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Appropriating Catholic Social Teaching for Partisan Purposes

You find interesting things reading the documents of the Second Vatican Council. I was looking through Gaudium et Spes the other day, the document John Paul II was instrumental in crafting when he was a bishop, and came upon this:

Secular duties and activities belong properly although not exclusively to laymen. Therefore, acting as citizens in the world, whether individually or socially, they will keep the laws proper to each discipline, and labor to equip themselves with a genuine expertise in their various fields. They will gladly work with men seeking the same goals. Acknowledging the demands of faith and endowed with its force, they will unhesitatingly devise new enterprises, where they are appropriate, and put them into action. Laymen should also know that it is generally the function of their well-formed Christian conscience to see that the divine law is inscribed in the life of the earthly city.

This is the well-known (but too rarely acknowledged) focus by the Council on the indispensable role of the laity as a leaven within society.

The Council goes on to warn:  “Let the layman not imagine that his pastors are always such experts, that to every problem which arises, however complicated, they can readily give him a concrete solution, or even that such is their mission.”  I’m not sure how many of the laity would suffer from this particular delusion anymore.  But be that as it may, the Council suggests a different course: “Rather, enlightened by Christian wisdom and giving close attention to the teaching authority of the Church, let the layman take on his own distinctive role.”

Oddly, after the Council, rather than lay people taking on their “own distinctive role,” some made a mad rush to the altar – not to get married, but to do the things the priest does: preach, hand out communion, and pronounce on central Church doctrines.  This is to misunderstand completely what the Vatican Council called for.

But there is something more.  Consider this passage:

Often enough the Christian view of things will itself suggest some specific solution in certain circumstances. Yet it happens rather frequently, and legitimately so, that with equal sincerity some of the faithful will disagree with others on a given matter. Even against the intentions of their proponents, however, solutions proposed on one side or another may be easily confused by many people with the Gospel message. Hence it is necessary for people to remember that no one is allowed in the aforementioned situations to appropriate the Church’s authority for his opinion.

Here the Council made clear that the task of prudently applying the general biblical-moral principles enunciated by the Church to the specific circumstances of each country properly belongs to the laity, the members of the Body Politic of each country.


Unfortunately, there are clerics who, contrary to the teachings and admonitions of their Church, make the mistake of too eagerly entering into the political arena, siding with the specific agenda of one party over another, which is something they should not do unless there is a clear violation of the natural law, as, for instance, in the case of slavery, or the treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany, or the abortion of children.

What the Church has said is that, in most cases, the job of the clergy is to set out the basic moral principles and leave it to the laity to apply them prudently and to argue about what a prudent application of those principles would be.  The Church would enter into the debate only to reiterate these basic principles, to indicate problematic interpretations, or to restrict clergy who are becoming too partisan or political.

I do not wish to be mistaken here. It is certainly the duty of the successors of the apostles to remind the nation of its obligations to widows and orphans, to the poor and dispossessed, and of the justice due to those who are without power or status within the society.  And they may at times need to call government officials and the citizens to account for policies that are clearly unjust.

But take note: “no one is allowed in the aforementioned situations to appropriate the Church’s authority for his opinion.” Did anyone send this memo to the faculty at Georgetown University when they objected to a speech by Paul Ryan because his budget proposals were supposedly contrary to the Church’s social teaching?

Doesn’t this happen far too often, where people with good-faith proposals are rejected because their proposals are not seen as being in accord with what elite members of the Catholic social-justice regime think are the required positions?  And why were bishops in the 1980s laying out policy guidelines in areas in which they had no expertise rather than taking care of the liturgical abuses, moral rot, and dissolution of Catholic education in their own dioceses?

The Church’s teachings on social justice are an invaluable resource, not a club to beat others over the head with.  They are meant to inspire critical dialogue, not end it.  I fear some people in the social justice community are suffering from a “pre-Vatican II ecclesiology” wherein bishops, priests, and theologians simply tell the laity what “good Catholics” should do rather than simply laying down basic principles and letting lay people creatively figure out various ways to apply them and sort out which are the best.

Every bishop, priest, and professor of Catholic social justice (and, full disclosure, I am one of those professors) needs to remind people of these passages whenever the media asks for a comment and say:  “I am not an expert in this particular area, and even if I were, mine would only be one view among many; it is not for me to make a final judgment on how the Church’s teaching ought to be applied.”

Clerics and theologians who persist in this sort of “top-down” thinking on Catholic Social Justice need to re-read Gaudium et Spes and get with the times.


*Image: A Little Leaven by James Janknegt, 2008 [Trinity Presbyterian Church, Nashville, TN]. Jim Janknegt is a daily reader of TCT. You can see his work (and purchase it) at his website by clicking here [1].

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas. He is the author of Reading the Sermons of Thomas Aquinas: A Guidebook for Beginners and Aquinas, Bonaventure, and the Scholastic Culture of Medieval Paris: Preaching, Prologues, and Biblical Commentary (2021). His website is: randallbsmith.com.