When “Catholic Social Teaching” Becomes a Golden Calf


Over at The Catholic Thing, Robert Royal was kind enough to print my essay questioning whether there really is an official Catholic ideology, complete with policy mandates (such as open borders, a massive welfare state, etc.), that we can draw from authoritative Church statements. Or have Church statements on politics and economics been so all over the map, and so manifestly fallible, that we have to use our own intellects to apply in the real world the broad, natural law principles that popes (among others) have cited? In other words, does the “Social Magisterium” even exist? Or is it a golden calf?

Please check it out, and chime in if you’re so moved. And if you agree, please spread the word among your fellow faithful Catholics, who might be misled by ideologues who are helping the Church’s enemies in America.

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  1. The truth is that Catholic Social Teaching, as presently constituted, is largely an invention of the very late nineteenth century and the last century. Even within that time period, popes contradict each other on specific policy questions, for example the death penalty. The Church has been around for 20 centuries and experienced in that time every regime and economic system devised by man. Policy prescriptions given by Popes and councils in most areas differ wildly over that very long time period. One example is Saint Paul’s “those who do not work should not eat” compared to the Welfare State that is embraced by contemporary Catholics on the left, and by some popes. Pretending that such pronouncements, that are obviously products of culture and history, are at the core of Catholicism is to miss the point of the Faith: Timeless revelation about God given us by God Himself.

  2. Bingo:

    “Most importantly, the defenders of a Catholic political ideology perform a bait and switch. They claim that the Church’s guidance on politics and economics is clear, consistent, and binding in conscience when they’re trying to use it to win contemporary arguments. Then when you challenge them, they resort to excruciatingly subtle distinctions which, if true, render the Church’s teaching consistent at the cost of being virtually a secret. Pius IX REALLY opposed chattel slavery (as we know from a private letter) even though his Holy Office allowed for slaves to be “be sold, bought, exchanged or given.” Vatican II REALLY does not allow for religious liberty in the sense that the world took it, and is somehow secretly compatible with locking up Protestants–despite everything that Popes Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI said about religious freedom, and the language of the Catechism itself. It’s SECRETLY coherent with “error has no rights,” which we’re happy to explain to you if you read our blogs. In the meantime, if the pope Tweets about letting the Muslims into Europe, that might well be the “spirit-led Magisterium at work.” Or maybe the explanation is…secret.

    If anything would discredit the Church, it would be such an inflation of her claims to the point where they are indefensible by any honest means, and ludicrous to any outside observer.”

  3. Charity is decidedly assessed by the giver. Any government intervention to the virtue of charity for the people must be put on the ballot to hear the will of the people governed. The sovereign person, rich and poor, constitute the government and the sovereign person’s will is what the government shall be.
    The church cannot dictate charity or demand of the governed. An invitation to or request for charity may be made. However the will of the people who know their pocketbook, after tithing, remains to be put on the ballot.
    During World War II, the Vatican took in the Jews and asked anyone who could take in the Jews to help and many did. Those who could, did. Those who could not, did not.
    St. Peter gave what he had when he healed the man.

  4. I happen to believe in the “two kingdoms doctrine”.

    Laws to run the government need to be separate from what the church does in proclaiming God’s law …and His gospel.

    NO POLITICAL GOSPELS! (sorry for yelling…but nobody listens to me anyway)

  5. It would be nice if the Church got back in the holiness business full time. The Church’s responsibility is to get folks from here to eternal life by helping folks love God and neighbor through the sacraments, instruction and example. If the Church would focus on this nothing else would be necessary.

  6. The Old Adam: “I happen to believe in the “two kingdoms doctrine”.
    Laws to run the government need to be separate from what the church does in proclaiming God’s law …and His gospel.
    NO POLITICAL GOSPELS! (sorry for yelling…but nobody listens to me anyway)”
    We, the people have God. When the burden becomes to great, we put the problem into God’s hands and implore the Sacred Heart of Jesus for Divine Providence in the same way our Founding Fathers did in the Declaration of Independence. “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”
    The church and the state are separate kingdoms, but very often the same virtues and principles are required to effect the common good. John Henry Cardinal Newman said: “It in no way depends upon the caprice of the Pope, or upon his good pleasure, to make such and such a doctrine, the object of a dogmatic definition. He is tied up and limited to the divine revelation, and to the truths which that revelation contains. He is tied up and limited by the Creeds, already in existence, and by the preceding definitions of the Church. He is tied up and limited by the divine law, and by the constitution of the Church. Lastly, he is tied up and limited by that doctrine, divinely revealed, which affirms that alongside religious society there is civil society, that alongside the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy there is the power of temporal Magistrates, invested in their own domain with a full sovereignty, and to whom we owe in conscience obedience and respect in all things morally permitted, and belonging to the domain of civil society.”
    It is the responsibility of each and every person to insure that the government remains the servant of the people and that the Church is the servant of God.

  7. I was intrigued by Dr. Zmirak’s original post, however I must also say that its great weakness is its imprecision. Given that we are speaking here on matters of Church doctrine, it was unclear what Dr Zmirak means or intends to mean when he speaks of Catholic Social Teaching as a ‘golden calf’:

    1) Does he mean all the papal encyclicals on social doctrine since Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum and the fundamental principles which they teach are a ‘golden calf’? For example does he mean believing in and teaching such a foundational social doctrine principle as the dignity of the human person is worshiping a golden calf?

    2) Does he mean that elaboration of those principles in order to both explain and show their connection with ‘issues’ in the world are the ‘golden calf’? Does he mean, for example, that the Church taking its foundational social doctrine principle of the dignity of the human person and applying it to such issues as abortion, euthanasia or, yes, human slavery is wrong- worshiping a golden calf?

    3) Does he mean that those who apply the social doctrine of the Church in certain applications, for example: the Church’s general principle of care for the sick, elderly etc based on both the dignity of the human person [first principle of Catholic social teaching] and the Gospel exhortation to care for the sick-now applied to such legislation as Obamacare

    If he means the first two I could never accept his premises for they fly directly in face of the magisterium of the Church. If he means the third, then that is a different issue. One does not have to accept etc Obamacare as the correct application of the principle of the dignity of the human person vis a vis health care. [There are in fact many ways in which Obamacare contradicts the social doctrine of the Church] What needs to be maintained is the connection between the dignity of the human person and health care.

    However, I saw a further confusion or lack of clarity. I was left with the impression that Dr Zmirak has even greater questions etc concerning the teaching of the Church. I would bring forward two

    Dr Zmirak seems to take the position of many in the so called progressive camp, such as Noonan, who state that in fact there is discontinuity in the Church’s moral teachings on many given issues. While Noonan and Zmirak would differ on such issues as contraception they seem (if I am reading Dr Zmirak correctly) that there is discontinuity in the Church’s moral teaching, and in fact contradictions. That despite the case of many Catholic theologians proving precisely the opposite, such as Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman and Avery Cardinal Dulles. If the Church has indeed contradicted herself in her teachings [not policies or opinions etc] in matters of Faith and Morals then the Holy Spirit is no longer guiding the Catholic Church-if the Spirit guided the Church at all, ever-see that is indeed the only alternative to the maintenance of the Church in the Truth of Christ in the Spirit [infallibility]

    However, I heard, another even more radical question-can the Church teach on any moral issue? Is the Church capable of teaching in any and all moral issues.

    Dr Zmirak’s post was great to get discussion going, but I must say, I didn’t find much substantial light in it

  8. Thanks, Botolph, for raising worthy questions. Let me be very simple and clear: I believe that the Church has the authority to teach on moral issues, using both the ordinary and the extraordinary magisterium. However, when it comes to the specific applications of morality to political and economic institutions, I do not think that there has been sufficient consistency to merit the belief that the ordinary magisterium applies to such applications. For instance, the Church’s vision of human dignity is a crucial doctrine, which has been upheld in the abstract with great consistency. But the applications have been sufficiently inconsistent to convince me that the ordinary magisterium cannot be said to have spoken–or else it would have spoken in favor of slavery in certain cases for many centuries, and then against it under any circumstances. Likewise, one cannot honestly reconcile the statements of many popes about the duty of Catholic rulers to suppress heresy with the assertions of Dignitatis Humanae. Rather than say that the Church is thereby discredited, or pretend that irreconcilable positions can be reconciled, it seems to me the only solution is to recognize the limited extent of the ordinary magisterium, to see that it has not historically functioned in the application of Christian principles to political and economic institutions. We must listen to papal and conciliar statements on politics and economics, and try our best to accept them–but when they seem to contradict natural law, we need not grant them religious assent.

    So on the issue of religious liberty: I AGREE with Vatican II’s teaching (and under no circumstances would accept coercion of “heretics”, which I believe is demonstrably evil) but I cannot cite Vatican II as giving it the weight of the ordinary magisterium, since it does not stand in continuity with previous Church teaching. Likewise with slavery, torture, etc. These issues COULD be resolved by conciliar or papal exercise of the extraordinary magisterium, of course.

    The “golden calf” of which I spoke is the notion that there is a clear, self-consistent Catholic ideology of economics and government that can be drawn from the statements of the ordinary magisterium, to which Catholics must give religious assent–and a “spirit-led” magisterium that we can discern in papal statements about particular issues, from poverty to immigration.

    I hope that’s clear and correct!

  9. Donald R McClarey wrote, “Catholic Social Teaching, as presently constituted, is largely an invention of the very late nineteenth century”
    Or, to put it another way, after the loss of the Temporal Power.
    When the popes still ruled
    “Over fields without harvest or culture,
    Over hordes without honour or love”
    ruled, that is, over famished and sullen wretches, kept in check by Austrian or French bayonets, they, even they, had more wit than to invite the derision of nations, by lecturing governors and governed on “Universal Brotherhood,” the “Rights of Man,” the “Dignity of Labour,” or the “Just Wage.”

  10. Interesting to re-read Exodus 32. The calf is cast from collective gold, when Moses is late coming down from the mountain. Don’t know if the gold was freely given or coerced. 😉

    I envision Nancy Pelosi encouraging others to throw their gold into the baskets, and, when the calf is cast, draping one of her Hermes scarves around its neck before retiring to one of her several tents set up on the outskirts of the encampment, away from all the noise and confusion.

    The comments at The Catholic Thing seem to focus on the question of what can/cannot change, which requires defining change, and whether there is any economic or political decision which is not reducibly moral and so not affected by instruction from the deposit of faith.

    I read the Dulles review of Noonan’s book. Some euphemisms for change are: clarification, development, progression, discernment, and nuancing.

    If I follow Mr. Zmirak, he is warning people who think CST can change – for the better, always, in the sense of an organic progression towards the perfected espousal of what we start calling a Social Magisterium – that they are relying on arguments that will be used to justify more changes in more teachings. For pastoral purposes only, of course.

  11. Mr. Zmirak had to put up with an argument from the Chief Crank RadTrad, none other than Christopher Ferrara. Mr. Zmirak stood his ground. I had to laugh when Ferrara called Mr. Zmirak a “neoconservative”. “Neoconservative” is the new “n”word!

    Mr. Zmirak did an excellent job of highlighting papal and magisterial pronouncements/teachings/blatherings/etc., etc that have changed over the centuries.

  12. This is great. I was always annoyed that I had to believe in the hogwash of Lockean property rights that Rerum Novarum confuses with the natural law. What is especially helpful for Zmirak’s analysis is that, unlike the shifting positions on economics, the Church has always taught that it is wrong to have sex with your wife in unnatural positions, during her menstruation, and on Wednesdays and Fridays in Lent. (The latter being obviously deduced from the primary principles of the natural law themselves.) I am less clear on the question of aliens.

  13. Good to see you back in the comboxes WJ, and I mean that sincerely. However, a phony doc such as yourself can come up with better sarcasm than that if you put your mind to it. I realize that you are not interested in seriously addressing what Zmirak wrote, because without Catholic Social Teaching, and misinterpretations of it, to use as a shibboleth, who would give the time of day to the Catholic Left? However, if that is not going to be done, biting wit does become an essential feature of comments.

  14. John Zmirak,

    Thank you for responding to my questions/points/ concerns. I am wondering if there are two paradigms of revelation/truth at work here and that, perhaps we are talking past each other. There has been a strong and long held paradigm of Revelation as “proposition”-statements, truths, set out within Scripture and Tradition. It is so long and strong that many would consider it to be absolutely the same as Revelation itself. Its strengths are obvious. It shows the both the truth and the intellectual aspect of Revelation-faith. This paradigm cannot be denied or jettisoned without the Catholic Faith pulling apart at the seems, so to speak.

    There is however another ‘paradigm’ which Dei Verbum [Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Vatican II] put forth which denies nothing of this truth-proposition paradigm but brings it further and deeper into both the Mystery of the Blessed Trinity and Salvation History. Here, in this ‘paradigm’ God is “Being”, “Logos-Truth” and “Agape-love”. Here, in this ‘paradigm, Revelation is fundamentally God’s Revelation of Himself and His creative and saving will for mankind. There certainly are saving truths that ‘must be believed’ [as in the ‘propositional paradigm’] but the fundamental revelation is of God Himself in and through His Logos in creation (and thus Natural Law), and Salvation History-People of Israel, leading up to His full revelation of Himself in Jesus Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit. The Church then is the sacrament of the missions of the Son (Logos) and Spirit (Agape). As such She is maintained in the Truth by the Spirit and is empowered to proclaim that Truth in her Gospel Teachings [all the authoritative teachings of the Church] and communicate this new life of the Spirit in her celebration of the Sacraments.

    Now to the point. The Church has been maintained in the Truth over two thousand years but that is by no means witnessed in every statement/ proposition [Protestants have been pointing out seeming contradictions of the Church with Scripture for five hundred years] Orthodox and now some of our own Catholics have been questioning the Church’s statements/propositions as to whether they are consistent etc. As in answering Protestant objections using Scripture, the Church answers those questioning our Tradition we need to go deeper than ‘the propositions’. We are not sola traditio any more than we are sola scriptura.

    For example, when the Church was co-opted by the Roman Empire and ‘used’ to maintain the unity of the Empire [Charlemagne did the same thing later on in the 800’s], we went along with it at first and then bought into it [in the Eastern Church seemingly a bit more than in the Westerm Church] forgetting that the fusion of altar and throne as witnessed in ‘the Kingdom of Israel’ led to far more troubles than the good it effected [just ask the prophets]. This then led to the Church forgetting her own ‘salvation history’ and memory and using the power of the State to enforce both faith [faith can be coerced?] and in teaching-thus leading to the execution of heretics, witches etc. This ‘impairment’ of memory-of our tradition-was never total [in the West the Church promoted the distinction between altar and throne] but it was impaired. Therefore, Dignitatis Humanae [Declaration on Religious Freedom is a very limited recovery of the deeper tradition-memory of the Church [I say very limited because it did not say or promote much of what people commonly think it did]

    Our memory-tradition goes back to a People who began their journey in the Exodus, slaves who were liberated by our redeeming/liberating God. While Israel had to be reminded of this constantly this by both the torah-covenant tradition and the prophets’ proclamations. When the Apostolic Church encountered the very real institution of human slavery, it sought not to take it on as a project to overthrow etc but to transform it from within. We see this in the various Letters, but most especially Paul’s Letter to Philemon. Paul did not get into the institution of slavery but instead focused on the new creation-relationship Philemon had with Onesimus his runaway slave.. They were now brothers and needed to treat each other as such. How can slavery exist in a truly familial-communio bond? That Christians and even Church hierarchy would forget this memory-tradition over the centuries is a sad commentary on hardened hearts and the lack of real substantial conversion. It was never totally forgotten. We were maintained in the truth. However, we regained the fuller memory-tradition in encountering the question concerning ‘slavery’ from the world.

    You mentioned in your earlier post the issue of ‘usury’ paying interest. It was part of the Torah and prophetic traditions that was handed down unquestioned for centuries. However, by the Middle Ages, with the transformation of the economy of Europe, new questions were raised. In fact, the Middle Ages mark the beginning of capitalism, the middle class and a cultural revolution concerning the economy much like the present day sexual revolution. While the Church, in response, allowed a very limited use of ‘paying interest’, what is more intriguing is the memory-tradition as it was incarnated in the Franciscan movement, a movement that sought to counter the rising infant capitalism of the day. While there were, in later years, some extreme elements of the Franciscan movements [the Spiritualists] the Franciscan movement kept alive the memory-tradition in the midst of the vast cultural revolution of the time which led to the much larger cultural revolution of the Renaissance and the beginning of the Modern era. It is this memory-tradition as applied to workers, the economy and other related subjects which now have been promulgated in the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church.

    I believe we are in the midst of deepening our understanding etc of our memory-tradition in terms of sexuality, marriage and family as well as in ecology (both of nature and human ecology). Certainly Saint John Paul’s theology of the body has contributed to this greatly but it still needs to be unpacked.

    I know this has been long Dr Zmirak but I hope it has helped in furthering this discussion

  15. Thanks, Botolph–you have indeed furthered (and considerably deepened) the discussion. My goal is NOT to diminish the Church’s authority or credibility, but rather to protect them by distinguishing the papal office from that of an oracle, Party headquarters, or pretender-in-waiting to secular authority.

  16. In Vix Pervenit, his encyclical on usury, Pope Benedict XIV, perhaps the greatest canonist to occupy the Chair of St Peter, used language that could be applied to many disputed questions:-

    “Some trust in their own strength and knowledge to such an extent that they do not hesitate to give answers to those questions which demand considerable knowledge of sacred theology and of the canons. But it is essential for these people, also, to avoid extremes, which are always evil. For instance, there are some who judge these matters with such severity that they hold any profit derived from money to be illegal and usurious; in contrast to them, there are some so indulgent and so remiss that they hold any gain whatsoever to be free of usury. Let them not adhere too much to their private opinions. Before they give their answer, let them consult a number of eminent writers; then let them accept those views which they understand to be confirmed by knowledge and authority. And if a dispute should arise, when some contract is discussed, let no insults be hurled at those who hold the contrary opinion; nor let it be asserted that it must be severely censured, particularly if it does not lack the support of reason and of men of reputation. Indeed clamorous outcries and accusations break the chain of Christian love and give offense and scandal to the people.”

  17. Bravo! As I wrote in the original piece, most papal writings on social matters are wise, prudent, and insightful, a “digest of the best that has been written and thought” about such questions. This is a fine example.

  18. Dr Zmirak,

    Protecting the Church’s magisterium and its credibility by distinguishing the papal office from that of an oracle, ‘party headquarters’ or ‘pretender-in-waiting to secular authority-we both agree on.

    Here I think of some elements of the Ultramontanist movement (including Pope Pius IX himself, some claim) that wanted the dogma of papal infallibility to cover any and all statements of the pope-and on ANY subject-not simply matters of faith and morals. That element of the Ultramontanist Movement thankfully was outvoted at Vatican I. I am also reminded of Pope Pius XII who toward the end of his life and ministry thought that he should give serious talks on a whole number of subjects which were not issues of faith and morals. No harm was done, but I am not sure if it did not contribute to a certain view of the pope which is not entirely accurate. With the ministries of such men as Karol Wojtyla and Josef Ratzinger I am wondering if we have also grown accustomed to and expect popes to be alter egos to Augustine and Aquinas (neither of whom were popes).

    Those ordained to the episcopal office (bishops, cardinals and popes) can set themselves up and or be set up by overly enthusiastic (or overly critical) faithful so that ‘every word’ they utter is, as you say, like an oracle. That’s not their mission, ministry, charism or capability. It is also why we need to carefully approach statements, teachings etc and see them within the much wider and deeper Catholic Tradition using the hermeneutic of continuity

  19. Botolph

    Popes have traditionally been reticent in their public pronouncements. Encyclicals began with Benedict XIV (1740-1758) and were comparatively rare for a century after that.

    Magisterial pronouncements tended to consist of the condemnation of certain propositions, without reasons or explanation. As Bl John Henry Newman explains, “As to the condemnation of propositions all she [the Church] tells us is, that the thesis condemned when taken as a whole, or, again, when viewed in its context, is heretical, or blasphemous, or impious, or whatever like epithet she affixes to it. We have only to trust her so far as to allow ourselves to be warned against the thesis, or the work containing it. Theologians employ themselves in determining what precisely it is that is condemned in that thesis or treatise; and doubtless in most cases they do so with success; but that determination is not de fide; all that is of faith is that there is in that thesis itself, which is noted, heresy or error, or other like peccant matter, as the case may be, such, that the censure is a peremptory command to theologians, preachers, students, and all other whom it concerns, to keep clear of it. But so light is this obligation, that instances frequently occur, when it is successfully maintained by some new writer, that the Pope’s act does not imply what it has seemed to imply, and questions which seemed to be closed, are after a course of years re-opened.”

    In short, they were careful not to trespass on the proper sphere of the theologians and tended to keep their opinions (as opposed to their definitive judgments) to themselves.

  20. The social teaching of the Catholic Church will always be on the side of the truly oppressed, poor, ordinary, and humble. Its teachings favor these, provide for their rights, and, when applied, protect them from the depredations of ideology, mammon, perversity, idolatry, sophistry–the rulers of this world. The Church especially gives no quarter to the ideologies of empire, libido dominandi, for she knows that the Levianthanian state, when wedded to Christian-sounding rhetoric of liberation, and especially when it plays the role of the perpetual victim of violence, poses the greatest threat to mankind’s physical, moral, and spiritual good. The ideologies of empire are masterful at including enough moral and Gospel sounding half-truths to avoid detection by even the good willed.

    Thus, anyone criticizing genuine Catholic social teaching (and not tendentious interpretations of it), from whatever angle and for whatever ostensibly good reason, indicates, most fundamentally, an antagonism with its subversion and unmasking of the evils and errors of empire, particularly those evils and errors with which one has become complicit, albeit perhaps unknowingly. In this case, it looks like Zionism and American Exceptionalism.

    Of course, one can make an idol of anything, including the truth, and the author had been doing this in the past, and has recognized it, as he says.

    But in light of this and past articles, it seems to me that he has swung too far and has run up against another idol, one, I think, that is worse.

  21. “The social teaching of the Catholic Church will always be on the side of the truly oppressed, poor, ordinary, and humble.”

    As a factual statement that simply isn’t correct.

    “The Church especially gives no quarter to the ideologies of empire, ”

    Actually the Church and many empires have often worked hand in hand down through the centuries.

    “The ideologies of empire are masterful at including enough moral and Gospel sounding half-truths to avoid detection by even the good willed.”

    Empires come in all shapes and sizes and some have largely been forces for good and some have been waking nightmares.

    “Thus, anyone criticizing genuine Catholic social teaching (and not tendentious interpretations of it), from whatever angle and for whatever ostensibly good reason, indicates, most fundamentally, an antagonism with its subversion and unmasking of the evils and errors of empire, particularly those evils and errors with which one has become complicit, albeit perhaps unknowingly. In this case, it looks like Zionism and American Exceptionalism.”

    Rubbish, although I do enjoy the obligatory “blame the Joos” throw away reference to Zionism. By your argument you insulate CST from any critique which is a foolish and self defeating position for an adherent of any idea to put forward. The idea that CST is by definition anti-empire is merely your point of view. So you erect a straw man and then ipse dixit say that no one can critique an idea because of the straw man you erected.

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