Catholic social teaching is something of an anathema to most political conservatives. Claimed as the rightful domain of liberal Catholics, statists, and aging hippies, it is presumed to resemble the Democratic platform, with possibly a few more qualms about abortion. Catholics who affiliate themselves with the Republican Party are liable to get flak about their church’s social thought, both from political allies and dissenting co-religionists. Most everyone seems to presume that there is a deep tension between Catholic social teaching and the foundational principles of political conservatism.
In truth, Catholic social thought has been badly misunderstood, and Anthony Esolen sets out to undo the damage in his recent book, “Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching.” At a readable 200 pages, the book offers an excellent introduction to the topic by re-examining of the work of Pope Leo XIII, whose 1891 encyclical, Rerum Novarum, is widely regarded as a seminal work in Catholic social thought. Esolen is a colorful and engaging writer, and the book engages the imagination by drawing widely on art and literature in support of Pope Leo’s points. It’s an excellent introduction for those who are unfamiliar with Catholic social teaching. It’s even more recommended for those who haven’t bothered to study the subject because think they already know what they’ll find.
This is a very Catholic book. Properly understood, that is a strength, even for a non-Catholic reader, because Catholic social teaching has too often been buried under attempts to make it “relevant to our time.” Its real distinctiveness, as Esolen shows, can only be appreciated when it is properly connected to the broader and deeper tradition from which it sprang. His lack of ecumenical spirit may be alienating to some, but it’s worth persevering, especially if you’re inclined to view Catholic social teaching as a thorn in conservative Catholics’ sides.
By exploring Catholic social thought from within the broader tradition, Esolen shows why Catholic social teaching is Catholic, and how it stands apart from other philosophies that shape our society’s political and social developments. Over the course of the book, we also gain some perspective as to why Catholic social teaching has been so egregiously misunderstood in our own time, and has effectively been co-opted by the Left in a way that radically misrepresents its core principles.
Catholic Social Teaching Is Catholic
Any time someone tells you that they object to the church’s position on life, marriage, or the family, but that they “love Catholic social teaching,” you can be sure that they do not understand the latter at all.
As Esolen emphasizes throughout his book, Pope Leo would have been horrified to think that he was generating a new or unique body of thought when he wrote Rerum Novarum. Although the name literally means “on new things,” it might more clearly have been titled “traditional Catholic responses to new things.” Leo was endeavoring to apply foundational Catholic principles to some pressing problems of the modern age: the rise of aggressive secularism, the breakdown of family, and the evident potential of the new economy to leave ordinary workers in dehumanizing work environments that foster vice.
I have heard fairly astute students and colleagues remark that Rerum Novarum reminds them in some respects of the work of Karl Marx. In a way I can understand this, but I think we should recognize that any similarity we see between them is that of well-matched opposites, not of intellectual cousins. Both are nineteenth-century thinkers pondering modern developments that have demonstrably precipitated considerable social upheaval. There is some overlap to their diagnoses of modernity; both saw how sweeping political and economic changes had shattered many of the social arrangements and assumptions that had held medieval and early modern societies together. They also have some overlapping concerns, insofar as both wish to free us from the alienation that followed in the wake of this social upheaval.
Their prescriptions, however, could hardly be more different. Marx, as a materialist, looks to liberate us from older assumptions about human nature and the make-up of human societies, which he sees as mere baggage in a modern age. Leo, by contrast, wishes to re-attach us to that ancient understanding of human good.
Catholic Social Teaching Is Social
Catholic social teaching is deeply concerned about fostering and preserving natural human relationships. Politics and trade will ever be subject to change and development, but man, as an intrinsically social being, can only thrive in the context of well-ordered human relationships. In times of great social upheaval, it is especially critical to explain what those should look like.
For this reason, the early chapters of Esolen’s book discuss man’s relationship to God, nature, family, and community. Family is especially important because, as Esolen explains, a family is itself a society, with its own rhythms and internal orientation towards the common (that is, the family’s) good. Family is the form of society that is most precious and most morally formative for the young, especially, so it is both foolish and egregiously unjust to violate its integrity in the pursuit of broader social goals. At the heart of the family we find the complementary pairing of man and woman, who assume the roles of father and mother with respect to the children they rear. This composition is rooted in human nature itself. It cannot simply be erased or rewritten at will.
Extending outwards to the larger community, we hear about the importance of voluntary organizations. Parishes, clubs, private associations, and so forth are also part of the fabric of natural human society, which bring people together to enjoy one another’s company, to work for their mutual betterment, and to offer support to community members as needed.
Catholic social teaching is deeply concerned about the needs of the poor, the infirm, children, and the elderly. But Leo never loses sight of the fact that the needy are humans, who require love and solicitude from fellow humans. Thus, Catholic social teaching throws light on the injustices of our own time, when the effects of large-scale wealth redistribution have become particularly obvious. When the poor are committed to the care of faceless state institutions, they are easily reduced (in the minds of their more-fortunate compatriots) to mere organisms, receiving material support but little else. In material terms, America’s “bottom 10 percent” would surely have been considered wealthy by most historical standards, or even by the standards of many other countries today. This certainly is not to say, however, that the overwhelming majority of Americans are healthy, happy, and thriving. Our impoverishment is primarily social and spiritual, and this reflects (among other things) the literally inhumane ways in which the needs of the poor have been addressed.
Catholic Social Teaching Values People Above Things
Readers may at this point be a bit impatient, both with Esolen and with me. I have written more than a thousand words on Catholic social teaching, and have said almost nothing about just labor conditions or the role of the state. Does not Catholic social teaching address these issues as well?
It does, but the order of presentation is by design. The foundation of Catholic social teaching is a respect for human life, human nature, and natural human relationships. Any further prescriptions concerning work, economics, or government policy must stem from those core principles. In Pope Leo’s mind, it’s most important to establish what man is and what he needs in his daily existence in order to thrive. Questions of economics and public policy are necessarily secondary, but policy decisions must take account of those fundamental human truths if we are to have a just and well-ordered society.
This ground-up approach feels strange to politically-engaged modern people, for whom it becomes second nature to view the world through the lens of enormous, impersonal forces. This can easily be seen in political liberals, many of whom move quite happily from “X is good for human beings” to “the state should guarantee X to everyone” without seeing the need for intermediate arguments. As we have seen in recent arguments about marriage and contraceptives, there are many political liberals for whom state sanction is itself an important element of justice. A market-based solution that more efficiently achieved the same ends is in fact less satisfying to many liberals, precisely because they are so committed to viewing the state as the guarantor of justice and human welfare. This perspective most certainly is not harmonious with Catholic social thought.
Conservatives can fall prey to a relevantly similar error. In their eagerness to champion free enterprise, they sometimes forget that markets were made for men and not men for markets. The most simplistic of free-market libertarians are often suspicious even of those who endorse a view about human nature; complete neutrality about human good is, in these people’s minds, a necessary component of real freedom. More sophisticated thinkers allow that a society may benefit if its citizens have a more robust commitment to the common good, provided they pursue this exclusively through private and voluntary associations, without enlisting the help of the state. It’s not at all unusual, however, for conservatives to demand a kind of up-front commitment to the total autonomy of markets (and often of other voluntary human behaviors, such as freedom of association) before they are comfortable discussing more robust normative claims about human nature.
It’s difficult for modern people to think outside of this basic dichotomy: either our society shall be shaped by the free market, or by the state. This, presumably, is why Esolen leaves the contentious issue of labor for the next-to-last chapter, and addresses the role of the state only at the very end. Before tiptoeing into contentious political questions, he endeavors to construct an authentically Catholic framework in which to answer them. Appreciating the framework, and considering how it might inspire a different sort of political conversation, is really the most important take-away. Nevertheless, Esolen also sketches the outlines of Leo’s own discussion of labor and politics.
To most modern Americans (on any point in our political spectrum) these are likely to appear quaint and antiquated, and quite possibly offensive. Pope Leo regards employers as having an obligation, not only to fulfill contracts, but also to consider employees’ family situations, as well as their spiritual and moral states. Most Americans today are probably uncomfortable allowing employers to exercise this kind of paternalistic role in their affairs, and employers for their part are liable to be irked by the suggestion that they should. Further, employers are bounded in various ways by market realities that are beyond their control, and this can make the moral questions enormously complicated. When is it appropriate to cut wages or impose harsh working conditions on employees for the sake of keeping the company afloat? Esolen really just scratches the surface of these complications, and thoughtful readers are likely to come away feeling that a much more extensive discussion is in order.
Nevertheless, the most central insight that Catholic social teaching contributes to discussions of labor is this: relations between human beings must be respected as such, even in the context of doing business together. We should never cease to view employers, employees, colleagues, and customers as human beings, even if they also have value to us as “assets” for our professional pursuits. Respecting the humanity of others may sometimes require us to set aside our economic interests for the sake of more human considerations. When such conflicts arise, we can’t just appeal to the autonomy of markets as a justification for injustice.
Some Brief Remarks on Practical Application
Putting these principles into practice, in the context of a large-scale market economy, is often quite difficult. A 200-page book is not nearly adequate to expound on all the relevant principles, and for present purposes it will be enough just to appreciate how the relevant questions are often oversimplified by liberals as part of a more particular political agenda.
Catholic social teaching is often cited in defense of certain labor policies, such as minimum-wage laws, that are ostensibly designed to protect workers and preserve their dignity. This is not wholly illegitimate, because Catholic social teaching does in fact lend support to a justifying principle behind (for example) the establishment of a minimum wage: that the worker is worthy of his hire, and that responsible, hardworking fathers ought to be able to feed their families through honest labor.
At the same time, Catholic social thought is thoroughly pragmatic. Labor policies have a myriad of consequences, all of which need to be considered. Minimum-wage legislation, for instance, tends to diminish the number of entry-level jobs, depriving some of the dignity of having a job at all. Catholic social thought does not ask us to be naïve about economic realities. It does demand that we keep human good firmly in view, and respect the shape and significance of natural human relationships.
Esolen’s book is an excellent choice for anyone (Catholic or not) who wishes to get a more realistic understanding of what Catholic social teaching actually is, and of how modern policy questions might be approached in a way that respects its fundamental principles. For those who wish to pursue these issues further, organizations like the Acton Institute explore these questions further in a way that respects the insights of great Catholic thinkers like Pope Leo XIII, while also recognizing the potential of free enterprise to facilitate certain laudable human ends. There is no reason why a robust Catholic moral philosophy can’t be united to a realistic appreciation of economics.
Most importantly, however, Catholics should not be cowed (either by their co-religionists or political allies) into agreeing that their social teaching naturally aligns them with progressive economic or social policies. Catholic social teaching is not socialism. In truth, it supplies us with some very powerful arguments for resisting the unjust incursions of the aggressive secular state.
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