Why does Catholic Social Teaching often fail?

By Fr. Basil Cole, O.P.

Behind the social encyclicals of the Popes, there is a deep concern for all humans and their ultimate end. There is a connection between what people do now and what they will be at the end of their lives. Further, social teaching has been a massive effort to see in marginal people, weak people, a dignity and beauty which must be respected. It is not by accident that the Church preaches an option for the poor (“if you want peace, reach out to the poor”). Even, the quality of a government is to be judged by how it treats its most vulnerable members. Yet many principles concerning the common good are highly controverted by the standards of world governments as well as some business leaders living solely for profit.

It would seem that humanity in part does not want to be saved, much less does it want the creator to come down from heaven and tell us who we are, what we are about, and above all how to get to our next and final destination. Most prefer to remain the way they are and want God to stay where he is, unless they are advocates for the “new age.” Often, as Pope Francis reminds us, poor people have the greatest openness to the gospel than the satisfied as well as having a sense of the mystery of life and a depth of what it means to be human.

Many sermons and homilies have to deal with love. But there is a structure to love, built into human nature which has been obscured by sin. Love must learn to find, fulfill and respect the rights of and responsibilities to others. Many people want to follow their feelings without too much concern for moral norms. Most people want to do the right thing so long as it is easy. The cross of difficulties is not easily taken to. The desire for false self-fulfillment seems stronger than the desire for self-transcendence in searching and finding one’s authentic fundamental good.

There are some very difficult dilemmas that engage the human person and the common good. It is very difficult to get people thinking about what the common good is, very easy for all to think about their own immediate good. St. Augustine will say in his Rule that the sign of progress in the spiritual life is when you can forego your own individual good and think and live more and more for the common good. Part of the task ministers of the Gospel have is to persuade people, corporations, and governments, to see reality deeper than their immediate desires for pleasure or consumer goods, nor deny them when they are authentic.

Today there are still moral theories called proportionalism, consequentialism, situation ethics notwithstanding Veritatis Splendor. Many of these theories try to show that there are no moral absolutes and how anyone can relativize or rationalize themselves into doing anything they want to do when it seems to be the practical thing to do. Those of us who hold that there are some moral absolutes, however, find in those false theories certain kernels of truth. Often a lie is very close to the truth. Human action does have consequences, sometimes good, sometimes very bad, but sometimes not immediately known. Sometimes, matters are obscure and so require a moral teacher to help form one’s conscience. Cardinal Newman once said that conscience is only the “aboriginal Vicar of Christ” (CCC 1778). “Disproportionate and proportionate” effects are absolutely essential for determining when to shut machines off the seriously ill, or when to take or forego certain medications, even food itself. But when willing to do physical evil like an operation for health purposes on a human person, it is essential to will some known benefit while respecting the order or good of human nature such as selling body parts.

Ordinary people do not like to think in complex categories and prefer to see things in black and white. But the human person is complex and mysterious since we are created in the image of the infinite God. The natural law, which is the foundation of all rights and responsibilities or duties, is composed of principles that are discernable by almost everyone but not always perfectly, and in more complex situations by thinkers. Some have been revealed by God and taught by the Universal magisterium. The application of some of those laws has been somewhat relatively new in the field of bioethics as medicine has progressed. If you have ever owned a car, you know that you cannot put water in the gasoline tank, or oil in the water tank and expect the engine to start. No matter how deep good intentions exist, or sincerity pervades, and the depth of one’s prayer, the car will not start because the laws of chemistry are violated in combustion engines. Likewise, ignoring moral absolutes and acting with the best motives undermine one’s fundamental human goods and therefore does not truly and in the long run fulfill a person.

What makes justice very difficult at times to accomplish is the failure to cultivate chastity. The anti-life movement in the West really comes down to sexuality without responsibility. Sexual sins committed out of weakness is one thing but once a habit is formed, then it is very difficult to form prudence in decision making, fairness toward others, and live with courage in the face of obstacles. To do the just thing requires a certain objectivity that becomes more and more difficult as lust corrupts the mind. In a sense, the first pro-life virtue is chastity.

The more pleasure one takes in the senses primarily, the less one can contemplate and live by divine laws since the delights of the moment appear to be more important. Hence it is very difficult for the human person to think that God is the author of life, that human life is forever, that human life is precious, that each human life is especially loved by God, that each human life is a treasure and if in the state of grace is greater than all the universe. That requires an uncommon sense of truth. That we are dependent upon God is not immediately evident to the senses. If someone lives predominantly by the senses, then these principles of the natural law make no “sense”, that is, they seem very alien and out of touch.

The incarnation is the fact that God reaches and touches us through the sacraments, makes contact with us and we make contact with Him through faith, hope, charity, and the infusion of grace. Our response of returning back to God is also expressed through the four cardinal virtues. Justice is the crown because grace working through nature, humans are related and indebted to all kinds of people. Many persons we do not like, yet we humans must learn to respect them and find that “ray” of God’s perfections in them rather than obsessing what makes them unworthy of our merciful justice. This is where a justice without spirituality is almost impossible to flourish. If we tend to judge everything by feelings including people, their worth, their value, then the less dignity they appear in our eyes, the less we accord them what is owed, either strictly or in the broad sense of doing to them what we owe to ourselves.

We are social animals in need of one another for growing in moderate material prosperity, protection from enemies and disease, and education for life among other common goods for survival and even salvation. The social teaching of the Church helps individuals and governments to work together as a family to achieve happiness in this life and the next. Alas, as Aquinas reminds us, the will is flexible or better fickle (ST I-II 114, 9).

Father Basil Cole, O.P. is currently a Professor of Moral and Spiritual Theology, Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception, at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. Father is also author of Music and Morals, The Hidden Enemies of the Priesthood and coauthor of Christian Totality; Theology of Consecrated Life. A native San Franciscan, Father has been a prior in the Western province of the Dominicans, a parish missionary and retreat master, and invited professor of moral and spiritual theology at the Angelicum in Rome.
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