The Reality of the Church’s Social Magisterium

When I was a graduate student, I was assigned to serve as a Teaching Assistant for a class in Business Ethics. The professor who taught the course began with an interesting question: Is there such a thing as business ethics at all? “Ethics” might apply to many dimensions of life – whether to go to war, whether to cheat on one’s wife, or whether to build schools and hospitals – but it didn’t really apply to business, it was often claimed, any more than it applied to mathematics, astronomy, or music. There were “rules of the profession,” but these were set by the nature of the discipline itself, not by any external “ethical” analysis.

But this, the professor pointed out, was an odd claim. For most of us, roughly 95 percent of our waking hours are spent in the world of “business” in one form or another: either working at a job, producing something, and making or spending money buying products produced by someone else. All television viewing and magazine reading would be included, of course, not only because people purchase these things, but also because such media are designed primarily to deliver potential consumers to advertisers trying to sell something.

As I looked around the room at these ambitious emerging adults, all yearning to make their way into the upper echelons of corporate America – something a bit like looking at sharks circling in a tank waiting for the aquarium staff to throw them some red meat – it occurred to me that if we could convince them that “ethics” and “moral principles” applied to the realm of business, even business, then we would have won everything. If, on the other hand, we failed to convince them of this, then we would have lost everything: “ethics” would henceforth for them be relegated to some small segment of their lives – obligatory attendance at church, donations to the local homeless shelter, a weekend spent building houses with Habitat for Humanity – enough to make them feel good about themselves, but hardly relevant to their everyday lives.

If the Church teaches about both faith and morals (and she does), and if business is a major locus of moral decision-making (and it is), then how could the Church not have anything to say on such matters? And of course, she has said a great deal. Indeed, as author Russell Hittinger has pointed out, the importance of the “social teachings” of the Church “can be gauged by the fact that when John Paul II was elected pope in 1978, his thirteen predecessors had written some three hundred encyclicals, about half of which were devoted to problems relating to the nature, the ideologies, and the policies of the state.” The development of “Catholic legal, political, and social thought and doctrine,” says Hittinger, “social teachings, as they are conveniently called. . .have been one of the signal achievements of the church since the nineteenth century.”

Of the fourteen encyclicals written by St. John Paul the Great, three concerned the social magisterium of the Church directly – Laborem Exercens, Centesimus Annus, and Sollicitudo Rei Socialis – and the Church’s “social teachings” played an important role in at least five others, culminating, lest we forget, in Evangelium Vitae, “On Human Life.” For it was Pope John Paul II’s genius to see clearly what so many others haven’t, that at the heart of the Church’s “social magisterium” is the Church’s message about the infinite dignity of the human person and the sanctity of human life. There is no “social justice” without justice for the weakest and most defenseless among us, and that includes (as the Church has always taught) the widow and the orphan, the poor and the unborn.

Anyone who mistakenly thinks the “social magisterium” of the Church began only with Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum would do well to read, among many other examples, the Sermons on the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus by the fourth-century Church father St. John Chrysostom, or any of the invaluable work done by the sixteenth-century Spanish Thomists at the University of Salamanca – remarkable scholars such as Francisco de Vitoria, Domingo de Soto, and Martin de Azpilcueta (valuable information about whom may be found here and at the Acton Institute website). When Francisco de Vitoria wrote De Indiis, defending the dignity of Native Americans and arguing against their enslavement, what was this but an expression of the Church’s “social magisterium”?

Does the “social teaching” of the Church change? Well, since society keeps changing, in terms of certain particulars, yes, I would hope so. Not as many people seem to be as obsessed today with either Marxism or monarchy as they were in, say, 1915. But then again, Internet porn doesn’t seem to have been as much of a problem then. Each age has its challenges. As for the fundamental principles, do they change? No. Sin is still a problem. The poor are still our responsibility. Abortion is still wrong. So is making loans to people that the recipients can scarcely hope to repay, thereby forcing them into a lifetime of servitude.

Conservatives in America tend to laud the Church’s teachings on marriage and family and then criticize its other social teachings as meaningless gibberish: “What do priests know about economics?” Liberals in America tend to laud the Church’s teachings on economics and then criticize its teachings on sex and the family as meaningless gibberish: “What do priests know about sex?” The problem for both sides is that the same sacramental theology of creation lies behind both, a teaching that understands all of creation – including both human bodies and private property – as “instruments of God’s grace.”

So all those teachings about “the universal destination of material goods” and becoming a steward of creation for the benefit of all God’s people: they still apply. They haven’t changed. And, for the record, they’re not going to.   

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.