Sunday, October 26, 2003

Fr. Williams' primer on Catholic Social Doctrine

In its recent 'Weekly News Analysis', Zenit.org 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.


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