Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Church's Social Doctrine: And Now for Something Completely Different

THE CHURCH'S SOCIAL DOCTRINE presents itself as a thing utterly unique, a "category unto itself." It is not a political or social theory. It is not a political ideology, such as democracy or communism. It is not an economic ideology, such as capitalism or Marxism. It is not a social science in the manner that anthropology, sociology, or economics, or political science might be. It is not a product of culture, custom, or taste, of what Associate Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes called "can't helps." It transcends all those human categories.

The Church's social doctrine is above and beyond ideology, empirical science, and cultural norms. It bursts forth into man's world as a branch of theology, particularly moral theology, and it confronts us in our time and in our place much like Moses was confronted by a burning bush. But that social doctrine has not sprung forth like Athena fully formed from the head of Zeus; rather, it has developed and shall continue to develop as it confronts new things, new contingencies, "over the course of time, through numerous interventions of the Magisterium on social issues." (Compendium, No. 72) It is nevertheless, at germ, in its "permanent nucleus"--its "principles of reflection," its "criteria of judgment," its "directives for action," and most fundamentally, its "vital link with the Gospel of the Lord"--constant, immutable, and irreformable. This permanent nucleus, "moves through history without being conditioned by history or running the risk of fading away." (Compendium, No. 85) It is immutable because it participates in the eternal law of God himself, and it is deeply embedded in our very created nature which, as St. Thomas Aquinas reminds us, participates in that eternal law.

While the Church's social doctrine, in its essentials, is unchanging, one must not harbor the impression that it is closed to new things and unadaptable. The Church's social doctrine is not like the Islamic Shari'a, once set and incapable of change. Unlike Islam, it does not drag into the 21st century the 7th century carcass and burial shrouds of Bedouin morality--which easily accommodated itself to polygyny, slavery, low regard for women, divorce, child brides, animal sacrifice, and violence, and senseless ablution and prayer ritual. Unlike the Shari'a of Islam, where the gates of ijtihad or judgment are now closed and the most liberal cannot seem to open with incurring the wrath of his fellow Muslims, the Church's social doctrine is open to all things new:

Standing firm in its principles does not make [the Catholic social doctrine] a rigid teaching system, but a Magisterium capable of opening itself to new things, without having its nature altered by them. It is a teaching that is "subject to the necessary and opportune adaptations suggested by the changes in historical conditions and by the unceasing flow of the events which are the setting of the life of people and society. . . . Mother and Teacher, the Church does not close herself off nor retreat within herself, but is always open, reaching out to, and turned toward man, whose destiny of salvation is her reason for being.

Compendium, Nos. 85-86 (quoting John Paul II, Sollicitudo rei socialis, 3)

In his book Ideas Have Consequences, Richard M. Weaver speaks of the need of a "metaphysical dream," an underlying foundation behind reason. The Church's social doctrine may be said to be a "meta-ethical dream," an underlying foundation behind morality, one, moreover, whose truth is guaranteed by Christ inasmuch as it is anchored in Christ, the Christ who is himself God.

Unlike ideologies which it rejects as tendentious, or customs which it views as superficial, or human law which is based upon human enforcement, the Church's social doctrine directs itself to the human conscience, and so is found "at the crossroads where Christian life and conscience come into contact with the real world." (Compendium, No. 73) It speaks the words of faith, but it also speaks the words of reason, for both of these are the stuff that feeds the jawbones of conscience. For that reason, Papal encyclicals that deal with social doctrine are addressed to "men of good will" in addition to Christ's faithful.
Besides being destined primarily and specifically to the sons and daughters of the Church, her social doctrine also has a universal destination . . . . It is to all people--in the name of mankind, of human dignity which is one and unique, and of humanity's care and promotion of society--to everyone in the name of the one God, Creator and ultimate end of man, that the Church's social doctrine is addressed.

(Compendium, No. 84)

Giotto: Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount

Since it directs itself to the conscience of all human persons, the Church's social doctrine shares in the tools of conscience, and it provides foundations, norms, and and applications of those norms to contingent circumstances. It has, according to the Compendium, a foundational level which is concerned with "motivations," a directive level concerned with the "norms for life in society," and a deliberative level which is concerned with the application of "objective and general norms in concrete an particular social situations." (Compendium, No. 73) "With her social doctrine, the Church does not attempt to structure or organize society," and that is not her role. Rather, with her social doctrine, the Church seeks to "appeal to, guide, and form consciences" in the way man ought to live with man. (Compendium, No. 81)

The bedrock foundation of the Church's social doctrine is the word of God, that is to say, biblical Revelation and the Tradition of the Church. It therefore rests ultimately on Faith. It is this which allows the Church to understand man's dignity and his end: "Before anything else and above everything else is God's plan for the created world and, in particular, for the life and destiny of men and women, called to Trinitarian communion." (Compendium, No. 74)

Yet it would be wrong to deny its universality because of its fundamentally confessional character that Jesus Christ is Lord: "Being centered on the mystery of Christ . . . does not weaken or exclude the role of reason and hence does not deprive the Church's social doctrine of rationality or . . . universal applicability." (Compendium, No. 75) In fact, saying that Jesus Christ is Lord is the most human of all acts, for it is that very reason that man exists.

Though the Church's social doctrine unapologetically relies on faith, it does not reject, much less contradict reason. By no means. "Faith," especially that "faith leading to practical action," "effectively interacts with reason," "is structured by reason," and "makes use of every contribution that reason has to offer." Therefore the Church's social doctrine "brings 'fides et ratio' together and is an eloquent expression of that rich relationship." "Faith and reason represent the two cognitive paths of the Church's social doctrine: Revelation and human nature." (Compendium, Nos. 74, 75)

The Catholic doctrine shuns "isms": It is neither built on fideism, nor built on rationalism, but is built on "faith and reason," fides et ratio, the two great streams of truth.

The Church's social doctrine accordingly expresses the "integral truth," that is, the complete, total, and consistent truth, "of the human person as a spiritual and corporeal being, in relationship with God, with other human beings, and with other creatures." (Compendium, No,. 75) "The intent of the Church's social doctrine, therefore, "is of the religious and moral order," and is therefore a doctrine of faithful evangelism and authentic humanism. (Compendium, No. 82) Inasmuch as any ideology departs from the Church's social doctrine by denying faith or reason, it lack integrity, and is to that extent a false, aberrant, or incomplete truth about man. Any time man lives without truth, that is a lie, it enslaves him. The Catholic social doctrine is the path given to man to authentic and perfect freedom, it is--par excellence--the true liberation of the whole man.

Since reason is a component of the Church's social doctrine, it follows that it may avail itself "of contributions from all branches of knowledge, whatever their source," and so has a particularly "interdisciplinary dimension," without thereby compromising the role of faith. From philosophy to the several empirical sciences and social sciences, none of these are to be disregarded, but all truths to be had in those disciplines embraced. (Compendium, Nos. 77-78)

The last thing Catholic social doctrine can be said to be is obscurantist, the stuff of supposed "monkish ignorance or superstition" as Jefferson, were he alive, might unfairly accuse it of being, displaying therein his own form of "ignorance or superstition" and lack of judgment based upon the arbitrary presupposition which rejects the contribution and lights of faith.

In terms of its more fundamental principles, philosophy is perhaps the most important corroborator to the Catholic social doctrine project, as it is in the language of philosophy that real-though-abstract concepts such as "person," "nature," "society," "freedom," "conscience," "ethics," "law," "justice," the "common good," "solidarity," "subsidiarity," the "State," and so forth are comprehended, are understood. But this is not to deny that the more empirical "human sciences and the social sciences" have a significant contribution to make as well. Indeed, it is impossible to know the Church's social doctrine without knowledge of political science, economics, anthropology, biology, fetology, psychology, and so forth.

The Church's social doctrine must also confront the evolution of old things or the advent of new things, which is part and parcel of human travel through history, and its truth must therefore be adapted to the contingency of time and place. For that reason it is "presented as a 'work site' where the work is always in progress, where perennial truth penetrates and permeates new circumstances, indicating paths of justice and peace." (Compendium, No. 86)

This necessary interplay between pure doctrine--the competency of the teaching Church, the ecclesia docens--and the necessary contributions of philosophy and the human and social sciences, which is outside any special competency of the Magisterium, makes the Catholic social doctrine unique in terms of being a product of the entire corpus of the Church: "The whole of the Christian community--priests, religious, and laity--participates in the formulation of this social doctrine, each according to the different tasks, charisms, and ministries found within" that community.

We are not dealing with something, to refer back to Jefferson and his letter to Roger Weightman, wherein the laity has "saddles on their backs," and there are a "favored few booted and spurred," clerics and religious, "ready to ride them legitimately by the grace of God." Rather, the image is that all members of the Church take on the easy yoke and light burden of Christ of understanding and putting into practice the Church's social doctrine, ultimately guided, to be sure, by the Church's Magisterium:

These many and varied contributions--which are themselves expression of the 'supernatural appreciation of the faith (sensus fidei) of the whole people'--are taken up, interpreted, and formed into a unified whole by the Magisterium, which promulgates the social teaching as Church doctrine. To the Church's Magisterium belongs those who have received the "munus docendi," or the ministry of teaching in the areas of faith and morals with the authority received from Christ. The Church's social doctrine is not only the thought or work of qualified persons, but is the thought of the Church, insofar as it is the work of the Magisterium, which teaches with the authority that Christ conferred on the Apostles and their successors: the Pope and the Bishops in communion with him.

(Compendium, No. 79) (internal quotes from Lumen gentium, 12)

Importantly, "insofar as it is part of Church's moral teaching, the Church's social doctrine has the same dignity and authority as her moral teaching, It is authentic Magisterium, which obligates the faithful to adhere to it." (Compendium, 80) However, because of its subject matter, the Church's social doctrine necessarily results in varying weight of bindingness: "The doctrinal weight of the different teachings and the assent required are determined by the nature of the particular teachings, by their level of independence from contingent and variable elements, and by the frequency with which they are invoked." (Compendium, No. 80)

We must not expect more precision than the subject matter admits, Aristotle famously tells us in his Nicomachean Ethics.* (1094b11-17) Analogously, we should not expect more doctrinal force in Catholic social doctrine than the subject matter of Catholic social doctrine admits.

Giotto: Jesus Cleansing the Temple

The Church's social doctrine is at the service of "the human person called to salvation," and therefore "entrusted by Christ to the Church's care and responsibility." (Compendium, No. 81) Since God intends all human persons "to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth," 1 Tim. 2:4, it follows that the Church's social doctrine applies to all human persons.

Inasmuch as the Church is responsible for the care of human persons, she has both the "task of proclamation," and also the right of "denunciation." (Compendium, No. 81) The Church must needs be both rabi and navi, rabbi and prophet, teacher of morals and decrier of immorality. She sometimes takes the hortatory role of Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount, and utters benedictuses, blessed are those who do good and share their brother's burdens. At other times she takes the role of Jesus with his whip who takes after the money changers in the temple and declaims auferte ista hincs, get these sins of here!
The social doctrine also entails a duty to denounce, when sin is present: the sin of injustice and violence that in different ways moves through society and is embodied in it. By denunciation, the Church's social doctrine becomes judge and defender of unrecognized and violated rights, especially those of the poor, the least, and the weak.
(Compendium, No. 81)

*"Our discussion will be adequate if it has as much clearness as the subject-matter admits of, for precision is not to be sought for alike in all discussions, any more than in all the products of the crafts."

No comments:

Post a Comment