In his 1965 book, Christianity and Social Progress, Fr. John Cronin wrote as follows:
The social teaching of the Church has presented problems to many Catholics. Today we speak in terms of awe and reverence of the great encyclicals of Popes Leo XIII and Pius XI. Yet the social messages of these pontiffs met resistance as well as acclaim. There were some who openly opposed these teachings. Others gave them the “silent treatment,” by ignoring their pleas and making no effort to put them into practice.1
Although fifty years after Fr. Cronin wrote no longer does everyone “speak in terms of awe and reverence of the great encyclicals of Popes Leo XIII and Pius XI,” still his words are helpful reminders that Catholics have not always had that docility toward the teaching Church which one would expect from those presumably convinced that the Church speaks with the voice of Christ. And in fact today dissent from those teachings is far more common and more open than was the case when Fr. Cronin wrote those words. While one is hardly surprised to find dissent from Catholic teaching among liberal Catholics, it is just as common to find it among conservative Catholics. These latter, however, since they see themselves as faithful adherents to Catholic doctrine, necessarily must create some strategy of disguising their dissent from Catholic teaching. There are, it seems to me, three main strategies used by conservative Catholics to justify their dissent from papal social teaching. Let us take a look at each of them in turn.
Our first type is the most bold, and in a way, the most honest of the three. This is the strategy of a straightforward denial, an outright rejection of social doctrine. This is the strategy common among Catholic adherents of the Austrian school of economics, for example, those associated with the Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama. Let us review some of their statements. First Thomas Woods:
The primary difficulty with much of what has fallen under the heading of Catholic social teaching since Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum (1891) is that it assumes without argument that the force of human will suffices to resolve economic questions, and that reason and the conclusions of economic law can be safely neglected, even scorned… This attitude runs directly counter to the entire Catholic intellectual tradition, according to which man is to conform his actions to reality, rather than embarking on the hopeless and foolish task of forcing the world to conform to him and to his desires.2
Moreover Woods rejects as “perfectly nonsensical” the claim that his position “involves himself in ‘dissent’ from Church teaching.”3 Why? Because,
In the absence of any attempt to address these issues [i.e., the alleged conflict between Catholic teaching and reason], it is difficult to see how the economic claims of the social encyclicals can actually constitute authoritative Catholic doctrine binding upon the consciences of all the faithful.4
And he further states:
One hesitates to describe Catholic social teaching as an abuse of papal and ecclesiastical power, but surely the attempt to impose, as moral doctrine binding the entire Catholic world, principles that derive from the popes’ intrinsically fallible reasoning within a secular discipline like economics, seems dubious. At the very least, it appears to constitute an indefensible extension of the prerogatives of the Church’s legitimate teaching office into areas in which it possesses no inherent competence or divine protection from error.5
And lastly a statement made by another Catholic Austrian, William Luckey:
The fact that Catholic economic teaching, put forth as unchanging and required of belief, did not square with what Austrian economists know to be true, has created an agonizing crisis of conscience for such economists.6
There is certainly no lack of boldness here, even of what we may call chutzpah.
As far as I can see, very few priests have adopted this mode of dissent from Catholic teaching. That may be because few priests who value a reputation for adherence to the magisterium want to be associated with a method of dissent which is so obvious and clear. For the Austrians make no bones about rejecting Catholic social teaching. It is true that they claim such teaching is not authoritative, but it takes a strong stomach to so openly reject what clearly the supreme pontiffs themselves regard as an important part of their teaching authority. Therefore, one or other of the next two strategies is more likely to appeal to those who, for whatever reason, don’t have such strong stomachs.
Our next type of dissent is perhaps associated most prominently with the Acton Institute in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and its president, Fr. Robert Sirico, but also with such figures as Michael Novak and George Weigel. This strategy is a little more nuanced, and a bit more plausible than the Austrian method. But it is just as much dissent. What is this strategy? It is to claim that whatever Catholic social teaching may have taught in the past, beginning with Pope John Paul II’s 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus, this has changed and the Church has finally embraced free-market economics. Let us again look at a few of the statements of this point of view. Fr. Sirico wrote,
The Church, during certain periods, has strongly criticized what was construed to be the free society, partly because some social thinkers conflated the theories of economic liberalism with moral libertinism, viewing them as one in the same and as mutually reinforcing.7
But now, so he says, because “of the courage of John Paul II and his case in favor of the free society … No longer do we feel compelled to speak of classical liberalism and religious orthodoxy as belonging to two separate intellectual worlds.” And more to the same,
Centesimus Annus represents the beginnings of a shift away from the static zero-sum economic world view that led the Church to be suspicious of capitalism and to argue for wealth redistribution as the only moral response to poverty.8
Lastly Michael Novak,
Thus Pope John Paul II has brought economic liberty … into Catholic social teaching….9
Now it is not the case that Centesimus initiated a new direction in the Church’s social teaching, for the interpretation of Fr. Sirico, Michael Novak and others depends on a selective and tendentious reading of that encyclical. (For a discussion of this, see my article What Does Centesimus Annus Really Teach?) And in fact, these authors have not been as loud in claiming a radical change in Catholic social teaching since the appearance of Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate. Indeed, Weigel is known as the writer of an absurd rant on that encyclical. But more importantly, this kind of dissent, to the extent that one can say it was ever done in good faith, fails to address two important questions. In the first place, if we consider the teaching of the Church as coming from Jesus Christ, how is it possible for the Church to change what was admittedly a part of her patrimony of moral teaching? Does this not open up pretty much all of Catholic doctrine to change at the whim of the reigning pope? And secondly, if John Paul really could and did set social doctrine in a fundamentally new direction, could not a future pope either restore it to its former state or set out some other approach to social doctrine? And thus if all we have here are the changeable and hence fallible opinions of the reigning pope, why should any Catholic care about Catholic social teaching anyway? Only if it is the teaching of Jesus Christ ought we to care about Catholic doctrine, and if it can be altered so easily, then it could hardly be the teaching of Jesus Christ.
I do not deny, to be sure, that portions of the papal social encyclicals are of limited authority, either because they apply for the most part to conditions that no longer exist or that existed only in some places, or because they were simply prudential applications of general principles made by a particular pontiff. Such statements as these do not have universal or binding authority. But the kind of change in direction which Fr. Sirico and his associates have spoken of concerns the fundamental principles of social doctrine, principles which have been reiterated by popes since at least Leo XIII, including by John Paul II. It is hard to see how these could be altered without holding that the Church has taught error as part of her doctrinal patrimony, or that social doctrine is not really part of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Finally we come to what seems to be the most recent effort to undermine the demands of Catholic social teaching. This is the most nuanced strategy of all, for it does not depend either on outright rejection of papal teaching or on a tendentious reading of one document among many in a long series. Rather it depends on the undoubted fact that most Catholics have not read the social encyclicals and therefore are profoundly ignorant of their contents. Thus if they are misrepresented by these authors, few will be the wiser. But the misrepresentation engaged in by these authors is clever. It does not involve selective quotations as does the method of Fr. Sirico. Rather this third group of writers makes the assertion that papal social teaching simply sets forth certain more or less vague goals, and that everyone is free to work toward those goals by any means he thinks best. And the goals are generally said to be such platitudes as that we should help the poor or better the condition of workers, and things of that sort. For example, one recent commentator wrote, “The basic error is the failure to see that the foundational teachings and principles of CST can be applied in practice in a wide variety of ways—and working out the application of such principles in any given case rightly falls mainly to the laity, not the hierarchy.” The difficulty with this writer’s approach is that he fails to note that the popes, while not for the most part setting forth detailed prescriptions which are universally binding for applying social doctrine, have ruled out a number of approaches as erroneous, and insisted on a number of points as binding (I will note some of these below).
In today’s climate of bitter partisan debate such statements can easily be seized upon by those whose principles are in fact opposed to those espoused by the popes. So that someone who truly believed, or who claimed to believe, that the best way to help the worker was by abolishing the minimum wage or multiplying Wal-Marts throughout the world, could use this approach to claim support for his opinions in papal teaching as much as those who pursued the traditional social apostolate of the Church, by encouraging unions or cooperation between workers and employers.
As I mentioned, it is true that the popes have not usually given us detailed instructions for how to obtain justice in society. But they have done much more than given us mere vague goals, however laudable these might be. They have set forth certain constant teachings, e.g., that of the just wage or of the social duties and character of private property. They have ruled out certain approaches to solving the social question, e.g., a reliance only upon market forces or upon class warfare. They have likewise rejected both socialism and classical liberalism, which today is often called neo-liberalism. They have indeed sometimes praised experiments in attaining the goal of achieving justice and reducing poverty, but they have set certain limits on those experiments. They have insisted that wages should not be set simply by market forces, they have praised labor unions, they have again and again made it clear that the state has a role to play in the economy and is not simply the “night watchman” state beloved by classical liberals (conservatives or libertarians). And the intermediate groups or bodies which the popes have frequently highlighted as having an important role in regulating the economy are not primarily for-profit businesses or mere voluntary associations. They are bodies akin to the medieval guilds, whose regulations had the force of law and in which membership was compulsory for anyone who wanted to carry on a certain trade or business in a medieval city. In other words, while the popes leave much to circumstances of time or place in implementing the demands of justice, the atmosphere of the social encyclicals is not that of neo-liberal economics. It is much more akin to the social democracy of western Europe than to anything in the United States. In fact, while what seems to be the U.S. post-war economy is singled out for criticism in Centesimus as “the affluent society or the consumer society [which] seeks to defeat Marxism on the level of pure materialism by showing how a free-market society can achieve a greater satisfaction of material human needs than Communism, while equally excluding spiritual values,” what appears to be the West German social market economy is hailed as “a positive effort to rebuild a democratic society inspired by social justice [which tries] to avoid making market mechanisms the only point of reference for social life, and…tend[s] to subject them to public control which upholds the principle of the common destination of material goods”.10
In the beginning of this article I quoted some words of Fr. John Cronin about dissent from Catholic social teaching. After the words that I quoted above, he went on to say:
Such resistance is not unusual when Church teaching conflicts with the strong personal interests of the faithful. All of us have met Catholics who were bitter because of God’s law on divorce or birth control. These persons tend to blame the Church for doctrines they find distasteful, as if the Church originated these decrees, instead of merely transmitting God’s teaching.
It might strike some as odd that Fr. Cronin compares opposition to the Church’s social doctrine to opposition to her teachings about family life. But he is correct to compare the two. In each case the Church is setting forth Christian morality, in one case concerning sexuality and the family, in the other concerning our life in society, especially with regard to our economic activity. And in each case Christian morality is in conflict with powerful drives stemming from our fallen human nature. While Catholics seeking to be loyal to the Church are rightly aware of the need to subject the sex drive to God’s law, they are usually less aware of the need to subject our desires for money and material goods in the same way. But neither drive can be left to rule itself. Holy Scripture is as full of warnings about the dangers of riches and their pursuit as about the dangers of sexual immorality. If we are to be fully Catholic we must recognize both areas of morality and be obedient to Christ’s law as taught by the Church. Otherwise, whatever strategy we may adopt to justify ourselves, we will in fact be dissenters from Christ’s teaching rather than faithful Catholics.
- (Baltimore, 1965), 168.
- “Catholic Social Teaching and Economic Law: An Unresolved Tension,” paper delivered at the Austrian Scholars Conference at the Mises Institute, Auburn, Alabama, March 2002, 4. The entire paper is (or was) available at www.mises.org/asc/2002/asc8-woods.pdf.
- “The Trouble with Catholic Social Teaching,” lecture delivered at the Austrian Scholars Conference, Mises Institute, Auburn Alabama, March 2004, 2.
- “Catholic Social Teaching and Economic Law: an Unresolved Tension,” 33-34.
- Ibid., 35.
- Quoted in “The Trouble with Catholic Social Teaching,” 6.
- Religion & Liberty (September\October 1997).
- “Away From the Zero-Sum View” in A New Worldly Order: John Paul II and Human Freedom (Washington, 1992): 156.
- “Tested by Our Own Ideals” in ibid., 139.
- CA, no. 19.