Some say Catholic Social Teaching is one of the Church’s best-kept secret.
I was surprised to hear that in the course I’m taking, because here in the Diocese of Salt Lake City many activities have at their core the Church’s teaching about the dignity of the human person, the common good, solidarity and subsidiarity. Without going into detail about the definitions of these words, think of Catholic Social Teaching as the theology behind how to “treat other people as God treats you.” (I’d like to lay claim to originating that thought, but I saw it as a Facebook meme that didn’t have an author attribution. It’s beautiful, though, isn’t it?)
What has surprised me is just how much there is to learn about Catholic Social Teaching. While the precepts go back to the Old Testament, the Church’s formulation of social doctrine began in 1891 with Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical “Rerum Novarum” (New Things.)
To show just how powerful that particular document is, let me just say that over the past 120 years it has been cited by numerous popes, including St. John XXIII, who called it “the Magna Carta of Catholic Social Teaching.”
Pope Leo XIII wrote “Rerum Novarum” to discuss solutions to “the misery and wretchedness pressing so heavily and unjustly at this moment on the vast majority of the working classes” that arose as the Industrial Revolution changed the economies of Europe and the United States.
The concern for the dignity of workers was also a theme in Pope Pius XI’s encyclical “Quadragesimo Anno,” which was published in 1931, at the time of the Great Depression. In other encyclicals, Pius XI also took on the evils of Communism, fascism and Nazi Germany.
In the 1960s, Pope John XXIII mourned the violence brought on by the Cold War, the Soviet Union’s Iron Curtain and China’s Cultural Revolution.
In “Mater et Magistra” he wrote, “Here is a spectacle for all the world to see: thousands of Our sons and brothers, whom We love so dearly, suffering years of bitter persecution in many lands, even those of an ancient Christian culture. And will not men who see clearly and compare the superior dignity of the persecuted with that refined barbarity of their oppressors, soon return to their senses, if indeed they have not already done so?”
Vatican II brought another seminal document on Catholic Social Teaching, “Guadium et Spes,” one that’s been referenced in almost every theology class I’ve taken because it touches on so many aspects of culture, including marriage and the family, politics and economic life.
Then along came Pope John Paul II, who wrote prolifically about the dignity of the human person, the rights of workers, the family, and moral and pastoral theology, among other themes. (I suspect an entire course could be taught on his works alone.)
Pope Benedict XVI continued to develop Catholic Social Teaching, particularly with his 2009 encyclical “Caritas in Veritate,” and our current pontiff of course is known for “Laudato Si’.”
In this context, Pope Francis’ recent declaration that the death penalty is completely unacceptable can be seen as merely the next logical step in Catholic Social Teaching. Despite the protest of some people, who inaccurately characterized Francis’ actions as an attempt to change Church doctrine, all he did in fact was merely revise the Catechism, which is Church teaching, not doctrine. (Regarding the death penalty, the Catechism had been revised once before, in 1997, to bring it in line with the teaching of John Paul II.)
All of this reinforces my experience with Church teaching as I learn more about it and attempt to apply it in real life. The death penalty, euthanasia, abortion, social services for the homeless, the expansion of Medicaid – all of these are issues on the local and national political stages, but they are not simply about politics, they are about people, and it is each individual person whom we the Church are called to serve as Christ served.
Catholic Social Teaching gives us guidelines for enacting the Golden Rule; I wonder what will be written of us in 100 years: Will we have helped advance the Kingdom of God, or will we have instead been distracted by earthly pursuits and turned away from care of our brethren and entered fully into the concerns of the world?
Marie Mischel is editor of the Intermountain Catholic.