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Debating Catholic Social Teaching

Is there such a thing as Catholic Social Teaching? Some very influential thinkers over the last century have thought so. G.K. Chesterton and others famously launched a set of social principles loosely labeled “distributism,” and Catholics on the left and the right in America and elsewhere have tried to find in Catholic teaching some sort of “Third Way” between socialism and capitalism. Development of what that might mean has attracted a sizable and increasing body of academic work. In general, such efforts assume that the social teaching of the Church can provide a guide for the modern world in areas such as economics and questions of social policy.

Others, however, have argued, including on this site, that Catholic Social Teaching is a “myth [1].” On this view, Catholic Social teaching, while it may have some “brilliant insights” or provide important reflections on the human person and society, is not infallible or even particularly authoritative. Popes are not economists, and the magisterium is not (thank God, we might say) the Stanford Business School. Thus, Catholic Social Thought has changed in its views on subjects such as torture, slavery, religious liberty, and charging interest in commercial transactions, and it can change again in the future.

In his usual passionate way, John Zmirak in the article linked above, has made the most recent formulation of this argument. He argues that papal statements on economics and politics do not demonstrate the same consistency as in the teaching concerning the sacraments, for example. Therefore, Catholics should not feel bound to believe that the “social magisterium” is equally authoritative, nor he claims have the popes so held.

His targets are those left-leaning church leaders or Catholic intellectuals who find in Catholicism, justifications for the modern secular welfare state.

Anthony Esolen, also a contributor to this site, is, however, firmly in the former camp, and in his most recent book, Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching [2], makes a vigorous case. Catholic truth is all of a piece, and if the Church is correct in its view of the human person or the Eucharist, then its truths must be applicable to questions of social and economic order. Indeed, he turns to the very same Leo XIII whom Zmirak thinks has been miscast as the fons et origo of that thing called Catholic Social Teaching.

For Esolen, Leo XIII’s encyclicals lay out its basic principles, though they long predated him. These lay not in policy proposals but setting forth clearly the Catholic assumptions about the nature of man: “Leo never supposed that one could devise any social teaching without understanding what society is to begin with, which requires that we understand what human beings are, and why they are – for what end God made them, male and female, in His image and likeness.”

Pope Leo XIII by Philip de László c. 1900 [Laszlo Archive Trust]
If we are so made, it must have political and social effects. In subsequent chapters, Esolen sketches out the radical implications of the theological and metaphysical assertions with which Leo describes our condition. If we are made in the image and likeness of God, then we have an end with Him. But because we are fallen, we stray, even more so when the society in which we live exalts utility, or pleasure, or consumption, above virtue; “So if we are to attain the highest good for which we enter into society – the perfection of virtue – we must have laws that oblige us against indulging our appetites.”

Now this premise is not unfamiliar to us. A former mayor of New York was famous for trying to ban large soft drinks to stop certain citizens from indulging their appetites, and laws against smoking exist nationwide. In principle, Esolen would seem to favor such laws, while Zmirak might not, though for Esolen they do not really touch our true nature; that same mayor, for example, is an advocate for abortion.

In a sense, both Esolen and Zmirak share several assumptions, and suspicions. They both believe that the Gospel enjoins us – not the state – to corporal works of mercy. Simply offloading our Christian responsibilities to help the poor is not a moral solution Moreover, they both rightly find suspect those who would claim Catholic Social Teaching is congruent with the modern welfare state. Both believe men have the right to the fruit of their labor, which should not be taken by confiscatory taxation.

But while Zmirak seems to think some of these principles derive not from Catholic teaching but from economic principles (perhaps informed by “brilliant” insights from that teaching), Esolen thinks much more specific proposals can flow from those principles, and that they have a consistency Zmirak does not grant.

Esolen in several places praises the guild system, not only for providing stable wages and employment, but also for incorporating the sacramental life into the working world. For Zmirak, as he has written elsewhere [3], this is simply anti-bourgeois prejudice. Guilds restricted production and supply for consumers, who paid higher prices than they otherwise would, and at the first chance people got to leave such pre-industrial economics – to America, for example – they fled by the millions, as Zmirak, Esolen and I (all children of immigrants) can attest.

And yet. . . .Esolen very sharply argues that metaphysical assumptions matter and that Catholicism has truths about man that must be reflected in our social arrangements. If guilds do not provide solutions in our circumstances, other arrangements may. Christ’s injunction to the rich man to give up his property for the poor is an individual command. But for Esolen, that must have social dimensions. Economics has general principles that appear to be true, but they are subject to modification and development in ways that, say, the law of gravity does not.

With the advent of Pope Francis, this debate is destined to become increasingly important.

Gerald J. Russello is a lawyer and editor of The University Bookman (www.kirkcenter.org)