Do you debate to "sharpen steel" or just to win points?
There’s never a dull moment where Catholic social teaching is concerned. A litany of examples abound even here, on the limited pages of Ethika Politika. And there are many more, which you can investigate on the shiny new Catholic Social Teaching App.
That the Church’s social doctrine is important is no wonder. Why it is important, on the other hand, is perhaps still—and for many—a great mystery.
Permit me some reflections.
As a father, husband, business owner, writer, etc., obligations to others are ever present to me. Moreover, my responsibilities are in endless competition with one another, working to dethrone each other and to capture my full attention. My understanding of the goods that underly these commitments is critical to weighing them justly: The benefit of my family supersedes professional ambition, and even the quest for academic truth.
Yet simply because I know that my obligations aren’t equal—and that some things are more valuable than others—does not tell me why it’s so. To compound things further, it’s sometimes my professional acumen that influences better decisions on the home front; as well as intellectual honesty that occasionally cements a more lucrative contract. But once again, knowing that good judgments cross-pollinate doesn’t indicate to me why it is sometimes the case.
The conundrum of Catholic social teaching is, I suspect, an amalgam of these and similar disparities—although treated more generally. In a word, it draws on a set of principles that places equal emphasis on practical and moral goods, but which permits those goods to compete with one another as long as neither is absolute, and so far as both pertain to the same discrete actions. When we exit this realm—of competing, finite goods—we leave “social teaching” and enter into something else. Anything social is de facto dialectical and relational; although there are many types of non-social teachings.
This reliance on “dialectical competition” shouldn’t be confused with a claim concerning the Church’s position on markets—to name the latest bugbear. Rather, it’s an indication that our discussion of Catholic social teaching is racked by the very sickness it intends to address: namely, a fixation on quantifying and ordering what are, properly speaking, very qualitative things. While we all want to cure the disease—the unjust conditions caused by Original Sin—we’re faced with an acute pain; we recognize it personally, and also as something universal. Whatever it is that drives one to remove the splinter from his brother’s eye before examining the plank in his own, we can sympathize.
The result is that “Catholic social teaching” becomes a byword for intractable economic disputes—motivated, of course, by a love of Jesus and our neighbor. The stakes in this game are very high, and we know it. Yet we don’t often stop to consider, again, why that’s so.
Permit me an answer.
Simply put, the Church’s social teaching is valuable because it offers examples of how to think through the types of problems associated with making good social decisions. It is not valuable because it provides all the answers to every particular social question ever raised. Nor is it valuable because it instructs on the inviolable dignity of all human life. (Once again, that’s another kind of doctrine.) Instead, I venture, Catholic social teaching is a sort of praxis rather than simply a set of theories—a very public praxis, conducted by those whose teaching authority is well established. Certainly it is not a set of absolute propositions that hold true always and everywhere. This is the case even for strongly worded and oft-repeated themes, since the significance of terms—especially politico-economic ones—is wont to shift almost overnight.
If my thesis holds, then it might also follow that the ideological mêlée that ensues in times like these is the fruit of a confusion between the value of praxis and theory. Amongst Christians, and especially those fighting to preserve traditional values in an age of moral collapse, “doctrine” tends to get short shrift as “the things we believe.” It hardly, if ever, comes to mean “the things we do.” Yet to hold a belief implies duration, which is something active.
None of this is to diminish the ‘static’ value of the Church’s social teaching: Certain things have always been and shall always be taught by the Church as part of a social magisterium. But we needn’t think of this magisterium as consisting only in “propositional form” (although it sometimes can).
All of this leads to a more specific answer to the question of why the Church’s social teaching is so important. Unlike other doctrines—for example, the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, or extra ecclesiam nulla salus—social doctrine is definitively conjoined to practical considerations and activity. As such, it offers a unique and unrepeatable medium for thinking with the Church—not only in condemning or accepting this economic model or that one, but in refining the very apparatus required to engage a fallen world through “charity in truth.” Pope Benedict reminds us of this definition of social teaching in his eponymous encyclical: “This dynamic of charity received and given is what gives rise to the Church’s social teaching, which is caritas in veritate in re sociali.”
As straightforward as it might all seem, however, perhaps no single topic is more divisive in Catholic circles than this one. I’m not even talking about the thoroughly non-Christian stuff that gets passed off as “social justice.” I mean the type of divisiveness that clouds one’s better judgment, and that blocks a step back from engagement to contemplation. It’s the same divisiveness that warrants the term “ideological,” which can hardly be seen as a praiseworthy predicate. The bottom line—I’ll say it (even to certain backlash!)—is that proponents of any particular politico-economic system in the name of Catholic social teaching are ideologues; this is so, since thepractice of social doctrine stands at odds with that method. (Denying specific systems is somewhat more reliable, although only carefully done.) On the contrary, it’s quite possible to esteem Catholic social teaching deeply and to self-apply a politico-economic label that usefully describes one’s set of practical beliefs. Possible, although especially in America today less and less likely.
Thus, the reason why the Church’s social teaching is so important is closely linked to the reasons why we fight so much about and for it: In a word, orthodox Catholics disagree not primarily about theoretical claims (e.g., that we should have a “preferential option for the poor”), but about practical judgments; yet we often fail to grasp the significance of preaching praxis as opposed to propositions. Catholic social doctrine is, as I suggest, something dynamic—albeit consistent, and more intensive than extensive. But the disputes amongst its proponents are largely non-dialectical. This is a critical failure, and one that’s tough to overcome.
So what can be done?
To start, I think—and maybe that’s all I can offer—parties on all sides must recommit to the practice of intentional engagement. I, as well as anyone, know that Catholic skirmishing, especially in the age of the internet, is designed less to “sharpen steel” and more to score points. This is, I hope obviously, a misguided approach, since it gives into the temptation that praxis itself is only useful if there’s nothing more decisive to say. More importantly, it provides little room for showing evidence (even though in many cases it could) of the exemplary witness of Catholic social justice that permeates the lives of many faithful teachers.
I suspect that to occupy this middle ground between factions will, for all the reasons mentioned, be an unpopular suggestion. But for those less firmly entrenched—for many reasons, and only graciously so—this no man’s land is home. And it could, with a little cultivation, even be habitable.