What is Catholic Social Thought / Catholic Social Teaching?
Catholic Social Thought and Catholic Social Teaching (“CST,” in context) are Catholic attempts to address the common good inasmuch as it is promoted or abused by governmental systems, cultural structures, educational institutions, the medical establishment, economic systems, etc. They are two forms of discourse, but each of a very different sort. The first is an overall category applying to laity, religious, and indeed some hierarchical members of the Church, too; but the sense is that of rhetorical persuasion and presenting potential solutions to problems. The second only applies to the Pope and bishops–hence the reservation of the word “teaching” for their efforts–but notably leaves it to the first group to figure out how to implement its teachings. Both combine faith with reason and discernment to form an ideological notion of–and the principles for–what they reasonably speculate God might want of secular society, today, in order to establish that “peaceful and just order which is so beneficial to the spread of the Faith.”
Note that such discussions are not in regard to the internal life of the Church itself, per se, because it already possesses a determined structure and life based on a higher level of charity and discipline than non-members are subject to. When these same parties are developing notions about the Church itself, such efforts fall under “Ecclesiology,” instead. This division is nothing new. There has always been a distinction made between members and non-members, noting that the Magisterium doesn’t claim authority over those outside the Church. Further, since the Church is anointed by God to continue Jesus’ ministry it is not under secular rulers nor part of secular society; it desires their cooperation but doesn’t need their permission. Rather, it is above society and above its laws–again making it separate. It likewise demands that its members consider their citizenship to be first and foremost that of Heaven. But the Church recognizes its members experience a form of “dual-citizenship” in that their daily lives–like leaven in bread–are immersed in particular cultural and social relationships with the larger society. It is only in this sense that CST applies to life within the Church–i.e., indirectly.
Now, let us situate Catholic social teaching within the Church’s regular teaching. Fundamental moral theology deals with what one would expect: “fundamental” issues of right and wrong, conscience, natural law, the components of an action, a human act vs. an act of a human, virtue, freedom vs. duty, justice vs. mercy, cooperation issues (one to one, many to one, one to many), and so on. It mostly applies to individuals in their own lives. Social moral theology has to do with “social” interactions on a much grander scale–as mentioned, the common good. But now the concerns are things like: the relationship of labor to ownership, solidarity, subsidiarity, human ecology, endemic poverty of nations, social justice, international trade and macro-investing, universal destination of goods, etc.
There is a connection between personal and societal ethics / morality, just like one would expect. For example, a just society can only be constituted by men and women who are individually righteous. Too many of the unrighteous perverting justice will eventually be revealed as hypocrisy in an appallingly broad scandal with calls for systemic reform. Yet, while ethics & morals in the personal sphere is quite an ancient matter, the Church’s social teaching is clearly contemporary–as you can tell by the types of themes just named–showing it is of relatively recent origin in comparison. The Bible doesn’t say much about the common good and other overarching themes except when they pertain to either false religious cults or ill-treatment of the poor. This makes it difficult for CST to root its responses to modern questions about social justice / social teachings within Scripture and Tradition. It has to extrapolate from what these say about individuals, trusting that such prudentially modified ruminations will find application for societally-wide needs.
By most accounts, Pope Leo XIII started this form of instruction with his Encyclical Letter, Rerum Novarum (“On New Things”) in 1891. There were other papal encyclical letters before this which dealt with ecclesiology and internal discipline; and there have been other papal encyclicals after this which also treated of other matters. But successive popes followed his lead in the area of CST, refreshing their observations and guidance every so often, commonly on an anniversary of previous encyclicals having to do with social teaching. Then also, Vatican II weighed in on the church’s relationship to the modern world. And since then, many apostolic letters, papal addresses, pontifical commissions, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and national bishops’ conferences have added their opinions to this growing body of teaching. As of 2004, pontifical teachings have been summarized and indexed in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. It bears reliable witness to the Church’s relatively recent outreach to the world on social issues.
How the preaching of a “social gospel” (as it has been called) emerged historically–based on prudence as much as it is on faith–is quite the wonder in itself. It was not via “development of doctrine,” a phrase used to explain how irreformable teachings can nevertheless be modified to address genuinely new questions. Rather, social applications of the Gospel have evolved from other forms of teaching–that is, literally, they gradually changed into something else. In this case, from faith that is supported by reason into reasoning that is supported by faith. Let’s look at this, next.
Jesus had tasked His disciples with the preaching of the Gospel unto the formation of a community of love and prayer–His Church. In apostolic times, this involved the evangelization of non-believers in order to bring them to Baptism, and then additional catechetical formation after Baptism of those new believers unto their reception of the other Sacraments of Initiation (Eucharist and Confirmation). Two different types of preaching were needed for this formation process:
(a) Teaching Jewish prospects the perfection of what their previous faith only prefigured but prepared them for in following the Savior. It emphasized God’s historical work in their people via His prophetic message and His desire to eventually also bring the Gentile nations to faith but, in the course of doing so, required the sunsetting of Mosaic Law.
(b) Re-educating Gentile prospects in just about everything they thought they knew about religion and virtue. The emphasis, here, was on the “Two Ways” of living: one that leads to grace and life in Christ Jesus, or one that leads to sin and death by their sins having merited punishment from God. The Two Ways message was prefigured in the choice ancient Israel faced when first accepting the Law from God through Moses (Deuteronomy 30:15-20). Further, in regard to a similar offer being made to the Gentiles in Christianity, it retained many parallels, except that the benefit was now a heavenly reward rather than an earthly flourishing. But by either route to faith, it was the Holy Spirit who led individuals to the Church, and Who shaped the Church’s instruction to the needs of individuals.
Jesus’ mandate and the corresponding ministry still apply to the Church, today; and the Holy Spirit is still in charge of attracting people and forming them in the Faith. And variations on either of the above ways of teaching would still count as the same type of instruction. For example, nowadays the talk is of “inculturation”–how the Church’s faith and morals can be expressed in various cultures so that better use is made of any elements of truth, goodness, and beauty/order (the transcendentals) which might already exist, treating them as providential precursors to prepare them for reception of the Gospel. Any novelty in language would not signify a new teaching because the instruction of the Church in matters of faith and morals is something necessary, which has to be substantially the same in every generation and locale, taken as these are from Divine Revelation.
And, related, there can be wide latitude for encountering people “where they are” mentally, emotionally, developmentally…even as pertains to the present concern about secular society. But the way in which these forms of teaching change from being faith-based to becoming reason-based as a teaser for garnering interest in the faith itself is something different, per my earlier comparison to evolution. It is a major shift that CST now presents itself without insisting on the still-extant specific demands of the faith. Rather, it situates the faith on the side of prudence, attempting to use a faith-filled inspiration of reason to “do the right thing” and effect what God wants for secular society. Let’s look into this evolution more closely, using a few different historical shifts as examples of how the Church had to adapt its preaching in relation to outsiders.
Every historical period has its own challenges; new threats and new potentials affect those who preach and those who hear, so that some adaptation of the Church’s teaching is always required. And there have been some periods when extreme variations in need required extreme changes in the Church’s approach to instruction. Here are a few such examples:
– Separation of the Church from its Jewish roots: Beginning circa 50s – 60s A.D., the Jewish rabbis persuaded Rome that Christianity was not a valid branch of Judaism; rather, it was a new sect and therefore, under existing Roman Law, was illegal. Removal of Jewish protection as an “ancient” religion began a centuries long persecution of Christianity. The Church was driven underground and the proclamation of the Gospel proceeded in secret. Social thought and social teaching had to be limited to an explanation of why it was worth dying for one’s faith and what to do with apostates–believers who had yielded under threat of confiscation of goods, bodily torture, and even death–who, later, repented and wanted to come back. (Note that the Patristic writings from this period of persecution, up to about 300 A.D. make for very inspirational reading!)
Then, too, outreach to the Jews waned due to perceived betrayals–this one just mentioned, above, but also their expulsion of Jewish Christians from Temple and synagogue, the formalization of Jewish Scriptural Canon to exclude the Septuagint which many Jewish Christians had been using, and at some point the development of daily Jewish “anathema” prayers of excommunication, complete with read-between-the-lines cursing of Christians. Indeed, many passages in the New Testament bear witness to the bitterness that developed between the two sides. Rome eventually expelled all Jews and all Christians from its capital city, and then went on to put down three different open rebellions in Israel, the effects of which included the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., and the later absolute devastation of all Judea in 135 A.D. It didn’t help any that Christians remained neutral in these conflicts because they already had a savior and Jerusalem, with its temple worship, had become irrelevant. And the fact each side blamed the other for the resulting “punishment” from God, was just too much. From this period on, there were mostly only Gentile converts, and the tone was set for nearly 2000 years of anti-Jewish animosity with frequent periods of forced conversion on the part of the Church, especially with the soon-to-come union of Church and State, addressed next. Social thought and social teaching were limited to polemics, to explain to outsiders like the pagans and the Jews why they were not welcome in polite company.
– End of persecution and the establishment of a union between Church and State: Starting in the mid to late 300’s A.D., after Christianity became legal under Constantine, believers who were academics could devote themselves to exploring what a Christian society should look like, and Christian rulers could justify a partnership of state and religion which tried to do the will of the Christian God. The union was modeled in part on previous Roman practice and law, but with Christian influence serving to slowly deprecate things like blood sport, slavery, and usury. (Those things were then driven underground!) Such a system lasted until the Protestant reformation, the Enlightenment, and Revolutionary Democracy put it an end to it, as addressed, next. Social thought and social teaching during this period largely took the shape of apologetics–determining what you have to say to put heretics in their place.
– End of the Church’s secular power: Throughout most of the Middle Ages and Medieval periods, the local bishop commonly possessed as great (or greater) power than the local ruler. This consumed the Church’s energies with secular matters and also motivated many wicked and power-hungry individuals to pursue ecclesial offices. The papacy was no exception and Church teaching suffered greatly…until such changes as happenstance would allow (providence) eventually put an end to it in the Modern Period, beginning circa 16th Century. Not that there weren’t sincere efforts at reform made all along the way–witness the flourishing of Religious Orders and their preaching–but this isn’t an historical lesson and I need not be fair or balanced. The point is that the Church had to find a new way to relate to society as its secular power and influence waned. Bypassing much pain and sorrow, finally, about the era of the slow unification of Italy, circa 1850s… to 1870, the Papal States ceased to exist and the popes ceased to be secular rulers. It was a blessing in disguise, one which has allowed the Church’s Magisterium to be purified of power-seekers, causing it to expend its energies envisioning how the Gospel might apply to all the many new ideas which were percolating in the minds of men. My impression is that, for the most part, the Church was against all the new ideas, slowly learning to adapt, until Vatican II radically changed Church’s approach to be “pastoral” instead of doctrinal.
– Post-Modern loss of identity and meaning: After two world wars, by the late 1950’s and 1960’s it was apparent to all that major changes were occurring in secular society, the likes of which had literally not been seen since the creation of the world! Change was in the air, and people were sick of the smug, “logical,” patriarchy that had overseen the youth and economies of the European continent destroyed–twice!–and then threatened with global nuclear war to finish the job! It was a time of searching for new governments, new cultures, new economies, new lives, and new gods (or no God). Then, too, even within the Church people were falling away. It became a joke that the second biggest denomination after Catholics were fallen away Catholics. Currently, half of all Catholics don’t even accept the Church’s fundamental moral teaching, feeling an identity closer to that of the culture than that of the Gospel. Attention had to be given–both within the Church and without–to the preaching of human dignity, marriage, family, and the love of God calling sinners to repent. In a word, social thought and social teaching had to offer identity and hope. Such are the times we are still living in–perhaps with less of a nuclear threat but with an ongoing culture war that is only deepening societal loss of identity and meaning. I would argue, such has been the essential import of Catholic Social Teaching since the 1970s–offering people identity in Christ, hope for the future, and present-day meaning through ministering to the needs of others. Social thought and social teaching in this current period usually starts by a tour-de-force demonstration that the speaker actually understands what people are going through. And then the offer of potential, rational, solutions based on the Gospel is made. It is an approach which is truly pastoral, being much more gentle and understanding than earlier forms of address / redress, allowing others to accept or reject the instruction rather than the Church making that decision for them.
If I have been too negative in describing previous, historical forms of the Church’s teaching, my apologies. It was only to help contrast them with the Church’s post-Vatican II modus operandi which is marked by trying to reason with people for their own good and even cooperating with them in many otherwise good or neutral works even if not specifically Christian or Gospel oriented. We believe the Holy Spirit is still guiding the Church, its ministry, and as pertains to this discussion, its outreach. It has a mission of saving souls: on the one hand, it preaches the Word and sanctifies those who receive it. But it also offers counsel to all others who would listen to prudential input–“men (and women) of good will” (Luke 2:14)–even if they aren’t yet ready to convert / convert fully.
Jesus once said of his disciples with application to his 1st Century Church, “Therefore every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old,” (Matthew 13:52). By this he was referring to the way He fulfilled the Law and gave a New Commandment. The Mosaic Law was meant to be temporary and Pharisees, scribes, and Levites who converted would be able to help the Church fulfill its mission. Well, Catholic Social Thought and Catholic Social Teaching is a modern application of this verse–comparing the old ways of the Church to its post-Vatican II ways, its social Gospel ways. Historically, social issues were infrequent, small, and commonly handled authoritatively by local bishops. Now, they are addressed by popes writing open, pastoral, letters to all the bishops, which both the fallen-away laity and people entirely unaffiliated with the Church know they are welcome to read, as well.
There is room for both old and new approaches in today’s moment of need. However, I don’t expect the current period of tolerance to continue much longer. The culture war is clearing the middle-ground, pushing people to make choices, to move to the extremes. This is not entirely good or bad; and we must observe that it is the nature of authentic preaching / instruction to polarize people (Matthew 10:34-36; Luke 12:51-53), to make them make choices and take sides. But I have to point out that the disappearing middle-ground also means there will be fewer and fewer rational / reasonable people in the middle trying to be prudent. Soon, the Church will have to transition back to the Two Ways manner of preaching and forget about the social gospel, and apologetics, too, since they are both based on appeals to reason. In other words, the Church’s social teaching has manifested at an opportune time in history–truly a “mercy” from our God. But its appearance is a temporary one which will fade as this moment in history fades.
 Rhetoric has a bad connotation, these days.
 Gaudium et Spes #36; Octogesima Adveniens #4; Centesimus Annus #43; Caritas in veritate, #9
 Many Catholic social thinkers attempt to actually “do” things and turn ideology into principles and principles into actions. In contrast, the hierarchy will go so far as to turn ideology into principles, but it generally abstains from getting its hands dirty with the particulars since they can be quite embarrassing when things go sideways–as they so often do. Witness the historical embarrassment of the Church in regard to democracy, usury, charitable giving, and the free market. Prudent secular notions eventually were successful in “baptizing” republics, the reasonable charging of interest, the use of taxation to fight poverty, and self-interest to modulate supply and demand. Each reform proved far more beneficial than the Church had initially assessed / predicted.
 Paraphrased from an official prayer I heard somewhere. (XXXX Sorry, I lost the reference; but I think it also has roots in a bible verse.) Cf. CCC #1909, 2304; 1 Timothy 2:1-4. I have gone through the Sacramentary without finding it; so it must be elsewhere, perhaps in the Office of Readings or Liturgy of the Hours, etc.)
 Even when some of its members’ failings are frequent and grave.
 Matthew 18:15-17; 1 Corinthians 5:12; 2 Corinthians 6:15; cf. Acts 5:1-10.
 The “civil obedience” of Paul in Romans 13:1-7 is itself subject to God whenever it threatens the Gospel; cf. Acts 5:29; Matthew 22:17-21; CCC #2242, 2245, 2256
 Romans 7:4-6; Romans 13:8-10; Galatians 3:23-25; Galatians 5:13-14; 1 Timothy 1:8-11; cf. John 13:34; Acts 13:39
 Matthew 13:33; 1 Corinthians 5:10; cf. Matthew 5:16; 1 Corinthians 10:27, CCC #2240
 E.g. as described in the Didache.
 Please pardon the over-simplification which I find necessary, here. But also note that even scholars debate the order and influence of the events summarized. The point being that whatever happened, did happen, and happened in a BIG WAY, having great effect upon how the Church preached and taught.
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