Revisiting Catholic Social Teaching

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Photo: Frederick Douglass 1818-1895

(March, 2016) This past week brought one of those rare, splendid happenings — an academic conference of glitter and substance: “Human Ecology — Integrating 150 Years of Catholic Social Teaching,” at the Catholic University of America.

By Hadley Arkes, The Catholic Thing, March 22, 2016

The conference had been arranged and choreographed by the School of Business, with the lead no doubt taken by two of the driving forces there, Andrew Abela and Andreas Widmer.


The concerns of the meeting were comprehensive, taking in the new religion of sexual liberation and the state of the family.  But there was a special concern for political economy and the teaching of the Church here since Leo XIII and Rerum Novarum (1891).  The “new things” marked in the title involved the advent of an industrial economy, lifting masses of ordinary folk out of poverty, but generating novel strains.  It would sharpen in a new way some very old questions about the “justice” of distributing good things.

The prodigal son returns after he has wasted his patrimony, and his father, overjoyed, orders a feast in celebration.  The older son, returning from the fields, discovers the feast in progress.  He had borne his duties, and yet he had not inspired the breaking out of the fatted calf and the pricey party.  Where was the justice or merit in this distribution of good things?

But the generation of wealth may sharpen the awareness of “income inequalities,” and we find, of all things, people young and old summoned these days to the siren call of “socialism” by a Bernie Sanders.  Perhaps old and young have lost the sense of what socialism really means with the absence of private property, and with the government in control of all modes of making a living.

Leo XIII saw early on, and saw with an eye remarkably unclouded by romantic slogans, that socialism offered no morally fit remedy for the problem of distribution.  The Socialists would transfer property to a collective or the community, and that move would “strike at the interests of every wage-earner, since they would deprive him of the liberty of disposing of his wages, and thereby of all hope and possibility of. . . bettering his condition in life.”

Leo observed that “when a man engages in remunerative labor, the impelling reason and motive of his work is to obtain property, and thereafter to hold it as his very own.”

It is hard to find a more moving account of the meaning of that simple state of affairs than the account set down by Frederick Douglass when he was delivered from slavery.  He was delivered, that is, from a condition of someone else owning the fruits gained by the work of his own hands because someone else had a claim to the ownership of his hands:

To understand the emotion which swelled my heart as I clasped this money, realizing that I had no master who could take it from me — that it was mine — that my hands were my own, and could earn more of the precious coin. . . . I was not only a freeman but a free-working man, and no master High stood ready at the end of the week to seize my hard earnings.

John Paul II caught a caught a critical corner of this problem in his own commentary on Rerum Novarum a hundred years later: “Socialism. . . maintains that the good of the individual can be realized without reference to his free choice. . . . A person who is deprived of something he can call ‘his own’. . . comes to depend on the social machine and those who control it.”

“A person who is deprived of something he can call ‘his own’. . . comes to depend on the social machine and those who control it.”

But the same vice was present when even the leaders of the Church began to reckon the well-being of persons through formulas of “social justice,” dealing with the distribution of income and goods in the aggregate — and all of this confirming the need for the government to keep intervening to correct the balances of income.

The strain came out in the 1980s when the pro-life wing of the bishops began to threaten liberal Democrats who were regarded as allies of the bishops in the program of treating poverty and welfare through the powers of the government.  The bishops became willing now to allow these other “moral concerns” to make it “morally permissible” to support a politician defending the “intrinsic evil” of abortion.

Mark Gallagher was the leading pro-life lobbyist on Capitol Hill at the time for the bishops.  He never counted himself as a theologian or moral philosopher, but he ventured his own judgment that “if one could eliminate all poverty in America at the cost of permitting the killing of one innocent person, that cost was too high and morally wrong.”

What is the Church’s doctrine on the economy and the “social question”?  John Paul II said that it reduces to this: The Church’s “sole purpose has been care and responsibility for man. . . the only creature on earth which God willed for its own sake. . . .The Church cannot abandon man, and [quoting Redemptor Hominis (1979)]. . .’this man is the primary route that the Church must travel in fulfilling her mission.”  It is “the way that leads invariably through the mystery of the Incarnation and the Redemption.”

“This, and this alone,” he said, “is the principle which inspires the Church’s social doctrine.”  And that explains, with sufficient depth and reach, everything that the Church need say about “the economy” — or anything else.



 Hadley Arkes. “Revisiting Catholic Social Teaching.” The Catholic Thing (March 22, 2016).

Reprinted with permission from The Catholic Thing. All rights reserved. For reprint rights, write to:

image credit: Madame Tussauds, Washington, D.C.

The Author

Arkes3arkes2Hadley Arkes is the Emeritus Ney Professor of American Institutions at Amherst College. He is a leading expert on American political philosophy, public policy, and constitutional law. He has written numerous books including Bureaucracy, the Marshall Plan, and the National InterestThe Philosopher in the CityFirst Things: An Inquiry Into the First Principles of Morals and JusticeBeyond the ConstitutionThe Return of George Sutherland: Restoring a Jurisprudence of Natural Rights, and Natural Rights and the Right to Choose.

Copyright © 2016 The Catholic Thing

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