Wilfred McClay writes the following in “The Catholic Moment in American Social Thought”:
The more general interest in Catholic social teaching has come, perhaps not entirely coincidently, at a moment when the teaching authority of the church is at a low ebb, and Catholics feel free to set aside church doctrine (particularly relating to the teachings of Humanae Vitae and other aspects of human sexuality: contraception, abortion, divorce, and homosexuality) whenever it pleased them to do so. It is hard to see how the genie of self-assertion can be summoned back into the bottle. Although we still occasionally see Catholic politicians being forced to wrestle painfully and publicly with the conflicts between their faith and their secular duties, no such wrestling seems to be required anymore for lay Catholics in the conduct of their private lives. Even the most conservative Catholics now seem to carry one or two asterisks in their back pockets, to be used as self-administered dispensations whenever the painful and difficult conditions of life lead them to choose heterodoxy as an uncategorical and provisional imperative.
To do so is, of course a tacit commentary on those human frailties from which none of us is exempt. But it is also a commentary on the relative weakness of the church’s teaching authority. It is an enormous paradox that as the fullness of the church’s social teaching message has waxed, the respectfulness and attentiveness of its audience has waned. When Catholic social teaching is proposed in general terms, emphasizing the dignity of the human person, the common good, subsidiarity, peacemaking, care for the poor, and the like, everyone applauds because it is so enormously attractive — more attractive, one might argue, that most of the secular alternatives on offer. When such teaching begins to be applied to concrete social, economic, and political issues, however, it quickly becomes the case that Catholics insist on making up their own minds no matter what the interpreters of Catholic social teaching have to say, and the seemless fabric is soon rendered into a thousand pieces. (152-53 from Catholics in the American Century: Recasting Narratives of U.S. History, ed., R. Scott Appleby and Cathleen Sprows Cummings, Cornell University Press)
I would add to Bill’s astute observation that the failure here is not simply the Church’s teaching authority — the audacity of the papacy to the contrary. It is also what happens to Christianity in a voluntary church setting, that is, one where the magistrate is backing up the church’s authority. But it does seem that the church (Roman Catholic and Protestant) has an asterisk that can rival any church member’s — that is, one’s eternal destiny. If belonging to a church and heeding its teaching matters to one’s eternal state, then a church all of a sudden has authority that no earthly power has. The question then is whether Roman Catholic social teaching is doing enough to remind people of their sin and need for a savior, or is it a way to affirm the dignity of all people — even sinners.
That may be the biggest change of all in Rome’s teaching authority. If I have as great a chance of finding human dignity outside the church as inside it, or if I have as good a chance of going to heaven by being a Protestant as by joining the Roman Catholic Church, then the incentives to listen to Rome diminish.