The term “Catholic Social Teaching” produces two opposite and unpleasant effects. It makes some people bare their teeth. And not surprisingly, it makes other people run and hide. However, the contrasting reactions are due to the problem that some folks do not understand what the term means, and some folks do.
There are people who think Catholic Social Teaching has something to do with homosexual rights or abortion rights or contraception rights. It doesn’t. Those things are not rights. They are wrongs. And the Church holds the line against them without compromise.
Other people avoid Catholic Social Teaching because of what it really does mean. It means justice for the poor.
The Church has always emphasized the corporal works of mercy: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, comforting the afflicted. But justice is distinct from mercy in that it means achieving something more permanent than relieving immediate suffering. It means, as Chesterton says, raising both the political and the economic status of the poor. This makes for a better society as a whole.
However, any time we venture into the realm of economics, we must tread lightly, because, well, we’re talking about money now. We can even see Chesterton tiptoeing when he says, “Let me touch on that terribly delicate matter, the relation between Truth and Trade.” He says we once had the medieval concept of the Just Price. Then the simplistic “laws” of supply and demand. Now things are more complicated: we have a market where suppliers “demand a demand,” a market not based on “necessity and utility and what the people want; but rather the fancies, the moods, the mechanical tricks, the mere absent-mindedness; all the weaker side of man.”
Anything that exploits the weaker side of man is, quite simply, evil. It is one of the reasons why the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.
The old economic models no longer work. In order to have a just society we need to act with principles other than economic profit. This is a theme repeated by Chesterton throughout his writings. It is also a theme repeated in the writings of a small group of men who dealt with the subject before, during, and after the time that Chesterton wrote about it. This group has consisted entirely of Popes. The writings were the encyclicals on Catholic Social Teaching. The latest installment is Caritas in Veritate (“Love in Truth”) from Pope Benedict XVI.
Mammon, the one real alternative to God, has always had a robust following, but never more so than in the modern world, where, as the new encyclical points out, the amount of overall wealth has increased but so has the disparity between the rich and the poor.
The Pope says, “Every economic decision has a moral consequence”. He echoes the phrase, “distributive justice,” which was used by his predecessors and gave rise to the social philosophy of Distributism, which was espoused by Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, Fr. Vincent McNabb, and others. And like these other great thinkers and great men of principle, Benedict does not confine his treatment of social issues to mere economics. He touches upon technology, ecology, and education—the whole human person. He affirms the Church’s teaching on life, which means not only the right to be born, but truly the right to live, to enjoy the wonders of creation, to eat and breathe, to work and play and worship.
The reaction to the latest encyclical? Parts of it were welcomed by some but winced at by others—and vice versa. Political agendas always come up narrower than the ministry of the universal Church.
People of all faiths, in spite of their doctrinal differences, have generally been encouraged when the Catholic Church takes a stand for religious belief. In a skeptical and materialistic age, the social encyclicals seem to garner the widest attention because everyone is interested in seeing how the Church will adjust to the trends of the modern world. However, it is arguable that there has never been a real surprise in any papal encyclical. The Pope simply affirms the truths the Church has always affirmed. The encyclicals are needed only because the world changes, not because the truth changes. The world needs to be refreshed by the truth. For instance, in 1968, the only surprise of Humanae Vitae was that the Church was not going to give into the world. Lust is still wrong. Now, in 2009, the only surprise of Caritas in Veritate was that the Church was not going to give into the world. Greed is still wrong.
In both these encyclicals, the family is defended as the basic unit of society. We cannot have sexual arrangements that destroy the family. We cannot have economic arrangements that destroy the family.
Over a hundred years ago, Chesterton wrote, “The mere strain of modern life is unbearable; and in it even the things that men do desire may break down; marriage and fair ownership and worship and the mysterious worth of man.” These normal things that Chesterton prophetically defended are the same things defended by the Catholic Church. It is no secret, of course, that the Church has defended the freedom to worship, the right to life, and traditional marriage. But there is a fourth thing on Chesterton’s list: fair ownership. This fourth thing is found in Catholic Social Teaching. In fact, that’s where Chesterton found it.