Daniel Schwindt, Catholic Social Teaching: A New Synthesis, Rerum Novarum to Laudato Si’. 2015. $16.95, paper. Available from Amazon.com
Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical on the condition of workers—de conditione opificum—usually known by its opening words, Rerum novarum, gave a tremendous impetus to Catholic interest in the just ordering of society. Until Leo wrote his landmark encyclical Catholics had been divided among themselves as to how best to respond to the new socio-economic conditions introduced by both capitalism and industrialism. For, in the words of Leo himself, “the growth of industry, and the surprising discoveries of science; the changed relations of masters and workmen; the enormous fortunes of individuals and the poverty of the masses,” had brought about not just a new kind of civilization in Europe and other parts of the world, but a social crisis as well. Some Catholics looked to the medieval social order for ideas on how to respond to this, others were mesmerized by nineteenth century liberalism’s empty promises of prosperity based on the supposed magical working of free markets. Leo’s encyclical created more harmony among Catholics as he set forth the fundamental principles which should guide thinking on socio-economic matters. Forty years later Pius XI issued his encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, in which the pontiff elaborated more fully the kind of social order demanded by justice and charity. In the decades following Quadragesimo Anno numerous Catholics concerned with the social order attempted to synthesize the riches of papal social teaching and show how that teaching might be applied to the contemporary world. The number of such studies reflected the seriousness with which Catholics took both the teaching of the Church and the need to have her voice heard in the public arena. But as Catholics increasingly ceased to heed the voice of the Roman pontiffs and at the same time embraced one or other of the political blocs that constitute secular society, such studies and presentations of Catholic social teaching became rarer. It is true that some Catholics, such as those associated with the Acton Institute, vigorously advocate for what they call Catholic principles, but sadly their presentation of Catholic teaching is simply a distortion of what the Church teaches, made in support of secular political goals, or even worse, of the interests of corporations and the rich.
Happily, however, we are beginning to return to the days of the 1930s when so many Catholics did champion the authentic social teaching of the Church. Both online and in print there is probably more exposition of social doctrine today than there has been since the early 1950s. Daniel Schwindt’s new book, Catholic Social Teaching: A New Synthesis, Rerum Novarum to Laudato Si’, is an effort to present the entire sweep of Catholic social teaching since Leo XIII began to show how the social principles which the Church has always held could be applied to modern capitalist economies. Schwindt does not limit himself to economic questions, however, for Catholic social teaching necessarily includes a certain understanding of human nature and of the political order, and extends to such matters as care for the environment and war and peace. Schwindt’s book loosely follows the structure of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, issued by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace in 2004.
Schwindt’s purpose in writing “is to inject the truths of the Christian tradition into the ocean of incoherence in which the modern man is forced to live—to beat back the waters of confusion and ignorance, even if only a little, and give him the opportunity to breath [sic] the clean air of Catholic doctrine.” He begins by rooting the Church’s social doctrine in the Old Testament jubilee year, when according to God’s command debts were to be forgiven, land returned to its original owner, and slaves freed. Although the jubilee year was an institution of the old law, it nevertheless witnesses clearly to the fact that God’s commandments concern men not merely as individuals, but that the health and justice of the social order have always been part of his dealings with mankind.
After that the author posits some fundamental principles which are necessary for both an understanding and a ready acceptance of the Church’s social teaching. These include such theological principles as that grace presupposes nature, the co-existence and mutual roles of Church and State, and the fact that the Church is concerned “both with protecting [her] eternal and unchanging teachings…, and with providing appropriate adaptations, interpretations, and, when necessary, re-interpretations, for each historical period.” Without such an approach, her social doctrine would be either a museum piece or something as ephemeral as the platform of a political party.
Because of its central importance to the contemporary Church, Schwindt discusses specifically the place of the Second Vatican Council in Catholic thought and life. In this reviewer’s opinion he greatly overstates the situation when he writes that people
tend to take one of two positions…: either Vatican II was an illegitimate compromise with the modernist heresy, and therefore all post-conciliar popes are “pretenders” and heretics themselves; or else the Council represents a “coming around” of the Church to modern ways, which it had until then been obstinately and wrongly opposed.
But surely there are many Catholics who embrace neither of these extremes, who regard the Council as legitimate, and seek to interpret its documents in the light of Catholic tradition. Schwindt, in his discussion of the conciliar document, Dignitatis Humanae, that follows, gives a good example of how a faithful Catholic may do this, noting that we can “set ourselves to the task of reconciling the apparent contradiction between Dignitatis Humanae and the traditional understanding on religious liberty.” One small but important point must be mentioned here, however. Schwindt seems to think that part of the alleged innovation in Dignitatis Humanae was that it forbade “the State to coerce a citizen into the confession of a particular creed.” But this was never the point at issue, nor did any sensible and informed Catholic, including Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, ever suppose that earlier popes such as Pius IX or Leo XIII had sanctioned such coercion. The issue, rather, was whether and how a Catholic state was required to give official recognition to the Catholic religion, while perhaps in some degree restricting the public activity of dissident sects. Such restrictions might well have limited the actions of non-Catholics, but they would never have attempted to force anyone into making an involuntary profession of faith.
Next Schwindt takes up the question of the nature of man, in particular man as a social animal. He quotes the 1986 instruction of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Libertatis conscientia,
God did not create man as a ‘solitary being’ but wished him to be a ‘social being.’ Social life therefore is not exterior to man: he can only grow and realize his vocation in relation with others.
This is surely one of the fundamental truths of the social order, a truth, however, which is widely misunderstood or even denied, especially in the Anglo-Saxon world. As Schwindt points out, this teaching “leaves little room for the so-called ‘libertarian’ mentality, which would conceive of man as a ‘noble savage’ who enters into society only as a necessary evil rather than as a natural good.”
Akin to the recognition of the social nature of man is the question of human rights. As the author says, rights presuppose duties and thus
we can surmise that rights are not to be considered absolute. The Church calls them “inalienable,” which is to say, they are derived from human nature, but their exercise must always be circumscribed within limits.
And Schwindt illustrates this with the apt example of property, noting that the Church does not teach that property rights are absolute.
Following these preliminary points, the author discusses what he calls “permanent principles,” which are: the common good, the universal destination of goods, private property, solidarity and subsidiarity, freedom and justice. The inclusion of freedom in this list raises some questions, however. The freedom of choice with which man is endowed accompanies him everywhere, indeed is inseparable from his nature, regardless of his political or even penal situation. In the Anglo-American tradition, however, it is not this inherent freedom which preoccupies us but freedom in the political order, which is widely seen as the chief political good. But this is surely incorrect. Rather it is justice which is the chief political good, and it is justice which rules and determines the other principles listed here, such as property, solidarity and subsidiarity. Obviously political freedom is good to a degree, but it is subordinate to both justice and the common good.
Schwindt next discusses the primary principles of Catholic morality, including the natural law, conscience, the virtue of prudence, and shows their application to certain specific moral questions, including lying, abortion and torture. After this he comes to the discussion of economic life itself. Here we may single out certain topics to call attention to. In the first place, Schwindt’s discussion of capitalism and the division of labor that capitalism presupposes is especially noteworthy.
In order for capital and labor to be placed in opposition, they must first become distinct…. [T]he man who owns his own shop and works from within it as its proprietor could never conceive of his activity as a duality of “capital and labor.” For him such an antimony does not exist.
Although, as he notes, the popes have called for cooperation and just dealings between capitalist owners and workers, still “the Christian aversion to the concentration of ownership and wealth has ancient roots.” If ownership and work are not divorced, it is more difficult for such concentrations of wealth to arise. Schwindt quotes Leo XIII pointedly, the “law … should favor ownership, and its policy should be to induce as many as possible of the people to become owners.” This, of course, is exactly what Distributism aims at—the widest diffusion of productive property, in large part to prevent that fatal separation of ownership and work which leads to so many evils, both societal and even personal. Also worthy of note is Schwindt’s discussion of guilds. The guild system, suitably updated to take account of contemporary conditions, is one of the foundations of Catholic social thought, for it avoids the twin rocks of state control of the economy and the injustices and chaos produced by competitive capitalism.
Next Schwindt discusses political society. In this he is following the order taken by the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, which likewise takes up politics after its discussion of economics. But this is a strange way to proceed, it seems to me, because the political order logically precedes the economic; the economic order is set within political society. If we take seriously Aristotle’s and St. Thomas’ reiterated teaching that man is a political being, then we cannot regard the political order as anything but the key to our understanding of the social order. In any case, Schwindt’s discussion of the state is a very good overview of Catholic teaching, as well as of certain confusions which are apt to arise in the minds of modern readers, for example, his discussion of what is liberalism.
Another noteworthy section concerns the relations between Church and state. Here Schwindt takes an interesting position in that he asserts that every state must “acknowledge God [and even] the Christian God.” I say this is interesting because for the most part the debate on the teaching of Dignitatis Humanae and its continuity with that of earlier Church documents has been restricted to consideration of situations in which populations were primarily, even overwhelmingly, Catholic. In such cases a Catholic state is a signal protection for a Catholic social order, and in my opinion fully justified by Catholic teaching. But it is true that Leo XIII spoke of the duty of the state as such to acknowledge the true religion (e.g., Immortale Dei, no. 6), and hence Schwindt is on solid ground here. Of course, unless a government is controlled by Catholics and supported by a Catholic population such a duty will hardly be recognized or implemented. In any case the author might have noted that most discussions of the question of a Catholic state has concerned the case of Catholic nations, which alone were seen as having an unambiguous right to a Catholic political order. However, Schwindt is deserving of much praise for his advocacy of governmental recognition of Catholic truth, a subject pretty much banished from polite Catholic circles today.
I call attention also to Schwindt’s discussion of taxation, and in particular of progressive taxation. He quotes Pius XI’s encyclical Divini Redemptoris that “the wealthy classes must be induced to assume those burdens without which human society cannot be saved nor they themselves remain secure.” As Schwindt notes, “the exact application of this principle could take various forms, but one can say without much risk of error that the system known as the ‘progressive tax’ is a fairly straightforward and appropriate means of realizing this goal.” In the last few decades in the United States conservative politicians have somehow persuaded large numbers of people that a flat tax is more fair than a progressive tax, even though it should be obvious that a rich man has much more disposable income than a poorer man, and hence can rightly afford to give up a larger percentage of his income in taxation. Despite what some people claim, there is absolutely nothing in Catholic teaching or tradition that would prohibit a progressive income tax.
The last two subjects that Schwindt discusses are the environment and war. Obviously in light of Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato Si’, this is a timely and appropriate matter. Far from being merely a pet concern of New Agers, care for the environment is a duty that should be obvious to any Catholic. Schwindt points out that concern for the environment is no novelty with Francis, but has been mentioned by the last several pontiffs. It is true that one can hardly find the environment mentioned by Leo XIII or Pius XII. But that is because environmental degradation either was hardly occurring during their reigns or was not recognized. Just as one will not find Pope Clement in the first century warning against Islam, since it did not exist yet, so one will not find popes speaking about care of the environment before mankind generally realized the ecological dangers that have arisen, in large part, apparently because of human activity.
With regard to the ethics of war and peace, the author reviews the teaching of the Church as set forth in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and provides a helpful discussion of some of the more complex or doubtful applications of this teaching. The basic principles of Catholic thought on this topic go back to St. Augustine, but their application obviously has varied depending on many matters. The incredibly destructive power of modern weapons has made it harder to apply such traditional principles as double effect, but Schwindt rightly notes that in World War II the “bombings of Dresden, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki,” since civilians were directly targeted, were “an offense to just war doctrine.”
For readers unfamiliar with the tenets of Catholic social doctrine, Schwindt’s book is a good place to begin; for readers already acquainted with the main points of the doctrine, it can also be a good reminder both of the scope of the Church’s teaching and its relevance and importance in today’s world.