Self-styled Catholic critics of the free market and “Americanism” have adopted the term “social Magisterium ” to suggest that there is a coherent and morally binding body of papal teaching on politics and economics, from which we can derive specific policy initiatives and firmly condemn alternatives as “un-Catholic” or even (that dreaded word) “dissenting.”
Hence defenders of market economics, or opponents of mass immigration, can be tarred with the same brush as those who favor women’s ordination or homosexuality. Indeed, if we accept the premise of a “social magisterium,” we are led to believe that we can actually build up a detailed Catholic political economy that is a “third way” between capitalism and socialism, which bravely “cuts across” the lines dividing Left and Right, and between America’s political parties.
We can start, of course, with Belloc and Chesterton, who laid the groundwork for an officially Catholic system of economics, distributism . We can move forward bravely by reading the fruits of bishops’ conferences and statements by the Vatican’s various social justice officers. As we proceed, compiling divinely approved answers to each burning current question, we can fill in the empty spaces of politics and economics, then present it to a rudderless world like a completed crossword puzzle.
I won’t spend time here talking about the practical effects of such talk in Catholic circles. My hope is that it has none – that patriotic, prolife Catholics simply ignore the posturing that fills the blogosphere, the tortured statements that emerge from bishops’ conferences, the rants of leftist, anti-Semitic cardinals , and the questionably translated fruits of interviews with the pope.
I hope this not simply because I want people to vote against the persecutors  of the Church, to whom the rise of illiberal Catholicism  gives active aid and comfort, but for a much more important reason: the explosion of irrational and false political statements that carry some vague imprimatur of Church authority will undermine people’s faith: “If I have to believe that nonsense to really be Catholic….”
But there are smart, sincere people out there who struggle seriously with the idea that the papacy is a 2,000-year-old Delphic oracle, that a “spirit-led Magisterium ” inspires and guards from error the statements of popes about economics and politics. Even if such statements are not infallible, we are obliged to grant them a docile “religious submission,” as we are to other non- ex cathedra assertions of Catholic teaching. Or so people say.
I have read earnest attempts  to collect everything that popes have said on these subjects since Leo XIII, and treat them as a kind of divine wish-list, which Catholics are obliged to accept as the first principles of politics – and defend against every criticism, as St. Ignatius did the honor of Our Lady. Such attempts demonstrate filial piety, and ought not to be sneered at. Nor should the papal statements in question, which are largely wise and often profound, and in fact serve as worthy digests of much of the best that has been written or thought.
One of my favorite reference books is The Pope Speaks , which collects the allocutions and conferences of Pope Pius XII, on subjects ranging from ophthalmology to bee keeping. It’s amazing how well informed and thoughtful that good man was.
But is it true? Is there a “spirit-led” “social Magisterium” that works by accretion over the centuries, gradually building up a coherent, defensible program of economics and politics, which can be drawn by simply reading what popes have said and fitting those statements together like Lego blocks, to construct a Catholic city? Is that what Jesus intended to give us when He founded the papacy?
If we really believe that, and expect every Catholic to form his views accordingly, then we should be able to survey papal statements over the centuries on economics and politics, and find in them the same exquisite consistency we see in papal teachings about the natures of Jesus Christ and the sacraments – the slow, organic unfolding of that divine revelation which ended with the death of St. John the Apostle.
If we found that this was not true, that papal social teaching did not exhibit the same crystalline integrity, we might be tempted to leave the Church – or else to descend into cognitive dissonance, in bad faith blocking out or distorting the inconvenient facts of history, to cling to a “faith” that has morphed into a modern-style ideology. I am not sure which of those two temptations would be more deadly, to abandon faith or to corrupt it.
But those are not the only choices. A third way is to see Catholic social teaching not as analogous to Eucharistic doctrine and Marian dogmas, but as something much more akin to the Catholic literary tradition – a treasure trove of often-brilliant insights and deep investigations into the best ways for men to live which claims our respectful attention.
We could quote a papal encyclical where it is apropos as we might a piercing insight from Dante or Walker Percy, aware that when popes spoke on economics and politics, they claimed no divine authority, but instead addressed key implications of natural law as best as their intellects and advisors advised them.
Of course, a pope has the power to invoke ex cathedra authority to settle a question of natural law – but there is no consensus that any pope has ever done so. Pope Paul VI’s spokesman denied that the pope had done so in Humanae Vitae, and the pope did not contradict him, nor have subsequent popes, even when they reiterated that authoritative teaching, which does demand our religious submission. When Paul VI offered that teaching, he was speaking in consonance with centuries of previous Church teaching, as even John Noonan admits in his impressive (if dissenting) book Contraception . In that sense, then, Pope Paul was exercising the ordinary papal Magisterium, as applied to an issue of natural law.
The same cannot be said of papal statements on economics and politics – not if we’re honest. If we do not conveniently pretend that Catholic social teaching began with Leo XIII, that a new level of Magisterial authority descended from heaven in 1870, then we have to reckon with quite a number of papal statements whose language sounds every bit as authoritative as that used in Humanae Vitae, which were subsequently contradicted by popes or a council.
Let’s leave aside, for the present, the issue of which papal positions are true or false. (In each case, I have seen traditionalists who cling to the earlier papal assertion and condemn later Church authorities for “innovating” and betraying the “true” Catholic teaching.) The only important point here is that these positions are different, sometimes radically.
Be not afraid. I will not catalog every assertion by any pope that makes modern Catholics cringe. Some quite liberal Catholics did compile a book like that: Rome Has Spoken . Its authors intended to minimize papal authority to a vanishing point, to remove it from faith and morals as well. Their case is overstated. But the statements they collected on politics and economics ought to give pause to anyone who asserts that Jesus meant to make the popes political and economic oracles. In attempting to discern God’s will from the evidence of history, these cases demand our candid reflection, not tortured, last-ditch defenses of preconceived ideas.
Here is a short (and non-exhaustive) list of issues on which, over the course of time, papal positions have made what can only be honestly called a 180-degree reversal. Entire scholarly books have been written to explain how and why – and sometimes to suggest that “development of doctrine” can be stretched to accommodate such reversals.
I do not have space here to argue why such rationalizations are unconvincing. Suffice it to say that the plain meaning of “development” suggests something organic, not a Hegelian dialectical leap from “A” to “the opposite of A,” not even one that happens gradually over centuries. When a tadpole turns into a Steinway grand piano, that’s not an organic development.
- Lending at interest. Condemned for centuries by popes and councils (Clement V; Lateran II, III, IV & V) as a sin against nature akin to sodomy (Dante, following Aquinas, put bankers alongside pederasts in Hell), usury was later redefined from “any interest” to “excessive interest.” That is not a minor tweak, but a fundamental change. To appreciate its significance, imagine a future pope redefining “contraception” to make room for its general use, withholding permission only when it was employed “abusively.” Pius VIII and Pius XII each allowed for lending at interest, and the Vatican runs its own bank, which charges interest.
- Slavery. Several popes (Gregory I, Urban II, Nicholas V, Paul III) explicitly allowed for the owning of slaves by Christians and Pope Pius IX’s Holy Office was still defending the moral licitness of slave-owning as late as 1866, three years after the Emancipation Proclamation. It took until Leo XIII – after slavery had ended in most major Catholic countries – for a pope to condemn this practice outright. The Catechism of the Catholic Church now calls the practice “intrinsically evil.”
- Religious liberty. A long list of papal statements in the 18th and 19th centuries, echoing previous papal bulls and centuries of Church practice, denounced the notion that “error has rights,” and reaffirmed the positive duty of Catholic rulers, whenever prudent, to repress and punish heretics. This is completely contradicted by the Second Vatican Council , which teaches that state coercion in matters of conscience violates both revealed and natural law – which means that it is intrinsically evil. When the Council reaffirms the part of the old teaching that insists on the rights of Christ the King, it explicitly speaks not of “states” but of “societies” as having the duty to recognize and advocate religious truth. To equate “society” with the state is to slide right into totalitarianism  – one of the evils that the Council was called to address.
- Torture. In service of the repression of heresy, countless popes were knowingly complicit in the use of torture to extract confessions, and a means of execution (burning at the stake). Pope Innocent IV explicitly called  for such use of torture. The Catechism of the Catholic Church now teaches that torture is intrinsically evil (2297).
Were those Catholic bankers who charged non-excessive rates of interest before the popes reexamined the question really committing sins against nature? Were Catholics who joined the abolitionist movement also sinning, by claiming that the institution was evil prematurely, before the popes got around to it? Were advocates of religious liberty before Vatican II material heretics, until that day in 1963 when the Council came round to agreeing with them? Were opponents of torture culpable for teaching a position before the Church approved it?
Or could it be that the notion of a “social Magisterium” is simply false, that Christ never intended the papacy to serve an oracular function on politics and economics? Instead, the popes try to act as shepherds, and consult their knowledge of Church tradition and natural law, to come up with the wisest, most prudent ways to apply the timeless principles drawn from both at a given moment in time. . .and sometimes they make mistakes.
Sometimes the pressure of secular society, or long-engrained evils, or institutional self-interest, or personal foibles, overwhelm them and lead them astray. Clearly this is what the Church believes, or else it would have felt duty-bound to cling fetishistically to the first thing said by any pope on any subject. Pope Francis (like each of his predecessors) would feel obliged to go right on denouncing banking, defending slavery, and allowing for the torture and imprisonment of Protestants – for fear of discrediting the Oracle.
Then-cardinal Ratzinger said approvingly in 1982 that the constitution Gaudium et Spes was a “counter-syllabus ” to that issued by Pius IX. The future Pope Benedict XVI knew that the Church is not sacramentally married to every assertion on economics and politics by any pope. Nor are laymen. If popes could be wrong about something like slavery – when Protestant laymen like William Wilberforce  were right – they might also be wrong about immigration or economics. Popes might be hearkening too closely to secular wisdom, liberal opinion, or dominant forces in powerful countries (like the EU), just as previous popes were when they defended slavery.