I first became aware of the existence of Catholic social teaching when I was in high school and read Richard Tawney's Religion and the Rise of Capitalism. Later I discovered the papal social encyclicals and the voluminous secondary literature of commentaries and studies. And later still I became sufficiently acquainted with it so that I began to talk to others and eventually to write about it. In the course of this I have noticed again and again the same reactions among that minority of Catholics who have even heard of the Church's social doctrine. Confining myself to Catholics who manifest a desire to be orthodox and conform their beliefs to the teaching of the Magisterium, there are, of course, some who wholeheartedly accept Catholic social teaching. But I am afraid that the larger number does not. Of these, one encounters, in the first place, libertarians, or near libertarians, those who attribute to the free market some quasi-divine ability to sort out the rights and wrongs of human behavior and who oppose any, or almost any, interference with its workings. A few of this group make no bones about their contempt for and rejection of Catholic social teaching. Because it does not accord with their own ideas about wealth creation or competition or assorted other economic ideas, they regard the papal teaching - especially before Centesimus Annus - with open derision. Despite this, they manage to retain a reputation for orthodoxy.
The other and larger part is less forthright. Though equally addicted to the same or similar propositions about wealth creation and competition as the first group, they are not so bold about their rejection of the Church's social teaching. Sometimes, by selective quotation or silence, they even attempt to make it seem as if the popes agreed with them. This group also maintains a reputation for orthodoxy.
Then, lastly, there is a group that claims to respect this teaching and to reject its contrary, but nevertheless its attitude toward the teaching is rather strange. For while professing a regard for it, these people maintain, sometimes openly, sometimes by implication, that Catholic social teaching is too unworldly, impractical, altogether impossible to implement in this life. It is with this last group that I am chiefly concerned in this article. And although I do not agree with this group, I will concede one point to them, namely, that it is very difficult to bring about any kind of just social order.
Reasons for doubt as to the feasibility of really implementing Catholic social teaching are easy to understand. Aside from the initial problem of persuading the majority, especially those in positions of power, that social justice according to the Church's vision is something to be striven for, the logistical problem of making a transition from what we have now to what we desire is overwhelming. The economy is not something that exists just on paper. The decisions that have been made in the past have created an entire network of economic and legal relationships and an infrastructure of factories, means of transportation, centers of population, and so on. Gigantic sums of money have been invested in certain ways, and the owners of those sums are not likely to meekly accept any diminution of their profits. And, for example, if we decided that one of the things we wanted to do was to foster the family farm, we would have to deal with the fact that such farms are declining in number, their owners are aging, and there are fewer younger people trained and interested in farming. Moreover, because of the complexity and interrelatedness of the economy, as soon as you begin to deal with one sector another sector becomes involved. Banking, for example, and credit touch all the other sectors intimately. Production involves transportation and questions of tariffs and free trade agreements. And since worldwide free trade agreements have been negotiated and signed, one country could only with difficulty institute policies radically at variance with the rest of the world. Altogether it seems like an impossible task.
But I would like to compare the difficulty of the task with the difficulties involved in another area of Catholic morality: Chastity. Is it feasible to expect the world to become chaste? Here the problems seem at least as daunting. In our own country and in most of the West, we have not just indifference to chastity, but outright hostility. Many are convinced that chastity is not just impossible, but psychologically unhealthy, an example of cultural repression, the unfortunate legacy of the "pale Galilean," from whose breath "the world has grown gray." Governments and international organizations are actively working against chastity; it is only pregnancy they disapprove of, not sexual activity, no matter how unchaste or bizarre. Added to this, of course, is the fact that even for those of the human race ardently committed to the preservation of chastity, it is a constant struggle simply to keep oneself and one's children chaste. Without doubt it is a difficult virtue.
All this and more is true, yet you rarely or never find those who are full of doubts about the feasibility of doing anything about Catholic social teaching taking the same view on chastity. Suggest to them that perhaps we should accommodate ourselves to the frailties of human nature, and we are immediately and loudly denounced as modernists, traitors to the Faith, worldlings. Nor do I disagree with that diagnosis. I am as committed as anyone to preaching chastity and doing everything possible to uphold it. All I ask is that we extend the same courtesy to this other and equally important area of Christian morals, the social doctrine of the Church. It would seem to me that, whatever obstacles there are to implementing Catholic social teaching, the obstacles to achieving worldwide chastity are just as great. But in neither case are these obstacles a sufficient cause for us to abandon the struggle.
There is moreover a special reason for regarding the social doctrine of the Church as something we should actually seek to implement. A specific condemnation has been reserved for those who belittle it, including those who merely give it lip service. Pius XI wrote in his first encyclical, Ubi Arcano (December 23, 1922), about the great number of those,
who profess Catholic teaching...concerning the rights and duties of laborers on land or in industry...and yet by their spoken and written word, and the whole tenor of their lives, act as if the teaching and oft-repeated precepts of the Sovereign Pontiffs...had lost their efficacy or were completely out of date. In all this we recognize a kind of moral, judicial, and social Modernism, and We condemn it as strongly as We do dogmatic Modernism.
Orthodox Catholics rightly hate dogmatic modernism, and are rightly dismayed at its resurgence following the Second Vatican Council. But ought we not equally to hate "moral, judicial, and social Modernism," and "condemn it as strongly as" the other? If our orthodoxy and loyalty to Catholic doctrine and to the Magisterium are genuine, then it should be evident in every area, not just where we find it convenient or where it fits in with our political opinions.
In some cases I fear that Catholics who deny the importance of this social teaching hold opinions more akin to those of some Lutheran thinkers - that this world is so utterly corrupted that it is not in any sense redeemable. Since according to this view, man himself is radically corrupted, his institutions are also. Thus the most we can hope for is that individuals are saved; the social order had best be left to the Devil. But such a notion is entirely opposed to any Catholic conception of things. These words of Pius XI, from his encyclical Quas Primas (December 1925), give a striking picture of what the Church holds out as her ideal.
If princes and magistrates duly elected are filled with the persuasion that they rule, not by their own right, but by the mandate and in place of the Divine King, they will exercise their authority piously and wisely, and they will make laws and administer them while having in view the common good and also the human dignity of their subjects. The result will be a stable peace and tranquillity, for there will be no longer any cause for discontent. Men will see in their kings or in their rulers men like themselves, perhaps unworthy or open to criticism, but they will not on that account refuse obedience if they see reflected in them the authority of Christ, God and Man. Peace and harmony, too, will result, for with the spread and the universal extent of the Kingdom of Christ men will become more and more conscious of the link that binds them together, and thus many conflicts will be either prevented entirely, or at least their bitterness will be diminished.
Pius XI sees here a social and political order which is permeated with the spirit of Jesus Christ. Far from being necessarily alienated from Him, those who hold political power are expected to rule "in place of the Divine King."
The serious difficulties that exist, then, are not good reasons for Catholics to fail to embrace the social teachings. But there is one reason which does make an attempt to do something about the Church's social teachings so especially difficult that it might almost seem to justify the hostility and lack of interest I have spoken of. This is the need for an organized and coordinated approach to social questions. In the case of chastity, generally all that is required is an individual exercise of will, strengthened by divine grace. We are not dependent on others' decisions as to whether we will be chaste or not. But this is not true with regard to social justice. As I said above, all aspects of the economy are inter-related. If a person has savings, what is he to do with them? Even if he simply places them in a savings account, how is he to know what the financial institution does with the money? Is it loaned out for a good or an evil purpose? Individual businessmen are involved in a complicated system of prices, to a great extent beyond their control. And although much more could be done, especially by large corporations, to pay just wages right now, still the entire system of wages is larger than one company or entrepreneur. Each economic actor is not entirely his own master. Amintore Fanfani, in his Catholicism, Protestantism and Capitalism, relates the following anecdote:
I remember that in a little village in Tuscany there were only two bakeries. The owner of the one wished to close on Sunday, but was unable to do so because his rival kept open, and had he himself failed to follow suit he would have lost his customers who, being restaurant-keepers, wanted fresh bread on Sundays as well as week-days.
The more complicated the economy, the more does such interdependence exist. In short, in social morality we often depend upon the decisions of other people, our individual responsibility is often less clear, and many times there are questions that involve that murky and less precise area of moral theology known as cooperation.
As a result of this, since barely one nation could bring about economic justice for itself, it is hardly possible for one firm or one individual to do so. What is needed, then, is some kind of cooperation among economic actors. In 1931, in his encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, Pius XI had already called for such cooperation to solve the grave problems of society, cooperation between different employers, between employers and employees, and among the various nations. Now one would have to be a fool not to realize that to secure such cooperation would undoubtedly be extremely hard. But there is one thing which tends to make it even harder than it need be. And unfortunately we are at present doing this one thing. What is that? It is to do nothing, not even to request such cooperation, not even to present it as an ideal. There are many problems in the world and in the Church today. And those that we recognize we generally work toward solving. We hold meetings, international conferences, write articles, sign treaties, pass laws. But to secure economic justice next to nothing is done. Of course it would be difficult. But all the problems of the world and the Church are difficult. If we do nothing we cannot expect even to begin to solve them. So to say that the problems of creating a just economy are impossible to solve, when we really do not even seriously desire one, seems to me more than a bit hypocritical.
Moreover, when we think about working toward a just social order, we should keep in mind the limitations of living in a fallen world. As Cardinal Ratzinger wrote in A Turning Point for Europe?, speaking of mishpat, the Hebrew word for justice.
Reason and will must attempt to make concrete and to put into practice the criterion of God's mishpat, set up by faith, in changing historical situations, always in the essential imperfectibility of man's action within history. It is not permitted to man to set up the "Kingdom", but he is charged to go toward the Kingdom through justice and love. The necessary mediation contained in the concept of mishpat indicates at the same time the precisely theological and methodological locus of Catholic (Christian) social doctrine. Faith's hope always goes infinitely farther than all our realizations, reaching into the realm of the eternal; but precisely the fact that this hope is given to us gives us the courage to take up again and again, despite all inadequacy, the struggle for a just order that is the form of freedom and builds up a dam against the tyranny of injustice.
Just as in our work toward chastity, or any other virtue, so in our work toward social justice, we should be aware of "the essential imperfectibility of man's action within history," but that we are "charged to go toward the Kingdom through justice and love." We will never reach that Kingdom in this world and life, but that is not reason enough never to try.
But what concrete steps, if any, could we take to try to bring about economic justice? Before answering this question, let me deal briefly with one more objection. In view of the many grave problems in the world today, the horrible reality of abortion, the probable impending legal acceptance of euthanasia, the attacks on the family by militant homosexuals and others, the defection of hundreds of thousands of Catholics from the Church, is now the time for us, for anyone, to work actively for the establishment of economic justice? I believe that it is, or rather, that it can be. I concede that abortion and euthanasia are certainly graver issues, for it is a worse injustice to take someone's life than merely his job or his home. But everyone has a different vocation, and those who think that they are called to work in pursuit of justice in economic life ought not to be criticized by, nor to criticize, those who believe they are called to work to prevent the murder of the unborn or the aged or in some other area. There are many legitimate apostolates in Christ's Mystical Body.
Having said this, what is to be done? In the first place, there is a great need for education, simply of spreading the idea and desire for economic justice. So many have been warped in their thinking by capitalism that they do not realize the necessity of applying ethical criteria to economic activity. They do not understand that an economy has to be judged by how well it is performing its function. What is an economy's function? To provide the necessary and helpful material goods for the human race so that we can then in turn devote our energies to the more important matters - to our families and friends, to learning, to God. If an economy has instead fixed our attention on acquiring more and more material goods, many of them useless; if it has disrupted settled communities by shifting about jobs for no good reason; if it has enabled some men to grow rich not by making useful goods but by manipulating money and monetary instruments - then that economy is a failure, despite the abundance of glittery things it has produced. Americans tend to congratulate themselves because the shelves in our stores are full. But this is not how to evaluate an economy. As John Paul II wrote in Centesimus Annus (no. 36),
It is therefore necessary to create lifestyles in which the quest for truth, beauty, goodness and communion with others for the sake of common growth are the factors which determine consumer choices, savings and investment.
I submit that in our economy this is far from being the case.
In the much-maligned days before the Second Vatican Council there existed among many Catholics a consciousness that there was something wrong with the economy, and that it must be reshaped in accordance with papal teaching. This consciousness was simply one effect of the relative health of the Catholic mind at the time - Catholics took the Faith seriously, including the social apostolate. And this being the case, actual schemes were created to bring about a greater degree of social justice. There were, for example, labor schools and the Association of Catholic Trade Unionists, that tried to give people engaged in union activity an understanding of social doctrine. Fr. John Cronin wrote not only his Catholic Social Principles, but also another book, Catholic Social Action, which he termed "a guide and manual for social action." Hilaire Belloc's The Restoration of Property suggested actual legislative proposals to bring about a society with a more just distribution of property. Despite the collapse of Catholic life and loyalty since the 1960s, some of this type of work can still be done. There is room for such worthy projects as union organizing of low paid service workers or formation of credit unions in rural or poor urban areas. There is even room for a vocation as a legislator, although such an occupation is extremely dangerous to the soul, considering the very many dangers of an intellectual and moral sell-out that Catholics in politics face today. But until more Catholics have absorbed the entire vision of the Church's teaching on social justice, I am not sanguine about these efforts bringing about a reform of the economy as a whole. And since the Church is presently so distracted with questions that concern the very foundations of the Faith, most Catholics do not have the time to absorb this vision of a just society. But since social doctrine is an integral part of the Gospel, any attempt to restore the Catholic mind, to restore discipline in the Church, must include a due emphasis on social justice. If this is done, if we begin to think as Catholics in every department of our lives, then there may be scope for more than ad hoc projects. Until that time, we must study social doctrine, absorb it, teach it to others. In this way we will be doing much to restore the Catholic mind, as well as the remote preparation necessary for establishing a just economy. It is nearly all we can do now, but it is a large and worthy project.
Original version of article published in New Oxford Review, October 1997.
Thomas Storck writes from Maryland.