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Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Catholic Social Teaching and Integrity

The other day I had occasion to dip back into my deep pool of Catholic Social Teaching.  I was raised on this teaching, which I think well corresponds to my own theory of ethics, which I call Integrity, that can guide us as we face the brave new challenges of global economic change, transitions in world political order, the coming of the technological "singularity," human evolutionary process, and earth change.

This is a teaching that itself evolved as Catholic officials and theologians first tried to steer the faithful through violent secular revolution and protestant monarchy restoration, then through the managers and workers of the industrial revolution, and finally through Soviet Bolshevist communism and American rugged-individualistic capitalism.  In the US this teaching culminated in the US Bishops American Bicentennial  Call to Action Conference (1976) and the Pastoral on the Economy (1986), both of which were given impetus by Pope John XXIII's Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

The 2nd Vatican Council brought "fresh air," new thinking, and reformed behavior in worship, in the role of the laity, in relationships to other religions and to secular, pluralistic society, and in social teaching towards democratic social change that included those that heretofore had been excluded in governance (women, persons of color, the poor).  It was an exciting time to be a Catholic.

However, there were those, especially at the highest levels of the Vatican, who saw how this "fresh air" could blow away traditional authority and threaten the established hierarchical order of the Church (as it had been defined in Vatican I).  Joseph Ratzinger, Archbishop, then Cardinal-Prefect of the Congregation of the Faith (1981), now Pope Benedict XIV, saw this most clearly and was instrumental in reaffirming orthodoxy and papal authority and condemning "liberation theology" and other thinking that was considered heretical.  He worked closely with the Polish Pope John-Paul II (1978-2005) in appointing more conservative bishops that would maintain orthodoxy in Catholic teaching and an unmarried, male priesthood under the authority of bishop and Pope.  Any further development of theological doctrine and moral teaching that started under Vatican II was held back.  However, new ecumenism was promoted vigorously.  Catholic social teaching was reaffirmed but more focus was placed on holding the line in family and sexual morality.

If 1962 to 1986 was an opening of the boundaries to let in new thinking and experimentation, 1986 to the present can be seen as the closing of the boundaries and even a period of restoration after revolution.  I can be cynical and say that the institution was indeed saved by keeping the lambs secure from the wolves of free-thinking or, worse, from becoming sheep or even shepherds to choose their own pastures.  While I recognize that organizations and institutions, and all life, need to ebb and wane between progressive opening to nutrients and conservative closing to toxics, I do think that an institution so focused on preserving itself is doomed to irrelevancy if not extinction.

But I also think that Catholic Social Teaching, which was influenced by Mondragon, Rochdale, and Nova Scotia cooperatives, by labor and community organizing, by Protestant Social Gospelism and the settlement house movement, by civil rights and liberation movements in India, the Americas, and Africa, by democratic socialism in Europe, as well as by a reassessment of Catholic tradition beginning with Prophetic writings in the Hebrew Scriptures and the Gospel of Luke and the Beatitudes, is still most relevant.  It however needs continual updating and development as we face our new challenges.

I don't think Catholic Social Teaching needs to rely on papal authority, on God as some entity outside Nature, or on any religious belief. I think it is consistent with the existence or nature of humanity as we discover in scientific and philosophic thinking or as we experience in our own reasoning and emotional engagement with each other in our evolutionary adaptation to our environment. (Though I am happy to point out the inconsistency of those true believing Catholics like Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, Paul Ryan, and many of the bishops and priests with Catholic Social Teaching.  And I am happy to point out how the Church as an organization does not apply its teachings to itself in its treatment of women, LGBT persons, children, and workers.)

There are three main principles in Catholic social teaching (through the papal encyclicals and bishops' conferences):  1) dignity of all human beings, 2) solidarity, and 3) subsidiarity.

Dignity:  Every human born (some would even argue unborn, though not me) has dignity and should be accorded respect.  This means that every human being should be treated as an agent and provided all the means to exercise agency including the choice of who to be and what to do within both the structure and limits of human community (see solidarity below).  This further means that all life's needs should be satisfied as much as humanly and socially possible including adequate nutrition, decent shelter, health care, mobility, safe and supportive environments in which to grow, and continuing education.

Solidarity:  All human beings are relational.  They are potentially and ultimately connected so that what happens to one affects all.  This means that we must anticipate the consequences of our actions on others and acknowledge others' contribution to my well-being and my responsibility to theirs.  This further means all have the right to organize to pursue mutual self-interests.  Freedom in this teaching is not merely liberty (freedom from oppression), but participation through necessary and voluntary associations in achieving the common good.

Subsidiarity:  All human beings are in place and time and work out from the present moment.  Decisions should be made at the level of implementation.  It's another way of saying "all politics is local," meaning we start in and go out or from below and go up. This teaching opposes both individualistic libertarianism and state totalitarianism, that which minimizes or maximizes necessary institutions (government) to the detriment of personal and group initiative.  This principle is dear to community organizers whose main tenet is: "Don't for for others what they can do for themselves."  For that robs them of the ability to take initiative and being agents in their own right.  It is also a recognition of the importance of "republicanism," in the sense of developing autonomous (but interdependent) publics or associations or what is called "civil society."

Other principles have been articulated for Catholic Social Teaching: e.g. preferential option for the poor, human rights, dignity of work, promotion of peace, community and common good, constructive role of government, care for creation.  But I think all can be derived from the above three which correspond to the very structure of human existence.

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