Friday, November 2, 2012

You don't have to be Catholic to appreciate Catholic social teaching

lord acton
Namesake of the Acton Institute
From the promulgation of Rerum Novarum up to the present day, Catholic Social Teaching has never been just for Catholics, any more than the concepts of charity and the common good are restricted to Catholics. It's good to see that non-Catholics are finding wisdom in the tradition of Catholic Social Teaching. In a recent article on the website of the Acton Institute, two Protestants, one Baptist and one Reformed, praise Catholic Social Teaching and its articulation by American bishops in this political season. Hunter Baker and Jordan Ballor write:
For people of faith, and even for people of no particular faith whatsoever, CST represents a praiseworthy model for responsible civil engagement in a diverse and plural culture. The tradition of social encyclicals was inaugurated just over 120 years ago with the promulgation of Rerum Novarum (Of the New Things) by Pope Leo XIII, which focused on the problem of poverty and social upheaval in the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution. This encyclical ushered in an era of sustained and substantive reflection on the social implications of the Catholic faith in the modern world, continued by a long line of noteworthy publications, papers, books, conferences, and debates. The most recent social encyclical appeared from the current bishop of Rome, Pope Benedict XVI, in 2009 under the title Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth), which deals with (among other things) the challenges and opportunities of globalization and economic and political instability.
They go on to cite several tenets of Catholic Social Teaching as being of especial importance in the current political campaigns: subsidiarity, solidarity, and religious liberty. In conclusion they say:
To the extent that the social teachings of the Roman Catholic Church reflect truth about the human person and society, they represent a boon to our broader social life as well as a challenge for other traditions to think as deeply and responsibly about the social implications of our respective faiths. The American political scene is better off for having Catholic Social Teaching, and faithful Catholics, involved in the public square. 
Read more.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

The grandaddy of Catholic Social Teaching: St Augustine and the City of God

One could say that the source of Catholic social teaching starts long before the promulgation of Rerum Novarum. See the Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, or the Epistles. But as far as non-Scriptural sources go, I'd pick St Augustine of Hippo's City of God as the first Christian teaching to address the question of the well-ordered society, and the contribution that Christians can make to the common good.

You'll find a succinct summary of this massive work here on Sparknotes, and a book by book summary here on New Advent. The City of God was written as a response to the accusation by pagans that all of Rome's problems at the time were the fault of the Christians (sound familiar?). St Augustine first points out that pagan society carried within itself the seeds of its own destruction, and then goes on to show that although Christians are citizens of the City of God (a heavenly City), as "resident aliens" in the City of Man during their earthly lives, they can and should contribute to the common good of the society in which they live.

St Augustine City of God Image edition
I've written a bit previously about this work, here where I summarize the introduction to the Image edition by Etienne Gilson, the French historian of philosophy and a Neo-Thomist philosopher in his own right. Here I go on to comment on what Gilson had to say.

Augustine's City of God is a timeless work relevant in any age, for the City of Man will always be looking for a scapegoat on which to pile blame for its own problems. Certainly that is the case these days.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

How is abortion like slavery?

The principals in an earlier pro-life debate

One of the key principles of Catholic Social Teaching is respect for the inherent dignity of the human person. This principle comes into play in all sorts of "life issues" from abortion to euthanasia. In this article from The Catholic Thing, Randall Smith reminds us that a century and a half ago, some people contended that the morality of slavery was a matter on which good people could disagree, and on which politicians should compromise -- much as some argue about abortion today.
It would be a mistake to treat all issues as though they were of the overriding importance of slavery, but it would be equally a mistake not to realize that there are historical moments when injustices so fundamental arise that they simply outstrip all else, although the seriousness may not be clear to everyone at the time.
Abortion, he argues, is no more a matter of private "choice" or moral ambiguity than slavery was. Smith cautions Catholic voters:
The Church cannot compel, as governments often do; she can only appeal to the consciences of men and women of good will. Would this sort of clarity help? A Catholic with a properly formed conscience cannot vote for a candidate who favors allowing abortion over who one favors restricting it any more than a Catholic with a properly formed conscience could have voted for a pro-slavery or pro-Nazi candidate. Would anyone today argue that a Catholic would have been somehow justified voting for Douglas over Lincoln, or a Nazi over a Jew?
Don’t fool yourself. Those with ears, let them hear. 

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Solidarity ≠ Socialism

Benjamin Wiker
In a series of guest blogs on the National Catholic Register web site, Benjamin Wiker has been clearing up some key points of Catholic Social Teaching. In this one, he tackles the principle of solidarity. "Whereas the principle of subsidiarity is generally ignored," he says, "the principle of solidarity is generally misunderstood."
Solidarity, in emphasizing the concern for the poor, is often taken to imply the Church’s hearty affirmation of socialism and/or the welfare state. That is as much a mistake, as to assume that the Church’s affirmation of private property and economic initiative implies the Church’s hearty affirmation of liberal capitalism.
Solidarity does not equal socialism. To state the obvious — no mean achievement these days — the Church wouldn’t support a view of solidarity that violated subsidiarity, any more than she would affirm a view of “rights” that included the “right” to abortion.
 So if solidarity isn't socialism, what is it? To find out, read the whole article.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Fr. Robert Barron on Paul Ryan's grasp of CST

Both the Democratic and Republican vice presidential candidates are Catholics, yet they have very different ideas about the kinds of social policies that can be based on Catholic social principles. Some would say that Joe Biden emphasizes solidarity over subsidiarity, while Paul Ryan tends to talk more about subsidiarity. Here's a video in which Fr. Robert Barron evaluates and comments on Republican VP candidate Paul Ryan's grasp of Catholic social teaching, and the proper balance between the key principles of solidarity and subsidiarity.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Rerum Novarum: Background and Context

To understand any work, you need to understand the context in which it was written or created. Consider, for instance, trying to make sense of any papal encyclical if you didn't know anything about Christianity. So before we start our discussion of Rerum Novarum, I wanted to put it in context. (If you look at the 4-step method of reading that I published earlier, you'll see that, at every step in your analysis of what you've read, I emphasize the crucial importance of context.) What follows is as brief as I can make it (albeit not actually very brief), and therefore perhaps a bit oversimplified, but you are welcome to read further elsewhere on the internet if you wish to know more.

Social context: Industrial Revolution

engraving of early textile mill
Women and children working
in an early textile mill.
The papal encyclical, Rerum Novarum, was promulgated in 1891 by Pope Leo XIII, a little more than a century after the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, a period in which new technological developments (factories where cloth could be woven on huge mechanized looms, for example) began to radically alter the way most people in Europe and North America lived. The middle (i.e., neither peasants nor aristocrats) class, who invested in these new technologies and whose standard of living rose as a result of them, grew in number and in wealth and political prominence, while the old aristocracy began to lose its preeminence and power.

Within a few decades rural people who were the descendants of medieval serfs could no longer support themselves with cottage industries (family owned and operated), so they left the countryside to seek work wherever it could be found. More often than not, this meant either working in mines (e.g., digging coal which was used to power the new industries) or in factories (making textiles and, eventually, a wide array of products that formerly had been fabricated in small workshops by skilled craftsmen. Virtually overnight, entire societies went from being largely agrarian to highly industrialized. The new factories paid very poorly, demanded long hours of labor, provided brutal working conditions, and paid extremely poor wages. People accepted these low wages because they were desperate.

Entire new cities sprang up where these new factories were built, ugly and functional with little accommodation for a humane way of life. Housing for industrial workers was hastily constructed, cramped, often unsafe and unsanitary (no indoor plumbing or running water), and very expensive. Disease became a huge problem, at a time when modern medicine was still a thing of the future.

Country folk who had abandoned their rural homes found themselves living hellish, desperate lives; children who had helped herd sheep, raise vegetables, spin wool alongside their parents were now toiling beside them 14 hours a day for pennies (public schools were as yet unheard of at the beginning of this period). The factory and mine owners grew immensely rich at the expense of the workers, who could barely afford to live and often died as a result of their living and working conditions. This was a far cry from the agrarian culture of a generation or two earlier, where aristocratic landowners still honored the feudal bond, a moral code that acknowledged the reciprocal duties and obligations that lords and underlings owed each other. Virtually overnight, the world had become a much more brutal and impersonal place; for many it was a kind of nightmare from which there was no waking. (For a fuller picture, read Charles Dickens's Hard Times.)

Political context: The Communist Manifesto

poster: Workers of the World Unite
There were many theories put forth about how to deal with the problems caused by the industrial revolution. The most famous and influential is that propounded in The Communist Manifesto, written by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, which masterfully plays on the desperation of urban industrial workers. Adapting philosopher G. F. Hegel's theory of historical dialectic, they radically transformed it into a view of human history in which, in every age, there is a small, wealthy, and powerful overclass that owns all the land and lords it over a vast, wretched, and powerless underclass who own nothing and have no power over the conditions of their own lives. According to this theory, historically a segment of the downtrodden underclass slowly gains power and eventually becomes the new overlord class; in this way, slowly over time the overlord class is overthrown by those rising out of the underclass, and those who had been slaves/serfs/workers become the new oppressive overlords. The contemporary power class, say Marx and Engels, was the bourgeoisie, the middle class that rose out of the peasantry in the Middle Ages and now owned the factories or "means of production."

The Manifesto asserts that the only way to make the world better is to break this inexorable cycle, by destroying all class and building a new, classless society. The Manifesto incites workers to recognize their collective power, to rise up and overthrow the middle class by violent means, destroying not only the "bourgeoisie" or "capitalists" (owners of factories, or the means of producing wealth) but also every aspect of the entire culture in which they have flourished. This would require violent revolution everywhere in the world, the destruction of all existing culture, in order to create a "blank slate" on which a new, classless culture could be created, which would span the entire globe, and in which all means of production would be owned in common, thus avoiding divisive class structure.

To create this new, classless culture, all trace of the old, stratified class structure must be obliterated. To achieve this the architects of the new society would need to control all ideas and dissemination of ideas; therefore, they would need to destroy or control: religion, education, art and literature, all means of publication and communication, and the family as the basic unit of society. This is why the revolution had to be global and total, as any competing ideologies could infiltrate the new society being constructed and exercise a subversive influence. The Manifesto insists that reform of the existing conditions, propounded by competing socialist theories of the time, would not suffice; only total, violent revolution would secure the conditions for building the new society.

The call to arms presented in the Manifesto instigated a variety of violent revolts around Europe, appealing as it did to the unrest and frustration of workers in many places. And, of course, several years after Pope Leo promulgated Rerum Novarum, it would give rise to a successful, organized revolution in Russia and, later still, in China.

Religious context: The Church's denunciation of Modernism

Pope Pius IX
Bl. Pius IX, author of
Syllabus of Errors
It may be useful to compare the encyclical Rerum Novarum to an earlier papal document, the Syllabus of Errors of Pope Pius IX (1864). Both documents respond to ideas gaining force in the modern world, but the way they address them (it seems to me) is quite different. The Syllabus is a response to certain intellectual ideas gaining prominence and respectability, which the Church determined not only to be erroneous but also to be damaging to the role of the Church in society. Many have characterized it as a reactionary document. (A good discussion of the Syllabus may be found here on the website of Catholic Answers magazine.)

The Catholic Encyclopedia sums up the significance of the Syllabus in this way (emphasis added):

The importance of the Syllabus lies in its opposition to the high tide of that intellectual movement of the nineteenth century which strove to sweep away the foundations of all human and Divine order. The Syllabus is not only the defence of the inalienable rights of God, of the Church, and of truth against the abuse of the words freedom and culture on the part of unbridled Liberalism, but it is also a protest, earnest and energetic, against the attempt to eliminate the influence of the Catholic Church on the life of nations and of individuals, on the family and the school. In its nature, it is true, the Syllabus is negative and condemnatory; but it received its complement in the decisions of the [first] Vatican Council and in the Encyclicals of Leo XIII. It is precisely its fearless character that perhaps accounts for its influence on the life of the Church towards the end of the nineteenth century; for it threw a sharp, clear light upon reef and rock in the intellectual currents of the time.
One of the encyclicals that served as "complement" to this defensive document is Leo's Rerum Novarum, which is pro-active rather than reactive, practical rather than theoretical. That is, it strives to demonstrate the value of religion to modern society and to propose constructive, rather than destructive, ways to deal with the very real problems created by the conditions of modern industrial society, to argue for the social benefits of the Church rather than to assert the political force of the Church. Much as The Communist Manifesto urged a practical application of Marx's political theory, Pope Leo's encyclical offered a practical application of Christian charity to the problems of the modern world. Perhaps because of this, it was well received and exerted a widespread and lasting beneficial influence on society in the Western world.
That being said, let's start reading Rerum Novarum. First reading: paragraphs 1-25. I'll supply a summary, analysis, and commentary. Readers may pitch in by posting comments on my post. Please do contribute, as I do not pretend to be an expert and will certainly not be able to give a definitive reading. Collaboration is not only invited but encouraged! Expect to see my post on the first 25 paragraphs by Sunday, 4 November.

And of course your comments, corrections, amendments, and other response to the present post is also invited. Links to sites where you may find free electronic copies of Rerum Novarum will be found in the Useful Resources in the widget bar at the right edge of this window.

What's the Big Idea about Catholic Social Teaching?

Here's a video from Catholic Vote that does a good job of explaining the key concept of subsidiarity.