If you’ve wandered for any time through the draughty corridors of contemporary “Catholic” social teaching, you will have run across a list of “seven themes” that are promulgated as “the heart of our Catholic social tradition.”[i]
These “themes” are:
1. Life and Dignity of the Human Person
2. Call to Family, Community, and Participation
3. Rights and Responsibilities
4. Option for the Poor and Vulnerable
5. The Dignity of Work and the Rights of Workers
7. Care for God’s Creation
Anthony Esolen’s new book, Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching A Defense of the Church’s True Teachings on Marriage, Family, and the State, proposes a richer approach to examining Catholic social doctrine. He urges us to return to “first principles” that, together, form a single integrated tapestry of truth. The book refers to the letters and encyclicals of Pope Leo XIII -- dozens of them, written in Latin, Italian, and French.
If we were to form a list of these bare-bone principles, roughly corresponding to the chapters in Esolen’s book, they would read something like this:
1. Man is made in the image and likeness of God.
2. Virtue sets man free – and man was created for freedom.
3. Marriage is the cornerstone of human society.
4. The family is the heart of true economy and education.
5. Healthy, just social life is grounded in solidarity and pious associations, “solicitous for the common welfare.”
6. Honorable work is a good, not an end; the moral law shapes the relationship between people.
7. The State’s political authority is grounded on the preceding principles (recognition of the human person, of the moral law, of its proper role).
There are similarities between the two lists but their emphases are quite different. In the first point, the USCCB’s concern for the “life and dignity of the human person” considers that life and dignity as if it might be disassociated from the Creator, who simply isn’t mentioned.
Esolen is unapologetic about the “deficiency” of attempting to build a society that doesn’t understand Man’s ontological situation. “I mean more than that it will not be perfect. Nothing that man constructs will ever be perfect. I mean that it will be constructed according to false principles; as if you should attempt to build a barricade out of paper, or a canoe out of lead; or to feed a child with sand. It would mistake the nature of the being it purports to satisfy.” (p. 15)
Lest the framers of the “Seven Themes of Catholic Social Teaching” appeal Catholic documents on various social issues, one can agree that, yes, the Church has much to say about the value and dignity of human life because he is “imago dei.” A section of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church is devoted to just this point and, referencing Guadium et Spes, explains that “the relationship between God and man is reflected in the relational and social dimension of human nature.”[ii] One can’t begin to address social problems if one doesn’t recognize the nature of the society’s essential elements – human beings.
There is nothing in the USCCB list that focuses on forming the moral sensibilities of human beings. It is perhaps implied by acquiescence to the seven “themes.” Yet without that framework, nothing else makes sense. “If this is not true,” Esolen writes, “then, as Dostoyevsky famously put it, all things are permissible. I know there are atheists who believe we can build a morality up from odds and ends of old sentiments, political expedience, self-interest, and more or less popularly acknowledged ‘goods.’ In vain. Those things alone are no stronger than straw. What obliges me to accept another man’s calculation of utility?
You may say that a taste for brawling in the streets is obviously evil, because it upsets the good order that should prevail in suburbs flush with material comforts. But upsetting that order is precisely what I intend! What you call good order, I call dreariness. And I have Mikhail Bakunin and his fellow anarchists at my back. Nor am I impressed by your material comforts. Why should men be soft and pampered? What obliges me, in your moral system?”
The Compendium acknowledges this when it reflects on the social consequences of sin. Reflecting on the thought of Thomas Aquinas, the Compendium concludes: “The exercise of freedom implies a reference to a natural moral law, of a universal character, that precedes and unites all rights and duties.”[iii]
After points one and two, the two lists veer in widely different directions. Esolen is certainly concerned about the poor and vulnerable, the dignity of work and the needs of workers – but these are not the principles of Catholic social teaching. Rather, they are a consequence of rightly-formed understanding.
Perhaps another way to say this is that the USCCB “themes” fail to form a Catholic conscience. People who are educated to think that they have responsibility to be a “good stewards” of “creation” – a daunting, if not unrealistic, responsibility, at that – will accept (or advocate) public policy that is quite different from that of people who are formed to understand their relationship to the rest of creation rests has a circumscribed moral framework.
Social justice isn’t manmade. It’s a product of living realistically – in conformity with the laws of human nature. “Faith is the heart of this new inner life and this new way of living among men. In these days it is of most urgent need, because while in former days heretics attacked particular articles of the Faith, it now “has come to this, that men deny altogether that there is anything above and beyond nature.”[iv]
It’s important to emphasize that Esolen doesn’t introduce anything new. He does, however, take a very complex and voluminous body of material – Church teaching about social concerns – and present it in a readable, interesting, and faithful manner.
The gift of Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching is, therefore, that rather than priming Catholics to advocate for particular political positions – as we find the “Seven Themes of Catholic Social Teaching” attempting to do – it strives to introduce them the clear, moral ground from which they can form loving, holy social positions.
[i] United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ website, “Seven Themes of Catholic Social Teaching,” (copyright 2005): http://www.usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/what-we-believe/catholic-social-teaching/seven-themes-of-catholic-social-teaching.cfm
[ii] Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, Liberia Editrice Vaticana (2004), p 63.
[iii] Compendium, p. 77.
[iv] Esolen, Anthony, Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching, Sophia Institute Press, p. 183; referencing Mirae caritatis (523).