Catholic Social Teaching: Antidote to Extremism
by Deacon Mike Leman
Legislative Liaison, Diocese of Cheyenne
EXTREMISM LEADS TO MISPERCEPTIONS
Recently, my wife and I met a new friend at a social gathering. Upon introduction, we exchanged the usual pleasantries. When she learned that I work for the Diocese of Cheyenne as the legislative liaison in the Office of Catholic Social Teaching she replied, “Catholic Social Teaching is just the Church’s way of pushing socialism on us.”
I hear this often. When I asked her where she had gotten that idea, it became clear that she had never actually read a papal encyclical or anything that explains the Church’s social teachings. Our new friend simply was repeating what she had heard from someone else.
THE CHURCH CONDEMNS EXTREMISM IN ALL FORMS
The greatest challenge to responding to the claim that Catholic Social Teaching promotes socialism is deciding where to begin. Perhaps no other institution in the world has been more openly critical of socialism than the Catholic Church. While the intentions of many who put their hope in socialism may be good, the means through which socialism tries to achieve those ends are, according to Catholic Social Teaching, unacceptable.
We need to understand that Catholics live within every kind of political system in the world; we also need to understand that the Catholic Church has outlasted many political systems. Important to note is that the Church does not promote any particular political system, nor does it support one particular political party in the United States. The Church highlights the good that She sees wherever She sees it, and the Church names problems She sees wherever She sees them. For emphasis, and in the interest of brevity, I will share some of the more strongly worded condemnations against socialism that popes have made, but many more have been written.
First, I’d like to share a quote from Pope Leo XIII’s 1901 encyclical, Graves De Communi Re (On Christian Democracy), where he teaches that Catholics cannot pursue justice for the purpose of promoting a particular government, “The laws of nature and of the Gospel…are necessarily independent of all particular forms of civil government, while at the same time they are in harmony with everything that is not repugnant to morality and justice. They are, therefore, and they must remain absolutely free from the passions and the vicissitudes of parties, so that, under whatever political constitution, the citizens may and ought to abide by those laws which command them to love God above all things, and their neighbors as themselves. This always has been the policy of the Church. The Roman Pontiffs acted upon this principle, whenever they dealt with different countries, no matter the character of their governments. Hence, the mind and the action of Catholics devoted to promoting the welfare of the working classes can never be actuated with the purpose of favoring and introducing one government in place of another”. (Pope Leo XIII, 7)
In Quadragesimo Anno (1931), Pope Pius XI wrote, “If Socialism, like all errors, contains some truth (which, moreover, the Supreme Pontiffs have never denied), it is based nevertheless on a theory of human society peculiar to itself and irreconcilable with true Christianity” (n. 120). He continued, “And so…having surveyed the present economic system, we have found it laboring under the gravest of evils. We have also summoned Communism and Socialism again to judgment and have found all their forms, even the most modified, to wander far from the precepts of the Gospel”. (Pope Pius XI, 128)
In 1961, St. John XXIII referenced Pope Pius’ encyclical Quadragesimo Anno in Mater et Magistra. “Pope Pius XI further emphasized the fundamental opposition between Communism and Christianity and made it clear that no Catholic could subscribe even to moderate Socialism. The reason is that Socialism is founded on a doctrine of human society which is bounded by time and takes no account of any objective other than that of material well-being. Since, therefore, it proposes a form of social organization which aims solely at production, it places too severe a restraint on human liberty, at the same time flouting the true notion of social authority”. (Pope St. John XIII, 34)
THE CHURCH IS FOR GOOD GOVERNMENT
Do these criticisms of socialism mean that the Church is against all state and federal social programs? No, it does not. The principle of subsidiarity indicates that “larger institutions in society should not overwhelm or interfere with smaller or local institutions, yet larger institutions have essential responsibilities when the more local institutions cannot adequately protect human dignity, meet human needs, and advance the common good”. (Pope St. John Paul II, 48); (Pope St. Paul VI, 4-6).
In other words, if the intention behind creating a government-funded social program is to establish citizen dependence on the government and take the country one step closer to socialism, that is not acceptable. In the same way, ignoring human dignity until we can fix the “smaller, local institution” (most notably the family) is not acceptable either. Letting the poor and vulnerable perish until we figure out how to protect them with non-governmental means is not an acceptable solution through the lens of Catholic Social Teaching.
For 2000 years, the Catholic Church has manifested a special concern for the poor and the vulnerable. This is a central tenet of our faith. While some Catholics do not want to hear about how creating government dependence threatens to put us on a slippery slope toward the evils of socialism, other Catholics do not want to see the poor and vulnerable in their communities or hear how local institutions are failing them. Catholics should not consider the care for those in need with an “either or” mentality.
We live in a state that is trending more libertarian than traditional conservative, and, in many circles, the suggestion that government programs are necessary is viewed as heresy. Government is necessary, however, even in a free market society. We need infrastructure; we cannot do everything at the state level; we need checks and balances to ensure fairness.
Think about large corporations that are forcing political ideologies onto small businesses. Think about how some of them are impacting state sovereignty by boycotting states that pass prolife bills like the heartbeat bill in Texas.
The above statements are not examples of big government; they are examples of “unbridled capitalism” of which Catholic Social Teaching also is very critical. Some of those corporations spend millions of dollars to lobby against government oversight, which sounds like a very libertarian approach, but then they turn right around and force states and individuals to bow under their financial pressure.
St. John Paul II spoke of unbridled capitalism when he said, “[Capitalism] 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. In reality, while on the one hand it is true that this social model shows the failure of Marxism to contribute to a humane and better society, on the other hand, insofar as it denies an autonomous existence and value to morality, law, culture and religion, it agrees with Marxism, in the sense that it totally reduces man to the sphere of economics and the satisfaction of material needs.”
I have seen the denial of “value to morality, law, culture and religion” and the reduction of “man to the sphere of economics” in Wyoming with the push for “sin taxes” like online sports betting and the effort to legalize recreational marijuana.
The arguments for passing such laws at the Wyoming Legislature follow a similar trend. They often begin by acknowledging that the idea itself is morally questionable followed by a personal disclaimer such as, “I personally don’t gamble, but…”
Next, liberty is described with such sacred terms that a mere inquiry about how such a law could impact social responsibility seems sacrilegious. “Even though I would never do it, far be it from me to say what someone else should or should not do.”
Then, just when the room is mesmerized by the thought of absolute autonomy, we hear, “Then, we could tax it.” There is the hook. Remember, we’ve said we won’t all be contributing to these particular taxes because we don’t all gamble. So, the “plan” is to balance the budget with other people’s money, which is one of the tenants of socialism that many people detest. In the name of liberty, we say it is ok to pass bills that knowingly put vulnerable families (“the smaller, local institution” that is best situated to meet the needs of individual members) under greater duress.
CATHOLIC SOCIAL TEACHING BRINGS CLARITY
This is one example of how looking through the lens of Catholic Social Teaching brings clarity to a situation.
I don’t know if I was able to convince our new friend that her perception of Catholic Social Teaching is a misperception. In truth, Catholic Social Teaching is a treasure-trove of wisdom gained by the Church throughout the ages and gifted to us today. But it shouldn’t surprise us that the spiritual enemy of Christ and His Church would create fear by portraying the antidote to our social problems as a poison. If this article has done nothing else, I hope it inspires you to visit my webpage and read the papal encyclicals for yourselves. (https://dioceseofcheyenne.org/catholic-social-teaching)
Deacon Mike Leman completed the residential CAPP-USA/Catholic University of America Certificate Program in Catholic Social Teaching in October 2021 and is the Legislative Liaison for the Diocese of Cheyenne (which encompasses the entire state of Wyoming). This article originally appeared in the Wyoming Catholic Register and is reprinted with the author’s permission.
Three Key Principles
Catholic social teaching is built on three foundational principles - Human Dignity, Solidarity and Subsidiarity. Human Dignity, embodied in a correct understanding of the human person, is the greatest. The others flow from it. Good governments and good economic systems find ways of fostering the three principles.
This means a correct understanding of the human person and of each person’s unique value. All Catholic social teaching flows from this: the inherent dignity of every person that comes from being made in God’s image.
Solidarity is not “a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of others. It is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good”. (Pope St. John Paul II, 38) Love of God and love of neighbor are, in fact, linked and form one, single commandment.
Subsidiarity “is a fundamental principle of social philosophy, fixed and unchangeable, that one should not withdraw from individuals and commit to the community what they can accomplish by their own enterprise and industry. So, too, it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and a disturbance of right order to transfer to the larger and higher collectivity functions which can be performed and provided for by the lesser and subordinate bodies”. (Pope Pius XI)
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