THE Global Justice Movement Website

THE Global Justice Movement Website
This is the "Global Justice Movement" (dot org) we refer to in the title of this blog.

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

How to Read a Social Encyclical

Contrary to popular opinion, Rerum Novarum was not the first social encyclical, nor did Catholic social teaching as such begin with Pope Leo XIII.  The social doctrine of the Catholic Church, of course, is as old as the Church itself.  It was not until the early nineteenth century, however, that social teachings were treated as a specialized area of study.

Feeling a little blue. . . . ?

Nor was it entirely clear from the first even to many Catholics that the Church’s social teachings are distinct from its purely religious teachings.  Admittedly, it is sometimes hard to differentiate, because the teachings themselves tend to be phrased in “religious language,” which turns some people outside the Church off.  It causes them to miss the real import of what is being said, and conclude that the teachings have nothing to do with them.

In other cases, some religious believers agree that because Catholic social teachings tend to be phrased in religious terms that they are therefore matters of faith, not reason.  They do not, therefore, apply to outsiders, and every word is infallible . . . meaning that the personal interpretation of the one doing the interpreting is infallible, not that the teaching is.

The fact is, however, that the social teachings of the Catholic Church are “religious” only in the very broadest sense of the term.  Social doctrine is based on the natural law which (as has been stated more than once, often in the encyclicals themselves) applies to every human person — and all human beings are automatically persons by nature.

Not the first, but. . . .

Admittedly, the first social encyclicals were issued because the “new things” of socialism, modernism, and esotericism were rightly seen as an attack on the Church as well as on the State.  The new things were, in fact, specifically promoted as “the Democratic Religion” and intended to replace Christianity.  The anti-capitalist aspect came later.

Still, when read carefully, you realize that despite the religious language, the social encyclicals do not present religious arguments.  Yes, religious matters are given a lot of space, but once you follow the argument, you can see that they are in the nature of “words from our sponsor,” i.e., advertising (sort of).  The argument itself is always based on reason, although the justification is religious.

For example, take the following passage from Rerum Novarum.  We put the argument in black, and the religious justification in red:

Not sure what it means, but okay. . . .

The working man, too, has interests in which he should be protected by the State; and first of all, there are the interests of his soul. Life on earth, however good and desirable in itself, is not the final purpose for which man is created; it is only the way and the means to that attainment of truth and that love of goodness in which the full life of the soul consists. It is the soul which is made after the image and likeness of God; it is in the soul that the sovereignty resides in virtue whereof man is commanded to rule the creatures below him and to use all the earth and the ocean for his profit and advantage. “Fill the earth and subdue it; and rule over the fishes of the sea, and the fowls of the air, and all living creatures that move upon the earth.” In this respect all men are equal; there is here no difference between rich and poor, master and servant, ruler and ruled, “for the same is Lord over all.” No man may with impunity outrage that human dignity which God Himself treats with great reverence, nor stand in the way of that higher life which is the preparation of the eternal life of heaven. Nay, more; no man has in this matter power over himself. To consent to any treatment which is calculated to defeat the end and purpose of his being is beyond his right; he cannot give up his soul to servitude, for it is not man’s own rights which are here in question, but the rights of God, the most sacred and inviolable of rights. (§ 40.)

Note how very little actual “religious language” is in the text.  Although the orientation of the passage is explicitly Christian and theistic, there is nothing in it that should upset or even contradict an adherent of another faith, or even an agnostic or an atheist, except for the nihilist or pure moral relativist to whom nothing means anything.

"All things by nature seek the good."

For example, how you take “the interests of his soul” depends on how you define soul; the passage doesn’t do so.  An atheist might take it as the “life force” that animates the body and dissolves at death.  There are also atheists who would agree that life alone is not its own purpose, but life lived in a manner consistent to serve the rest of humanity, even if only to preserve the species or do no harm.

In fact, without bringing God or gods into the matter, Aristotle declared that the meaning and purpose of life is to pursue the good and become virtuous: “the full life of the soul.”  Why?  Because it is pleasing to God?  No, because it is in conformity with nature.  Society therefore has a claim on people’s good behavior even if God never comes into it at all.  By removing the text in red, there is nothing left in the passage that says anything with which anyone with a sense of ethics should disagree.

This understanding of the Catholic Church’s social doctrine helps us understand not only the meaning of the teaching itself, but also why it was considered necessary to start having a teaching that is distinct from purely religious matters.  That is what we will take up in the next posting on this subject.