The Challenge of the Church’s Social Magisterium

So I wrote this piece a few weeks back on the Church’s social magisterium and this friend writes to me (who pretty much only writes me when she’s got a bone to pick) and says: “Hey, terrific piece, but. . .[I pretty much knew that ‘but’ was coming]. . .but I wish you’d follow up with how one interprets the social teaching, because a real problem is the utter hijacking of the social teaching by the Left such that you can’t, often even in Catholic circles, have an open, honest conversation about the country’s economic problems.”

“What do you mean?”

“Case in point would be Paul Ryan’s very sincere effort to figure out how to protect the poor from the coming demise of our economy, which is currently based not on manufacturing or goods and services, but service on the debt. We borrow and borrow, and at some point the bill will come due. And the Catholic Left wants to keep insisting that it’s hatred of the poor to point that out and say, ‘we cannot spend more’ when it is in fact immoral to spend money we have no capacity or intention to pay back.”

“Don’t you think I’ll be accused of being nothing more than a ‘pawn of the Republicans’ if I mention Paul Ryan?”

“We don’t have to baptize Ryan’s or other people’s ideas to acknowledge that they are worthy and honest efforts to confront reality. Too many social justice types resolutely refuse to live in reality and accuse you of heresy and worse if you bring up such problems.”

“Liberal Catholics, you mean? When have they ever been serious about the Church’s teaching? I’m a bit more scandalized at the grief I get from self-described ‘conservative’ Catholics who claim to be devoted to the magisterium, but who don’t seem to give a hoot about what the Church teaches on economics.”

“There’s a terrible lack of liberal thinking among most liberal Catholics,” she said. Many don’t allow that there’s a wide range of thought open to Catholics on political and economic questions. They want swift, neat formulas to apply instead. They know the Church is ‘pro union,’ for example, but they never ask themselves whether American public unions bear any relation to what Cayholic social teaching means by ‘unions.’ And they know the Church has a preferential option for the poor, but they never ask whether government poverty programs actually work. And then they say that Sam Brownback is just as bad a Catholic as Nancy Pelosi because Brownback doesn’t support a minimum wage hike.”

“I’m not as interested in castigating ‘bad’ Catholics as I am in trying to help people – people like me – learn to become ‘good’ Catholics,” I told her.

“Sure, but the problem is, you can’t have an honest conversation with a lot of Catholics these days – particularly the popular Catholic writers – about economic and social questions. It’s all just spin and slogans and cherry-picking from Church documents, with little effort to understand anything about the principles of political philosophy and economics. It makes the Church look stupid, denies her natural allies, and doesn’t really help the poor much either.”

       Man with a plan: Rep. Paul Ryan

“I try not to make the Church look stupid, not that I’m always entirely successful.”

She didn’t take the bait: “Okay, so yes, it’s good to defend the social teaching, but I challenge you now to address the problem of how one reads the social teaching and the relationship of this teaching to the duty of the laity to engage the culture in a dialogue of reason about the ordering of society.”

This was her second big ‘but.’ My fragile ego was reeling from this repeated intellectual head-butting. And to top it all off, now I was being challenged.

“Not only are we supposed to leap at even the most ambiguous spontaneous remarks of the reigning pontiff,” she continued, “you’re supposed to jump at crazy statements from the bishops’ conference too.”

“I don’t jump, I usually just sort of shift uncomfortably in my chair.”

She continued: “When someone points out that bishops’ conference statements must be subjected to reason, too often people respond that if you see any contradiction between the Church’s social encyclicals and a particular bishops’ conference statement, then the problem must be yours. They don’t seem to get that people of good will can differ over various means to a common end. You cannot have a dialogue if you approach all such matters with a twelve point ‘to-do’ list with which there is no arguing.”

“You know you can always argue with me,” I tried to reassure her (as though she ever really needed my prompting). “And yes, there does seem to be this odd problem: although the Church’s teaching is meant as a teaching (surprise, surprise) and not merely as a set of legal proscriptions – as a positive view about what will lead to true human flourishing and an analysis of things meant to deepen the ways in which we think about the world – too often people who usually distinguish themselves by harping about the dangers of an overly rigid “legalism” in the Church (at least when it comes to matters liturgical or sexual), end up when it comes to social justice, interpreting the Church’s teaching in a very rigid, legalistic way, denying that anyone else has the same good will or concern for the poor as they do if they disagree with their particular political program.”

“Yes,” she admitted, “that’s a problem. So what do you intend to do about it?”

“I don’t know, maybe I’ll, you know, write an article or something.” 

“What do you intend to say?” she asked pointedly.

“I’m not sure, but I suppose something will come to me.”

Randall B. Smith is Professor at the University of St. Thomas, where he holds the Scanlan Chair in Theology.
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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.