The Authority of Catholic Social Teaching: Why Should Catholics take the New Encyclical Seriously?

2009 July 7
by M.J. Andrew

What follows is the first of several detailed looks this week and next at implicaitons of Pope Benedict XVI’s new social encyclical, Caritas in Veritate.

Let state up front: I disagree with Deal Hudson’s evaluative claim that the new encyclical from Pope Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate, is “not thrilling reading.”  On the contrary, I find it to be just that–thrilling.  This encyclical is so powerful and so rich that it will take months–perhaps years–to understand and live out its implications.  The Pope has broken new ground within the plot of papal social teaching, and, if we listen to its message faithfully without preconceived political principles, Catholic social teaching will transform and unify Catholic action in the social sphere.

Let me begin by addressing the question: Why should I, as a Catholic, care about what Pope Benedict XVI has to say about human development, distributive justice, and economic life?  In the spirit of the Pope, perhaps we can look for clues to the answer in the history of papal social teaching.

In his 1912 encyclical, Singulari Quadam, Pope St. Pius X declared that the Church’s teaching authority extends beyond the exclusive domain of faith and into the domain of socio-economic affairs:

The social question and its associated controversies, such as the nature and duration of labor, the wages to be paid, and workingmen’s strikes, are not simply economic in character. Therefore they cannot be numbered among those which can be settled apart from ecclesiastical authority. (Singuarli Quadam, 3)

Pius X was not introducing anything startlingly new, for Pope Leo XIII had submitted the same principle in an encyclical in 1901:

For, it is the opinion of some, and the error is already very common, that the social question is merely an economic one, whereas in point of fact it is, above all, a moral and religious matter, and for that reason must be settled by the principles of morality and according to the dictates of religion.(Graves de Communi Re, 11)

The error that both Leo XIII and Pius X are correcting is one that is still made today in Catholic circles, namely, that the social teaching of the Church is in someway optional, non-binding, and/or merely prudential. Indeed, in many respects our inclinations and political proclivities, which often are merely products of our locale and social environment, are met by a powerful counterweight in Catholic social teaching. And rightly so. If, as the two aforementioned popes assert, our social life (i.e., family, political, and economic activity) are primarily religious and moral in nature, then the Church, by virtue of her authority in matters of faith and morals, is our touchstone for learning how to conduct that social life. Furthermore, we should not be surprised to find that, just as in the case of conversion in terms of faith, our political positions that may be derived from sources apart from the Church (be they libertarian, communist, or whatever) must themselves be converted in accordance with the demand of the Catholic faith.  Put simply, if your political positions remain mostly intact after your conversion (or reversion) to Catholicism, then there may be something wrong!  This is why the first section of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church describes the adoption of Catholic social teaching as a sort of second conversion.

Yet, we still encounter the stubbornly persistant opinion among Cathoilcs that the Church’s social doctrine is not binding–and if it is authoritative, then it is not as important or consequential as doctrines of faith. But this position is certianly not to be found in Catholic teaching.  Indeed, it is simply a pernicious prejudice.  Consider the bounds of the Church’s teaching authority.  The Church instructs us to be stalwart in our belief that the Church is our authority in matters of faith and morals. The Second Vatican Council, for instance, affirms this:

The bishops, teaching in communion with the Roman Pontiff, are to be respected by all as witnesses to divine and Catholic truth. In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent. This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking. (Lumen Gentium, 25)

Accordingly, what Leo XIII and Pius X taught is reaffirmed by John Paul II in two of his encyclicals, namely Solicitudo Rei Socialis and Veritatis Splendor.  He writes:

[The Church's social doctrine] therefore belongs to the field, not of ideology, but of theology and particularly of moral theology. (Solicitudo Rei Socialis, 41; cf. Veritatis Splendor 99)

And even Canon Law has codified this principle:

[T]he Church has the right always and everywhere to proclaim moral principles, even in respect of the social order, and to make judgments about any human matter in so far as this is required by fundamental human rights or the salvation of souls. (Code of Canon Law 747,2)

Thus, we rightly conclude that the Church’s social doctrine is binding on all Catholics, and that, accordingly, all Catholics ought to begin their political reflections not from antecendently determined political commitments but from the authoritative principles of the Catholic Church. Indeed, one’s conversion to the Catholic faith likely entails foregoing one’s political positions and not merely modifying one’s political position.

These preliminary considerations lead us directly into Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical, Caritas in Veritate. Benedict XVI ties the Church’s social teaching to the truth of faith, at once extinguishing the notion that social doctrine is merely an annex to Catholic doctrine:

For this reason the Church searches for truth, proclaims it tirelessly and recognizes it wherever it is manifested. This mission of truth is something that the Church can never renounce. Her social doctrine is a particular dimension of this proclamation: it is a service to the truth which sets us free. Open to the truth, from whichever branch of knowledge it comes, the Church’s social doctrine receives it, assembles into a unity the fragments in which it is often found, and mediates it within the constantly changing life-patterns of the society of peoples and nations. (Caritas in Veritate 9)

In fact, Benedict XVI ventures to describe social doctrine as the “social Magisterium of the Popes” (ibid., 12), making explicit both the authoritativeness of the doctrine and its place among the faith and morality of Catholicism.  This is a very unconventional way of describing Catholic social teaching, underlining its connection to the authentic teaching authority of the Church.  Moreover, Benedict XVI dispels the myth that there are differences and discontinuity in the papal social encyclical tradition.  One such myth is that the teachings of Pope John XXIII and Pope Paul VI were in some way socialist in spirit, unlike the social teachings of their predecessors and successors.  Another is that John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus marked a break in papal social teaching in favor of free market economics.  Benedict XVI puts to rest any such hermeneutic of discontinuity:

In this sense, clarity is not served by certain abstract subdivisions of the Church’s social doctrine, which apply categories to Papal social teaching that are extraneous to it. It is not a case of two typologies of social doctrine, one pre-conciliar and one post-conciliar, differing from one another: on the contrary, there is a single teaching, consistent and at the same time ever new. It is one thing to draw attention to the particular characteristics of one Encyclical or another, of the teaching of one Pope or another, but quite another to lose sight of the coherence of the overall doctrinal corpus. (ibid., 12)

Perhaps even more forcefully, Benedict XVI declares that Catholic social teaching issues from, and is essential to, the evangelical mission of the Church itself received directly from Jesus Christ:

Testimony to Christ’s charity, through works of justice, peace and development, is part and parcel of evangelization, because Jesus Christ, who loves us, is concerned with the whole person. These important teachings form the basis for the missionary aspect of the Church’s social doctrine, which is an essential element of evangelization. The Church’s social doctrine proclaims and bears witness to faith. It is an instrument and an indispensable setting for formation in faith. (ibid., 15)

We see now why a social encyclical bears the title “Love in Truth.”  The synergy of truth and charity is the heart of the encyclical, which is why the Introduction is its most important section.  In the Introduction, Benedict XVI tells us that Truth is communicated through charity, and truth is made compelling and authentic in the social exercise of charity.    Truth, in other words, is made credible within the context of socially practiced love for one another (ibid., 2).  Our social life ought to shine forth the evidential quality of the truth of the Gospel.

The Church proclaims the Truth–the Word–made flesh, and one aspect of this Truth is how human beings are to live together as “one human family” in its social, political, and economic dimensions (ibid., 7).  Caritas, Benedict XVI tells us, is nothing other than God’s “grace,” and the primary instrument of God’s grace is the Church. Moreover, as the entire Introduction of the encyclical proclaims, charity extends into every dimension of human life, including the economic, political, and cultural spheres. By identity, then, grace–the province of the Church–is involved in human social life.  Furthermore, the Church’s teaching and guidance is not only the primary guide with respect to life of faith, but also with respect to social life in its multifarious dimensions:

“Caritas in veritate” is the principle around which the Church’s social doctrine turns, a principle that takes on practical form in the criteria that govern moral action.(ibid, 6)

There is no strict separation, therefore, between faith and political or economic life. Why? Because grace extends to every corner and crevice of humanity’s affairs.  Grace is the “principle driving force behind the authentic development of eveyr person and all humanity” (ibid., 1).  This is why the Church’s teaching is requisite for the conduction of genuine and humanitarian social projects of development, which typically bear political and economic forms.  We dismiss, neglect, or minimize the Church’s social teaching, epecially that of the papal encyclical tradition, at our own peril.

More forcefully than any of his predecessors has Pope Benedict XVI insisted on the authoritative message of the Church for social, political, and economic life.  And so we have an answer to our initial question as to the reasons a Catholic would care about this encyclical.  Papal social teaching proceeds from the heart of the Church–from caritas.  A Catholic is called to be a witness to the truth and love of God Father in Jesus Christ through his/her social life.  Benedict XVI, invoking and expanding the teachings of his predecessors, has forged for us a way to love our neighbor in truth today.

12 Responses leave one →
  1. 2009 July 7

    “There is no strict separation, therefore, between faith and political or economic life.” And this is a point which Pope Benedict, I am sure, would make if asked; it’s part of the advance of Lubac to realize the dualism cannot be sustained.

  2. 2009 July 7
    M.J. Andrew permalink


    You’ve anticipated tomorrow’s post, which will be about what I read in the encyclical as the final vindication of Henri de Lubac’s theology of nature and grace.

  3. 2009 July 7
    Joe Hargrave permalink

    Thank you for reminding us of the authoritative foundations of Catholic social thought.

    I look forward to the rest of this series.

  4. 2009 July 7


    Well, it’s on my mind, as I work on my dissertation; today I’ve been writing on Balthasar’s study of Barth, and Lubac’s synthesis has a key part in it all. So, it’s just natural right now. Of course, I’ve also through this work seen how Balthasar differs from Lubac, as Milbank points out. I wonder which direction Benedict follows? Maybe your post will enlighten me :)

  5. 2009 July 7
    MJAndrew permalink

    I wonder which direction Benedict follows? Maybe your post will enlighten me :)

    It’s been awhile since I read Milbank’s The Suspended Middle in which draws out that contrast. Shooting from the hip, I think Pope Benedict XVI follows de Lubac more closely on nature/grace than Balthasar (though, of course, Balthasar works with de Lubac’s insight), though I would qualify this in saying that it seems that the former is drawing more from the latter’s Catholicism and the essay, “Internal Causes of the Weakening and Disappearance of the Sense of the Sacred,” rather than de Lubac’s more developed position in the The Mystery of the Supernatural.

  6. 2009 July 7

    Balthasar does an interesting twist with it all, which shows his ability to appreciate Rahner: he says philosophy, because it deals with the sphere of experience, will always reflect the work of grace with nature, even if they do not know this; on the other hand, however, a theologian can reflect upon nature outside of grace, which then allows for Rahner’s point to be made, that pure nature, while not an actual reality, is a possible one to reflect.

    Of course, Lubac would defend Rahner to Balthasar on the notion of the anonymous Christians, so it’s all good.

  7. 2009 July 8
    Legion of Mary permalink

    MJ Andrew,

    Can you tell me what you think of Populorum Progressio?

  8. 2009 July 9
    Anonymous permalink


    I think it is always helpful to flesh out this out more. It is my view that in the same document you have different levels of binding teaching and authority.

    Now this has real honest day to day implications for spreading the faith of the Church. For instance today I am still seeing a very simplistic viewpoint of the Pope’s comments on the “world poltical authority” What if a Catholic Poltician hates the UN and wants us out? Is he disobedient? Should he be sanctioned?

    Should a Baptist Rice farmer that thinks Federal Subsidies are need for livelhood for his product be denied entry into the CHurch if he is a vocal proponent of it.. Sould a coroprate head that is outsourcing his companies to other countries feel less Cathlolic?

    Now I think a fairly observant Catholic in good faith can discern what is the general teaching and strong suggestions. Still other may not.

    I would hate to think someone might not enter the Church because they have a mistaken belief they have to get behind the UN, or the world monetary fund, etc etc

    • 2009 July 9

      For instance today I am still seeing a very simplistic viewpoint of the Pope’s comments on the “world poltical authority” What if a Catholic Poltician hates the UN and wants us out? Is he disobedient? Should he be sanctioned?

      I think we might make a distinction between the need for a world political authority (which is the logical conclusion of the encyclical’s analysis of the role of politics in the market) and one specific, possible instantiation of that authority (e.g., the UN). Obviously, a world political authority only makes sense with respect to a global market, so in the absence of the latter there is no need for the former (according to Benedict XVI). But in our current historical situation, there is a global market. It seems to me that the encyclical commends (and does not command) the existence of the U.N. and recognizes it as the most viable option that we currently have to play the role of world political leader. In your scenario, a Catholic who is part of the U.N. and then leaves the U.N., yet remains a political leader in some capacity, ought to work to construct another body that can serve as a juridical framework for the global market. In sum, the U.N. is not the only possible option according to the encyclical, but the encyclical does seem to be clear that some world-governing option is necessary.

      As for sanctioning a Catholic politician who, say, works against the world political leader (whatever it may be), I think no sanction is needed. Just as I am not really sanctioned by the Church when I fail to live up to other commitments (works of mercy, strong prayer life, keeping all commandments), I don’t think an outright sanction is necessary. However, if the person openly criticizes the Pope’s teaching and attempts to subvert it, then we have quite a different ballgame. But if we are talking only about a person who fails to embrace the need for a world political leader to check the global market, I would say that he/she is simply not living their Catholicism in its totality.

      The prime objection is, of course, the corruption that can occur in governing bodies. But that happens at the local and national levels already. Corruption or inefficiency does not give a Catholic license to subvert government. This seems like it would apply to a world political body. Now, resistance to gross abuses of human dignity and life are, of course, a different story.

      These are just some thoughts, shooting from the hip. I intend to write a post about this world political body in the coming days after I have digested the encyclical a little more. I think the important thing is to remember that the encyclical notes well that there is no such thing as a “pure market,” which means every market must be regulated by some type of juridical body if it is to be imbued with distributive justice and the logic of gift. This does not mean that a political body will guarantee this, but only that the market that is unchecked by political governance will not produce true freedom and equity. The Pope expands this principle to the global market when he talks about a world political leader.

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