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Option for the Poor: A Hundred Years of Catholic Social Teaching.

Donal Dorr

New York: Orbis, 1992 (2nd edition).


In this concluding chapter I shall try to draw together the threads from the preceding chapters. First of all I shall look at the overall flow of Vatican teaching on social issues, focusing on the elements of continuity and discontinuity in it. This will lead on to an examination of whether, or in what sense, there is a coherent and organic tradition of social teaching in the Catholic Church, stretching over the period of a hundred years. Then I shall outline some of the strengths of Catholic I social teaching and some of the areas where it needs further development.

The first Seventy Years

During the period between 1891 and 1961, ‘Catholic Social Doctrine’ developed into a fairly coherent body of teaching. Two central themes lay at the heart of this teaching:

(1) A particular concern for the poor and powerless, together with a criticism of the systems that leave them vulnerable.

(2) A defence of certain personal rights (above all, the right to private property) against collectivist tendencies.

Throughout these seventy years the popes were consistently’ critical of both liberal capitalism and socialism. And they put forward certain fundamental principles about human nature and the nature of human society in its economic, political, social, cultural and religious aspects. I have given an account of these principles elsewhere (Dorr [1991] 83 - 102) so here I shall merely list a few of the more central ones:

As we look back on the Catholic social teaching of that period we can see that these principles were so general that they were compatible with a variety of social, economic and political systems. At the time this was not at all so clear. In fact many committed Catholics would have considered that the Church’s teaching represented ‘a third way’ that was neither capitalist nor socialist. The truth is, however, that it was only for a few years after Quadragesimo Anno was issued in 1931 that the Vatican was really suggesting such a ‘third way’, namely the ‘corporatist’ or vocational system. For the rest of the time the popes did not try to spell out how Catholic social principles should be applied in practice.

Nevertheless, there was a pervasive ‘Catholic ethos’ which determined the limits of what would be considered a proper implementation of the general principles. For instance, it came to be accepted that governments could and should pay modest old age pensions and that there should be free universal primary education. On the other hand, it was not considered acceptable that there should be a free health service for all, or that the government should have a monopoly of second-level education. This Catholic ethos was a strongly conservative cultural force in society. It was very hostile to anything that smacked of socialism or even social democracy, and of any political movements working for radical social change.

In practice, then, the Church gave a certain religious legitimation to the ‘free enterprise’ model which was dominant in Western society. Its protests against the excesses of capitalism— protests that had reached a peak in the early 1 930s—had become muted during the later years of the papacy of Pius XlI. The Church still challenged the ideology of liberal capitalism; but its hostility to all forms of socialism was more total, explicit, systematic, and effective. The Church reacted less quickly and strongly against right-wing excesses than against those of the left.

During the late 1920s and early 1930s, the Vatican worked out a rather uneasy modus vivendi with fascist leaders in Europe and the pope expressed a certain approval of the fascist corporatist model of society. Many local Church leaders and lay Catholics followed suit. The accommodation with the fascists in Italy and the Nazis in Germany did not last long. But in Spain, Portugal and much of Latin America the alliance with ‘the right’ lasted for decades and caused the Church to be perceived as a very right-wing force in society.

The effect of the prevailing Catholic ethos was that the Church became (or continued to be) one of the key agencies. opposed to those political movements working for the kind of changes which would have redistributed wealth and power and brought greater equity into society. It remained true that Catholic social teaching was marked by genuine concern for the plight of the poor; and the Church was very deeply and sincerely involved in providing the whole gamut of services needed by the poor. Nevertheless, Catholic teaching, and its associated ethos, had come to represent in practice almost the exact opposite of what is now meant by an ‘option for the poor’; it provided support and legitimation for those who resisted the efforts of the poor to gain a fair share of power in society and of its resources.

I have been looking at the elements of continuity in Catholic social teaching and in the Catholic ethos in the period 1891 to 1961. But there was also some discontinuity. As I have noted, there was a period, mainly in the first half of the 1930s, when Vatican teaching seemed to favour a corporatist model of society as an alternative to the capitalist order. What was untypical in this was that it seemed rather more specific than has been customary. Perhaps this impression came not mainly from the content of Quadragesimo Anno but from the context: the Italian State was at that very time implementing an elaborately worked out corporatist plan. As time went on, the context changed—and there was a readjustment of emphasis in the interpretation of the papal teaching, with little formal recognition that this was taking place; the teaching of Pius XI simply came to be understood in a less specific way, more typical of the general tradition of ‘social doctrine’. In the chapter on Pius XII, I mentioned how he presented his predecessor’s view as an ideal that was not realisable until some indefinite future time; this is one of the few occasions when there was an implicit acknowledgment that there was some incompatibility between the teaching of the two popes.

A Change of Direction

A much more significant element of discontinuity came with the teaching of John XXIII. His encyclical Mater et Magistra in 1961 shifted the focus of Catholic social teaching by coming out in favour of what amounted to a ‘Welfare State’ model of society. Furthermore, Pope John no longer gave the right to private property a uniquely privileged place in Catholic social teaching. These modifications quickly led to a significant change in ‘the Catholic ethos’. From the time of Pope John, the Catholic Church was no longer the natural ally of the forces in society which were most opposed to structural change.

I have suggested that his two major encyclicals can best be understood not precisely as ‘an opening to the left’ but more as a decisive move away from the right. Further light may be thrown on the contribution of Pope John by seeing it, not as a change in the main content of Catholic social teaching, but rather as a shift of emphasis from the second to the first of the two main themes in Catholic social teaching—from concern about the right to private ownership to concern about poverty. Pope John and the Church leaders who came after him saw more clearly and insisted more forcefully that the right to private property is not an end in itself; it is simply a means of ensuring that people are not left at the mercy of powerful people or, especially, of an all-powerful State.

This change of emphasis had very profound practical repercussions on the spirituality of Catholics and on the life of the Church. It led to a change in ‘the Catholic ethos’. Most Catholics became willing to accept more intervention by the State in economic and social life. Furthermore, a sizeable number of Catholics (including some priests and an occasional bishop) began to demand more intervention by the State. They were encouraged by Pope John’s ‘opening to the left’ in the political sphere. With the fervour of new converts they called for a radical restructuring of society of the kind socialism stood for. In support of this stance they could invoke that strand in traditional Catholic social teaching which expressed concern for the poor and which criticised the systems that create poverty and marginalisation.

However, it was not to be expected that the traditional Catholic ethos would be replaced in a short time by such a radical outlook. Many Catholics of the ‘new breed’ wanted changes of a more modest kind. Others remained largely untouched by the new ideas. They held on to the traditional understanding of Catholic social teaching and continued to be allied with, or supportive of, the conservative forces in society. In many cases the reaction of traditional Catholics was one of., real incomprehension in the face of the call for what they saw as socialism if not anarchy. When Church leaders seemed to share some of the new attitudes, the incomprehension of the traditionalists gave way to a sense of betrayal and even a suspicion that left-wing theorists had managed to delude the bishops or even the pope.

The effect of all this was that the old monolithic Catholic ethos began to break up rapidly and was replaced by a new pluralism in Catholic thinking about social, economic and political affairs. This pluralism was welcomed by many not just as an unfortunate fact but as a positive value. Their acceptance of a pluralist approach led them to adopt much of the liberal agenda. These liberal Catholics found support in the widespread assumption that Pope John shared their liberal outlook.

The Vatican Council contributed greatly to the dissolution of the traditional Catholic ethos. It did so mainly by coming out firmly in support of the new ‘liberal Catholicism’ of the time. Its contribution to ‘radical Catholicism’ was more limited. But, in declaring the Church’s willingness to relinquish privilege and patronage in the interests of its mission, it was adopting a position that was not merely liberal but also radical; for it was distancing the Church from the rich and the powerful. 

I suggest that Pope John’s encyclical Mater et Magistra stands as a turning point in Catholic social teaching— the beginning of a process in which the Church came to have new allies and new opponents. This change may turn out to be as profound as that which took place at the time when the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the religion of the Roman Empire. Since that time the Christian Church has generally been part of ‘the establishment’ in most of the Western world. There were, of course, occasions when governments harassed or persecuted the Church. But almost invariably this was not because Church leaders did not want to be part of the establishment but simply because they had backed the wrong side in political struggles. The crucial point is that it was taken for granted that in normal circumstances the Church should be part of the establishment—and wanted to be part of it. Furthermore, when the West became dominant at a global level, the Christian religion was seen as going hand in hand with Western ‘civilisation’, offering little effective challenge to Western imperialism (again allowing for some few exceptions).

The new Catholic ethos which developed as a result of the work of John XXIII and Vatican II prepared the ground for a truly remarkable shift in the relationship between the Church and the dominant powers in society, a break from the Constantinian conception of the role of the Church. This shift is summed up in the term ‘option for the poor’. The first full-fledged commitment to such an option came at Medellin, when Latin American Church leaders pledged themselves to side with the poor in the struggle for justice.

Before long the stance of the Church began to change in other parts of the world where resistance to gross oppression was coming to a head - for instance, in the Philippines, Zimbabwe and South Africa. In these crisis situations the Church as a whole, or key sectors of it, came to be seen - both by defenders of the status quo and by those seeking liberation - as one of the most effective opponents of oppressive governments. Far from offering religipus legitimation to unjust regimes, it became a powerful ‘voice for the voiceless’, as Pope John Paul said to the Mexican Indians; and frequently it set out not just to speak on their behalf but to help them to find their own voices.

Though it is mainly on the frontiers of the Western world that the strong prophetic voice of the Church emerged, the repercussions gradually began to be felt nearer the centre. All the Churches - and the Catholic Church especially - are international movements of solidarity. When Christians are persecuted for standing up for justice and human rights in one area, the sense of outrage tends to spread to fellow-Christians elsewhere. This process is speeded up enormously on those occasions when the martyrs of the Third World happen to be citizens of North America or Europe. For instance, the murder of four women missionaries from the USA in El Salvador helped Christians in the West to realise what had been going on in Central America.

It has also become ever clearer that the West can no longer disclaim responsibility for the poverty and exploitation which characterise the Third World. Many Christians in the West have begun to challenge the international economic policies of their own governments in the name of the Gospel. Meanwhile, rising unemployment and other economic difficulties have hit the poorer sections of the population of the Western countries. As a result, large numbers of jobless people have been excluded from the benefits of the Western way of life. Some of the areas where they live have become centres of alienation and, at times, of crime. This has posed a threat to the existing system; and the threat has been met by an increasing tendency in the West to adopt the ‘national security’ mentality and ideology which had been more typical of the Third World.

For all these reasons many committed Christians and a large number of religious congregations have distanced themselves from ‘the establishment’ and set out to be with, and on the side of, the poor and the powerless. Furthermore, an increasing number of Church leaders, including the pope, have adopted a prophetic stance and voiced strong protests against the systems which create so much suffering, alienation, and powerlessness.

Facing the Future

Nobody can foretell the outcome of this process. It is possible that most Church leaders will suffer a failure of nerve and will continue to remain establishment figures who occasionally make ineffectual sounds of disquiet. If this happens, then most prophetically-minded Christians will probably become more and more alienated from the Church leadership. On the other hand, it is possible that many Church leaders will take a prophetic stance and will be willing to suffer the consequences. Even if most bishops and other Church leaders take up a challenging position, it is unlikely that they will carry the whole Church membership with them. Some divisions and polarisation are almost inevitable; but their extent will depend on the degree of moral authority the leaders can exert. The position of the pope will be of crucial importance.

It is clear that recent popes have played a key role in setting the direction of Catholic social teaching and giving a lead in social action. They have done so both directly through their own moral authority and charisma, and indirectly through their appointment of bishops and their influence on national hierarchies. Needless to say, some local bishops or hierarchies may still remain quite far to the left or to the right of the pope. But what the pope says and does is usually taken very seriously. (One good example is the key role played by John Paul at the Bishops’ meeting in Puebla in 1979.)

The tradition of social teaching in the Catholic Church might be compared to a large ship. For years it was moving forward in one direction, with some relatively minor diversions due largely to the surrounding tides and currents. When Pope John took the helm he began to turn the ship in a different direction. At first there was some pitching and rolling of the ship and some observers thought it was sinking. But eventually the new direction became fairly well established - due to skilful steering and courageous leadership by Paul VI and by John Paul II in the first four years of his papacy. In the decade between 1983 and 1992 a certain doubt has crept in. On the one hand, John Paul played an exceptionally prominent part in the struggle against tyranny in Eastern Europe. But, on the other hand, the pope and the Vatican sent rather mixed messages to Christians struggling for justice in other frontier situations; there was a reaffirmation of the Church’s commitment to liberation, to justice, to human rights and to the poor; yet there seemed to be a determined effort to distance the Church from the individuals and the movements that were in the forefront of the struggle for liberation. This caused some confusion. To some it suggested that the Vatican was weakening in its commitment to justice, while others saw it mainly as concern that the Church should not become politicised and should not become tainted with Marxist ideology.

Precisely because of the great weight given to papal teaching there have been many attempts by ideologues to ‘harness’ this teaching in support of their own political views. The result is that Catholic social teaching has become a battleground on which the ideological struggle between the right and the left is carried out. lt is commonly assumed by the ideologues on both sides that John XXIII and Paul VI were moving the Church to the left while John Paul is swinging it back again to the more traditional conservative position. Quade, for instance, claims that Paul VI’s Populorum Progressio and the documents of the Synods of 1971 and 1974 represent a drift away from the mainstream of Catholic social teaching - a drift that has been sharply corrected by John Paul II. To sustain such’ an argument requires a very selective reading of recent Church documents and statements.

The truth is more complex. Where John Paul has taken a conservative line is primarily in the area of Church discipline;’ and his actions in this area have had only an indirect impact on social teaching (e.g. action against liberation theologians). In regard to social teaching proper, he has been ‘conservative’ only in the sense that he has refused to take the kind of stances that more radical Catholics would have liked him to take. For instance, he did not give outright support to the liberation movement in South Africa or to activists in the land agitation movement in Brazil. He has been unwilling to move the Church to the left side of the political spectrum, preferring to hold the moral ‘high ground’ where he speaks out against oppression in more general terms. Furthermore, he occasionally uses the term ‘Catholic social doctrine’, a term which seemed to have been abandoned by Paul VI because of its overtones of a timeless, monolithic body of principles. But, as I pointed out in Chapter 11, John Paul’s reinstatement of this term is a highly sophisticated one, which effectively purges it of the overtones of dogmatism.

As regards the content of his social teaching there is no real ‘backtracking’ from the position of Paul VI or John XXIII. Indeed, he has taken much stronger stands against injustice and in defence of human rights than were ever taken by his predecessors. On the two key issues of liberation and ‘option for the poor’, his teaching has moved forward further than Paul VI rather than backward to an older line.

The refusal of John Paul to move the Church to the left on political issues causes disappointment and even dismay among the people in one ideological camp; and it gives rise to some gloating by those in the opposite camp. This refusal tempts the enthusiasts on both sides to claim that the pope has returned Catholic social teaching to a ‘traditional’ or conservative position. But to make such a claim is to misunderstand both what the pope is trying to do and why he is doing it. He is determined not to get drawn into what he sees as political issues. He was willing to accept the view of Mikhail Gorbachev that he had a major political impact on Eastern Europe; but he was very careful to clarify it in this way:

‘I do not believe that one can talk about a political role in the strict sense,’ replied the Pope, ‘because the Pope has as his mission to preach the Gospel. But in the Gospel there is man [sic], respect for man, and, therefore, human rights, freedom of conscience and everything that belongs to man. If this has a political significance, then, yes, it applies also to the Pope.’ (La Stampa)

Obviously there is a very thin line between taking ‘a political role in the strict sense’ (to use his own words) and taking stances which have ‘a political significance’. Critics may disagree with his judgments about particular situations such as those in Lebanon, Poland, Croatia, Nicaragua, Brazil or South Africa. They may have questions about whether the Church can always remain ‘above politics’. But it is a gross misunderstanding (or misinterpretation) of the pope’s position to assume that he has returned to old-style ‘Catholic social doctrine’ simply because he adopts a stance on these situations which is different ‘to that of more radical Catholics.

There are ‘new right’ political theorists who try to use Catholic social teaching as an ideological support not merely for Western democracy but for liberal capitalism. They would like to have John Paul as an ally. But his social teaching, taken as a whole, cannot be used in this way; it is far too critical of ‘the West’. So they pick out passages from his statements which, taken out of context, can be used as weapons in their ideological struggle. Some years ago the theorists of the left were engaged in a similar project—making their selections from papal statements to be used as ideological weapons; but in recent years John Paul has given them very little material which can be used in this way The task facing theologians today is to help people to understand the main direction of Catholic social teaching and to avoid being manipulated by the ideologues of the left or the right.

A Struggle within the Church

It is easy to see why the notion of an option for the poor is divisive in society; but why should it be even more controversial and divisive in the Church itself? One reason is the’ traditional concern of Church leaders about anything which’ may cause major disruption in society. A second reason is the tendency of many Church leaders to work out a modus vivendi with those who are powerful and wealthy. But there is something more, a point at which the notion of an option for the poor may be perceived by some Church leaders as a threat to themselves and not just to the wealthy and powerful in civil; society. In the Introduction I suggested that this option can only be understood as an aspect of liberation theology. Those who make such an option are committing themselves not just to helping the poor to resist exploitation and oppression; they also undertake to be an empowering presence with ‘ordinary’ poor people, helping them to explore and articulate the meaning of the Gospel in their daily lives and struggles. That is a further reason why some Church leaders find it so hard to accept, or even to understand. They experience it, perhaps only half consciously, as a threat to their exclusive authority to interpret the Word of God and the message of Jesus for today.

This helps to explain why there has been very strong resistance from the beginning to the new emphasis on the prophetic role of the Church in society, as this is articulated’? and lived out by those sympathetic to liberation theology. As I pointed out at the beginning of the book, the issue of an option for the poor has been as divisive as the issue which split the Church at the time of the Reformation. But this time the Roman authorities have been rather more flexible; and the new ‘reformers’ have not allowed themselves to be pushed out of the Church. There has been an ongoing encounter between the two sides. At its best this has been a dialogue and at its worst it has been a painful conflict. The encounter has taken place in three spheres—the theological, the political and the ecclesiastical.

By and large the liberationists seem to be winning the theological debate. In 1975 Pope Paul VI, in the document Evangelii Nuntiandi, gave the word ‘liberation’ a high measure of theological respectability. Pope John Paul II has come more and more to use the language of liberation theology. And the 1986 Vatican document on liberation represented an important ‘backing down’ by Rome from the hard line adopted only two years previously. However, the movement has not been entirely on one side. The liberation theologians have distanced themselves more and more from Marxism, except in the very broad sense that they still speak of a global imperialism of Western capitalism and they still emphasise the need for a structural analysis of society and for changes at the structural level. One major factor in the growing acceptance of liberation theology has been the convergence between it and feminist theology. This has led to a broadening of both the agenda and the approach of the liberation theologians.

At the political level the liberationists won a spectacular early victory. In 1979 the Samosa regime in Nicaragua was overthrown by an alliance of freedom fighters of whom a significant segment were committed Catholics inspired by the theology of liberation. But there was bitter disappointment for those who expected that these ‘first fruits’ would be followed quickly by others. The alliance between the US government and reactionary forces all over Central America succeeded in holding the line against committed Catholics and others who were struggling for liberation. However, over the following decade, democracy was restored as a result of non-violent itruggles in Brazil, Argentina, Chile and in several other parts of the world; and Catholics fired by the ideal of liberation, ‘contributed a great deal to the winning of these victories.

At the ecclesiastical level those who favour the liberationist approach have had a more mixed success. Their achievements have been mainly ‘on the ground’ at the local level. Many thousands of lay leaders, trained and ‘formed’ in basic communities, have provided a very effective ministry and have helped many Christians to come to a deeper understanding of’ their faith and to play a far more active and effective part in the life of the Church. There have also been significant efforts in some dioceses to adopt a participative model of planning; where this has succeeded it has led to a real empowerment of lay people. On the other hand, the development of a more collaborative model of Church organisation has been blocked or even reversed in many places as a result of the Vatican policy of appointing bishops who are unsympathetic to such an approach. And Church authorities have often attempted to silence or marginalise theologians who are considered to be liberationist in outlook.

An Organic Tradition?

I have suggested that there was notable continuity in Catholic social teaching over the seventy years between 1891 and 1961 and that since then there has been a shift in emphasis and even, to some extent, in direction. Is there any sense in which we can speak of a consistent tradition of social teaching spanning the whole century? Not in the sense of repeating today the’ very specific ‘principles’ which I listed earlier (pp. 352—3) as characteristic of the first seventy years; and not in the sense of having the same ‘Catholic ethos’ which I described as typical of that period. The ‘principles’ have been adapted quite significantly, in ways which I have spelled out elsewhere (Dowj [1991] 83 - 102). And the Catholic ethos has changed enormously both in regard to the attitudes held by typical Catholics and in being far less monolithic than in the past.

It is, however, possible to speak of an organic tradition in a more general sense—a sense that is, nevertheless, authentic. Pope John Paul presents his own teaching on socio-political an& economic issues as part of an organic tradition. By this he does not mean a rigid system made up of a body of immutable truths but rather a pattern of teaching which has been consistent over the years, while allowing for development and even, perhaps, changes of emphasis. In this view the coherence or consistent character of the teaching is based on an enduring commitment of the Church to certain basic values such as human dignity, the value of the person as a worker, the right of everybody to the conditions required to be free and responsible, the importance of human community and solidarity, and the notion of the common good as meaning the welfare of all - in a way that gives priority to the person rather than the State.

These values, in turn, are based on certain fundamental truths about the human person, the nature of society, and the role of the Church. They are truths that include the following:

John Paul’s account of the continuity between Rerum Novarum and present teaching (CA 4 - 11) brings out the fact that, even a century ago, Leo XIII was defending the fundamental truths and values which lie at the heart of the Church’s social teaching today. Furthermore, this continuity is not just nominal but is the basis for continuity in practical implications. For instance, John Paul, when defending the right of Brazilian workers to form trade unions, could present his teaching as part of a tradition stretching back to Leo XIII. Again, there is a real continuity in the misgivings expressed by Leo XIII, Pius XI, Paul VI, and John Paul II both about capitalist society and about Marxism.

The conclusion which emerges from what I have been saying is that there is a certain organic unity in Catholic social teaching, even though there has been considerable development and significant shifts of focus and emphasis over the years. It would be foolish to imagine that the Church can provide clear practical guidelines to politicians, economists or planners. But the vision of life derived from the Gospel and developed in the Church over centuries does provide Christians and all people of good will with important criteria which can be of great help in their ongoing search for ways of living in society that are truly just and humane.

However, the body of Catholic social teaching is not a single indissoluble whole. It is composed of many different strands and some of these are more developed and more valuable than others. So I move on now to explore some of the strengths and weaknesses of this tradition of social teaching.

The Strengths of Catholic Social Teaching

The first and perhaps the greatest strength of the tradition of Catholic social teaching is that it is humanistic. Not, of course, humanist in the sense of excluding faith or the supernatural. I am referring to the humanistic aspect which Pope John Paul constantly emphasises - e.g. in his first encyclical (RH 14 - 5), in the centenary encyclical (CA 53 - 5) and when he was acknowledging that his Gospel message could have ‘political’ effects in Eastern Europe, as I noted above. In the past this was expressed mainly by saying that the Church’s social teaching was founded on ‘natural law’. In recent times this term ‘natural law’ is used more rarely; what John Paul says is that the Church’s social teaching is based on a Christian anthropology.

A particular advantage of having a social teaching that is humanistic is that it aims to appeal not merely to Christians but to all people of good will. Furthermore, it means that there’ is room for a constant dialogue with other traditions—not merely a desire to teach others but also a willingness to learn from them. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is the way in which over the past generation the popes have taken up and used the language of human rights which was originally articulated not in the Catholic tradition but in the humanistic, traditions of enlightenment France and the newly independent’ USA. More recently the Church has begun to make its own the moral wisdom that is emerging through the ecological movement and the feminist movement, neither of which were particularly Catholic at first.

A second great strength of Catholic social teaching as it is understood today is that it is not just humanistic in a vague general sense. It focuses particular attention on two key humanistic values which serve to give content to the teaching and provide criteria which can be applied in practice. These values are participation and solidarity. Participation is crucial because it means a sharing of power; where this value is respected, people themselves can claim their rights and shape their own destiny. Solidarity is vital because it rescues people from individualism and gives them a sense of being responsible for each other and for the welfare of the community. It is a virtue which gives them the will and the energy not to be content with theory and words but to act justly and to work and struggle for justice.

The third strong point of the Church’s social teaching is that it is not too detailed or specific but is compatible with a certain pluralism. It is open to a variety of applications in different continents and different circumstances. Very closely related to this is the fact that, while touching on the political sphere in a general way, Catholic social teaching seeks to avoid being identified with the policies of any particular political party or movement. It claims rather to offer criteria by which such specific policies may be evaluated.

The official Church has learned how important it is to keep at a certain distance from the popular trends or preferred options of any particular era, even those which seemed very admirable to leading Christians at the time. Around the time of Leo XIII it seemed to many that the true Christian option was a revival of the guild system; in the 1930s it seemed that a vocational or corporative organisation of society was the only correct Christian answer to social problems; after both World Wars there was a strong move to identify Church teaching with the policies of ‘Christian Democrat’ parties in many countries; in the aftermath of John XXIII’s encyclicals many Christians opted for a ‘Welfare State’ model; in the 1960s and 1970s ‘Christians for Socialism’ and other New Left movements seemed to many to be the only authentic way forward; in the 1980s and 1990s some sectors of the Church came to believe that the solution lies in ‘New Right’ approaches.

There have been occasions when various popes have flirted to some extent with one or other of these trends—but never to the extent to which the enthusiasts would have wished. On the whole the pope and bishops have tried to keep the official Church ‘above politics’; they have maintained a certain distance from specific applications of the general principles, leaving it to lay Christians as citizens to opt for one policy or another. However, they have not hesitated to suggest that some of the proposed policies (particularly left-wing ones) are not compatible with the basic principles of Catholic social teaching.

A fourth strength of Catholic social teaching is that it is? based on a good deal of social analysis, on a serious attempt to identify the historical, economic and cultural root causes of global poverty and inequity. Consequently it is not content with speaking out against unjust actions or people but condemns the sinful structures which are both the effect and the cause of acts and attitudes of social injustice.

The fifth strong point about the Church’s social teachings especially as it has developed in more recent years, is that it is biblical, at least in the sense that it can find a fairly solid basis in the Bible. This means that there is ample room for ecumenical dialogue on social issues with other Christian Churches, most of whom tend to rely more on the Bible than on a ‘natural law or humanistic basis.

A sixth strength of Catholic social teaching is that it is, prophetic in the sense of being radically challenging arid inspirational. It is uncompromising in its condemnation of oppression and exploitation, and of the consumerism and alienation which are linked to them. It is in direct continuity with the words of the Old Testament prophets in denouncing injustice and announcing new hope for all, above all for the poor and oppressed. At its best it can be experienced as sharing in the liberating task of Jesus. It calls on Christia’ and all people of good will to work for a fundamental reshape of society both at the global and the local levels. Within the past generation it has come to a deeper understanding of the Church’s call to side with the poor and the powerless working for justice; and it has found in the term ‘option for the poor’ a striking and effective way of expressing this call. For these reasons Catholic social teaching is inspiring and evangelical teaching which lies at the heart of the Christian faith.

Weaknesses in the Social Teaching Tradition

There are a number of areas in which Catholic social teaching is somewhat weak or at least insufficiently developed.

In the first place, it has not yet become sufficiently ecological in its scope. In a sense, this is the negative aspect of its greatest strength which is its humanistic character; it has become unduly anthropocentric. In one way it was a step forward when Church leaders began to switch their emphasis from ‘natural law’ to ‘the defence of the human’. In a similar way it was a kind of progress when, at about the same time, theologians ‘began to replace their courses and books on ‘The Theology of Creation’ with ‘Theological Anthropology’. But what tended to become lost as a result of these changes was a sense of the unity of creation as a whole. What is needed now is to situate the Church’s social teaching and the theological anthropology on which it is based within the context of a renewed theological cosmology or theology of creation.

As I pointed out in the previous chapter, Pope John Paul affirms the integrity of creation. But Catholic teaching has not yet provided us with guidelines for knowing how to respect this integrity. We do not yet have criteria for discerning the ‘limits of human ‘interference’ with Nature. There is need for serious work to be done on whether, or in what sense, animals have rights; and this should be related to study and reflection on the ‘right’ to continued existence of various species of living beings and even of places of natural beauty. As I noted in my commentary on Centesimus Annus, Pope John Paul (like many other Catholic theologians) articulates the duty of respecting the environment in terms of its effect on humans. But he "upplements this by invoking as an ultimate criterion the ‘prior God-given purpose’ of the Earth (CA 37). An urgent task for eologians today is to find ways of discerning this ‘God-given purpose; it is not enough to rely on common sense or to expect ome ecclesiastical or secular authority to decide in a volunristic or arbitrary manner what it is.

A second weakness of Catholic social teaching is that the man values which it embodies may not be as fully transcultural they are assumed to be. These values were articulated almost ntirely in a Western context; and at present Rome seems unduly reluctant to allow the local Churches of different continents to develop their own articulations of social teaching. The present body of teaching, for all its merits, needs to be supplemented, and partially corrected, by the values that have been or will be articulated in situations where Christianity is incarnated in, say, Asian or African cultures. An example may bring out the point. At present, Catholic social teaching seems to presuppose that the family means the nuclear family; so it neglects or ignores the rich values embodied in the extended family, although this is an institution which plays a central role in the lives of most African peoples and many of the peoples of Asia (e.g. the Lebanese and the Pakistanis).

Another example raises even more far-reaching questions Catholic social teaching now places a lot of emphasis on the right to development. But, as I pointed out towards the end of Chapter 7, it is essential to distinguish between development and Western-style development; and many Church leaders and theologians have not succeeded in holding on to this despite the helpful approach adopted by Paul VI in Populorum Progressio. Consequently, here is a real danger that the promotion of Catholic social teaching (as presently articulated) may contribute to the imposition of Western values on the peoples of other cultures. It may also lead to the neglect, in Catholic social teaching, of some of the most fundamental values of non-Western cultures e.g. serenity, respect, contemplation, sense of oneness with Nature or with ‘the All’, rootedness, harmony, cooperation, and gentleness.

There are indications that when ‘development’ is promoted in non-Western cultures it brings with it exploitativeness, competition, and consumerism. Of course some people believe tha these problems are characteristic not of European or Western culture as such but only of the ‘decadent West’; and that they be remedied by an influx of renewed faith coming from resurgent Catholics of Eastern Europe. But one must remem that Eastern Europe was totally dedicated to ‘development’; the effects there were at least as horrifying as in the West. An granted that communism was imposed on several East Europe countries from outside, it can scarcely be argued that this absolve the peoples of these countries from all complicity in the evil effec brought about by the ‘development plans’ of their governments.

It is quite true that the cultures of Eastern and Western Europe have been permeated at a deep level by the Christian faith. But it would be far too simple to dismiss exploitativeness as just an accidental and passing aberration of modern Western culture. Thomas Berry has put forward some strong arguments in favour of the view that insensitivity to the Earth and lack of reverence for life have very deep roots not only in Western culture but even in the Judaeo-Christian tradition. This suggests the urgent need for Catholic social teaching to be far more open than in the past to the values of non-Western cultures and of other religious visions of life.

A third area in which Catholic social teaching is somewhat weak or undeveloped concerns the issue of alternatives to the present model of development. This is closely related to ‘the topic I have just been discussing. It is understandable— though inexcusable—that politicians should play down the ‘problems associated with a reliance on rapid economic Western-"style development as a solution to problems of poverty, inequity, and unemployment. But it is more difficult to understand why ‘those who articulate the Church’s social teaching should fail to point out sharply and trenchantly the futility and sheer foolishness of relying on ‘development’ to solve such major problems. Could it be due to a desire of mainline Catholic social thinkers to be ‘respectable’? Perhaps this leads them to lean on to an outdated paradigm, and prevents them from being in touch with the most recent advances in the earth sciences and social sciences, or gives rise to a certain lack of activity in drawing out their implications. Of course it is true that those who cry out against ‘development’ are often dismissed unrealistic cranks. But since the Church is called to be prophetic it has to be somewhat ‘unrealistic’ in the sense that cannot allow the prevailing situation to be the sole determinant of what is considered realistic.

A more benign explanation for the failure to emphasise ernatives is a fear by Church leaders of falling once more to the trap of proposing an alternative ‘blueprint’ for society. That is required of the Church in this situation is not some particular Catholic blueprint but rather an insistence on the urgent need of a search for alternative models of living and of ganising society. The Church need not claim to have the answer; but it could certainly list some of the criteria, e.g. reliance on renewable energy, technology that does not lead to mass unemployment, policies which favour public transport systems rather than private vehicles, production units that are not so big and so specialised that the workers are alienated from the products produced, reliance as far as possible on local food products and raw materials. (Some of these criteria are already implicit in the Church’s traditional emphasis on the principle of subsidiarity; but the implications need to be spelled out.) It is also important to take account of a point noted as early as 1973 by Ivan Illich in his essay ‘Energy and Equity’. He showed that an increased use of energy goes hand in hand with an increase in the gap between the rich and the poor; this brings out the close links between the ecological issue and the justice issue (Illich [1978] 110—43) and the urgent need for an alternative to the present dominant model of human development.

The fourth and perhaps the biggest lacuna in the social teaching of the Catholic Church is its failure to provide an adequate treatment of the issue of justice for women. Amata Miller has written a striking study, the title of which sums up her main point: Catholic Social Teaching—What Might Have Been if Women were not Invisible in a Patriarchal Society (A. Miller [1991]). She stresses the ‘fundamental congruence between the basic values undergirding Catholic social teaching and the values of the women’s movements of the past hundred years. But she spells out a major blind spot in those who articulated Catholic teaching during that period: they did not take account of the real situation of women in the work-place during that time.

Miller documents the exploitation of women in the economic life of the nation. This is the basis for what is perhaps the most valuable aspect of her study, namely, the way in which she inserts the victimisation of women into the mainstream of’ social injustice, rather than allowing ‘women's issues’ to remain in a separate category. She brings out how the commitment of Church leaders to the ideal of ‘woman in the home’ prevented them acknowledging (or perhaps even seeing) the numbers of women who were going out to work; and how this caused them to overlook the gross exploitation of women’s labour. Miller shows that the blindness in relation to women at work persisted during the greater part of the past century of social teaching; and she holds that even John Paul II has maintained an unrealistic approach on this issue. She goes on to bring out very effectively the gap which has been left in Catholic social teaching. She speculates shrewdly about the advances that might have been made ‘if church leaders had been able to see and hear the women of their times, and if women struggling for justice had found consistent support in the official teaching of the church’. For her, what is in question is a serious sin of omission which weakens the strength of the ‘exhortations to justice in the workplace’ issued by Church leaders like Pope John Paul and ‘makes their calls for respect of life hollow and partial to many’.

I suggested in Chapter 12 (pp. 300 - 2) that Laborem Exercens may be understood as a significant break away from previous Church teaching about women and work. But even if the official teaching on women and work has changed, the change has been so surreptitious and unheralded that it may well have been counter-productive in its effect. I suspect that it has left Church spokespersons with no clear sense of where Catholic social teaching now stands on this issue. The result is that they do not speak out strongly on the various kinds of exploitation of women which commonly occur nowadays in the workplace. This spares women from hearing the old-fashioned and patronising defence of women which they often heard from Church leaders in the past. But the resulting silence may well be even more damaging, because it makes women at work more ‘invisible’ than ever.

Probably the most impressive statement by the official Church on justice from the point of view of women is a short passage in the document issued in 1971 by the Bishops’ Synod in Rome. In it the bishops urged that women should have a proper share of responsibility and participation both in society and in the Church (JW 42). It is time that the official Church took up this theme once again. The controversy surrounding the efforts of the bishops of the USA to prepare a document about women is a clear indication of how difficult it will be to find a way forward so long as the main articulators of Catholic social teaching are male clerics. The Church must find a means of enabling women themselves to play a more central role in formulating the social teaching and policies of the Church, especially those which concern women.

The fifth area in which Catholic social teaching needs further development and clarification has to do with the role of the Church in politics. There are some general guidelines which have been developed by the Church over the past 100 years. Central to the accepted approach is a practical distinction between the area of ‘politics’ and that of ‘religion,- even though the two overlap to some extent. Within the terms of this distinction, the Church’s main concern is with ‘religion’; but by its nature this includes some involvement in the social and political spheres of life. It is accepted that Church leaders are not entitled to claim any special competence in purely political matters. Lay Christians, in their capacity as citizens, are encouraged to take part in politics, even party politics. But the Church discourages priests and members of religious communities from becoming actively involved in overtly political activity, or party politics; the aim is to ensure that the Church does not compromise its basic function by becoming too closely identified with any particular party.

These guidelines have served the Church well and are not to be discarded lightly. But they still leave some awkward questions—particularly now that Church leaders are insisting so strongly on social justice and are committing the Church to the defence of the poor and oppressed. When Church leaders speak out on justice issues they enter on an area which is ‘political’. The distinction between politics in a broad sense and ‘party politics’ is very helpful where a number of different democratic parties, sharing the same fundamental moral values differ in regard to priorities and programmes; the Church can then maintain its neutrality in relation to all of them. But what happens if there are two major parties and the policy of one of them is to maintain an unjust and totally undemocratic social order while the other party is committed to social justices What if a tyrannical government outlaws democratic opposition and the only effective resistance is through movements which are labelled as subversive? If Church leaders speak out clearly and specifically on issues of justice in such situations they will be understood to be taking sides of political issues, and will in fact be no longer keeping aloof from ‘party politics’.

In practice, of course, Church leaders cope with the problem by speaking out on various justice issues while pointing out that they are not identifying themselves with any particular party policy. But it would be helpful if Catholic social teaching were to acknowledge more clearly the difference between this kind of situation and one where the differences between political parties are concerned not with fundamental social justice but only with the practical means of attaining it.

The sixth area in which Catholic social teaching needs to be developed more fully concerns the matter of social analysis. In listing the strengths of the tradition I noted that present social teaching is based on a good deal of social analysis. But this analysis is incomplete; there is some attempt to explore the historical roots of international injustice; but there seems to be a reluctance to engage in an analysis of the root causes of social injustice at the national and local levels. In Laborem Exercens, Pope John Paul went some way towards closing this gap; but even his account remained rather generic and put the focus more on the past rather than the present.

It seems that the reason why Catholic social teaching is so reticent on this issue is because social analysis reveals and highlights the extent to which most modern societies are divided into different social classes. All through the past century Church "authorities have tended to shy away from the question of the class structure of society. This springs from an understandable desire not to foment class struggle. But there seems to be a failure to distinguish between acknowledging the reality and approving of it. Critics would say that Church leaders are unwilling to acknowledge the extent to which the Church is unduly ‘tied’ to the interests of the more powerful classes in society. There was some truth in this accusation in the past; so it is not surprising that Church people at that time tended to see social analysis as a Marxist idea.

When Church leaders in Latin America and elsewhere made ‘an option for the poor’ they were setting out to correct this imbalance. The sectors of the Christian community who favour such an option are also committed to serious social and structural analysis; for it is only in this way that they can discover who ‘the poor’ really are and what are the fundamental causes of their poverty. But the new commitment to social analysis has not yet had its full impact on the main Church documents on social justice issues.

A seventh point on which the teaching of the Church remains insufficiently developed is related to the previous one it concerns the question of confrontation and conflict. I have touched on aspects of this in various parts of this book and have discussed the topic of confrontation at some length while examining John Paul’s teaching on solidarity in Sollicitudo Res Socialis. It suffices to say here that the traditional social teaching put so much emphasis on harmony and consensus that it played down the fact that opposition can at times be an essential aspect of working for social justice. The teaching of John Paul on solidarity provides a partial corrective for this oversight. But, even yet, insufficient attention is paid to this question. Vatican authorities seem reluctant to say anything which might be taken as an incitement to the poor or the powerless to demand their rights; and priests or members of religious communities who help the poor in organising themselves to press for their rights are often frowned on as being too political or as being involved in a wrong form of liberation theology.

Furthermore, John Paul’s concept of solidarity, though it is very valuable, seems to presuppose that there is consensus in society on fundamental social values. The fact is, however that there is a radical pluralism in most modern societies.

Many Christians find themselves in situations where society is created as much through conflict as through consensus and harmony. So there is need for more realistic guidelines to help those who are struggling for social justice in such situations; they need support and guidance in finding ways to struggle for their own basic values while respecting the views of those’ whose vision of life is quite different.

An eighth issue on which the social teaching of the Church is in need of further development concerns the question of justice within the Church itself. The only major document in which this issue is taken up courageously is ‘Justice in the World’ issued by the Bishops’ Synod of 1971. It recognised that if the Church’s social teaching about society is to be credible; and effective, then the Church itself should be a living witness to this teaching. The crucial test is whether Church leaders are prepared to take seriously the commitments made in that Synod, and ensure that the institutional Church itself gives more effective witness to justice in its structures and style of operation. Many observers of the Church accuse it of authoritarianism at every level—of not offering lay people, especially women, effective participation in decision-making. A lot of people, above all in the English-speaking world, are quite shocked at the continued use of sexist language in official documents and at other instances of sexism which they see in the Church. Some go much further and accuse it of being grossly patriarchal in its organisation and mode of acting. The most effective way of responding to these complaints will be to change the way in which the Church’s social teaching is articulated; and this is the next point which I shall consider.

The ninth and final lacuna in the social teaching of the Catholic Church is not a matter of its content but rather of the way in which the teaching is worked Out. In recent years the Vatican has begun to consult lay experts more frequently. But private consultation with specialists is not sufficient. The US Catholic bishops and the World Council of Churches have shown that it is possible to have a much more widespread and public type of consultation. The Roman authorities must find more effective ways of listening to the sensus fidei. People nowadays expect to be consulted about matters which touch their own lives. Many Catholics would like to be actively involved in the formulation of the Church’s social teaching. They have much to contribute.


I have tried to spell out as clearly as possible some areas where there is room for improvement in Catholic social teaching. But I hope that this will not give the impression that I am playing down the strengths which I outlined earlier. Despite its inadequacies, the tradition of social teaching in the Church is one of which we Christians can be proud. An awareness of the richness of this tradition should encourage us to develop it even further and to give a more effective witness to it in our lives. This tradition calls us to examine our actions, our life-styles and our structures and to make sure that there is not too wide a gap between what we are proclaiming and what we are actually doing.

The task of building a just and truly humane world is a formidable one. But those who engage in this work receive inspiration, encouragement and hope from the Catholic tradition of social teaching. It is a tradition which is long; and within the past generation the teaching has grown stronger deeper and clearer. The Church has committed itself to the belief that working for justice in the world is an essential part of preaching the Gospel.

In recent times the full implications of this commitment have emerged more clearly. The Church now acknowledges that in preaching the Gospel and working for justice it must make an option for the poor. It must be in effective solidarity with those who are powerless and voiceless and must seek to empower them and give them back their voice. Catholic social teaching recognises that the poor and the powerless are ‘God’s favourites’ (to use the words of Pope John Paul). They can no’ longer be seen as just the ones who are to be helped by others. They are called by God to be key agents, under God, ia bringing justice and liberation to the world.