Whither Roman Catholic Social Thought

A few weeks ago I spent a week-long conference with a group of intellectual conservatives (faculty and students). Our topic was American exceptionalism. And since many of the lecturers and conferees were Roman Catholic, we heard a great deal about Roman Catholic Social Thought. A significant piece of the recent reflection by John Paul II and Benedict XVI is the dignity of the human person. Some would even say that this is the truth the church needs to communicate arguably more than any other. (I might place Christ’s death and resurrection ahead of this, but I digress.)

But not all Roman Catholics have jumped on the bandwagon of philosopher popes. Robert Royal has a good piece at the First Things blog about the weaknesses of Roman Catholic Social Thought. He takes issue with a recent talk by Reinhard Marx, archbishop of Munich and Friesing, at Georgetown University. Royal objects both to the leftist construction that Marx (I know, you can’t make this up) and to the uncritical affirmation of human dignity.

. . . there is a danger that the broad language of CST will simply provoke yawns from the secular world. Cardinal Marx, for instance, made much of the fact that Catholics believe in the infinite worth of every human being. He probably intended this to cover human life everywhere from the womb to the nursing home and the various places in between where human life is threatened today. Pope Benedict XVI, too, said recently that every human person is a gift from God, with similar overtones implied.

Nevertheless, the Church and other Christian groups should use this line sparingly and only for specific purposes. Our culture already does a pretty fair job in producing large numbers of people who think they’re God’s gift to the world. Appearing to tell them what they already think about themselves neither attracts them to Christianity nor helps overcome narcissism. Indeed, at Georgetown, some in the audience took precisely this line to as implying that we ought to get away from Catholic moralism, which actually asks something of individuals, and simply show people what a wonderfully rich “alternative”–which is to say an activist, leftist political position–Catholic social teaching supposedly represents.

I wonder if the guys over at Called to Communion ever turn from the early to the current church fathers.

36 thoughts on “Whither Roman Catholic Social Thought

  1. D.G.

    The problem of narcissism is not the result of teaching people that we are made in the image of God, and so possess greater dignity than non-rational creatures. So the solution to narcissism does not involve hiding the fact that we are made in God’s image, and so possess a great dignity. We are de-throned precisely when we understand whence our dignity comes.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

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  2. Big swing and a miss.

    This is a really good debate between Marx and Royal (and the commenters at FT) but I have no idea how you get to “But not all Roman Catholics have jumped on the bandwagon of philosopher popes.” All I see is one Catholic responding to another Catholic about what parts of Catholic Social Teaching should be emphasized, while not disagreeing with the totality of CST. Sounds pretty standard fare, especially since we Reformed folks argue about Theonomy, 2K, and sphere sovereignty in the same way.

    In the end, you have one Catholic (Marx) who seems to let “solidarity” swallow up “subsidiarity”, and one Catholic (Royal) who is annoyed that champions of the dignity of the person have unwittingly fed into Western narcissism. How is this bucking the system? Some neo-Calvinists would fault other neo-Calvinists for making the boundaries of sphere sovereignty too rigid, or maybe emphasizing one over the others (the church usually gets the short end). Religious principles have “limits,” but those aren’t “weaknesses.”

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  3. Bryan Cross: The problem of narcissism is not the result of teaching people that we are made in the image of God, and so possess greater dignity than non-rational creatures. So the solution to narcissism does not involve hiding the fact that we are made in God’s image, and so possess a great dignity. We are de-throned precisely when we understand whence our dignity comes.

    RS: How does a human being have “infinite worth” and how does a fallen human being (whose father is the devil) have great dignity? It also at least raises the question just how much dignity a non-rational creature can have. If we ask that question (dignity of non-rational creatures) of theologians from the past rather than Peter Singer (sour note), I think for the most part their reply would be far different than that of today. Here is a sermon title by a man named Jonathan (can’t say the last name because Dr. Hart gets twitches from it) from the mid-1700’s: “Wicked Men Useful in Their Destruction Only.” Perhaps a person’s value is determined in some way by what they are useful for.

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  4. Jeremy Mc., but why are RC’s talking about human dignity rather than Jesus? Someone with dignity still needs to be saved, right? Even some Roman Catholics need salvation. Does dignity get you out of purgatory?

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  5. DGH,

    Why are you writing about Sarah Palin rather than Jesus? Why are you studying history instead of Jesus? Why are you writing about Catholics instead of Jesus?

    I do think it’s a mistake to try to base one’s political philosophy on one’s anthropology, even though it’s always presupposed. The USCCB seem to want to base every policy proposal on the dignity of the human person, which I think is a mistake. That doesn’t mean one can’t seek the common good or public justice.

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  6. Jeremy M,

    It might have to do with a spirituality of the church thing, and sticking to the actual field(theology and sacraments) of your particular calling. Though with their constantinian history and breadth of ‘deposit’ they obviously don’t see the conflict. And might ‘limits’ be demarcations of competency if not ‘weakness’? That is one of the bounding considerations besides particular calling.

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  7. Jeremy, the difference might be that 2k keeps Protestants from Evangelicals and Catholics Together and The Manhattan Declaration, whereas CST brings Catholics and neo-Calvinists to them.

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  8. Jeremy Mc., I’m not a bishop so history is fair game. But are you saying your bishops aren’t following the hallowed magisterium that everyone at CTC follows?

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  9. Wow, Rome has such great communion, and it’s social teaching is a contributory factor (I’m being sarcastic). You can see an example of it between two very different people on YouTube, Pat Buchanan, Lawrence O’donell, and even the MSNBC anchor. I don’t see much TV, but I accidently found this clip on the Internet.

    The anchor said the “Catholic” social program is the foundation of the “Catholic” faith. If this is true (I don’t think it is, but this might be the case for the anchor’s faith and many Romanists), then Rome’s foundation is not built upon the apostles with Christ its chief cornerstone. Rome reminds me of the house built upon sand. People are not being called into communion, they are being called into confusion.

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  10. RS: How does a human being have “infinite worth” and how does a fallen human being (whose father is the devil) have great dignity? It also at least raises the question just how much dignity a non-rational creature can have. If we ask that question (dignity of non-rational creatures) of theologians from the past rather than Peter Singer (sour note), I think for the most part their reply would be far different than that of today. Here is a sermon title by a man named Jonathan (can’t say the last name because Dr. Hart gets twitches from it) from the mid-1700′s: “Wicked Men Useful in Their Destruction Only.” Perhaps a person’s value is determined in some way by what they are useful for.

    John Y: So, is what you are saying here Richard, that you would be an advocate for using prisoners as ginuea pigs or rats for scientific experiments? I think your own supossed internal righteousness and usefulness is going to your head. You need to read some Alexander Solzhenitzsyn novels like THE CANCER WARD and THE FIRST CIRCLE.

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  11. John Y: So, is what you are saying here Richard, that you would be an advocate for using prisoners as ginuea pigs or rats for scientific experiments? I think your own supossed internal righteousness and usefulness is going to your head. You need to read some Alexander Solzhenitzsyn novels like THE CANCER WARD and THE FIRST CIRCLE.

    RS: No need to read all that fiction, it messes with a person’s ability to discern reality. For example, I have no idea how you made the deduction from what I wrote to your question and then comment. By the way, my tongue was somewhat in my cheek in this first sentence rather than just being mean.

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  12. No need for me to comment further Richard- we are on completely different wavelengths anyways. And I thank God for it. You might want to read Wendel Berry’s “What are people for” too.

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  13. I have to comment further because this is too good to pass up. And we are talking about social issues so it is relevant. First of all, I was asking you if my interpretation to your post was accurate. My deduction was from an implication I got from your statement: “Wicked Men Useful in Their Destruction Only.” Perhaps a person’s value is determined in some way by what they are useful for.” It made me think of all those Russian novels I read many years ago. The Russian state did not value human beings very much- only if they were tauting the party line were they determined to be useful. All the rest were shipped off to the Gulag.

    Those novels were fiction based on Solzhenitszyn’s real experiences in a cancer ward and amongst the scientific intelligentsia of Russia’s “first circle.” I hope you are not serious about this sentence: “No need to read all that fiction, it messes with a person’s ability to discern reality.”

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  14. I think reading fiction is essential if we are to develop empathy for others. Sometimes when all we read is non-fiction we tend to view people as objects. I also think fiction nourishes parts of our brains that non-fiction does not.

    I cut a church some slack in doing some “social teaching” if they can get the gospel right first. In my opinion Roman Catholics, liberal Protestants, and some Refomed folk (I have the FV/NPP people in mind) need to regain this gospel focus first.

    Once you lose the gospel you try to come up with ways to justify yourself and this usually involves trying to reorder society (either inside or outside of the church).

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  15. John Yeazel 1: No need for me to comment further Richard- we are on completely different wavelengths anyways. And I thank God for it. You might want to read Wendel Berry’s “What are people for” too.

    John Yeazel 2: I have to comment further because this is too good to pass up.

    RS: John Yeazel has just demonstrated that his will is not free. John the 1st said there was no need to comment further, but then John the 2nd came along and said the had to comment. In other words, despite the fact that he did not want to comment, he had to comment. It will not be long before John will read Luther on Bondage of the Will and Edwards on his work on the will and he will come to a knowledge of the truth.

    John Yeazel: And we are talking about social issues so it is relevant. First of all, I was asking you if my interpretation to your post was accurate.

    RS: I guess I missed the questioning part and thought the question was rhetorical in light of what you said after that. But, in answer to your present question, your interpretation was quite off the mark if your interpretation can be discerned from your question and remarks.

    John Yeazel: My deduction was from an implication I got from your statement: “Wicked Men Useful in Their Destruction Only.” Perhaps a person’s value is determined in some way by what they are useful for.” It made me think of all those Russian novels I read many years ago. The Russian state did not value human beings very much- only if they were tauting the party line were they determined to be useful. All the rest were shipped off to the Gulag.

    RS: But of course the sermon title was what wicked people are useful to God for. It said nothing about how human beings are to view other people and treat them. The usefulness of men in eternity to God says nothing about how human beings are to treat them now, unless we are speaking of loving our neighbors and proclaiming the Gospel to them.

    John Yeazel: Those novels were fiction based on Solzhenitszyn’s real experiences in a cancer ward and amongst the scientific intelligentsia of Russia’s “first circle.” I hope you are not serious about this sentence: “No need to read all that fiction, it messes with a person’s ability to discern reality.”

    RS:: I am not totally serious about that, but surely you must note that people who are devoted to fiction don’t seem to have much use for reality. But again, that does not mean that all fiction is worthless, for after all, we have to read fiction (bad theology) if we are to stand for the truth.

    Below is my original post. I will try to make some remarks in it to get at the real meaning.
    RS (original post): How does a human being have “infinite worth” and how does a fallen human being (whose father is the devil) have great dignity?

    RS commenting on original post: Unregenerate human beings are in fact children of the devil. How does that give a person great dignity? Does the fact that human beings still have the vestiges of the image of God which they use in hatred of Him argue for great dignity? How can a finite being have an infinite worth? So I was getting at some comments that used these terms and trying to raise questions about them.

    RS original post: It also at least raises the question just how much dignity a non-rational creature can have. If we ask that question (dignity of non-rational creatures) of theologians from the past rather than Peter Singer (sour note), I think for the most part their reply would be far different than that of today.

    RS commenting on original post: Bryan cross said we ” have possess greater dignity than non-rational creatures.” I was simply asking what dignity a non-rational creature has. Peter Singer, on the other hand, thinks that for a human being to think that humans have more value and worth than animals is speciesm. Do animals have dignity? What does that mean? Do humans have just a little more dignity (whatever that may mean) or a lot more dignity? Bryan Cross said that “We are de-throned precisely when we understand whence our dignity comes.” Where does our dignity come? Do we have to know that we have dignity (whatever that may mean) that corresponds to an infinite worth? But again, if our dignity corresponds to our infinite worth, we must have an infinite dignity. Would that deliver us from narcissism or is it part of the problem that delivers us to narcissism?

    RS’s original post: Here is a sermon title by a man named Jonathan (can’t say the last name because Dr. Hart gets twitches from it) from the mid-1700′s: “Wicked Men Useful in Their Destruction Only.” Perhaps a person’s value is determined in some way by what they are useful for.

    RS: The idea here is contrary to the claim of the man that Dr. Hart quoted and then Bryan Cross. If we have infinite value and worth, does that mean we have a worth the same as Christ? If we have an infinite value, then does that mean we are worth saving? If we have infinite value, doesn’t that lead us to a wicked confidence before God based on the wrong thing and lead to narcissism? No, reality leads us to think of what it means to be sinners before God. Wicked men are useful to God only in their destruction and that should lead them away from narcissism to a deep repentance. If wicked men can only glorify God in their eternal destruction, then they should seek the Lord for repentance that they may glorify Him out of love both now and eternity.

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  16. Erik Charter: I think reading fiction is essential if we are to develop empathy for others. Sometimes when all we read is non-fiction we tend to view people as objects. I also think fiction nourishes parts of our brains that non-fiction does not.

    RS: Erik, these are genuine questions without any hidden fangs or claws that I am aware of. I am trying to understand your position.
    1. I have never heard your position that reading fiction is essential to developing empathy for others. When you have time, if you don’t mind, would you expound on that? Do you mean all fiction or a certain type of fiction?
    2. When you say that reading non-fiction (sometimes) can tend to lead us to viewing people as objects, do you include the Bible in that or are you speaking of science and history?
    3. You say that fiction nourishes part of our brains that non-fiction does not. Would you mind elaborating on that? Can fiction nourish parts of our souls as well.
    4. Part of the background is that a book I recently obtained, though have not read carefully all the way through, asserts that novels is one way that our views and takes of things are taken captive.

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  17. John Yeazel: Richard, You missed your calling Richard, you should have been a stand-up comedian- not!!!

    RS: But you have arrived at your conclusion through the through process of a brain that is soaked and saturated with fiction. How can I trust that you can tell the truth with all that fiction in you?

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  18. Richard,

    I would much rather fill my mind with good and classic literature than what you fill your mind with. And I would rather end up in a ditch or gutter somewhere than in the woods communing with the “spirit” or high atop some mountain flying around with the high octane spiritual eagles. Plus your semi-psuedo logician leanings are highly unattractive to me. How’s that for some hidden fangs and claws?

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  19. “In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace which He lavished on us” (Eph 1:7-8).

    God was under no obligation to redeem a people, for people are not filled with infinite value.

    Otherwise God would have been duty-bound to not only send Christ to redeem them, but duty-bound to save them all. Since “infinite value” can only be comprehended by God, His failure to rescue millions of beings of infinite value would be infinite failure.

    God’s grace can only be grace when what he does for sinners is done in spite of who they are, not because of who they are.

    Just read the Catholic theologians. Do they refer to people as “sinners,” which is to consider them biblically, or are they something vastly better whose greatest needs are affirmation? Only James 3:9 and 1 Cor. 11:7 refer to man being in the image of God in all the NT corpus. Obviously with the Fall man’s image was deeply scarred. But Catholic theology, being itself in rebellion to God, can only elevate man in order to make grace an obligation of God to all. They call it prevenient grace.

    Just read the Lord and His prophets. Do they refer to people as sinners?

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  20. John Yeazel: Richard, I would much rather fill my mind with good and classic literature than what you fill your mind with.

    RS: So you prefer all that classic literature to the Word of God?

    John Yeazel: And I would rather end up in a ditch or gutter somewhere than in the woods communing with the “spirit” or high atop some mountain flying around with the high octane spiritual eagles.

    RS: Okay, then spend your time with the buzzards and the turkeys.

    John Yeazel: Plus your semi-psuedo logician leanings are highly unattractive to me. How’s that for some hidden fangs and claws?

    RS: Yes, but Christ Himself is unattractive to people and it says nothing about Christ. What you say about classical music does not judge it, but instead it judges you. In other words, what one finds attractive or unattractive may in fact say nothing about what the person finds attractive or unattractive.

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  21. Ted Bigelow: “In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace which He lavished on us” (Eph 1:7-8).

    God was under no obligation to redeem a people, for people are not filled with infinite value.

    Otherwise God would have been duty-bound to not only send Christ to redeem them, but duty-bound to save them all. Since “infinite value” can only be comprehended by God, His failure to rescue millions of beings of infinite value would be infinite failure.

    God’s grace can only be grace when what he does for sinners is done in spite of who they are, not because of who they are.

    RS: Ahhhhh, thanks Ted for being an instrument of His sovereign glory this morning. No, I didn’t have a dramatic time when I read this, but a sense of the beauty of sovereign grace (the only kind) did come into my soul.

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  22. In arguing for the value of fiction I would point to Jesus who often used fictional stories to reveal truth. He could have spoken in the manner of a systematic theology but he didn’t. We shouldn’t underestimate the value of creativity in communicating truth.

    God Himself also chose to speak to us through narratives (historically true narratives). He could have revealed Himself in the format of a creed or catechism but He didn’t.

    My personal observation is that people who don’t read or watch fiction also tend to be a bit of a bore. I am not saying you are a bore, Richard.

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  23. Erik Charter: In arguing for the value of fiction I would point to Jesus who often used fictional stories to reveal truth. He could have spoken in the manner of a systematic theology but he didn’t. We shouldn’t underestimate the value of creativity in communicating truth.

    RS: Some would argue that Paul came close to giving a systematic theology in letter form.

    Erik Charter: God Himself also chose to speak to us through narratives (historically true narratives). He could have revealed Himself in the format of a creed or catechism but He didn’t.

    RS: So should preachers get away from the Western logical approach and use narrative forms?

    Eric Charter: My personal observation is that people who don’t read or watch fiction also tend to be a bit of a bore. I am not saying you are a bore, Richard.

    RS: So not saying it, but implying it. Ah. I guess I better dust off those Dostoevsky books.

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  24. RS: So should preachers get away from the Western logical approach and use narrative forms?

    Erik: We’re not talking about preaching. We are talking about Christians reading. I wouldn’t be opposed to a pastor telling a fictional story to illustrate a point, though.

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  25. DG,

    Again…I have no bishops, only presbyters. One might even go so far as to call me a presbyterian. In America, even.

    Jeremy MCLELLAN

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  26. Erik Charter quoting RS: So should preachers get away from the Western logical approach and use narrative forms?

    Erik: We’re not talking about preaching. We are talking about Christians reading. I wouldn’t be opposed to a pastor telling a fictional story to illustrate a point, though.

    RS: True enough the main topic was not about preaching, but if that is the way Jesus preached or taught then it might give one pause to think about it. Some native American churches have pastors who teach the Bible in stories. I have also read where some of the old Welsh preachers would do so.

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  27. Zrim,

    That’s a good point (I am not a Neo-Calvinist) but are we trying to convince Catholics to be 2K now? If that’s our criticism of the USCCB, it’s a weak one. I just doubt that it means anything for us to point out the fact that two CST-ers are arguing about which part to emphasize or on what basis to build our political philosophy.

    Jeremy “Not a Catholic” McLellan

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  28. DGH,

    How do I sound like Catholic Jeremy? I do know a lot about CST and current debates about justification, and I’ve read the Catechism of the RCC (unlike most on here) but I reject a great deal of it, including infusion and papal infallibility. But I reject what they actually teach about it, not what some think they teach about it.

    Isn’t one of the problems with these debates that we let anyone on “Team Reformed” get away with bad arguments? Then a Reformed observer, upon realizing that his team was lying about what Rome taught, may see no need to continue his Protest against a Rome that no longer exists or never existed? I see no need to misrepresent the RCC in order to reject it. If you do, you’re closer to converting than I am.

    PCA Jeremy

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  29. McJeremy, I too have read the catechism, at least parts. I need to eat an energy bar to pick it up. Memo to Rome: if you want the laity to learn it, make it shorter.

    The lies about Rome could go the other way — or at least the constructions. As I said to Jason, it is not as if Rome everywhere and all the time says what the catechism says. And it is a Reformed tick to regard Rome’s catechism the way Presbyterians (as if) treat the Shorter Catechism. Rome is not a confessional church. It is a liturgical and sacramental order. CtC is existing in a bit of a fairy land to think that Rome is what they say.

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  30. DGH,

    I think that’s more true of the Orthodox Church than the RCC, in that for the Orthodox 99% of doctrine is a reflection on liturgy/Eucharist/practice (source: Estonian ex-girlfriend) while the RCC seems to be 50/50 (source: infallible personal observation). I don’t know where we are.

    The lies do go both ways, indeed, though I’m not involved with too many Reformed ex-Catholic vs. Catholic discussions. Most of the time the RCs on here primarily lie when grossly exaggerating the effects of a lack of an infallible living human authority.

    I was one of the “Reformed Observers” I spoke of that felt betrayed when I studied Catholicism at Covenant, and felt very tempted to convert. (I didn’t.) But if discussions mean anything, it means pitting our best against each other.

    PCA Jeremy

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  32. Roman Catholic Social Thought’s odd bedfellows:

    A few facts about what fascism was may help explain what it wasn’t and isn’t. Fascist movements developed on the European continent between the two wars and were a reaction primarily to the revolutionary left but also to the perceived failure of liberal parliamentary governments to respond adequately to a devastating challenge from leftists. Fascist politics seems to have developed most naturally in Latin Catholic countries and drew on corporatist economic concepts that were extracted quite selectively from papal and neo-scholastic documents, as well as from Roman ideas about hierarchy and authority. Not surprisingly, fascist ideas did not resonate well in Protestant individualist societies, a fact that was related not only to the persistence in these places of orderly constitutional governments but also to certain obvious cultural differences.

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