Social Action: Time to Build a Freedom Movement Rooted in Christian Social Teaching
Rather than accept what someone tells us is Catholic Social teaching, we should inform our own minds, hearts, lifestyles and social participation by the real deal
As a veteran of social and cultural activism I am more convinced than ever that this is a moment when the treasury of insights and principles found within Catholic Social teaching is what is needed to reshape the American polity and rescue a culture on the precipice of collapse. However, we need to rescue the very term social teaching from those who have co-opted it. I want to first consider what the phrase refers to, where we can find it and ways in which we can apply it to the work which we must now undertake. Finally, I want to end with some reflections on freedom.
WASHINGTON,DC (Catholic Online) - As a veteran of social and cultural activism I am more convinced than ever that this is a moment when the treasury of insights and principles found within Catholic Social teaching is what is needed to reshape the American polity and rescue a culture on the precipice of collapse.
However, we need to rescue the very term social doctrine and its much alligned offshoot "social justice" from those who have co-opted both. I want to first consider what the phrase social doctrine refers to, where we can find it and ways in which we can apply it to the work which we must now undertake. Finally, I want to end with some reflections on freedom.
The Compendium of the Social Doctrine
Prior to 2004, the phrase the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church referred to the teachings found in the Sacred Scriptures, expounded upon in the Christian tradition, developed in the documents of the Second Vatican Council, explained within a contemporary series of encyclical letters, apostolic letters and exhortations, and summarized in some sections of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
Unfortunately, many Catholics and other Christians had not read many of these sources for any number of reasons. Thus, what sometimes claimed to be the Social Teaching of the Catholic Church was closer to being the spin of self appointed experts, some of whom have had their own political, cultural, social or economic theories and agendas.
On April 2, 2004, the Memorial of Saint Francis of Paola, Cardinal Renato Raffaele Martino, then President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace released the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of Church. It was exactly what had been lacking. It contains a very readable summary of centuries of teaching and sets forth the themes of that rich Social teaching of the Church for all men and women.
The Compendium is well written, well sourced, clearly indexed and accessible in writing style. It is a filled with the kind of instruction needed for the development of the kind of freedom movement I am proposing. I had sincerely hoped that it would be widely distributed and really studied by the Catholic faithful. It has not.
I have done what I can to write, teach and use the Compendium in my own public policy and apologetics work. I regularly recommend when I preach or teach concerning areas of social concern that every Catholic home have a paper copy of this resource book right next to their Bible and Catechism. It can be purchased here. It is available online here.
I also respectfully suggest this to the many Christians of other communities with whom I work in social causes and whom I increasingly address in joint public forums. I am often asked after speaking where I get some of the insights I share and I explain the Compendium.
However, even though I spend much of my time online, as is evident from my writing, I am convinced that having the actual book enables it to be used the way it is most needed. It needs to be read, studied and re-read. It needs to be the place we go to find the assistance we need if we are going to be faithful to our mission in the work of influencing the culture for the true common good.
Rather than accept what someone tells us is Catholic Social teaching, we should inform our own minds, hearts, lifestyles and social participation by the real deal. Unfortunately, almost ten years after the release of the Compendium, I find that few Catholics even know that the Compendium exists. Many Catholics and other Christians still fail to see any connection between the faith they profess and their political and social participation.
The Social Teaching of the Catholic Church offers principles which can help to steer western culture away from a path of self destruction. It is not only for Catholics, other Christians or even just religious people. It is for all people and all Nations. It is offered by the Church to those who seek to build a truly just society and promote the real common good.
This teaching is called social because it speaks to human society and to the formation, role and rightful place of social institutions. Many of these truths and principles can be known by all men and women because they are revealed in the Natural Law and then expounded upon in Revelation.
The Natural Law
Contrary to the relativism of our age, Catholic Social doctrine insists that that there are unchangeable truths which can be known by all men and women through the exercise of reason. They are revealed in the Natural Law (Catechism #1950-1960). This Natural Law is "present in the heart of each man and established by reason." It is thus binding on all men and women and should inform every human social and political order if it seeks to be truly just.
This law "is universal in its precepts and its authority extends to all men. It expresses the dignity of the person and determines the basis for his fundamental rights and duties." (Catechism of the Catholic Church# 1956) It is here, revealed in the Natural Law, we find the moral truths which should inform our life together in a truly just and free society. It is here where we also find those fundamental and foundational human rights which we then insist must be recognized by the civil or positive law as rightfully belonging to all men and women.
The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (paragraph 140) further explains: The exercise of freedom implies a reference to a natural moral law, of a universal character, that precedes and unites all rights and duties. The natural law "is nothing other than the light of intellect infused within us by God. Thanks to this, we know what must be done and what must be avoided. This light or this law has been given by God to creation. It consists in the participation in his eternal law, which is identified with God himself.
This law is called natural because the reason that promulgates it is proper to human nature. It is universal; it extends to all people insofar as it is established by reason. In its principal precepts, the divine and natural law is presented in the Decalogue and indicates the primary and essential norms regulating moral life. Its central focus is the act of aspiring and submitting to God, the source and judge of everything that is good, and also the act of seeing others as equal to oneself. The natural law expresses the dignity of the person and lays the foundations of the person's fundamental duties."
This Natural Law is expounded upon and more fully revealed through faith and revelation. However, foundational truths such as the dignity of every human person at every age and stage, the nature and ends of marriage and our obligations in solidarity to one another are all knowable through the exercise of reason. These truths provide a framework for viewing and structuring our social life and building a common home. We should recognize them, agree upon them and build a movement for freedom rooted in them.
Examples of Natural Law Positions
We begin with the dignity of every human person because they are created in the Image of God. This foundational vision of dignity of the human person informs the Christian position concerning the respect for every human life whether that life be in the first home of the womb, a wheelchair, a jail cell, a hospital room, a hospice, a senior center or a soup kitchen.
Another example of a Natural Law position is the truth about marriage as between one man and one woman, open to life and formative of family. Marriage is not some malleable construct which can be redefined by courts or legislatures. Marriage is the foundation of the family which is the foundation of the social order.
The family is the first society, first church, first school, first economy, first government and first mediating institution. In the words of Blessed John Paul II "the future of the world passes through the family." The human person is by nature - and grace - made for community and the first community which humanizes and civilizes us all is the family.
Principles from Social Teaching Applied
The social teaching of the Catholic Church offers principles to be worked into the loaf of human culture which assist in our work of building a more just and human society. They can help us to humanize and order our economies and engage in international relations. However, because they are principles, they leave room for the application of prudential judgment.Let us consider some examples.
The Church challenges any notion of human freedom which begins and ends with the isolated, atomistic, person as the measure of its application. We are by nature and grace called to relationship. Only in communion can we be fully human. This is the Christian vision of the human person and must inform our work.
Human freedom must always be exercised within a moral constitution. Otherwise, we do not progress in freedom but succumb to various new forms of slavery and only mouth the word while we build our own shackles. There is a moral basis to a free society. Freedom is not only about having a right to choose but choosing what is right and embedding within the polity the safeguards of freedom.
Freedom must be ordered toward choosing the good, respecting the truth about the human person, human flourishing, the family and the real common good. Our freedom must respect our obligations in solidarity to one another - because we are our brother and sisters keeper. This is the principle of solidarity or social charity.
The Catholic Church rightly properly reminds all of our obligation to give what is called a preferential option or, I prefer, a love of preference, to the poor. This is the kind of love which the Lord Himself shows in his identification with the poor. The implications of our response to this command are expounded upon in the 25th chapter of the Gospel of St Matthew.
This means incorporating in our social order a concern for their well being by constructing a system which includes them within its embrace and expands the promise of participation and advancement. However, Catholic social teaching does not propose any particular economic theory.
Rather, it insists that every economic order must first be at the service of the dignity of the human person and the family and further the common good. In recent encyclicals and magisterial teaching the market economy has been recognized as having a real potential for promoting all of these goods - when properly understood and morally structured.
The Catholic Church does not take a position on which economic theory is the best among many. She prophetically stood against the materialism of the atheistic Marxist system. She properly and prophetically cautions Nations which have adopted a form of liberal capitalism that there are dangers in any form of economism or materialism which promotes the use of persons as products and fails to recognize the value of being over acquiring.
She reminds our consumerist western culture that the market economy must be at the service the human person, the family and the common good, lest 'capitalism' conflate its claims to offering freedom and become what Blessed John Paul II once referred to as savage in its application and encourage business practices devolving into greed.
The Church warns against and rejects collectivism, whether of the left or the right. The Church's social doctrine holds that authentically human social relationships of friendship, solidarity and reciprocity can also be conducted within economic activity, and are not only outside it or after it.
As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI articulated in his 1999 encyclical letter Charity on Truth, "The economic sphere is neither ethically neutral, nor inherently inhuman and opposed to society. It is part and parcel of human activity and precisely because it is human, it must be structured and governed in an ethical manner."
Contrary to what some wrote after that letter was published, it neither endorsed nor rejected capitalism. As the Social Teaching of the Catholic Church consistently has done in the past it simply did not use the term, preferring the terms market economy or free economy.
That is because the market is made for man and not man for the market. Economics is not as much about capital as it is about human flourishing and freedom. Freedom is a good of the person and a free market must be one which is moral. In a message released on New Year's Day,2013, the World Day of Peace, Pope Benedict XVI used a few words which were quoted out of context in numerous media reports.
The Message was entitled Blessed Are the Peacemakers, the theme of the Year's World Day of Peace. It was a brilliantly written exposition of Catholic Social Doctrine which offers tremendous insights sorely needed in this urgent hour.
In the middle of 4,000 words addressing a full palate of social concerns - including the obligation to defend human life, protect marriage and the family, respect fundamental human rights such as religious freedom and encourage truly just economic development - he made reference to what he called a "a selfish and individualistic mindset which also finds expression in an unregulated financial capitalism."
Those few words gave rise to headlines in several media sources which were either intentionally false or reflected sloppy journalism. I will leave such a judgment to others. However, this kind of caution has been given before by the magisterium - and rightly so.
Markets can only be free when free people are engaged in them. Freedom is a good of the person. A free economy should also seek to continually expand by opening the way for the participation for as many people as possible, while promoting enterprise and initiative.
Also, though we are to give a love of preference to the poor, recognizing our solidarity with them, this call to solidarity is to be applied through the application of the principle of subsidiarity, rejecting all forms of dehumanizing collectivism, either of the left or the right. Subsidiarity in both governance and economic participation rejects the usurping by a larger entity of participation which can be done at the lowest practicable level.
The West, with all of its promise of freedom, flirts with an instrumentalist materialism devoid of any understanding that the market was made for man not man for the market. In this kind of mistaken approach to a free market economic order the accumulation of capital can come to be viewed as prior to the flourishing of the person, the family and the common good. In its wake, the poor can be forgotten and peace threatened.
Pope Emeritus Benedicts few words properly addressed this kind of an errant approach to the market economy. The market economy can be a force for good when humanized and expanded to offer participation to more and more men and women. However, if Pope Benedict's few words caused a stir, Blessed John Paul II, when addressing the same danger, was even stronger in his language.
On the hundreth anniversary of Pope Leo XIII's encyclical on economic concerns, Blessed John Paul wrote: Returning now to the initial question: can it perhaps be said that, after the failure of Communism, capitalism is the victorious social system, and that capitalism should be the goal of the countries now making efforts to rebuild their economy and society? Is this the model, which ought to be proposed to the countries of the Third World, which are searching for the path to true economic and civil progress? The answer is obviously complex.
If by capitalism is meant an economic system, which recognizes the fundamental and positive role of business, the market, private property, as well as free human creativity in the economic sector, then the answer is certainly in the affirmative, even though it would perhaps be more appropriate to speak of a `business economy,' `market economy,' or simply `free economy'. But, if by `capitalism' is meant a system in which freedom in the economic sector is not circumscribed within a strong juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality and sees it as a particular aspect of that freedom, the core of which is ethical and religious, then the reply is certainly negative.(Centesimus Annus, n. 42)
Christian Social thought needs to be rescued from those who may have used it as a kind of proof text to legitimize any political theory or economic system that fails to spring from its' fundamental view of the dignity of the human person, solidarity, authentic human freedom, economic and social justice - properly understood - as well as matters of war and peace.
Unity of Life, Moral Coherence
We cannot separate moral, social and economic issues in the body politic, just as we cannot separate the spirit, soul and body of a person. Human society is a form of corporate person. All of our political and economic concerns have some moral dimension because they concern the human person.
The reason we should care about expanding economic opportunity is because we respect the dignity of every human person and want to expand participation so that more and more people can floursih. The reason we should care for all of the poor, in all of their manifestations, is because they all have human dignity. However, experience has often shown that big, centralized government is not very good at caring for the poor.
When, as Christian citizens, we advocate for smaller government, we must not be anti-government and should be careful of our use of language. After all, God governs. Governing takes place in every family. We are calling for the proper application of the principle of subsidiarity out of respect for the primacy of the family as the first society, the first government, the first church, first school, first economy and first mediating institution.
Clarity of Language
We need to be clear in our language. For example, there is no such thing as an abortion right, even if the positive law currently protects the act of choosing to abort a child through the police power of the State. Abortions have no rights, only human persons do.
Every procured abortion is the denial of the true Right, the fundamental and inalienable Right to Life. Our position on defending this Right to Life is not about being single issue voters; it is the lens, the hermeneutic through which we must view every other issue. Human rights - such as the Natural Law Right to Life - and human freedoms - such as the freedom to be born - are goods of human persons. When there is no human person to exercise them all the rhetoric extolling them is nothing but empty air and sloganeering.
Nor is our insistence on the societal recognition of the Right to Life merely a matter of our religious beliefs. It is a response to the truth revealed by the Natural Law and confirmed by medical science. The Child in the womb is our neighbor. It is always and everywhere wrong to take innocent human life. The child in the womb is innocent human life. It is thus wrong to intentionally kill him or her through procured abortion.
Our Pro-Life position is a solidarity position. The embryonic human person, the child in the womb, the disabled, the needy and the elderly are all members of our human family and our neighbors. We can never condone their intentional killing as some kind of exercise of some freedom to choose manufactured by an errant Supreme Court and championed by errant legislators.
Procured abortion is never a moral choice but a crime, whether the positive law prosecutes it or not. Our opposition to the judicial manufacture of a right to take innocent human life in the womb must never take a back seat to any other concern in the public policy arena. Freedom must be exercised with reference to what is true and good in any just and moral society.
Concluding Thoughts on Freedom
When there is nothing objectively true - which can be known by all and form the basis of our common life - there is no basis for authentic freedom. Freedom can neither be realized, nor can it flourish, unless it is exercised in reference to choosing what is true and what is good. Our choices not only affect the world around us, they change us as individuals and as a people.
As a Nation we have lost our moral compass precisely because we have made wrong choices, we have abused our freedom. As a direct result, we are losing real, genuine freedom. The idea that we can separate moral issues from political, fiscal or international issues is wrong. There is a moral basis to every social concern - that includes economics and foreign policy.
Making this moral claim is not reserved to the religious. Such a claim acknowledges the existence of a Natural Law which can be known by all men and women through the exercise of reason. That Natural Moral Law is the ground upon which every great civilization has been built.
This Natural Law gives us norms needed to build just societies and govern ourselves. It must inform the positive law of a Nation or it becomes lawless and devolves into anarchy. We need men and women in to run for office and govern who are unafraid to acknowledge this fact.
They need to be strong enough to withstand the incessant effort to caricature, label and disparage them because they openly espouse such views. Truth does not change, people and cultures do; sometimes for good and sometimes for evil.
There is a hierarchy of rights, which begins with the Right to Life. When there is no recognition of a preeminent right to life, there follows an erosion of the entire structure of all human rights. Human rights do not exist in a vacuum; they are goods of the human person.
When a society fails to recognize that persons are more important than things, when it loses sight of the primacy of the inviolable dignity of every single human person at every age, every stage and of every size, it embraces a form of practical materialism, worshipping a new golden calf.
Without the freedom to be born, all of the talk about compassion for the poor as well as the promise of economic freedom is hollow. Our failure as a Nation to recognize that our first neighbors in the womb have a right to be born and live a full life in our community is a foundational failure in our obligation in solidarity.
It is also an open rejection of the entire ethic of being our brothers (and sisters) keeper and its implications. There can be no enduring lasting solidarity upon which to build a secure future in a culture that kills its own children and actually calls it a right.
Freedom is much more than a freedom from; it is a freedom for responsible and virtuous living. The early American founders spoke of the pursuit of happiness with reference to just such an understanding of virtue as a key to living a happy life.
Marriage and family life is the classroom of social and personal virtue. Marriage is the first society into which children are to be born, learn to be fully human, grow in virtue, flourish and take their role in families and communities. The effort to redefine marriage out of existence threatens our future as a free, virtuous and healthy people.
Marriage and family have been inscribed by the Divine Architect into the order of creation and relation. We can only be fully human - and experience human flourishing and freedom - in relationship with one another. We are by nature - and by grace - social creatures.
In the words of the first book of the Bible we read "it is not good for man to be alone". It all begins with the family. We can only be fully human - and experience human flourishing and freedom - in relationship with one another. We are by nature - and by grace - social creatures.
Children have a right to a mother and a father. Of course we must care about the single parent family and the many broken homes. However, their existence does not change the norm necessary for grounding a stable and healthy society. In tact marriages and families are the glue of a healthy and happy social order.
We must insist upon a foundation upon which freedom must rest and within which it thrives. There is a moral basis of a free society. We may be free to choose, but some choices are always and everywhere wrong. We know this is true because it is written on the human heart. It does not require religion to reveal it or to make it obligatory. It is a part of our common morality.
Freedom brings with it obligations to do what is right and to care for others. We have an obligation in solidarity to one another and, in particular, to the poor. We are our brother/sister´s keeper. The division between social thought and economic application is a false dichotomy. The market was made for man and not man for the market. Only a moral people can ensure that a market economy remains free.
We must not be perceived as anti-government. The question we should ask is whether government is good, including whether it is efficient and effective as well as healthy. That can best be assessed by considering who does the governing, where it happens and whether such governing reflects truly moral values.
We need to apply the social ordering principle of subsidiarity in implementing this obligation in both governing structures and the economic order. This principle insists that governance should be exercised at the lowest practicable level - first - beginning with the family.
Larger governing entities must never usurp the rightful role of families and the mediating structures of society such as religious institutions, associations, charities and small self governing structures between the family and the institutions of civil government.
Statism never works, whether of the rightist or the leftist version. It squelches freedom, creativity, initiative and genuine human compassion. Not because government is somehow intrinsically evil, but because collectivism is simply not good government; it is tyranny.
There is a difference between a secular state, a state which welcomes all religious expressions or none at all, and secularism, an oppressive anti-religious ideology and regime which seeks to censor out of the public forum the wonderful contributions of the Church, people of faith, and the great ideas informed by faith which have shaped the West.
There are conflicting visions of freedom contending for the future. These visions are incompatible with one another. Only one will triumph. The American founders carried a vision of authentic freedom into the experiment in ordered liberty called the United States of America. However, they did not come up with this ennobling and enabling vision on their own.
They received it from the treasury of Western civilization which is found in Christendom. It is the Jewish and Christian vision of the human person, the primacy of marriage and the family founded upon it, and the acknowledgement of the existence of normative, fundamental moral truths, which guarantees the future of Western civilization.
It is time to build a Freedom movement.
© 2014 - Distributed by THE NEWS CONSORTIUM
Pope Francis Prayer Intentions for March 2014
Respect for Women: That all cultures may respect the rights and dignity of women.
Vocations: That many young people may accept the Lord’s invitation to consecrate their lives to proclaiming the Gospel.
Keywords: Compendium of the Social Doctrine, Social Justice, freedom, solidarity, subsidiarity, economism, free market, moral coherence, Right to Life, Marriage defense, Free Society, Natural Law, Natural moral Law, Deacon Keith Fournier
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