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Catholic Social Teaching to the Rescue

March 12, 2021 (1,857 words)

A recent feature story in a mainstream publication shouts the following question from its title block: “Can Catholic Social Teaching Unite a Divided America?”

What a completely unexpected proposition this is, considering a) most Americans don’t know that such a thing as Catholic teaching on social justice even exists, and b) most assume anything falling under the general heading of “Catholic teaching” can be safely dismissed as yet another outdated prohibition on personal behavior.

But such a specialized body of knowledge does indeed exist, and it comprises a system of thought that seeks to integrate law, politics, and economics. Some trace its basic precepts back to the four Gospels. But the Catholic brain trust didn’t really engage the modern iteration of these subjects until late in the 19th century. Since then the teaching has been continuously developed and adapted to changing circumstances by every pope that’s sat in the big chair since Leo XIII formally kicked off the discussion in 1891.

Despite the obscurity of the suggested solution, my answer to the editorial’s query would be a resounding “yes.” But only if the warring factions (liberals and conservatives) stop claiming to already embody the fullness of the teaching with their respective take on two of its central concepts: “solidarity” and “subsidiarity.”


The textbook definition of solidarity is pretty much what it sounds like it should be: “Unity of feeling or action, especially among individuals with a common interest; mutual support within a group.”

Papal teaching expands that by including all of humanity as having a common interest. Updated as recently as 1991 by John Paul II, solidarity is best expressed as “a determination to commit oneself to the good of all, and to each individual, because we are really responsible for all.”

It’s easy to see how liberals believe they are capturing this aspect of Catholic social teaching, most notably when it comes to Democrat policy proscriptions on economic equity and expanded health care, strengthening unions and prioritizing workers’ rights, etc.

On the other hand subsidiarity is less familiar to most ears, and its definition is a bit more arcane: “A principle of organization that holds all social and political issues should be dealt with at the most immediate level that is consistent with their resolution.” In plain English, political decisions should be made at a local level rather than by a central authority.

It’s just as easy to see how conservatives have latched on to this one, most notably in Republican opposition to ‘big government.’ But the Catholic definition of subsidiarity is more nuanced than what conservatives allow. Again, as spelled out by JPII in 1991:

“A community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its function, but rather should support it in case of need, and help coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good.”

It’s the second part of the Catholic definition of subsidiarity that conservatives conveniently ignore.


This notion of solidarity and subsidiarity draws inspiration from the inherent dignity of every human being, regardless of innate ability or geographic location or material circumstance. The source of this dignity is that we have all been made in the image and likeness of our Creator.

Solidarity respects human dignity by helping those unable to see to their own basic temporal needs. Subsidiarity respects it by promoting the freedom people need to figure things out and make their own decisions regarding those same temporal needs.

These concepts are meant to be complimentary. But in the American tradition there is a pronounced tension between the two. There is probably plenty of blame to go around for this situation. But I tend to finger the conservatives first, because they essentially deny that some problems are systemic in nature and cannot be improved – let alone resolved – at the local level. Conservatives hew to a ‘rugged individualist’ reading of subsidiarity, what they like to call “a more diversified and localized way of reaching people.”

To contend “human problems are better resolved at the interpersonal level where people can see each other, so that’s where our problems should be taken up” is a noble thought, and true enough. But how long has it been since any of us were able to live exclusively in that world?


This is not to suggest every piece of liberal policy-making has a Catholic seal of approval. Doctrine on social justice cannot be separated from long-held teaching on morals, which extend to sexual and medical ethics. This is where liberals come up notoriously short.

But the Church’s social teaching also has a strong economic component, and this is where conservatives have proven to be deaf, dumb, and blind. They like to complain about what liberals are doing wrong in the name of solidarity. They turn up their nose and take the high road, criticizing the Democrat agenda as “secular progressivism” that has no relationship whatsoever to Catholic teaching on social justice.

Their protestations seem to be on a continuous loop that never stops. One longs for the day conservatives will finally tire of hearing the sound of their own voice. In the event they ever decide to cut through the noise and effect real change, they will first have to acknowledge their lopsided view of subsidiarity.

In confronting the inequities that plague society, we are long past the point of sitting back and doing nothing beyond insisting “big institutions” not “substitute, replace or interfere” with smaller institutions. Long past the point of expecting faith-based initiatives to adequately address the needs of the swelling population being left behind. According to John Paul II, big institutions must support the smaller institution in its time of need, “and help coordinate its activities with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good.”

In other words, it’s time to invoke the Catholic version of subsidiarity, instead of the conservative one.


Unfortunately it’s the conservative version that has taken hold and entered the vernacular. In the early 1980s a popular philosopher and Catholic theologian of a conservative bent achieved breakthrough recognition for himself by arguing a familiar theme: economic competition is compatible with the Christian values of charity and community. It’s not that this formulation is patently false, only that “economic competition” hardly covers the many variations of unfettered capitalism that ensnare so many of us.

Thinking one’s conservative politics are a perfect vehicle for one’s Christian beliefs is a miscalculation that’s been going on for a very long time – since our Founding, really. The largely privileged, land-owning rebels who demanded their independence from England were seeking their absolute freedom from all previously-held authority, above all else. The residual Christian sentiment possessed by that group enabled it to justify their actions as a demand for their inherent dignity to be recognized. This premise was not entirely wrong, but it did overstate the case. Our leading lights allowed the emotion of the moment to get the better of them.

So the conservative aversion to any sort of governmental oversight or intervention in economic matters has very deep roots. What they see as their principled opposition is based on quasi-religious grounds, always harkening back to our founding fathers, as if that hallowed reference alone should stop any further discussion in its tracks. This pseudo-Christian posture is what the Catholic popes have been up against when trying to retro-fit their teaching on social justice into a “don’t tread on me”, “live free or die” worldview.


When John Paul II used his big 1991 encyclical on social justice (“Centesimus Annus”) to announce “the free market is the most efficient instrument for utilizing resources and effectively responding to needs,” conservative Catholic scholars at prestigious, privately-funded think tanks jumped for joy. See, they shouted from the rooftops, the Catholic Church now officially agrees with what we’ve been saying all along about free enterprise – and its superiority to government-mandated programs.

What these enthusiasts missed is how their favorite pope was quick to add that too many remain unjustly excluded from what he describes as “the circle of exchange.” In the end John Paul II merely puts a slightly different spin on the very same reservations every pope since 1891 has expressed about capitalism’s wayward tendencies.


I began with the observation that most Americans don’t know that such a thing as Catholic teaching on social justice exists. I’ll end by pointing out the ones who do are unwilling to embrace that teaching in its totality, and limit their understanding by applying their preferred liberal or conservative filter.

This started as an American problem, but since our culture has come to dominant the entire developed world the problem has spread exponentially. We here in the United States have been struggling to reconcile the ethos of Christianity (compassion) with the mythos of capitalism (acquisition) since our Founding. The rest of the West has taken on that same struggle, to one degree or another.

All is not lost, though. The American Experiment has much to recommend it, and America’s inability to thread the eye of Christianity’s needle is probably no worse than any other society over the course of the last two thousand years. It should also be noted that despite my minor quibbles with the established order I have no plans to leave the country and live out my remaining days elsewhere. But it sure would be nice if I could break through the self-assured façade my fellow citizens seem to bask in, whatever side of the political dialectic they have chosen as their philosophical home.


Old habits die hard. When one Catholic bishop says “Our new President has pledged to pursue certain policies that would advance moral evils and threaten human life and dignity, most seriously in the areas of abortion, contraception, marriage and gender,” he is identified as “conservative.”

When another bishop comes along and says “It is a great sadness that President Biden and Democrat political leaders across the spectrum do not support legal sanctions to protect the unborn. But that is not the pre-eminent issue. The pre-eminent issue for our country at this time is healing and coming together. Because unless we can get a political culture that’s healed in some fundamental ways, we cannot advance the common good in any sustainable way,” that bishop is described as “liberal.”

Even though this same “liberal” bishop is on record as saying, “It’s very hard to find a candidate who reflects even 40% of Catholic social teaching in their views. Both parties bifurcate what Catholic social teaching holds out as most crucial.”

These two devoted prelates are merely trying to articulate different facets of the same teaching. We can’t see that, because our haste in choosing up sides doesn’t allow the space for any complexity to register. We settle for being boisterous, card-carrying members of the left or right, when we should aim higher – trying to be patient, salt-of-the-earth Christians. And that, my friends, is not as easy as it may seem at first glance.

(Based on my reading of the Francis X. Rocca piece, Can Catholic Social Teaching Unite a Divided America?, from the Saturday. February 5 edition of the Wall Street Journal.)

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr
March 12, 2021

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