Catholic Social Teaching: A Political Lens

Catholics and non-Catholics alike often wonder what drives the Church’s involvement in the civic affairs of our communities and of the nation at large. If the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) is the ‘what’ of our faith, Catholic Social Teaching (CST) is the ‘why’. Though any attempt to condense this Teaching into a single blog post would serve functionally as a summary of the prelude to an introduction on a vast tome of centuries of developed thought, I would be remiss if the Catholic Conference of Oklahoma did not offer some critical insight into what impels our actions in our state.

From its very point of origin, Christ charged His Apostles with the mission of building His Church and with a particular commission to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” The Magisterium of the Catholic Church has never understood that commission so narrowly, however, as to be relegated merely to the halls of evangelization.

The reason for this is clear. How might one be given to discipleship if he has first been deprived of his own life? Or why might one be inclined to baptism if concern for her next meal is preeminent in her mind? Would a father be available to consider eternal things while also bearing the weight of his inability to provide for his family? Or how might we expect a young person to ponder the prospects of confirmation as a disciple when lack of sufficient education presents an impediment to growth in that discipleship?

These questions among many others are inseparably interwoven with the Great Commission and thus enliven the Church’s mandate to bring faith, hope, and charity to the world. What’s more, an indispensable part of promoting that charity is political engagement.

As Pope Saint John Paul the Great explained in his encyclical, The Gospel of Life, “If charity is to be realistic and effective, it demands that the Gospel of Life be implemented also by means of certain forms of social activity and commitment in the political field….”

Pope Francis most recently echoed that demand arguing that, “Politics, though often denigrated, remains a lofty vocation and one of the highest forms of charity, inasmuch as it seeks the common good.”

Moreover, Pope Paul VI made much the same appeal more than a generation ago when he explained that the exercise of political power “is the natural and necessary link for ensuring the cohesion of the social body, [which] must have as its aim the achievement of the common good.”

Though CST has developed over the centuries from the advent of the Great Commission to the present day, its transcription unofficially began with the publishing in 1891 of Pope Leo XIII’s famous encyclical Rerum Novarum. Seen as the foundation for the Church’s thought on social justice with particular attention to labor and capital, the rights of workers and the poor, and of the excess of industrialization, Pope Leo XIII’s words set the ball in motion, so to speak, for succession of papal encyclicals over the next century which further developed CST.

Celebrating the 100th anniversary of Rerum Norum, Pope Saint John Paul the Great published Centesimus Annus, which served as a restatement of his predecessor’s work for the coming 21st century. In it he addressed new challenges to the propagation of charity in the age of globalization, technology and of a Western culture that was rapidly decoupling itself from its millennia-long Judeo-Christian moorings.

In the years since CA, Popes Benedict XVI and Francis have continued this tradition of social teaching culminating most recently in Francis’ Laudato Si. Though a library of books has been written and much study devoted to the development of CST over the last 125 years, we can distill this scholarship broadly to three key principles: dignity of the human individual, subsidiarity of government, and solidarity of all humanity.

These three principles serve as a sort of ‘three-legged stool’ upon which the Church’s efforts toward charity rest firmly and to which those efforts appeal for authority and clarity. It serves also as a lens through which the Church views and discerns practical matters of politics and public policy as a means to promoting the common good and fostering greater human flourishing.

Throughout the various papal encyclicals runs the principle of dignity without which the two companion principles are moot. That all life, from conception to natural end, is sacred and worthy of respect and protection is a given. Further, as a creation of God, each individual is imbued with certain natural rights which are not derived from any government, as they proceed a priori from God Himself.

Because human individuals derive those rights equally from God, they are invested also with a solidarity across humanity through which we struggle, together, in a fallen world for greater flourishing and, ultimately, toward what Aristotle called the ‘good life’. Contrary to a Lockean conception of a ‘social contract’, that indissolubly mutual struggle implies and demands a certain civic framework within which such flourishing may be most encouraged.

This framework has ontologically and concretely been demonstrated to be most conducive as a part of a political structure that allows for challenges and solutions to meet at the level of lowest practicable governance. In short, no national government should aim to solve a problem of human need which can better be remedied by a local body.

The dictates of this lens of social teaching extend to diverse political concerns in an encompassing way such that the Church seeks, for instance, to remedy poverty both through public benefit and through private economic development. Likewise, it urges certain rights of labor and equally the protection of property that must necessarily function as a facet of free enterprise. The Church advocates both the right to education and parents’ right to responsibility coterminous with the need for support of public institutions. And CST urges protection for the plight of the migrant as well as the right of nations to institute borders and defense.

This rich, universal tradition inspires the Church and her faithful to recognize and, therefore, to behave in such a way that doctrine becomes a lived faith through charity and justice both in and out of the political sphere. It is for this reason that we appeal time and again to Catholic Social Teaching as the bedrock for our action.

 –Brett Farley is a convert to the Catholic Church and serves as Executive Director for the Catholic Conference of Oklahoma