to apply the parts that are most relevant.  And if there is nothing that is immediately applicable, then those involved need to discern what to do from a handful of basic ideas:  the dignity of the human person, the demands of charity and justice, the need for solidarity.   But, as one member of my group put it, pulling an idea from a later section, we need to have the humility to realize that we do not have “the complete and definitive answer” (par. 40).

At another point in our conversation we revisited an idea that has been present from the beginning:  what is the “common good”?  And I must admit that I was taken aback by this question, since we had been using the term without explanation without comment, as though it were self evident.  (It appears eight times in this letter alone.)  One member pointed to the Sermon on the Mount, but this brought the bottom line question: what does this mean politically?   Paragraph 46 is titled the “Christian mean of political activity” and it is clear that Christians are to work for the common good:

According to the vocation proper to it, the political power must know how to stand aside from particular interests in order to view its responsibility with regard to the good of all men, even going beyond national limits. To take politics seriously at its different levels – local, regional, national and worldwide – is to affirm the duty of man, of every man, to recognize the concrete reality and the value of the freedom of choice that is offered to him to seek to bring about both the good of the city and of the nation and of mankind. (par. 46b).

This is not a completely satisfactory answer as it replaces “common good” with the equally vague “good of all men”, though it does show that the boundaries must be pushed ever outwards–echoing Jesus’ answer in the parable of the good Samaritan to the defensive question, “Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29)  But I think this paragraph is trying to make the point that there is no universal definition of the common good, and one of the things that makes politics so difficult and so rewarding, is that at every level a politician must weigh competing claims and interests, and always try to make decisions that are “consistent with the Gospel” (par. 46b).

This led to a discussion of the current political polarization in the United States, where politics is crippled by the lack of belief that the other side wants to achieve the common good.  Somehow, a member of the group argued, we need to get back to giving our opponents the benefit of the doubt.   Paragraph 50 addresses this question directly, arguing that:

In concrete situations, and taking account of solidarity in each person’s life, one must recognize a legitimate variety of possible options….The Church invites all Christians to take up a double task of inspiring and of innovating, in order to make structures evolve, so as to adapt them to the real needs of today. From Christians who at first sight seem to be in opposition, as a result of starting from differing options, she asks an effort at mutual understanding of the other’s positions and motives; a loyal examination of one’s behavior and its correctness will suggest to each one an attitude of more profound charity which, while recognizing the differences, believes nonetheless in the possibility of convergence and unity. “The bonds which unite the faithful are mightier than anything which divides them”. (par. 50a)

Implementing this is not going to be easy, especially since, it appears that dangerous, authoritarian trends have entered American politics.  We can skip the over-burdened word “fascism”, but it should be a cause for concern that members of one political party attempted to support an attempt to overthrow the results of a democratic election, first in the court of public opinion, and then by actual (albeit abortive) violence.  Is there room, in this situation, for “mutual understanding”? What are the limits of tolerance?   We can only hope, as one member of the group pointed out, that Catholics at least, will realize that “the bonds which unite the faithful are mightier than anything which divides them.” Unfortunately, as another member of the group pointed out, there are Catholics who seem determined to tear down these bonds of unity.

We concluded our discussion by looking at paragraphs 38-40, and the discussion of the “human sciences”–presumably, psychology, sociology, anthropology.  I brought this section up because I was unclear on what these sciences were, and, more importantly, how to interpret this section:  Was Paul VI arguing that the human sciences were good or bad?  In the subsequent paragraph 41 he seems skeptical of progress, seeing in the devotion to “progress” the “new positivism” discussed earlier (par. 29), and he starts this section with the following concern:

In this world dominated by scientific and technological change, which threatens to drag it towards a new posivitism, another more fundamental doubt is raised. Having subdued nature by using his reason, man now finds that he himself is as it were imprisoned within his own rationality; he in turn becomes the object of science. (par. 38)

After a couple readings, we felt that the answer was that the human sciences, like the natural science and technology praised in earlier encyclicals, is a good thing, since it gives us the tools to see and understand what is really going on in human societies and can even help shape Christian ethics:

They could thus assist Christian social morality, which no doubt will see its field restricted when it comes to suggesting certain models of society, while its function of making a critical judgment and taking an overall view will be strengthened by its showing the relative character of the behavior and values presented by such and such a society as definitive and inherent in the very nature of man. (par. 40)

(This, of course, presumes that the Church will listen to Catholic social sciences–see my earlier discussion of Andrew Greeley when reading Gaudium et Spes.)  At the same time, however, there is a the danger that these same sciences will arrogate to themselves to answer questions that are beyond their scope:

These sciences are a condition at once indispensable and inadequate for a better discovery of what is human. They are a language which becomes more and more complex, yet one that deepens rather than solves the mystery of the heart of man; nor does it provide the complete and definitive answer to the desire which springs from his innermost being. (par. 40)

This strikes me as a delicate proposition.  It is often easy to see when a physicist or biologist, especially one who has no training (or patience with) philosophy or theology, steps out bounds and starts making pronouncements based on “science.”   With the human sciences, it is more difficult to see when they step out of the bounds, particularly since the object of their study really is the human condition–when do they reach the limits of the competency to comment authoritatively?  This is a situation in which both the Church and social scientists need to show epistemological humility:  we can’t know everything.  Or, to quote the physicist Marcelo Gleiser,

As the Island of Knowledge grows, so do the shores of our ignorance—the boundary between the known and unknown. Learning more about the world doesn’t lead to a point closer to a final destination—whose existence is nothing but a hopeful assumption anyways—but to more questions and mysteries. The more we know, the more exposed we are to our ignorance, and the more we know to ask. (Gleiser, The Island of Knowledge: The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning, 2o15)

(I have always thought that this quote about the Island of Knowledge came from the classic young adult novel, The Phantom Tollbooth, but I could not find it even though I found an electronic version of the text to search.)  Of course, as one of the members of our group pointed out, harking back to our discussion about political polarization, one problem is that studies suggest that the less people know, the more certain they are that they know the truth.

We finished our discussion with a small but insightful disagreement.  One member of our group noticed the passage in the discussion of the evolution of Marxism that characterized one version of it as an “ideology based on historical materialism and the denial of everything transcendent” (par. 33).  He felt that it was a good summary of the problems with capitalism.  Another member objected, pointing out, correctly, that “historical materialism” is a specific reference to one of the ideological underpinnings of Marxist thought, and that it had nothing to do with capitalism.  Nevertheless, it seemed to me that we if cross out the word “historical” and leave the rest of the phrase, it really is an apt description of capitalism, even if we are misinterpreting this particular passage.  Afterwards, however, I was reminded of a quote from QA, where Pius XI wrote, “let all remember that Liberalism is the father of this Socialism that is pervading morality and culture and that Bolshevism will be its heir.” (QA 122)  So perhaps it is not too far off the mark to look at this critique of Marxism and see its dark twin (as it were) at the foundations of modern capitalism.

Though we did not discuss them, I do want to note paragraphs 30-34 in which Paul VI discusses the varieties of socialist and Marxist thought.  As I noted above, this is the latest in an increasingly sophisticated understanding of these ideological trends.  The Church is beginning to wrestle with these intellectual trends as they really are, and not simply condemning them as a “spectre haunting Europe” as Marx said.  Unfortunately, too many Catholics in America have reduced “socialist” and “Marxist” to pejoratives, and have no real understanding of what these words really mean.

Looking ahead, Pope John Paul II, hailed as a stalwart anti-communist, has a number of passages in Laborem Exercens that show a great deal of affinity to Marxist thought.  He was definitely not a Marxist, and his solutions to the worlds problems are very different, but it seems that he was willing to do more than dismiss Marxist analyses of the problems of capitalism out of hand.  I will return to this in a future post.


Cover Image: Pope Paul VI by BastienM, used with permission, from Wikimedia Commons.

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