What is the magisterial authority of Catholic Social Teaching (CST), and how is it applied to real world situations? Catholic Social Doctrine is simply the voice of the Church, starting with the Sacred Scripture and the Church Fathers, that lays out the principles of how justice and charity are to be lived out in the world.
The contemporary era of CST began with Pope Leo’s XII’ Rerum Novarum in 1891, and continues up to Pope Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate. Through the social documents, one can see a gradual development that reflects the Church’s study of the times. That is to say, the Church is always looking to update and clarify the basic principles of Social teaching, given new economic situations and technologies, without ever contradicting authoritative past teaching.
Confusion enters in when Catholic lay faithful (and in some cases clergy) mistakenly claim for their opinions the absolute magisterial authority of the Church and correspondingly denounce as un-Catholic the conflicting positions of others, whether their political criticism comes from the left, right, or center. The basic error is the failure to see that the foundational teachings and principles of CST can be applied in practice in a wide variety of ways — and working out the application of such principles in any given case rightly falls mainly to the laity, not the hierarchy. The magisterial Church’s role, normally exercised through the local ordinary (the bishop), is to point out when these applications appear to diverge from the principles and teachings themselves.
Conflicting opinions on CST fall into three basic camps:
Those (including both some on the Catholic Left and Traditionalists) who seem to believe that all CST is Catholic doctrine, from basic principles of social justice down to their specific applications in the documents. They would argue, for example, that Pope Paul VI’s 1967 encyclical Populorum Progressio requires Catholics to support government-to-government aid to developing nations (regardless of conflicting opinions about whether such aid actually harms the recipients). This group makes little distinction between the principles and their application.
Those who hold that the principles of CST constitute definitive Church teaching and require assent, but that the applications found in Church documents are strictly prudential.
Those who hold that CST constitutes the combined institutional wisdom of a Church that has existed since the Roman Empire. This group would argue that, while Catholics should follow CST, the principles are of relatively recent origin and therefore do not constitute definitive doctrine.
Before delving deeper into these questions, we should also consider another modern development: the post-Vatican II emergence of national conferences of bishops (known as episcopal conferences), and the extent to which, especially in the United States, such conferences speak and teach authoritatively on issues of Catholic social teaching. There has been much confusion in this area, going back to the American bishops’ conference’s endorsement of controversial documents largely written by bureaucrats. The most noteworthy of these statements, emerging during the Reagan years in the context of the Cold War, dealt with nuclear weapons and was titled “The Challenge of Peace.”
The reaction from the Catholic right was great. One of the founders of this magazine, Michael Novak, spearheaded a group of lay Catholic writers who issued a “pastoral” letter disagreeing with some of the conclusions of the conference’s document, as well as with the bishops’ authority on the subject and the extent to which their teaching was normative for their flock. The Novak piece, which took up an entire issue of National Review, was later published as Moral Clarity in the Nuclear Age (Nashville: Thomas Nelson).
Happily, the collapse of the Evil Empire and the end of the Cold War made The Challenge of Peace largely a dead letter. However, in 1997, the Committee on Marriage and Family of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) issued an even more controversial document titled Always Our Children: A Pastoral Message to Parents of Homosexual Children.
On the bright side, this document led the Vatican (or, more precisely, Pope John Paul II) to issue a clarifying motu proprio (a document issued by the pope on his own initiative and personally signed by him), Apostolos Suos, on May 21, 1998. Apostolos Suos confirmed the limited authority of national bishops’ conferences, along with their associated committees, commissions, advisors, and experts. Since Vatican II, these had tended to usurp the fundamental canonical responsibility of an individual bishop as chief teacher of the faith in his diocese.
In a statement apparently directed principally toward the USCCB, the Holy Father wrote, “Commissions and offices exist to be of help to bishops and not to substitute for them.”
Then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger also commented on the purview of episcopal conferences: “Episcopal conferences do not constitute per se a doctrinal instance which is binding and superior to the authority of each bishop who comprises them.” However, “if the bishops approve doctrinal declarations emanating from a conference unanimously, they can be published in the name of the conference itself, and the faithful must adhere” to them.
In practice, this has never happened.
Apostolos Suos made clear that the magisterium of the Church comes from the Holy Father and the bishops in communion with him, and not from episcopal conferences. That question is therefore settled. Now let’s turn to what the Church teaches about the implementation of the social doctrine of the Church.
In 2004, the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace issued a magnificent Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. This document, which should be on every Catholic’s bookshelf, draws from Scripture, papal teaching, curial documents, and the teaching of the saints, in 584 terse paragraphs.
However, I want to concentrate on paragraphs 565-574. Below I reproduce the especially relevant portions, with my brief comments following. I encourage readers to take a closer look at these paragraphs on their own and make their own judgment.
- For the lay faithful, political involvement is a worthy and demanding expression of the Christian commitment of service to others. The pursuit of the common good in a spirit of service, the development of justice with particular attention to situations of poverty and suffering, respect for the autonomy of earthly realities, the principle of subsidiarity, the promotion of dialogue and peace in the context of solidarity: these are the criteria that must inspire the Christian laity in their political activity. All believers, insofar as they possess rights and duties as citizens, are obligated to respect these guiding principles. Special attention must be paid to their observance by those who occupy institutional positions dealing with the complex problems of the public domain, whether in local administrations or national and international institutions.
So we see the obligations of the laity to respect the principles mentioned above.
- The lay faithful are called to identify steps that can be taken in concrete political situations in order to put into practice the principles and values proper to life in society. This calls for a method of discernment, at both the personal and community levels, structured around certain key elements: knowledge of the situations, analyzed with the help of the social sciences and other appropriate tools; systematic reflection on these realities in the light of the unchanging message of the Gospel and the Church’s social teaching; identification of choices aimed at assuring that the situation will evolve positively…. However, an absolute value must never be attributed to these choices because no problem can be solved once and for all.
From the above, we see that it’s the job of the laity to use their prudential judgment in applying these teachings to concrete situations, without making their decisions normative for others.
- When — concerning areas or realities that involve fundamental ethical duties — legislative or political choices contrary to Christian principles and values are proposed or made, the Magisterium teaches that “a well-formed Christian conscience does not permit one to vote for a political programme or an individual law which contradicts the fundamental contents of faith and morals.”
It is worth reiterating that final point: The well-formed Christian conscience cannot vote for a political program or any individual law that contradicts the “fundamental contents of faith and morals.”
- The political commitment of Catholics is often placed in the context of the “autonomy” of the State, that is, the distinction between the political and religious spheres. This distinction “is a value that has been attained and recognized by the Catholic Church and belongs to the inheritance of contemporary civilization.” Catholic moral doctrine, however, clearly rejects the prospects of an autonomy that is understood as independence from the moral law.… A sincere quest for the truth, using legitimate means to promote and defend the moral truths concerning social life — justice, freedom, respect for life and for other human rights — is a right and duty of all members of a social and political community.
When the Church’s Magisterium intervenes in issues concerning social and political life, it does not fail to observe the requirements of a correctly understood autonomy, for “the Church’s Magisterium does not wish to exercise political power or eliminate the freedom of opinion of Catholics regarding contingent questions. Instead, it intends — as is its proper function — to instruct and illuminate the consciences of the faithful, particularly those involved in political life, so that their actions may always serve the integral promotion of the human person and the common good. The social doctrine of the Church is not an intrusion into the government of individual countries. It is a question of the lay Catholic’s duty to be morally coherent, found within one’s conscience.”
The Church teaches; the laity acts, according to their consciences formed by the Church.
- A particular area for discernment on the part of the lay faithful concerns the choice of political instruments, that is, membership in a party or in other types of political participation…. In every case, whatever choice is made must be rooted in charity and tend towards the attainment of the common good. It is difficult for the concerns of the Christian faith to be adequately met in one sole political entity…. Christians cannot find one party that fully corresponds to the ethical demands arising from faith and from membership in the Church. Their adherence to a political alliance will never be ideological but always critical.
Living and applying the social teaching of the Church supersedes and transcends party membership.
Catholic social teachings are nothing less than the Beatitudes of the gospel refined for action in the world. As such, the social doctrine is magisterial, and the laity have a serious obligation to put it into effect in their own lives, in society, their culture, and country, according to their conscience, which should be formed by the promulgated teaching of the Church and applied to the specific situations that they encounter. When in doubt, they should consult the bishop of their diocese, who is the best interpreter of the teaching of the Church.
At the same time, Catholics have to respect other opinions about the application of CST, as long as such opinions do not contradict the teachings and principles of the Church. We are bound to obey in those social issues that are strictly defined (abortion, marriage, pornography, contraception, etc.). However, in the great majority of social, political, and economic questions, the Church gives principles that allow the laity to apply them as best they can, according to their understanding of the problem.