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Category: Catholic Social Teaching (page 1 of 4)

All posts on Catholic Social Teaching.


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Want a better world? Read Rerum Novarum

Rerum Novarum, cover of Italian edition

Who would have guessed that a papal encyclical with an untranslatable Latin title would change not just the Church but the world?

Remember the Year of Faith decreed by Pope Benedict XVI? It began in October 2012, coinciding with the height of the political season here in the United States, as we prepared for national elections. I’ll admit I was, then as now, rather jaded about our national politics — we seem usually to have a choice between “bad” and “even worse.” At the time, I entertained a little pipe dream about a political party that would be founded on the principles of Catholic social teaching, emphasizing subsidiarity, solidarity, and the inherent dignity of the human person.

I still think it would be a capital idea. In fact, I think a lot of people, in addition to Catholics, could get behind a party that promoted these key principles:

  • Subsidiarity — the principle that matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or most local competent authority, beginning with the family itself, the nucleus of society. Political decisions should be taken at a local level if possible, rather than by a central authority.
  • Solidarity means that we stand together for the common good. The poor, the weak, and the oppressed are not “other” than us, but our brothers and sisters. One person or group must not prosper at the expense of others.
  • The principle of human dignity acknowledges that each human life, from the moment it springs into existence until natural death, is endowed with inestimable value which must be acknowledged and respected. There are no “worthless” people who may be discarded or denied opportunities because others find them useless or unprofitable.

Now, I don’t want to get into political polemics on this blog — that sort of thing generally produces more heat than light — but I would like to discuss a document that first brought those three principles, the core of Catholic Social Teaching, to the attention of the world at large. So I’m going to re-publish here on this blog a series of posts that first appeared on a different blog that I created back in the Year of Faith, in which I read, analyze, and comment on Rerum Novarum, an encyclical of Pope Leo XIII which has come to be known as the foundational document of Catholic Social Teaching.

Making the modern world a better place

Watercolor of Pope Leo XIII

Leo reminded us that violence and destruction are not the way to build a better world.

Rerum Novarum (1891) was the first of a long string of papal encyclicals that set out the principles of a Christian response to the problems of the modern world. It addressed problems that were experienced by many people throughout the world, irrespective of creed or country, and thus had a much broader audience than papal writings generally do. Pope Leo XIII, in writing Rerum Novarum, offered a direct response to the Marxist call for revolution, which was firing the imaginations of many who sought to “free workers from their chains” of industrial servitude. In the Communist Manifesto, published almost fifty years earlier, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels had insisted that the only solution to the world’s problems was the violent destruction of existing culture, beginning with the warfare of workers against the owners of industry. Their Manifesto struck a deep chord, and many thought it presented the answer to the wretched working conditions under which many people labored in the newly-industrialized world.

Pope Leo wanted to remind the people — Catholics and others — that the destruction called for by the socialists was not the way to build a better world. He proposes a better way for workers and employers to enjoy mutual prosperity, based on mutual respect and a sense of decency. Many ideas P. Leo enunciates in this encyclical have, in fact, had enormous influence in the century or so since it was written — the world is a better place than it would have been without Rerum Novarum.

You don’t have to be Catholic to appreciate Catholic social teaching

From the promulgation of Rerum Novarum up to the present day, Catholic Social Teaching (CST) has never been just for Catholics, any more than the concepts of charity and the common good are restricted to Catholics. Shortly before our last round of national elections, in an article on the website of the Acton Institute, two Protestants, one Baptist and one Reformed, praise Catholic Social Teaching and its articulation by American bishops in this political season. Hunter Baker and Jordan Ballor wrote:

For people of faith, and even for people of no particular faith whatsoever, CST represents a praiseworthy model for responsible civil engagement in a diverse and plural culture. The tradition of social encyclicals was inaugurated just over 120 years ago with the promulgation of Rerum Novarum (Of the New Things)* by Pope Leo XIII, which focused on the problem of poverty and social upheaval in the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution. This encyclical ushered in an era of sustained and substantive reflection on the social implications of the Catholic faith in the modern world, continued by a long line of noteworthy publications, papers, books, conferences, and debates. The most recent social encyclical appeared from the current bishop of Rome, Pope Benedict XVI, in 2009 under the title Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth), which deals with (among other things) the challenges and opportunities of globalization and economic and political instability.

[*I’ll have something to say about the title of this encyclical — and the reasons “Of New Things” is such a wretchedly inappropriate translation — in a later post.]

They go on to cite several tenets of Catholic Social Teaching as being of especial importance in the current political campaigns: subsidiarity, solidarity, and religious liberty. In conclusion they say:

To the extent that the social teachings of the Roman Catholic Church reflect truth about the human person and society, they represent a boon to our broader social life as well as a challenge for other traditions to think as deeply and responsibly about the social implications of our respective faiths. The American political scene is better off for having Catholic Social Teaching, and faithful Catholics, involved in the public square.

Rerum Novarum and the current political season

As we approach another round of national elections, we all should be thinking about what is best for our country. I think reading and reflecting on Rerum Novarum is one good way to get us all thinking about the principles that should be guiding our political choices, and, more generally, our lives in modern society.

If you would like to read Rerum Novarum along with me, there are two different English translations freely available on the Internet. One (which I think is the more readable of the two) may be found on the New Advent web site; the second is more widely available (although slightly less readable, in my opinion) and can be found in many places on the internet, including the Vatican web site. If you would like a free version that can be read on a mobile device or ereader, you can download in Epub  or Mobi (Kindle) format from Papal Encyclicals Online.

In my next post on this subject, I’ll provide some background to set this work in context, so that we’ll have a better idea of what prompted Pope Leo to write Rerum Novarum. In later posts, I will summarize and comment on the document section by section. I must point out that I am by no means an expert on Catholic social teaching or papal encyclicals — I am simply an educated Catholic who wishes to gain a deeper knowledge and understanding of the Church’s treasury of wisdom, so that I can live a more effective witness in the world. I welcome comments, corrections, and other insight from anyone who cares to comment on Rerum Novarum, particularly those who have a more thorough knowledge and understanding than I.

If you’d like to know more about subsidiarity, a key principle in Catholic social teaching, check out this great video from CatholicVote.org.

Next post in this series


©2015 Lisa A. Nicholas

Have we failed to learn the lessons in Rerum Novarum?

Here’s an article that highlights the ways in which the tenets of socialism have invaded modern society, even where the government is not overtly or structurally socialistic (communist).

We should not be fooled by the fact that most modern political systems these days maintain a republican form. As Gustavo Solimeo points out in this article, “A Specter is Haunting America — Socialism,” 

The very motherland of communism, the Soviet Union, called itself the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics

Socialism can be applied in varying degrees. Thus, in practice, there can be a difference between an incomplete application of socialism and full-blown communism, which is socialism taken to its ultimate consequences. [emphasis added]

I think too many of us in the West have become complacent, believing that socialist ideology has succeeded only in areas with a large, downtrodden peasant population. This is because we make the mistake of thinking of socialism as a political agenda, rather than a thorough-going ideology that embraces every part of culture.

Western nations may not have embraced socialism/marxism on a political level, but many have fallen prey to cultural Marxism, i.e., the attempt to undermine the political structure indirectly, through the culture. As Soleo points out,

Much more important than the political expansion of communism/socialism is the spreading of ideas and customs that are leading the world to abandon the natural order and Christian civilization.

The title of the article echoes the first line of the Communist Manifesto,  substituting America for Europe, as the land being haunted by the specter of Communism. Read the article to see the particular points on which Soleo believes America has been undermined by socialist ideology.

If Soleo is correct in his analysis (I leave it to the reader to decide), American Catholics have, by and large, failed to embrace or apply the principles set out in Rerum Novarum, the founding document of the tradition of Catholic Social Teaching, which was also a direct response to the Communist Manifesto.

The Morality of Fracking: A Catholic Approach

As our modern world gets more complicated and contentious, it’s good to know that Catholics have unchanging moral principles to guide us. Of course, learning to apply those principles is more an art than a science, which is how explicit Catholic social teaching got started — Pope Leo XIII wrote Rerum Novarum to help Catholics, and others of good will, see how those unchanging principles applied to the peculiar conditions of the modern, industrialized world, and subsequent CST documents have also addressed topical concerns of their day.

Letterman fracking meme
No, thanks, Dave, I’d rather rely on
Catholic Social Teaching for guidance.

Environmental concerns often reveal the deep divide between the Catholic worldview and the view of those who fail to recognize any inherent dignity or transcendent value of human life (often privileging the needs and “rights” of animals, and even plants, over those of humankind). The resulting politicization of such concerns often obscures the moral principles at stake.

This recent article in Our Sunday Visitor addresses the moral conundrum in “fracking” (hydraulic fracturing) to extract natural gas from shale deposits, something occurring all over the U.S. these days (in my part of north Texas, for instance). It cites several Catholic dioceses that have gotten involved in the fracking debate:

“Our responsibility is to care for the ecology of the earth,” said Bishop Jeffrey Monforton, whose Steubenville, Ohio, diocese lies in the midst of Ohio’s fracking boom. “In any participation by the Diocese of Steubenville in the leasing of land for natural gas or oil exploration, care for the ecology of the earth is a benchmark concern.”

Bishop Montforton goes on to point out that there are social, as well as environmental, concerns to be taken into account, and states that he takes guidance from a 1981 document produced by the U. S. Council of Catholic Bishops on “the moral dimensions of energy policy.”

Fr. Ron Lengwin of the Diocese of Pittsburgh says his diocese relies on principles enunciated in Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical, Caritas in Veritate (“Charity in Truth”).

In the encyclical, Pope Benedict XVI called the environment “God’s gift to everyone” that entailed a responsibility “towards the poor, towards future generations and towards humanity as a whole” (No. 48). The pope stated that the environment can be used “responsibly to satisfy our legitimate needs, material or otherwise, while respecting the intrinsic balance of creation” (ibid). 

Aside from environmental questions, other kinds of problems can arise when a fracking operation moves into a community, as a representative of the North Dakota Catholic conference notes:

“We have a lot of good going on here,” [Chris] Dodson said. “But we also have an increase in crime, we have roads that are terrible, we have probably incidents of human trafficking going on.”  

The article goes on to quote a spokesperson for the Diocese of Rochester (NY), who points out the way such operations can affect the cost of living of local low-income residents. She says that “the state ultimately should respect the Catholic principle of subsidiarity, and allow communities to look at the potential impact on their economies and then hold a referendum or a vote on whether to frack or not to frack.”

This last point — the impact on the community — is probably the one most often overlooked in debates about economic benefits and environmental concerns. It’s good to know that Catholic dioceses are not leaving the discussion to the environmentalists and economists, but scrutinizing the practice of fracking in the light of Catholic social teaching.

Catholic Social Teaching in a Nutshell

Catholic Social Teaching in a nutshell

Mark Shea, over at the National Catholic Register, has an interesting way of putting Catholic Social Teaching in a nutshell:

Catholic social teaching is, in many ways, very simple. You can basically sum it up as, “If it’s good for the family, it’s good. If it’s bad for the family, it’s bad.” … [I]n the main, if you are puzzled by Catholic Social Teaching look at it in that light and pretty much everything snaps into focus.

This makes sense — as we see in Rerum Novarum, the founding document of the Catholic Social Teaching tradition, one of the principles of CST is that “society” at its most basic level is the family. So, if it’s good for the family (the smallest society), it’s good for Society (the larger society, made up of families).

This means, among other things, that we must stop pitting concern about abortion and euthanasia against Catholic teaching on social justice as though they are opposites. … [T]he great mistake we make is to take apart Catholic teaching — including Catholic Social Teaching — and just privilege the bits we like.

And we all have seen how destructive that can be. Read more.

Subsidiarity, Justice, and the Common Good

Villanova School of Law seal

I’ve been very busy this week and haven’t yet gotten around to writing my commentary on the middle section of Rerum Novarum, but we’ve already seen that one of the key doctrines developed in the encyclical is the doctrine of subsidiarity. Like many key doctrines, it is too often over-simplified and consequently misconstrued. As we read later documents, we’ll be able to see how this doctrine gets elaborated as the social teaching tradition develops, but those who can’t wait to know more might read a paper recently published online by Patrick McKinley Brennan of the Villanova University School of Law, entitled  “Subsidiarity in the Tradition of Catholic Social Doctrine,” which will soon be published as one chapter in Subsidiarity in Comparative Perspective, edited by Michelle Evans and Augusto Zimmermann.

In his abstract, Brennan says:

Subsidiarity is often described as a norm calling for the devolution of power or for performing social functions at the lowest possible level. In Catholic social doctrine, it is neither. Subsidiarity is the fixed and immovable ontological principle according to which the common good is to be achieved through a plurality of social forms. Subsidiarity is derivative of social justice, a recognition that societies other than the state constitute unities of order, possessing genuine authority, which which are to be respected and, when necessary, aided. Subsidiarity is not a policy preference for checking power with power. This chapter traces the emergence of the principle of subsidiarity to the neo-Scholastic revival that contributed to the Church’s defense against the French Revolution’s onslaught aimed at eliminating societies other than the state.

It seems to me he makes an important point: that social justice demands that all authentic societies (associations among people which “constitute unities of order”) be respected. The State’s duty toward such societies is not to subsume them into itself, but to aid them when necessary.)We see this indicated very clearly in the middle section of Rerum Novarum.) These smaller societies — including the family and the local community — are themselves necessary to the common good, just as is the State itself.

I also find interesting the fact that he sees this doctrine emerging from the aftermath of the French Revolution (1789-99). The French Revolution, of course, infamously attempted to destroy all unities of order (such as the Church and the aristocracy) that might compete with the authority of the secular State, perhaps the first time in the Christian era that such a thing was attempted. I look forward to reading Brennan’s paper.