as a way to help people understand the
seven basic themes
of Catholic Social Teaching.
Most people, if you asked them, would tell you that the Catholic Church has no recognisable social teaching and that it has very little to say about politics and political life. A lot of the lapsed Catholics would point to this fact as one of the reasons why they have left the faith and no longer practise. However, nothing could be further from the truth, because the Catholic Church has a highly developed and well thought out social policy.
The starting point for all Catholic teaching is that there is a God and that he has fully revealed himself in the person of Jesus. But this is only the starting point; from here a whole body of teaching has developed but that teaching must always stay within the bounds of overall catholic teaching.
The first thing you could ask is why social teaching is important and why the church should bother with it at all.
Social teaching is important because humanity lives under the bondage of original sin. This means that we all have a tendency to greed, lust, over ambition and pride.
The church responds to these tendencies and how they would affect the workplace by putting in place a series of social teachings.
While political parties vary their teaching to suit the budget available or to please public opinion and thus win votes, Catholic teaching is more about principles than detail. For example, the Catholic Church teaches that a worker should get a fair wage but does not specify for any country what a fair wage should be. That type of detail is left to the government of the land and the people.
Historically, countries and governments have tried to impose unreasonable burdens on people and have made the state and the law more important than the people. In the eyes of God people come before the law.
This is why the communist ideal of the party being above everything else is so abhorrent to Catholic teaching. In the capitalist countries profit is often put before people and the church finds this equally wrong.
One of the most important aspects of Catholic teaching, which used to actually be European Community policy, is that of “subsidiarity.”
The principle of subsidiarity was developed by German theologian Oswald von Nell-Breuning. Subsidiarity is an organizing principle which declares that matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralized competent authority. Political decisions should be taken at a local level if possible, rather than by a central authority and they should only move up if the decisions require larger bodies. An example of this would be that a country’s foreign policy could not be decided locally.
This principle of subsidiarity is also defined in Article 5 of the Treaty on European Union. It ensures that decisions are taken as closely as possible to the citizen and that constant checks are made to verify that action taken at European Union level is justified in light of the possibilities available at national, regional or local level.
This is a good example of where a principle, that things should be left to the local people as far as possible, is set out by Church teaching and the detail is left to the people on the ground.
Some may ask why the Church does not make definite policies about every detail of people’s lives. We in Ireland have a tendency to think that we are the centre of the Church and all that happens in it.
However, when the Church is defining what social policy should be, she has to take into account that there are over two hundred countries in the world with many different cultures and many different social backgrounds. There are also 1.3 billion Catholics. There are six fundamental areas in which the Church has attempted to guide society.
These are: Human Dignity, Community, Care for Creation, Life and Work, Peace and Solidarity.
From these principles it is easy to see how the Church in each country can then mould the social policy to meet the individual needs of the community.
The development of modern Catholic social teaching began with "Rights and Duties of Capital and Labour" (Latin name, Rerum Novarum) which was written in 1891 by Pope Leo XIII. It was an open letter, passed to all Catholic bishops, which addressed the condition of the working classes.
Europe was in the grip of the industrial revolution and the workers were leaving the land to take up work in the cities. The conditions under which many workers had to live and work were sometimes horrendous and many workers were ruthlessly exploited. It is not difficult to see how such conditions would take no account of human dignity, a fair wage and proper work conditions, the community in which the people live or of peace and justice.
Things in Europe were changing and the Pope recognised that something had to be said about the conditions under which the people were expected to work. In Rerum Novarum, Leo supported the rights of labour to form unions, rejected communism and unrestricted capitalism, whilst affirming the right to private property.
Over twenty years before the Russian revolution, the Catholic Church was able to see that communism would be an unmitigated disaster for the world. Leo realized that a country which embraced atheistic communism could not work because any country which does not have God as a moral compass is doomed to failure.
The most famous passage from Leo shows that Leo understood that market forces had to be allowed to work but that human nature can often lead to abuses. Thus capitalism must always be tempered with proper moral respect for people.
“Let the working man and the employer make free agreements, and in particular let them agree freely as to the wages; nevertheless, there underlies a dictate of natural justice more imperious and ancient than any bargain between man and man, namely, that wages ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage-earner. If through necessity or fear of a worse evil the workman accepts harder conditions because an employer or contractor will afford him no better, he is made the victim of force and injustice.”
You can see in this statement the wisdom of Catholic social teaching and what it means when it teaches principles rather than specifics. Such a principle as laid out by Leo is applicable in all places and times.
Over the next few weeks we shall look at Catholic social teaching in a little more detail.
Published in Mid Ulster Observer Newspapers, NI (April 11, 2013)