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Acton Commentary

Why Catholic Social Teaching falls on deaf ears

Happy New Year! I spent December travelling to Washington DC for an Acton conference on public spirit and public virtue and then led a week-long course on public policy to young evangelical missionaries in Hawaii before spending the holidays in frigid Michigan. Three very different places, to say the least, but yet all within the borders of one nation.

Once I got over the weather shocks to my system, these trips got me thinking what unites those States of America and more broadly about what unites and divides modern peoples in religion and politics, a variant of the “theologico-political problem” modernity attempts to solve. This may sound highfalutin but it’s anything but an abstraction. To put it much too simply: Do we primarily rely on human reason or divine revelation to bring us together? I would dare to say it is the big question behind many of the pressing social issues we face at the beginning of 2018.

I take as my starting point Pope Francis’s most recent World Day of Peace message on migrants and refugees. (I used to take part in the preparations of the World Day of Peace messages at the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace from 1999 to 2004, so I maintain some professional interest in these.) Citing his predecessor Benedict XVI, Francis writes that “the wisdom of faith” makes us recognize that we “belong to one family, migrants and the local populations that welcome them, and all have the same right to enjoy the goods of the earth, whose destination is universal, as the social doctrine of the Church teaches. It is here that solidarity and sharing are founded” (n. 3).

“the wisdom of faith” makes us recognize that we “belong to one family..."

Christians believe in one God who is the Father and Creator of all; we are brothers and sisters because we have a common Father. In his 1950 encyclical Humani Generis, Pope Pius XII reiterated the Church’s teaching that all human beings have common parentage in Adam and Eve through whom original sin has been transmitted. The confidence with which Pius defends these dogmas is breathtaking but justified since so much of Christian moral and social teaching depends on them.

Such teachings are also why the Catholic Church speaks of particular political and social issues in universal terms. The particulars, however, are often disputed and lead to divisions, even rebellions against the universal authority of the Church, as Pius and many of his predecessors very well knew. The particular interests, opinions and passions of some can and often do clash with those of others. Nevertheless, the Church would not be truly Catholic if she were to speak in the interests of some at the expense of others.

Catholic Social Teaching (CST) continually refers to the common good as the goal of all social action and policy. There is the common good of each family; the common good of the local community, of the nation and even of all humanity, even if each of these units may have different if not competing understandings of it. The Church urges us to harmonize them all, balancing the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity, private property and the universal destination of goods in a way that respects both the individual and the community. In the case of migrants and refugees, it is why Pope Francis insists on “welcoming, protecting, promoting and integrating,” despite all the challenges that come with it.

But what of those particular concerns that drive politics? Twice in the World Day of Peace message, Francis cites Pope John XXIII’s Pacem in Terris on the “limits” imposed by the common good. Doesn’t this imply that common good may indeed require some communities and nations (smaller ones, for instance) to restrict rather than expand immigration? Just as no single family can be expected to take in every stranger who comes into town, no nation can be expected to show “unlimited” generosity to migrants and refugees. Social cohesion in terms of culture, belief, and tradition are especially challenged by multiculturalism and its underlying cultural relativism which holds that all cultures are inherently equal in moral status.

While CST explicitly speaks of welcoming all, it implicitly recognizes that unlimited multiculturalism is not feasible. The burdens and costs of welcoming newcomers are real and must be shared to be made acceptable. But what happens when some refuse to do so? How much sacrifice can the Church expect of those with limited resources and capacities? A gentleman from Togo told me on one of my recent flights that many of his friends and relatives have endangered their lives to pay traffickers to take them to Libya and then Italy without any assurances of finding jobs or homes in Europe. An “open door” humanitarian policy may well encourage people to take risks they otherwise wouldn’t.

While popes and bishops preach about the duties to the poor and suffering, the dilemma of how to help is usually left for the laity to figure out on their own. It’s probably why the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia once dismissed “so-called social justice” in my presence and why he based his jurisprudence on the Constitution rather than the principles of CST or natural law. Agreeing on the validity of the principles is one thing; applying them correctly to particular situations as a politician or judge is another.

Hypocrisy may be inevitable in public life, but it’s made worse when cloaked with the mantle of false piety.

Proponents of CST like to claim that no political party or program meets all of its high standards. If it were regarded as a standard or ideal to which we all aspired, it would serve a salutary purpose. As it is, however, CST is more often used to point out the speck in the eye of another while ignoring the beam in one’s own. Hypocrisy may be inevitable in public life, but it’s made worse when cloaked with the mantle of false piety.

So who really governs, God or man? The modern solution to the “theologico-political problem” generally tries to separate Church and State, in some cases essentially privatizing and individualizing religion. A more religious-friendly interpretation maintains a distinction between the spiritual and temporal realms rather than strict separation; even so, the line between them is blurry and difficult to determine in particular cases. Abortion is just one obvious example of why the Church cannot remain indifferent to the laws of a society that teach as much as they sanction.

CST tries to restore a sense of balance and integrity so that the Church can have a public voice without intervening directly into politics. But it also relies upon an inheritance of Christian beliefs and mores that can no longer be assumed and is now under attack in much of the West, and no political solution is in sight. The early Church was persecuted but grew through the examples of the saints and martyrs, many of whom did not set out to change society but eventually did through their holiness. Maybe political success is similar to peace and joy, a by-product of first seeking the kingdom of God and His righteousness, rather than something to be sought for its own sake.

Featured image used under Creative Commons License (CC BY-NC 2.0), some changes made. 


Kishore Jayabalan is director of Istituto Acton, the Acton Institute's Rome office. Formerly, he worked for the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace as an analyst for environmental and disarmament issues and desk officer for English-speaking countries. Kishore Jayabalan earned a B.A. in political science and economics from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. In college, he was executive editor of The Michigan Review and an economic policy intern for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He worked as an international economist for the Bureau of Labor Statistics in Washington, D.C.