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Why the Tap Dance?

June 26, 2020 (1,385 words)

Talk about beating around the bush… It seems the only people who speak or write seriously about the social teaching of the Catholic Church do so in such an ephemeral and theoretical manner it’s hard for the average lay person to know just what such teaching is supposed to look like in actual practice.

We are always assured it constitutes “a great treasury of moral teaching,” with insights and principles based on eternal truths that can help rescue a Western culture now on the brink of internal collapse.

Unfortunately, though, when it comes to the particulars all we get is a lofty meditation on the one-line description to be found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It plays on sort of a continuous loop:

“The Church’s social teaching proposes principles for reflection; it provides criteria for judgement; it gives guidelines for action.” (n. 2423)

When the discussion does occasionally descend from the heights, the proscription for action looks suspiciously like a rather mundane display of conventional political partisanship: A tacit rejection of the Democrats’ attempt at “wealth distribution,” and an equally tacit endorsement of the Republicans’ wobbly “family values” platform.

This jives with oblique warnings about those who would “misuse” the Church’s social teaching to promote political agendas that are at odds with the truths it presents and proposes. The problem, we are being told, is finding the great treasury intact, without some form of “misinterpretation” through a political filter that is often foreign to the teaching itself.

Hmmm… Whatever could that mean…

looking for policies that are pure an undefiled…

We lay persons are grateful to our bishops for their profound reflections on the Church‘s social teaching. But I’m wondering if these concerned prelates are suffering from a mild case of paralysis by analysis when it comes to applying that teaching. I fear many of the most orthodox among them may be hamstrung by an unrealistic expectation for public policies that are pure and undefiled. Since those qualities are very hard to come by in this world of ours.

To my learned and esteemed superiors: Everybody agrees on the broad outline. The social teaching of the Catholic Church describes the values, principles, and truths that are good for all men and women, in every time and place. These include respect for the dignity of all human life. And promotion of marriage and the family as the first cell of society, along with the social order founded upon that first cell. This constellation of values, principles, and truths provide the glue for a truly just social order. They must be worked into the leaven of society so that all may share the benefits of creation.

But of course that’s a mighty tall order to fill in our pluralist, liberal democracy.

It’s important to make the lay faithful aware of all this, to guide their everyday actions where they live and work. But frankly it does no good for a well-meaning bishop to remind them of the obligation to properly form their conscience, in order to vote in a manner which is “consistent with our baptismal vocation,” if all that bishop has in mind is their continuing to vote Republican.

Don’t get me wrong. I welcome the waxing poetic about “recovering and serving the REAL common good,” and calling for Christians to “take back” and “re-present” this concept by “articulating a vision for a new Catholic action.” I just think we need a completely different definition of what that “action” should look like, given the existing political marketplace of ideas we have to work with.

I don’t think that word means what you think it means…

In our attempts to properly elucidate Church teaching, I’ve noticed a pronounced tendency on the part of right-minded souls to conflate foundational truths with aspects of the conservative-libertarian approach to life. This leads some believers into thinking conservative politics perfectly embody Christian principles.

(I actually just read somewhere that “intellectual conservatism is inherently Roman Catholic.” Oh my word, what on Earth has that poor writer been drinking….)

For instance:

“By common good is to be understood the sum total of human conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily. The common good concerns the life of all. It calls for prudence from each, and even more from those who exercise the office of authority…

“Public authorities are bound to respect the fundamental and inalienable rights of the human person…. In particular, the common good resides in the conditions for the exercise of the natural freedom indispensable for the development of the human vocation”…

Bits like this are cribbed from the Catechism of the Catholic Church (n.1906 and n.1907). But conservatives have convinced themselves these sentiments echo what’s to be found in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. And many a hardworking bishop, struggling to apply some sort of moral compass to the reckless life we now lead, looks back on the American Founding with fondness, and sees in it a beacon of hope.

But such hope is misplaced. The Founders’ language doesn’t mean the same thing that Catholic language does, even though the words themselves sound so similar. There is a misappropriation that has taken place. It centers on phrases like “human freedom” and “human flourishing.” Another culprit is the frequent citing of “natural law.” These concepts are the bedrock of all Catholic thought, as everyone knows. But since our Founders made repeated reference to their version of these concepts, the easy linguistic familiarity has swayed conservative commentators into asserting the United States at its core is simpatico with key Catholic paradigms.

(This has also resulted in the generic term “limited government” being routinely invoked by conservatives as an unassailable expression of the Catholic concept known as “subsidiarity.”)

a long line of modern luminaries who reject Catholic thought…

Our Founders may have been exceptional men, but let’s not forget they were each just another in a long line of modern luminaries who rejected the Church’s teaching as no longer having answers to the political or economic dilemma. So it’s odd when certain Catholic spokespeople now contend our Founders were model citizens who inadvertently got everything right, in spite of their flamboyant rebellious streak, because they were unconsciously channeling their “inner Thomas Aquinas.”

While modernity was busy blazing its rowdy trail, Christianity’s way of trying to corral the unruly tendencies of pluralism and liberal democracy, and create a rational framework for this new social order, was to assert any “free” society must have a moral basis. (Just as the Catholic Church has taught throughout its two thousand year history that no individual can be truly free unless and until that individual conforms their actions to the objective moral order.) Another carry-over component of its philosophical outlook is to insist – just as in the past – that all of us are called to lead an “integrated life” in which faith informs every aspect of who we are and how we live.

But something important has gotten lost in translation. Certainly no one today leads anything close to an integrated life. Christian discernment fails when adherents carry on as if their economic behavior is not subject to traditional moral oversight. Or when they assume fiscal policies that fall under the heading of “economic freedom” are automatically congruent with Christianity.

The Industrial Revolution, to reference a prominent for instance, may have converted poverty to prosperity. But a catchy sound bite rarely captures the whole story. Unintended consequences and collateral damage litter the landscape, even when edited out of the official report. What else was taking place while this magnificent improvement in material circumstances was unfolding on the main stage? Has that improvement enhanced the “moral basis of society,” or has our moral compass been a casualty of our progress?

I think we all know the answer to that one. And what, pray tell, has been the political vehicle responsible for the widespread disregard of morality that has obviously occurred? And who commandeered it?

For those of us who agree Western culture is now on the brink of internal collapse, and authentic Catholic social teaching can rescue it from such a fate, I suppose another obvious question that should be addressed is: When did the collapse begin?

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr
June 26, 2020

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