January 17, 2005


The Free and Virtuous Society: Catholic Social Doctrine in the Twenty-First Century (George Weigel, May 19, 2004, fourth annual Tyburn Lecture at Tyburn Convent, Marble Arch, London)

Christians have been thinking through their relationship to the tangled worlds-within-worlds of politics, economics, and culture for nearly two millennia. The essential nature of that unavoidable entanglement, and the distinctive character of the Christian’s presence in "the world," came into focus early. As the Letter to Diognetus, most likely written in the second century, reminds us, Christians are always "resident aliens" in the world, for while Christians honor just rulers, obey just laws, and contribute to the common good of whatever society in which they find themselves, a Christian’s ultimate loyalty is given to a Kingdom that is elsewhere. Christians believe that history can only be read in its fullness in the light of faith in the Risen Christ, the Lord of history. And in that perspective, history is both the arena of God’s action and the antechamber to our true home, the "city of the living God" [Hebrews 12.22]. Those who know that about history live in history in a distinctive way.

One might think that this two-edged conviction about the present and the future absolves Christians from responsibility for politics, economics, and culture, and some Christians have in fact regarded a quietistic withdrawal from the world and its affairs as a demand of discipleship. Catholic faith takes a different stance, however. The Catholic Church believes that it is precisely because Christians live their lives "in the world" by reference to transcendent Truth and Love that Christians can offer their neighbors a word of genuine hope amidst the flux of history. Because Christians live both in time and ahead of time – because Christians are the people who know how the human story turns out, viz., in the final vindication of God’s salvific purposes – Christians are in a unique position vis-a-vis history, politics, economics, and culture. As Hans Urs von Balthasar has put it, amidst the world’s accelerating development Christians are the people who "can confront [that development] with a divine plan of salvation that is co-extensive with it, that indeed always runs ahead of it because it is eschatological."

Over the centuries, there have been numerous Christian proposals for understanding the Church’s relationship to the world of politics, economics, and culture; H. Richard Niebuhr’s classic, Christ and Culture, still offers a useful typology of the five principal approaches. Surely one of the most intellectually important Christian efforts to shed the light of the Gospel on public life has been the tradition of Catholic social doctrine. Reaching back to the classical and medieval masters for its inspiration while putting their insights into conversation with the realities of the contemporary world, modern Catholic social doctrine has always had a distinctive public quality to it, beginning with Leo XIII’s pioneering 1891 encyclical, Rerum Novarum. Unlike certain other Christian explications of the Church’s position in the world, which speak essentially to the believing community, Catholic social doctrine has been thoroughly ecumenical in the full sense of the oikumene: Catholic social doctrine has understood itself as being "not for Catholics only." Although the phrase does not appear until John XXIII, the social doctrine of the Church has always been addressed to "all men and women of good will." It is a genuinely public proposal, using analyses and arguments about public goods and the means to achieve them that can be engaged by any intelligent person.

From the years prior to Pope Leo’s writing Rerum Novarum to the present, Catholic social doctrine has evolved in a collaborative dialogue between the successors of Peter and theologians. I would like to suggest where that dialogue and that papal teaching have led us in this first decade of a new century and a new millennium, so that we can better understand the areas where Catholic social doctrine requires development in the years immediately ahead.

The Contribution of John Paul II

The social magisterium of John Paul II assumes, even as it develops, the three great principles that have shaped the Church’s social doctrine since Leo XIII; John Paul has also cemented a fourth principle into the foundations of Catholic social doctrine.

The first classic principle is the principle of personalism, which can also be called the human rights principle. According to this foundation stone of the Church’s social doctrine, all right thinking about society — in its cultural, political, and economic aspects — begins with the inalienable dignity and value of the human person. Right thinking about society does not begin, in other words, with the state, the party, the tribe, the ethnic group, or the gender group. It begins with the individual human person. Society and its legal expression, the state, must always be understood to be in service to the integral development of the human person. The state, in particular, has an obligation to defend the basic human rights of persons, which are "built into" us by reason of our very humanity. "Rights," in the Catholic understanding of the term, are not benefices distributed by the state at its whim or pleasure; they are goods to be protected and/or advanced by any just state.

The second classic principle is the principle of the common good, or what we can call the communitarian principle; it complements and completes the personalist principle. Because men and women grow into the fullness of their humanity through relationships, each of us should exercise his rights in such a way that that exercise contributes to the general welfare of society, and not simply to our individual aggrandizement. Living in service to the common good is essential for the integral development of persons as well as for the good of society.

The third classic principle is the principle of subsidiarity, which we can call the free-associational principle or principle of civil society. It was first given magisterial form in Pius XI’s 1931 encyclical, Quadragesimo Anno, although its vision of a richly-textured and multi-layered human society reaches back to medieval Christian experience. The principle of subsidiarity teaches us that decision-making in society should be left at the lowest possible level (i.e., the level closest to those most effected by the decision), commensurate with the common good. American "federalism" is one empirical example of the principle of subsidiarity at work. Articulated under the lengthening shadow of the totalitarian project in the first third of the twentieth century, the principle of subsidiarity remains today as a counter-statist principle in Catholic social thinking. It directs us to look first to private sector solutions, or to a private sector/public sector mix of solutions, rather than to the state, in dealing with urgent social issues such as education, health care, and social welfare.

These were the foundational principles inherited by John Paul II, principles he taught in his pre-episcopal days as a seminary lecturer on social ethics. As pope, John Paul has added a fourth principle to the foundations of the Church’s social doctrine: the principle of solidarity, or what we can call the principle of civic friendship. A society fit for human beings, a society capable of fostering integral human development, cannot be merely contractual and legal, John Paul teaches; it needs a more richly-textured set of relationships. It requires what Jacques Maritain used to describe as "civic friendship:" an experience of fellow-feeling, of brotherhood, of mutual participation in a great common enterprise. A genuinely human society flourishes when individuals dedicate the exercise of their freedom to the defense of others’ rights and the pursuit of the common good, and when the community supports individuals as they grow into a truly mature humanity – that is what living "in solidarity" means.

These seem especially apt reflections on the day we celebrate the minister who forced us to live up to our obligations.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 17, 2005 8:26 AM

more than apt; much to think about with this post; wonder when personalism will push out from the seminaries to the parishes

Posted by: JimGooding at January 17, 2005 10:40 AM
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