By Thomas Storck
There is moreover a special reason for regarding the social doctrine of the Church as something we should actually seek to implement. A specific condemnation has been reserved for those who belittle it, including those who merely give it lip service. Pius XI wrote in his first encyclical, Ubi Arcano (December 23, 1922), about the great number of those:
who profess Catholic teaching...concerning the rights and duties of laborers on land or in industry...and yet by their spoken and written word, and the whole tenor of their lives, act as if the teaching and oft-repeated precepts of the Sovereign Pontiffs...had lost their efficacy or were completely out of date. In all this we recognize a kind of moral, judicial, and social Modernism, and We condemn it as strongly as We do dogmatic Modernism.
Orthodox Catholics rightly hate dogmatic modernism, and are rightly dismayed at its resurgence following the Second Vatican Council. But ought we not equally to hate "moral, judicial, and social Modernism," and "condemn it as strongly as" the other? If our orthodoxy and loyalty to Catholic doctrine and to the Magisterium are genuine, then it should be evident in every area, not just where we find it convenient or where it fits in with our political opinions.
In some cases I fear that Catholics who deny the importance of this social teaching hold opinions more akin to those of some Lutheran thinkers - that this world is so utterly corrupted that it is not in any sense redeemable. Since according to this view, man himself is radically corrupted, his institutions are also. Thus the most we can hope for is that individuals are saved; the social order had best be left to the Devil. But such a notion is entirely opposed to any Catholic conception of things. These words of Pius XI, from his encyclical Quas Primas (December 1925), give a striking picture of what the Church holds out as her ideal:
If princes and magistrates duly elected are filled with the persuasion that they rule, not by their own right, but by the mandate and in place of the Divine King, they will exercise their authority piously and wisely, and they will make laws and administer them while having in view the common good and also the human dignity of their subjects. The result will be a stable peace and tranquillity, for there will be no longer any cause for discontent. Men will see in their kings or in their rulers men like themselves, perhaps unworthy or open to criticism, but they will not on that account refuse obedience if they see reflected in them the authority of Christ, God and Man. Peace and harmony, too, will result, for with the spread and the universal extent of the Kingdom of Christ men will become more and more conscious of the link that binds them together, and thus many conflicts will be either prevented entirely, or at least their bitterness will be diminished.
Pius XI sees here a social and political order which is permeated with the spirit of Jesus Christ. Far from being necessarily alienated from Him, those who hold political power are expected to rule "in place of the Divine King.
The serious difficulties that exist, then, are not good reasons for Catholics to fail to embrace the social teachings. But there is one reason which does make an attempt to do something about the Church's social teachings so especially difficult that it might almost seem to justify the hostility and lack of interest I have spoken of. This is the need for an organized and coordinated approach to social questions. In the case of chastity, generally all that is required is an individual exercise of will, strengthened by divine grace. We are not dependent on others' decisions as to whether we will be chaste or not. But this is not true with regard to social justice. As I said above, all aspects of the economy are inter-related. If a person has savings, what is he to do with them? Even if he simply places them in a savings account, how is he to know what the financial institution does with the money? Is it loaned out for a good or an evil purpose? Individual businessmen are involved in a complicated system of prices, to a great extent beyond their control. And although much more could be done, especially by large corporations, to pay just wages right now, still the entire system of wages is larger than one company or entrepreneur. Each economic actor is not entirely his own master. Amintore Fanfani, in his Catholicism, Protestantism and Capitalism, relates the following anecdote:
I remember that in a little village in Tuscany there were only two bakeries. The owner of the one wished to close on Sunday, but was unable to do so because his rival kept open, and had he himself failed to follow suit he would have lost his customers who, being restaurant-keepers, wanted fresh bread on Sundays as well as week-days.
The more complicated the economy, the more does such interdependence exist. In short, in social morality we often depend upon the decisions of other people, our individual responsibility is often less clear, and many times there are questions that involve that murky and less precise area of moral theology known as cooperation.
As a result of this, since barely one nation could bring about economic justice for itself, it is hardly possible for one firm or one individual to do so. What is needed, then, is some kind of cooperation among economic actors. In 1931, in his encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, Pius XI had already called for such cooperation to solve the grave problems of society, cooperation between different employers, between employers and employees, and among the various nations. Now one would have to be a fool not to realize that to secure such cooperation would undoubtedly be extremely hard. But there is one thing which tends to make it even harder than it need be. And unfortunately we are at present doing this one thing. What is that? It is to do nothing, not even to request such cooperation, not even to present it as an ideal. There are many problems in the world and in the Church today. And those that we recognize we generally work toward solving. We hold meetings, international conferences, write articles, sign treaties, pass laws. But to secure economic justice next to nothing is done. Of course it would be difficult. But all the problems of the world and the Church are difficult. If we do nothing we cannot expect even to begin to solve them. So to say that the problems of creating a just economy are impossible to solve, when we really do not even seriously desire one, seems to me more than a bit hypocritical.
Moreover, when we think about working toward a just social order, we should keep in mind the limitations of living in a fallen world. As Cardinal Ratzinger wrote in A Turning Point for Europe?, speaking of mishpat, the Hebrew word for justice:
Reason and will must attempt to make concrete and to put into practice the criterion of God's mishpat, set up by faith, in changing historical situations, always in the essential imperfectibility of man's action within history. It is not permitted to man to set up the "Kingdom", but he is charged to go toward the Kingdom through justice and love. The necessary mediation contained in the concept of mishpat indicates at the same time the precisely theological and methodological locus of Catholic (Christian) social doctrine. Faith's hope always goes infinitely farther than all our realizations, reaching into the realm of the eternal; but precisely the fact that this hope is given to us gives us the courage to take up again and again, despite all inadequacy, the struggle for a just order that is the form of freedom and builds up a dam against the tyranny of injustice.
Original version of article published in New Oxford Review, October 1997.