How Binding is Catholic Social Teaching?

Recently Mr. Thomas Storck raised the question about dissent amongst “conservatives” – his term not mine. In Three Strategies for Evasion he argues that Thomas Woods, Jr., Fr. Robert Sirico, George Weigel, Michael Novak, and pretty much any conservative who doesn’t adhere to Mr. Storck’s understanding of the social teaching of the Catholic Church is dissenting – knowingly or not – from hard and fast doctrine.

Thomas Storck

Thomas Storck

Some friends of mine took issue with the article of Mr. Storck’s. I can see why, and I want to address some problems with the article tomorrow, but for now, I want to look at the question of whether or not the social doctrine of the Church is binding and if so to what degree.

I want to do this because several argue that the specific recommendations and the principles of the social doctrine are all just prudential determinations offered to the world by well-meaning pontiffs, but they are not binding in any real way at all.

First, I should mention as I have before, that Fr. C. J. McCloskey III had a great piece over at Crisis Magazine that lays out some of the distinctions well. In it, he points out the existence of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, the 2005 volume produced by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. And he says something which I’ve been saying for years to people who come to my talks, which is that every Catholic should have a copy of this thing on their shelf at home. Seriously. If you do not have a copy go to your local Catholic bookstore and buy one. If you do not have a local bookstore, buy it from here.

Second, what follows here is not a repetition of Fr. McCloskey’s article, for the good Father quotes the Compendium with reference to how Catholic use the principles of social doctrine. Essentially, says Father, the application of the principles are prudential decisions about which Catholics in good standing can disagree. This “I’m-more-Catholic-than-you” attitude when it comes to the application of the social doctrine is to be avoided… and everyone is guilty of it.

Third, but my question is, what does the Compendium say about whether or not there are binding doctrines in the first place. Again, I ask because there are some Catholics who feel the whole thing is either some secret Communist plot devised by Masons who infiltrated the Church and/or that all of it is just one big happy “suggestion” to the lay Catholic.

To begin, then, the Compendium starts out by saying that God has a plan in history for our salvation. He loves us so much that He sent His only son for us. He has entered into history for our sake, so how we live our lives in the here and now matters. And He has a plan.

We can discern this plan in reading about, contemplating, and trying to live the example of Jesus, who is God. The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that one of the reason God became man was to model for us what holiness looks like. Of course, we read about Christ’s exemplary holiness in Sacred Scripture, one of the two organs of Divine Revelation, the other being Sacred Tradition of course. None of this is groundbreaking, but I mention it because in presenting what the social doctrine is, the Church is clear that its foundations stand on our most central doctrines.

Furthermore, it is no news to any Catholic – hopefully – that the Magisterium of the Church exists to help defend the integrity and interpret the meaning of Sacred Scripture and Tradition. In this way, the Church provides for the Catholic the parameters for the transformative love that Christ invites us to live, that love which will bring us to heaven to be with Him for all eternity.

Now when I say “transformative love” I mean a love that transforms us and transforms the world. The Compendium says:

The inner transformation of the human person, in his being progressively conformed to Christ, is the necessary prerequisite for a real transformation of his relationships with others.

…and then elsewhere…

It is not possible to love one’s neighbor as oneself and to persevere in this conduct without the firm and constant determination to work for the good for all people and of each person, because we are all really responsible for everyone.

It is the “right of the Church,” continues the Compendium, to “proclaim the Gospel in the context of society,” because human persons are social animals. Hence, there is a social doctrine.

Okay, but what is it? Well, according to the Compendium it is a reflection on the real situations in the world followed by an application of Sacred Scripture and Tradition in order to produce a moral theology that guides Catholic behavior.

Okay, but the all-important question is how binding is this guide? Well paragraph 74 says that the foundation for the doctrine is divine Revelation that is then applied by reason. This is faith applied. How binding is that? Well:

80. In the Church’s social doctrine the Magisterium is at work in all its various components and expressions. …

Insofar as it is part of the Church’s moral teaching, the Church’s social doctrine has the same dignity and authority as her moral teaching. It is authentic Magisterium, which obligates the faithful to adhere to it. (Catechism of the Catholic Church #2037) The doctrinal weight of the different teachings and the assent required are determined by the nature of the particular teachings, by their level of independence from contingent and variable elements, and by the frequency with which they are invoked.

So it seems that in answer to this question, the Compendium says two things

1) it depends. If a teaching from the documents appears in only one of them, let’s say, and that teaching is introduced by a phrase like “so long as ‘x’ is present” or “while ‘y’ situation continues” or “since ‘z’ is the case” the authority of the teaching is not very high at all. After all, it was only said once and it depends on whether x, y, and z are true.

2) it’s binding. The Compendium states that if, however, the teaching is based on the nature of the human person (which does not change) and is repeated several times over the one-hundred-plus history of the teaching, then it is as binding as what appears in #2037 of the Catechism. And what is that? Here it is:

The law of God entrusted to the Church is taught to the faithful as the way of life and truth. The faithful therefore have the right to be instructed in the divine saving precepts that purify judgment and, with grace, heal wounded human reason. (Canon 213) They have the duty of observing the constitutions and decrees conveyed by the legitimate authority of the Church. Even if they concern disciplinary matters, these determinations call for docility in charity.

In other words, the social doctrine includes “divine saving precepts that purify judgment and, with grace, heal wounded human reason.” That last phrase is important, because some say that their position is based on pure reason, about which the Church has no real say. To that person, the Church responds that her teaching sometimes helps correct “wounded human reason.”

And so what ought our attitude be? Well we have the duty to observe the teaching. Furthermore, even if some of these statements in the documents don’t rise to the level of doctrine, they are at least disciplinary matters which ought to be received with “docility in charity.” So we still follow them, though we might not always agree with them.

Pope Leo XIII

Pope Leo XIII

Is there an example of such a binding teaching? Yes, and it is the “just wage.”

The notion of the just wage appears first where we would expect it to appear if it were a binding teaching, namely at the beginning. Paragraph 43 and following in Rerum novarum addresses the question. Further, Pope Leo XIII’s argument is not based on “contingent or variable elements” but rather on the right to life and every human person’s obligation to preserve it.

Pope Leo says that most people – perhaps even you – believe that a just wage is just simply by the fact that two people – an employer and employee – have entered into a contract. Such is the rule of the marketplace. However, while this is an understandable position, the Holy Father points out that labor and thus the wage that reflects that labor have two components to them. The first is the personal one. The second, and often ignored, is the necessary one.

You see, without labor and thus without a wage, man cannot support himself or his family. And every man has the right to life. He writes:

The preservation of life is the bounden duty of one and all, and to be wanting therein is a crime. It necessarily follows that each one has a natural right to procure what is required in order to live, and the poor can procure that in no other way than by what they can earn through their work.

We are all responsible for for the lief of everyone. So there is a “natural right” to a just wage, i.e. a wage that preserves our life. Note, please, the appeal by the Holy Father to nature. Again, this argument is not based on ephemeral realities.

And of course, Pope Leo XIII is not the only one to mention the just wage. Pope Pius XI speaks of the just wage in Quadragesimo anno paragraph 71 and following. His assessment is very sober, I might add, noting that there are market forces at work as well and that prudence needs to be used when pegging a just wage. But that there ought to be a just wage is not in question. Pope John XXIII has a whole section on how to determine the just wage in Mater et magistra, which he ends with the lines “The above principles are valid always and everywhere. So much is clear.” Pope Paul VI mentions it in paragraph 59 of Populorum progressio wherein he actually references Rerum novarum as the source of this doctrine. Blessed Pope John Paul II lists the just wage as a right of the human person at the very beginning of his wonderful encyclical Laborem exercens, he repeats himself in Centesimus annus where again, Rerum novarum is cited as the authoritative voice on this issue. In fact Good Pope John Paul quotes the very text I do above.

Again, what a just wage looks like in our economic reality will differ. That is a prudential decision, but that there ought to be a just wage, and that it can be determined, and that all men in business administration and in government have a moral obligation to find it and apply it… well this is a binding doctrinal note of the Catholic social teaching.

This is not a just wage.

This is not a just wage.

Why the government? Because the just wage is a natural right of the human person, required for their well-being and thus the common good. The government exists to maintain the common good. Therefore, the State has a moral obligation to oversee the just wage.

So, Catholic social doctrine does contain teaching that a Catholic is required to hold. Refusing to accept it would constitute dissent from Catholic teaching, and I’m sure I do not need to tell my conservative friends the damage that cafeteria Catholicism does to the Church, which leads me to one final point.

When it comes to the prudential application of the principles of the social teaching we human beings can be pretty creative. For instance, some argue that they agree with the Church’s teaching on abortion but not on the “prudential” approach of outlawing it. That, they say, is just one way to address abortion, and since there will always be abortions in the world the best way is to allow abortions stay on the legal ledgers of our nation and work to increase social services to drive down the number of women who seek abortion. Ever heard that argument? I’ve heard it too many times.

Most if not all of my readers will see that such a position is obscene. Abortion is a horror that ought to be outlawed. Period. This isn’t to say that intermediate steps cannot be taken in the attempt to outlaw abortion, but to give up on the goal of making it illegal is to strip the teaching of any real substance. But there is a corollary argument on the conservative side.

Some will argue that while they agree that a just wage is the Church’s teaching, “prudentially” that is best determined by the market. The government will only screw things up. So the just wage is naturally created by the forces of human interaction in the business. Sorry guys, that doesn’t pass muster. The point of this doctrine of the just wage is to show that every employer is responsible for preserving life of every person as much as is possible. In an economy where milk costs this, rent is that on average and bread costs this, a living wage can indeed be determined and employers ought to be made to understand their obligation to provide it. Do States make mistakes? Sure they do, and so do businesses. But while voting individuals in an out of office happens with regularity, when was the last time a business folded because it’s low wages drove the community to stop shopping there?

Tomorrow I’ll write about Mr. Storck’s criticisms of conservatives.

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