usa-vaticano-bandiereCATHOLIC SOCIAL TEACHING

By Thomas Storck

Thomas-StorckThomas Storck has been writing on Catholic social thought for more than 30 years. His latest book, on the dissolution of Christendom and the origins of modernity, will be released this year by Angelico Press.

It’s hardly a secret that Catholics in the United States are deeply divided on many issues — issues that concern the Church directly, such as the liturgy, and issues that concern the body politic, such as foreign policy or economics. In fact, Catholics, like other Americans, tend to identify as either liberals or conservatives.

Catholics who call themselves conservative like to think that they are aligned with the Church, since they support Catholic teaching on subjects such as abortion, same-sex unions and the like. This makes it easy for them to dismiss liberal Catholics as simply bad Catholics, dissenters who don’t conform to Church teaching. But things are not so simple, for in fact Catholic doctrine and moral teaching don’t fit well within the left/right dichotomy through which most Americans view the world.

This is especially so when it comes to Catholic teaching on the economy. The Church has always seen economic activity as subordinate to the primary end of human life, and taught that our acts of buying and selling, lending and borrowing, must conform to the moral law and be oriented to the good of society.

Beginning with Leo XIII’s 1891 encyc­lical Rerum Novarum, this teaching was restated in light of modern conditions. Pope Leo and his successors, while condemning attempts by the state to take over the entire economy, at the same time rejected the notion that economic activity needs no regulation beyond that of market forces. Both the spirit and the specifics of what they taught rarely find an echo on the American political scene, especially in recent decades. This presents, or ought to present, a problem for conservative Catholics, who most often simply repeat the idea that competition should be the chief method of regulating the economy, and that neither government nor any other group has much role to play there.

Two young girls receive food at an outdoor soup kitchen in Washington in January 2009. During tough times, children bear heavy burdens because of increased family stress (CNS photo/Jim West)

Two young girls receive food at an outdoor soup kitchen in Washington in January 2009. During tough times, children bear heavy burdens because of increased family stress (CNS photo/Jim West)

Enter Pope Francis. Everyone knows that in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium of November 2013, Francis used harsh language to describe capitalism and the free market. He spoke of “the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless,” of those who “defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world,” and notes that this viewpoint “has never been confirmed by the facts.” And he repeated these criticisms in his recent encyclical, Laudato Si’. All of which caused concern among conservatives, Catholic and non-Catholic. But what it really showed was that many conservative Catholics, who pride themselves on adherence to Church teaching, are most often ignorant of what prior Popes said on the same subject. Leo XIII, for example, who spoke of “the callousness of employers and the greed of unrestrained competition,” or Pius XI, who taught that “the proper ordering of economic affairs cannot be left to the free play of rugged competition,” or St. John Paul II, who demanded that “the market be appropriately controlled by the forces of society and by the State, so as to guarantee that the basic needs of the whole of society are satisfied.” And much more.

What, then, is to be done? Pope Francis has a rare opportunity, because of his popularity, to acquaint Catholics with an aspect of Church teaching that is largely unknown. If he were to repeatedly cite his predecessors in order to show that they were just as critical of free-market capitalism as he is, then, it seems to me, this would make his message even more telling. For while there are some whose commitment to conservatism or to liberalism is deeper than their commitment to the Faith, there are many who at heart wish to be faithful Catholics, but whose knowledge of Catholic teaching is weak, and who need chiefly to be instructed in order to become orthodox in all areas of Catholic doctrine. For all these, a reiteration of Catholic teaching, not only on economic morality, but in every area, can only be helpful. If the Church teaches with clarity and assurance, then God’s grace will not be lacking in helping Catholics conform their minds to the Gospel rather than to the world. Given this, there is hope that Cath­olics will begin again to think like Catholics, a necessary first step for all of us to live as Catholics.


Facebook Comments