Catholic Social Teaching Explained by a Former Anglican Priest

Dr. James Merrick

I left behind a decade as an Anglican priest and a career in teaching Protestant theology at the university and seminary levels to enter the Catholic Church. One of the major reasons I did this was Catholic Social Teaching. Yes, all those controversial moral teachings that some Catholics feel should be abandoned or updated for the times actually attracted this millennial.

The fact is, I heard the Lord’s voice in these teachings. I was amazed both by the prophetic insight and the confident integration of Scripture and Tradition manifest in these documents. It was clear that while society was becoming more and more morally vacuous, God had been preparing and equipping his Church with deeper understanding and wisdom about the very moral and social issues that were becoming points of crisis. So as one who believes God has gifted the Church with the wisdom of Catholic Social Teaching for our times, I would like to introduce you to the body of teaching that is often regarded as the “Church’s best kept secret.”

Historical Origins

The Catechism defines Catholic Social Teaching as “a body of doctrine, which is articulated as the Church interprets events in the course of history, with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, in the light of the whole of what has been revealed by Jesus Christ” (2422). The late Stratford Caldecott explained it this way:

“The social teaching of the Church is that part of her moral theology which is concerned with social, political and economic charity and justice. It does not, however, constitute a programme in any of these areas. Practical programmes and policies are the responsibility of statesmen and politicians to develop. These must conform to the moral law, it being the Church’s role to set out what that law demands through her social teaching” (Catholic Social Teaching: A Way In). 

As a body or distinct form of Church teaching, it is usually regarded as having originated in 1891 with Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum which addressed both the oppression of the working class by the Industrial Revolution and the rise of socialism as an alternative. 

Don’t be mistaken! This was not the first time the Church weighed in on social issues. No one familiar with the history of homilies, correspondence, or writings of the Church would think social teaching was Leo’s invention. Prior to the modern world, the Magisterium could rely upon a predominantly Catholic society and government in Christendom. People would encounter the Church’s social teaching through Sunday homilies and catechesis. Popes could write Catholic governors to inform them of their Christian duties. But as the Protestant Reformation took hold, especially in Europe, the Church could no longer count on everyone’s access to the Church’s teachings. So, through the use of “public letters,” the Church addressed “people of goodwill” in the hopes of declaring the Church’s mind on matters of social concern. And, just so, the Church’s social teaching is a mode of her proclamation of the gospel.

Why the Church Addresses Social Issues

Today, we think the Church and the state should be separate. We tend to think, in other words, that the Church’s role is to teach us about religious matters—like how to pray, read the Bible, or relate to God—while economists, scientists, politicians, academics, and other secular leaders teach us about social issues like trade, wages, or climate change. So, some might think the Church is overstepping her bounds by discussing supposedly non-religious issues.

There are several reasons why the Church needs to address social issues. To start, it’s a delusion to think we can so neatly separate our religious and secular lives. God did not just create the Church, but the whole universe. There is literally nothing that is not related to God.

Sometimes people believe Jesus’ encounter with the Pharisees in Matthew 22:15-22 validates a hard distinction between the secular and the religious. This is where he says:

“Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”

While the issue is more complicated than this one passage, by no means does Jesus’ reply support our modern arrangement. The Pharisees were trying to trip Jesus up, either trying to prove that he was for compromise with pagan rule if he supported Caesar’s tax or by proving he was a revolutionary against Roman rule if he told Jews not to pay the tax, for which he should be crucified. His reply astonished his listeners because he affirms paying the tax to Caesar all the while maintaining the absolute monarchy of God. For Jesus’ response includes the question:

“Whose image is on the coin?”

When he says “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” he is saying “give to Caesar what has Caesar’s image on it—the coin—but give to God what has God’s image on it— humanity.” Scripture does not support the notion that so-called political or secular topics are off limits for the Church.  

Furthermore, society arranges our relationship to the goods of creation, and this can rival the providence of God. The Church desires that we accept divine providence. It does not want us to impatiently reject it through the creation of our own Towers of Babel. 

Finally, the Church addresses social issues out of her concern for the faithful and for all of humankind. She knows our lives are impacted by our societies. Therefore, she offers pastoral guidance as well as advocacy as expressions of her maternal charity.  

How Does the Church Address Issues?

In the words of Pope St. Paul VI in his apostolic letter Octogesima Adveniens, the Church’s social teaching proposes “principles of reflection, norms of judgment and directives for action” (4) that Christian communities must apply to their own historical and cultural circumstances. The Church is very clear that she does not propose technical solutions or policies. Rather, in a society that so often addresses social issues in technological, economic, or political terms alone, the Church—as a student of human nature and divine law—reminds society of the moral issues and principles. Further, the Church calls upon society to recognize that social progress depends upon human spiritual and moral progress.

The social documents of the Church tend to survey a social issue, outline the relevant moral principles, and then highlight the spiritual conversion necessary for redressing the issue. While the Church’s social teaching is an application of natural law, the Church recognizes humans can neither fulfill its demands nor reach fulfillment apart from divine grace and conversion. There are four foundational principles of Catholic Social Teaching: human dignity, the common good, solidarity, and subsidiarity.

Principle 1: Human Dignity

The first and foundational principle of Catholic Social Teaching is human dignity. It claims that human beings are unique persons “created in the image of the one God and equally endowed with rational souls.” Therefore every human person “enjoy[s] an equal dignity” (CCC 1934). However, this equality does not lead the Church to conclude all humans are the same. It is not contrary to the equal dignity of humankind to recognize that there are differences “tied to age, physical abilities, intellectual or moral aptitudes, the benefits derived from social commerce, and the distribution of wealth” or that “the ‘talents’ are not distributed equally” (CCC 1936). 

In the Church’s social teaching, there is a common concern for human dignity. St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI were particularly concerned about this principle during their pontificates. While western society has emphasized the human rights that follow from human dignity, it has failed to equally emphasize the responsibilities that each human being has by virtue of his or her dignity.

Corresponding to every right is a responsibility. I might have the right to life, but I also have the obligation to protect and promote the rights of others. The Magisterium warns variously that our failure to discuss our duties and our rights in the same breath has led to a moral imbalance and perversion. It’s not just our culture of entitlement but also a society which, as St. John Paul II pointed out in Evangelium Vitae, has stupidly come to see abortion as a human right.  

Principle 2: The Common Good

The Catechism defines the common good as “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily” (CCC 1906). This is a complicated notion. However, it has in view the way society configures access to the goods necessary for human flourishing. We are not merely talking about material goods like food, clothing, or employment. Here we are also concerned about spiritual goods like charity, peace, and religion. The Church clearly teaches that the common good is every person’s responsibility. Each person and instrument of society—including the government—must ensure through their actions that society promotes the flourishing of each person as a human being, both physically and spiritually. 

Principle 3: Solidarity

The next principle—solidarity—assesses the integrity of the relationships in society, specifically whether they are characterized by charity. Pope St. John Paul II gave us a helpful explanation of this principle:

“Solidarity helps us to see the ‘other’—whether a person, people or nation—not just as some kind of instrument, with a work capacity and physical strength to be exploited at low cost and then discarded when no longer useful, but as our “neighbor,” a “helper” (cf. Gen 2:18–20), to be made a sharer, on a par with ourselves, in the banquet of life to which all are equally invited by God” (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis 39).

One might say solidarity concerns whether our relationships are truly personal, not merely mechanical. 

Solidarity comes up frequently in contexts dealing with trade and economic development. Are economic arrangements among nations arrangements in which the peoples of each nation are growing in friendship? Or are nations taking advantage of each other, exploiting each other, and using each other for individual gain?

Solidarity is at odds with the kind of individualism that says humans should only act out of self interest. This false principle unfortunately animates a good deal of economic and political theory.

Principle 4: Subsidiarity

The final major principle is subsidiarity. One could define it as follows:

Any action that can and should be performed by a smaller and more proximate group should not be deferred to a larger and more remote entity.

Another way of saying it is like this:

Those who are closest and most implicated should take responsibility for a situation or action.

A definition also appears in an encyclical of Pope Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno. Concerned with the way in which “the State” had started to balloon and absorb responsibilities that should have remained in the hands of local organizations, he remarked:

“Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do. For every social activity ought of its very nature to furnish help to the members of the body social, and never destroy and absorb them” (Quadragesimo Anno 79).

This principle stands against social arrangements which diminish the duty and responsibility of human persons and groups.

On the one hand, this principle is concerned with efficiency. If a house in your neighborhood is burning, why should the fire department two towns over come? Your local fire department will get there faster and will know where the hydrants are. 

Yet the Church is more concerned with how this principle requires citizens to take responsibility for their communities. This in turn provides an opportunity for those citizens to grow in virtue. We might think of it like this: a parent who never lets a child do any work or take responsibility for behavior will raise a morally stunted person, likely a spoiled brat. So too, societies that don’t demand responsibility from their citizens but create agencies to assume that responsibility on their behalf will experience moral atrophy. 

How Can I Get Started Studying Catholic Social Teaching?

Modern society’s technological and economic development is outpacing, if not diminishing, our moral and spiritual capacity. Catholic Social Teaching persistently warns us about this danger. We can produce and communicate like never before. Yet, we so regularly lack the moral resources and strength to communicate well. It is therefore urgent that we hear the wisdom of Christ in the Church’s social teaching. How might we begin?

There are many introductions to Catholic Social Teaching. I already referenced the brief introduction by Stratford Caldecott. Anthony Esolen has a punchy and principled, even if pointed primer called Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching. My own introduction is forthcoming. But there’s no substitute for reading the documents themselves. A course or textbook for an understanding of the concepts and historical background is helpful, but not necessary. You could read the Compendium of Catholic Social Doctrine which gathers together the teachings thematically. Or you could start with the major documents listed below. (The titles are in Latin but the links are to the English translations.):

Rerum Novarum 

Quadragesimo Anno

Populorum Progressio 

Mater et Magistra 

Pacem in Terris 

Gaudium et Spes (Second Vatican Council document)

Laborem Exercens 

Sollicitudo Rei Socialis 

Centesimus Annus

Caritas in Veritate

Laudato Si 

About Dr. James Merrick

Dr. James R. A. Merrick is lecturer at Franciscan University of Steubenville, reviews editor for Nova et Vetera, and a theology and Latin teacher at St. Joseph’s Catholic Academy in Boalsburg, Pennsylvania. Dr. Merrick is also on the faculty for the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown’s Lay Ecclesial and Diaconal Formation program. Previously he was scholar-in-residence at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology. Before entering the Church with his wife and children, he was an Anglican priest and college theology professor in the United States and in the United Kingdom. Follow Dr. Merrick on Twitter: @JamesRAMerrick (https://twitter.com/JamesRAMerrick).

September 9, 2019 - 9:47am
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