A challenging continuity

Editor’s Note: This essay is part of Magisterial Discontents: A Symposium on Catholic Social Teaching

Catholic social doctrine is solid, but the phrase itself has taken on a vague tone in American politics. American politicians view Catholic Social Doctrine as a testimony not too different from the grades of the NRA or the ACLU. The Church sets a number of political priorities, and politicians highlight the “issues” on which they excel. They try to win over their constituents by expressing their good record of caring for the unborn or caring for the aliens.

But the Catholic Church doesn’t get votes like an advocacy group, and the Catholic Church’s claims are not the way in which a few sins and a few good works can be averaged for a passed grade.

Like “The New Evangelization” and “The Benedictine Option,” Catholic Social Doctrine is a new phrase for an ancient truth that should grab our attention once we have begun to block out the familiar words of Christ. Rerum Novarum, the encyclical on the state of work of Pope Leo XIII. From 1891, is often cited as one of the earliest documents on Catholic social teaching in response to the modern world. However, there was no separation between this and the following documents (including Quadragesimo Anno, Evangelium Vitae, etc.) and the early patristic texts.

Popes publish encyclicals, while early church fathers like John Chrystostom left sermons on prosperity and poverty. Our duty does not change, although the specific challenges we face may change. Catholic social teaching challenges us to be as Christ asked us to be: perfect, as our Heavenly Father is perfect.

The further elaboration of social doctrine, the principles of solidarity, subsidiarity and a preferred option for the poor should help us to live this fundamental vocation to holiness. They are guard rails that guide us in forming our conscience. They help us check as we streamline our way out of duty.

However, the temptation remains to define the doctrine and reduce a call for transformation to a list of smaller political issues. The reception of Pope Francis ‘2015 environmental cyclical, Laudato Si’, is an instructive example of this flattening impulse. I take this one document as an example of how we must approach all sources that inform our consciences about Catholic social teaching.

While I was working as a data journalist, my editor asked if there was any survey data I should dig up in preparation for the publication of Laudato Si ‘. He wanted to know if there was any way to evaluate American churchgoers and to judge whether Catholics agreed with the Pope’s teaching.

He must have anticipated an encyclical more like Humanae Vitae; one with a resounding yes or no to a specific public issue. I did not expect Laudato to provoke such a specific examination of conscience. When the encyclical came out we passed on a story of this kind, but other, less reluctant outlets translated the Pope’s remarks into new commandments, mostly related to air conditioning (instrumentorum aëri temperando, Latin).

But the Pope had not told Catholics what temperature to set their thermostats to when they were in pain of sin. These clickbait stories were an extrapolation from this paragraph:

Humans have a growing ecological sensitivity, but they have failed to change their harmful consumption habits, which seem to be increasing rather than decreasing. A simple example is the increasing use and performance of air conditioning systems. The markets that benefit directly from sales stimulate ever greater demand. An outsider looking at our world would be amazed at such behavior, which at times seems self-destructive.

What Pope Francis cited as a concrete example of a destructive tendency was taken as the main recommendation. In these publications, the Holy Father was classified as petty and prescriptive at the same time. They minimized the far-reaching radicalism of his call to holiness. Using your air conditioner a little less is the least he asked for.

In Laudato Si ‘, Pope Francis reacts to the threat of climate change, but not only as a threat to the environment around us. It is the physical manifestation of a mental illness. If an abundant, accessible, zero-emission source of energy were discovered tomorrow, it would be a blessing for the earth, but man would not be spared the need to grow disciplined as stewards. We have to tear our hearts apart, not just our thermostats.

Catholic social teaching is ecological, not only because it relates to the environment, but also because no part of it can be split off and viewed in isolation. For this reason it is natural for Pope Francis in Laudato Si ‘, which on the surface primarily affects the environment, to deal with the sterilizing impulses of Western nations.

Instead of solving the problems of the poor and thinking about how the world can be different, some may just suggest reducing the birth rate. Developing countries are sometimes exposed to forms of international pressure that make economic aid dependent on certain “reproductive health” measures. […] Blaming population growth instead of the extreme and selective consumption of some is one way to refuse to face the problems. It is an attempt to legitimize the current distribution model in which a minority believes they have the right to consume in ways that can never be universalized, since the planet could not even contain the waste products of such consumption.

Pope Francis writes against both the fearful nature of scarcity, which says that the poor cannot have children because they cannot afford them, and an overly forward-thinking mindset that ignores the current humiliation to encourage our way out Poverty later. As he stated earlier in the encyclical: “The human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together. We can only adequately combat environmental degradation if we address causes related to human and social deterioration. “The Catholic claim is an integral anthropology. Creation is part of a whole, the work of a Creator, and we can only get this far if we try to treat elements of our work as separate stewards.

Since we cannot choose elements from Catholic social teaching, it will not be a convenient solution for either a party or a person. We will all get into friction when our own vices go against the common good. Our public order can (and should) fill the void if we leave our duty open, but our injustices leave wounds that require both the confessional and the voting booth to be saved.

An employer who cheats on his employees can and should be restricted by law. Its employees deserve fairness (and back payment with interest). But if their complaints are heard, the situation is still not fully resolved. The employer is still at risk for his soul if he does not regret his injustice. The law can only cover so many contingencies – if the boss still views his workers as human capital to exploit, rather than people, he is not yet going to find forbidden injustices to inflict.

We will never get to the point where there are enough court dates, enough smooth bureaucracy, or ample wealth to overcome our need for mutual welfare.

For this reason, Catholic Social Doctrine should never become a program administered on behalf of the poor without the cry of the poor being fully heard and represented in the decision-making process. “Nothing about us without us” is a modern call for solidarity and subsidiarity. In the congress halls, in the non-profit bodies, in the “last mile” on site to provide help, the poor and needy should always have one voice and one voice.

Caring for the poor is not a job that can be delegated to a technocratic elite – it is a universal calling to love our neighbor. Welfare programs for the poor are also a spiritual safety net for the rich, whose wealth puts them at greater spiritual danger. No one is so destitute as to be seen as the sole recipient of aid; Even the poorest, weakest, non-verbal person has something to offer in prayer for others. As the Catechism instructs: “Every creature has its own goodness and perfection … Man must therefore respect the particular goodness of each creature in order to avoid a disorderly use of things.”

When the lazy alone decide how best to protect the vulnerable, according to Pope Francis they often become “those who stubbornly uphold the myth of progress and tell us that ecological problems can be solved simply with the application of new technologies and without them The need for ethical considerations or profound changes. “These top-down programs, however well meant, can provide material assistance without losing the depth of our mutual duty.

The law can and should act as a teacher, but it is a limited tool. The law is impersonal and at best a kind of via negativa – the prohibition of certain injustices without being able to offer a full vision of justice and right relationships. Encyclicals and other articulations of Catholic social teaching help shed light on the anthropology that underlies these rules. No white paper on marginal tax rates and redistribution can speak as clearly as Saint Basil the Great when he instructs us:

When someone steals someone else’s clothes, we call them a thief. Shouldn’t we give the same name to someone who might and might not clothe the naked? The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry; The coat that isn’t used in your closet belongs to whoever needs it. The shoes that rot in your closet belong to whoever has no shoes. The money you hoard belongs to the poor.

Saint Basil establishes our duty without specifying the exact timing of incentives or punishments to help us meet that responsibility. Politicians can modestly improve our laws, but it is up to lay people to speak plainly about the full implications of Catholic Social Doctrine, both to evangelize our elected officials and to remind us of our own work.

Catholic social teaching will never be popular. It unites by worrying us all. It is not an opportunity for the rich to choose how to care for the poor, but rather the forum in which everyone, regardless of their worldly status, is vulnerable to their judge.

We will never get to the point where there are enough court dates, enough smooth bureaucracy, or ample wealth to overcome our need for mutual care. As the Catechism says: “No creature is self-sufficient. Creatures only exist in dependence on one another, to complement one another, in service to one another. “In our personal and political life we ​​will always have the poor with us – we will save our spiritual poverty if we take responsibility for improving material precariousness.

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