The Church's Social Patrimony

July-August 2006By Thomas Storck

Thomas Storck is a Contributing Editor of the NOR and author, most recently, of Christendom and the West: Essays on Culture, Society and History.

Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church.  By the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. 446 pages. $24.95.



The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, like any other work having doctrinal status, is not a book that can be reviewed exactly like other works. It is not simply the expression of an author's opinions, nor, in this case, is it simply a doctrinal statement of the Church. Rather, it is a compilation taken from "documents of differing authority. Alongside council documents and encyclicals there are also papal addresses and documents drafted by offices of the Holy See…[so] the reader should be aware that different levels of teaching authority are involved." Due to the nebulous nature of the teaching authority involved, the work is, it would seem, a useful handbook of Catholic social doctrine, but no substitute for the original documents of the Magisterium. We should thus be careful about basing any substantial argument on social matters solely on the Compendium itself. Rather, we must still try to understand the rich corpus of Catholic social doctrine in its context and entirety by reading and consulting the original documents.

But the Compendium is a suggestive guide to the incredible wealth of papal and other magisterial statements on social matters, which it quotes and references. Because the Church's doctrinal patrimony is so vast (comprised of encyclicals, papal letters and addresses, documents issued by various Roman congregations), thorough access to that material soon becomes a problem. Although the Compendium is hardly an exhaustive list of the Church's social teachings, it does contain many references to documents, both well known and obscure, which even serious students of the subject might overlook. In this sense, the Compendium is a valuable guide.

But more than a compilation of texts, the Compendium is a connected discussion of each of the 12 topics it covers, such as the human person, basic principles of the Church's social doctrine, the family, work, economic life, politics, and so on. And the copious references in footnotes to primary documents ground the discussion in the sources of Catholic social heritage.

Although political questions are relegated to a later chapter, logically they come before economic concerns, as both Leo XIII and Pius XI suggested. The classical liberalism that, along with socialism, these popes were fighting against, and that has been revived in our time by classical liberals as Fr. Robert Sirico, is primarily a doctrine of the state and of the nature of society, which in turn has implications for economic activity. Here the Compendium quotes Blessed John XXIII, footnoting Leo XIII, that political authority, "no less than society itself, has its source in nature, and has, consequently, God for its author." The full consequences of this teaching are not drawn out here, but are discussed at length in the "political" encyclicals of Leo XIII, such as Immortale Dei and Libertas. Suffice it to say that if the state and its authority are from God, then not only are states in their political actions bound by the moral law, just as individuals are, but the state cannot be simply a human creation that watches passively while men pursue their various self-serving activities, occasionally intervening to keep the peace. It would have been well had Leo's encyclicals been more fully referenced here, as well as the Syllabus of Errors of Blessed Pius IX. Further research, beyond what the Compendium offers, is a must.

Interestingly, the Compendium includes a section on the state and punishment which makes clear that the purpose of punishment is more than the mere restraint of a wrongdoer in order to protect public safety. "Punishment does not serve merely the purpose of defending the public order and guaranteeing the safety of persons; it becomes as well an instrument for the correction of the offender, a correction that also takes on a moral value of expiation when the guilty party voluntarily accepts his punishment." This would seem to go against the vengeful view of punishment in the West today, which has absolutely no notion or understanding of "moral expiation."

The Compendium offers two chapters on the Church's teachings on economic morality, the first of which deals with work and the second with economic life. Briefly, the Compendium upholds the teaching of the Church, expressed so many times, that economic life cannot be separated from ethical concerns. Thus, the market, for example, however useful it may be for achieving purely material goals, is not its own regulator. As John Paul said in Centesimus Annus more than once, the market must be regulated by man, including the state. Indeed, Centesimus is much more explicit about the need for state regulation of the economy than the Compendium is. But once one admits that the market is simply a tool, and must be judged by its results, the entire foundation of classical liberal economics is overthrown. For, according to classical liberal doctrine, the free market is its own judge and, except for a few extreme cases, whatever it brings about is ipso facto socially good, at least in the long run. But Catholic doctrine can never accept such an opinion. To do so would be to ignore not only commonsense observation and the insights of real economics, but the constant teaching of the Magisterium of the Church.

Remarkably, the Compendium twice condemns usury. This in spite of the fact that everyone "knows" that the Church has changed her teaching on this subject. But we read: "Although the quest for equitable profit is acceptable in economic and financial activity, recourse to usury is to be morally condemned," followed by a quote from the Catechism (#2269): "Those whose usurious and avaricious dealings lead to the hunger and death of their brethren…indirectly commit homicide, which is imputable to them." Usury between nations is also strongly rebuked as (quoting John Paul II) "a scourge that is also a reality in our time and that has a stranglehold on many peoples' lives."

The Compendium also contains chapters dealing with human rights, international relations, and the environment. The chapter on war and peace is especially important today, when so many Catholics seem to replace the absolute demands of the Gospel with the reasons of state advanced by their own governments. Important too is the quotation from John Paul, at the end of the chapter on the environment, that demands the "adoption of new lifestyles…inspired by sobriety, temperance, and self-discipline…. There is a need to break with the logic of mere consumption and promote forms of agricultural and industrial production that respect the order of creation and satisfy the basic human needs of all." As residents of a nation that consumes a huge share of the earth's resources, well in excess of our percentage of the world's population, we should take such words to heart. St. Paul's warning about being content if we have food and clothing (1 Tim. 6:8) seems especially relevant to the rabid consumerism that drives our economy.

Because the material with which the Compendium deals is so diffuse, and because one must admit that the style of many recent papal and ecclesiastical documents has given rise to conflicting interpretations, the necessity of acquainting oneself with the fullness of the social doctrine of the Catholic Church cannot be overstated. The attempt to distill that tradition in the Compendium, while not without value as a reference, should not replace the tradition itself. The Compendium leaves too many documents unmentioned, and overemphasizes recent statements of the Holy See. But if anyone is moved by the Compendium to study and embrace the Church's social doctrine, the work will have achieved its aim.

Because man is a social animal, the Church's social teaching cannot be regarded as unnecessary or a concession to left-wing concerns. Without her social doctrine, the Church would have to concede the social order to Satan, who would like nothing better than to have his title as Prince of the World implicitly recognized by unwary or undereducated Catholics. Instead, we must raise the banner of Jesus Christ, and proclaim Him as King of nations and peoples, King of individuals, King of every aspect of human life. This is the ultimate aim of the social doctrine of the Church, an aim which should be dear to every Catholic's heart.



DOSSIER: Economics & Catholic Social Teaching



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