Sunday, October 26, 2003

Fr. Williams' primer on Catholic Social Doctrine

In its recent 'Weekly News Analysis', offers an interview with Father Thomas Williams, Theology Dean at Regina Apostolorum, on the essentials of the Church's social doctrine, as well as a glance at three key documents of the Church (Rerum Novarum, Quadragesimo Anno, and Mater et Magistra).

According to Fr. Williams, it is easier to clarify the church's teaching by undertaking a process of via negativa: eliminating false conceptions and understanding what it is not:

  • not a "third way" between capitalism & socialism, that is to say a specific economic or political agenda, but rather a moral doctrine understood in the context of Catholic theology and especially moral theology;
  • not a utopian ideal calling for the establishment of earthly paradise by which man can attain perfection, but rather a moral standard which contronts existing realities and structures where they fail to cultivate the dignity of man, "thereby creating a healthy degree of tension between temporal realities as they stand and the Gospel's ideal."
  • notstatic or fixed, but rather "a dynamic application of Christ's teaching to the changing realities and circumstances of human societies and cultures."

Fr. Williams presents the content of Catholic social teaching, expressed in three levels ("principles and fundamental values"; "criteria for judgement"; "guidelines for action"), followed by an explication of the foundations of Catholic social teaching, first and foremost being Christ's dual commandment to love God above all things, and our neighbor as ourself:

How should I love God and my neighbor within my political, economic and social context? . . . This is a very important principle for overcoming the tendency to see the economy or politics as something totally separate from morals, when in fact it is precisely there that a Christian makes his faith influence temporal matters.

Christ's commandment to love is followed by four specific foundations summarized in the four basic principles of the Church's social doctrine:

  1. The dignity of the human person - "To think correctly about society, politics, economy and culture one must first understand properly who a human being is and what his real good is. Each person, created in the image and likeness of God, has an inalienable dignity and must therefore always be treated as an end and not only as a means. "
  2. The common good - defined by the Second Vatican Council as "the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily." ("Gaudium et Spes," 26; see GS, 74; and Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1906).
  3. Subsidiarity - First expressed by Pope Pius XI in his 1931 encyclical letter Quadragesimo Anno, according to which society's decisions must be left at the lowest possible level, therefore at the level closest to those affected by the decision. Thus says Fr. Williams, we are invited to "search for solutions to social problems in the private sector before asking the state to interfere."
  4. Solidarity - which was actually only recently formulated by John Paul II in his encyclical letter Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (1987). Solidarity prompts us to acknowledge the increasing interdependence of people and populations in the age of globalization, and according to whom "[solidarity] is not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far. On the contrary, it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all" (SRS, 38).

Finally, Fr. Williams concludes with some practical advice for the study and teaching of Catholic social doctrine. Though intended for priests, his advice is definitely appreciated by us laymen as well, and has been posted permanently to this website as a guide for future investigation.

Read and have good, precise knowledge of the Church's social teachings, to be able to expound them with assurance and clarity, and make sure that what we teach in the name of the Church is effectively what the Church teaches, and not our own personal opinions.

-- Humility, so as not to have to jump from general principles to definitive concrete judgments, especially when expressed in a categorical and absolute manner. We should not go beyond the limitations of our own knowledge and specific competence.

-- Realism in assessing the human condition, acknowledging sin but leaving room for the action of God's grace. In the midst of our commitment to human development, never lose sight that man's vocation is above all to be a saint and enjoy God for eternity.

-- Avoid the temptation of using the Church's social doctrine as a weapon for judging "others" (entrepreneurs, politicians, multinational companies, etc.). We should instead concentrate first on our own lives and our personal, social, economic and political responsibilities.

-- Know how to closely cooperate with lay people, forming them and sending them out as evangelizers of the world. They are the true experts in their fields of competence and have the specific vocation of transforming temporal realities according to the Gospel.

Wednesday, October 08, 2003

Neuhaus and the "reappropriation of the liberal tradition."

With respect to theology the neoconservatives and the 'Communio' school are largely in agreement with each other. Both are strong supporters of Pope John Paul II and steadfast in their commitment to the orthodox Catholic faith. As Neuhaus says, the debate between them boils down to the neoconservatives' support of 'The Murray Project' -- square Catholic teaching with the American democratic experiment [and free market capitalism] -- and the conservative critics like David Schindler who "accuse Murray and those like him of selling out authentic Catholic teaching to a desiccated and desiccating liberalism."

Neuhaus clarifies some points in his dispute with David Schindler in his article The Liberalism of John Paul II (First Things 73, May 1997). The article is a response to Schindler's book Heart of the World, Center of the Church, in which Schindler summarizes his argument in three points: 1) to "challenge the regnant liberalism which would claim that it (alone) is empty of religious theory in its interpretation of the First Amendment and indeed of Western constitutionalism more generally"; 2) to "seek a truly 'Catholic Moment' in America" -- after the teachings of John Paul II against John Courtney Murray; and 3) to "expose the con game of liberalism which enables it, precisely without argument, to privilege its place in the public order." Of course, Schindler and others believe Neuhaus & Novak to be implicit in this "con game of liberalism."

In an interview with David Schindler blogged earlier, he had said of self-interest: "Of course we can't suppress that impulse forcibly; if we try, we end up in totalitarianism. But that doesn't mean we should bless it as a virtue of necessity. The call to sanctity requires a transformation of self-interest and its replacement, insofar as possible, with love." One reader of this blog (Hank_F_M) challenged Schindler's conflation of self-interest with selfishness and greed:

Thomas Sowell (not a Catholic, but an influential neocon economist) in his book Knowledge and Decisions approaches [self interest] as each individual choosing the interest he serves and thus makes decisions on it. While the decision may be greed, it is often to do what is necessary to fulfil ones proper duties to family and society, and perhaps in some cases to altruistically serve the community beyond ones duties. (That is my summery of a key idea in the book)

This reduces the dichotomy that Schindler points out. If we are making decisions to respond to the call of sanctity and love in imitation of Christ then the economic and social systems should operate in a manner much more in a much more human manner. It also allows for intelligent decisions in the face of the fact others will not act accordingly and without imposing a totalitarian an unacceptable regime on them.

Neuhaus criticizes Schindler for having engaged in a similar reduction of "liberalism", putting

the worst possible construction upon the liberal tradition, and on the American cultural, legal, and political expression of that tradition. In doing so, . . . [handing] an undeserved victory to those who interpret the liberal tradition in ways that we all deplore. With John Courtney Murray, I suggest that our task is to contend for an interpretation of liberalism that is compatible with the fullness of Catholic truth. 1

Liberalism, says Neuhaus, is "a very pliable term." Of the varieties that exists he notes the laissez-faire economic liberalism condemned by Pope Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum & John Paul II, the libertarianism of a political minority in American culture ("a thought experiment for college sophomores of all ages"), the "republican liberalism of virtue" and the "communitarian liberalism of Tocquevillian civil society".

Clarification of what one means by "liberalism" is imperative in this discussion, if not only because Neuhaus & his colleagues would actually agree with Dr. Schindler's critique of a certain kind of liberalism, or even that "Christian thinkers have been too ready to trim the Christian message in order to accommodate the ruling cultural paradigm of liberalism." Of the many criticisms of liberalism raised by Schindler and others -- that it is 'purely procedural', excluding a consideration of ends (and thus its claim to 'neutrality' inherently anti-religious); that it is premised entirely on self-interest, excluding consideration of transcendent truth or divine law; that it is "inextricably tied to the dynamics of capitalism" and condusive to a culture of rampant material consumerism -- Neuhaus maintains that these are not no much an indictment of liberalism per se but distortions of liberalism, and that he, Novak, Weigel and others are "contending for the soul of liberalism." This struggle is absolutely crucial, because

There is no going back to reconstitute the American order on a foundation other than the liberal tradition. A great chasm has opened between the liberal tradition and what today is called liberalism. That is why some of us are called conservatives. Conservatism that is authentically and constructively American conservatism is conservatism in the cause of reappropriating and revitalizing the liberal tradition.

Neuhaus devotes the latter part of his article to a proper understanding and appreciation of individualism in light of Pope John Paul II's teaching in Centesimus Annus (recommended as an "invaluable guide" to the revitalization of the liberal tradition). 2 Noting that individualism developed in frequent tension and even conflict with the Catholic Church (perceiving it as radically anti-clerical and anti-Christian), Neuhaus credits John Paul II with having "replanted the idea of the individual and of freedom in the rich soil of Christian truth."

Concerning the human person, John Paul II cites an earlier encyclical Redemptor Hominis: "[the] human person is the primary route that the Church must travel in fulfilling her mission . . . the way traced out by Christ himself, the way that leads invariably through the mystery of the Incarnation and Redemption", to which is appended: "This, and this alone, is the principle which inspires the Church's social doctrine." (53) For Neuhaus, CA's recognition that man recovers and attains his dignity in responding to the call of God ("to transcendent truth"), can lead Catholics in America to appreciate individualism, properly understood and articulated in 'The American Experiment':

This is not individualism in the pejorative sense, but it is commensurable with the modern achievement of the idea of the individual. It is commensurable with the constituting ideas of the American experiment, in which the state is understood to be in the service of freedom, and freedom is understood as what the Founders called "ordered liberty"—liberty ordered to the truth. And there are, as the Declaration of Independence declares, "self-evident truths" that ground such freedom and direct it to the transcendent ends of "Nature and Nature's God."

Theistic references in the Declaration are not merely superficial allusions to appease the public; they are essential to the Founder's argument "that this constitutional order is premised upon moral truths secured by religion." As we can see in the numerous writings by Michael Novak, George Weigel and Fr. Neuhaus, re-discovering the religious vision of the Declaration and other writings of our founding fathers is a critical element of the Catholic re-appropriation of the liberal tradition. 3

Neuhaus' article is worth reading in full, as there are too many points to cover here. Altogether it is an excellent explication of Centesimus Annus and the specific goals of those 'neoconservatives' engaged in 'The Murray Project.'

  1. Referring to our very first blog, Fr. Zieba contended that "there is liberalism and there is liberalism", the former distinguished by relativism and a radical autonomy free of moral constraints, the latter distinguished by an appreciation of freedom's relation to and dependance upon absolute truth. "The Liberalism That We Need", First Things 40 (Feb. 1994).

  2. Those interested in Fr. Neuhaus' reading of Centesimus Annus might appreciate his Doing Well & Doing Good: The Challenge to the Christian Capitalist (Oct. 1992), or Michael Novak's The Catholic Ethic & The Spirit of Capitalism, both of which focus on the Pope's encyclical.

  3. See, for example, Michael Novak's The Faith of the Founding (First Things April 2003), or his recent book: On Two Wings: Humble Faith and Common Sense at the American Founding (Encounter Books April 2003). See also "Christianity and Democracy", a formal statement written by Fr. Neuhaus in 981for the Institute on Religion & Democracy, "to set forth the Christian case for, and stake in, the liberal democratic order."