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The World as It Could Be: Catholic Social Thought for a New Generation
by Thomas D. Williams
Crossroad, 240 pages, $24.95

What would the world be like, asks Thomas Williams in The World as It Could Be , if essential truths of the human person were universally acknowledged and respected and “all temporal realities were imbued with the spirit of the Gospel of Jesus Christ”? In this “modest contribution” to our thinking on social justice, Williams, a priest of the Legionaries of Christ who teaches at the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum in Rome, adds to the established Catholic social teaching an analysis of the “nuanced” contributions of Benedict XVI from his encyclicals Deus Caritas Est and Caritas in Veritate .

Basic to Catholic social thought, he explains, is the premise that the purpose of the state is to promote the common good of society. The Church defines the common good as the social conditions necessary for human persons to achieve their genuine flourishing and fulfillment, which is known at least in part by Christian revelation. “This set of social conditions reflects a substantive idea of human nature and the human good and is not a mere expression of consensus or convention.”

The common good is thus at root an anthropological notion, and it cannot properly be conceived or safeguarded without a clear understanding and acceptance of the truth of the human person. This means that the right ordering of society depends on an indispensable reference to objective truths, nonnegotiable moral truths, or “first things,” without which the state cannot fulfill its reason for being.

Since, for example, the common good requires the protection of human rights, and those rights are derived from man’s innate dignity, that dignity must be rooted in something objective, universal, and absolute to protect it from being rejected by shifting public opinion or accumulations of political power. Epistemological ambiguity about the foundation of human dignity ultimately threatens human rights, and, as Williams notes, today a lack of consensus on the matter leads to violations of human dignity, often in the name of human dignity falsely understood.

Further, authentic human flourishing requires social conditions that promote the spiritual development of the human person, including his moral growth, as well as his material development. Nor is it possible to promote human flourishing without a view to eternal life, to which every person is called. This consistent argument for the unavoidable reference to objective truths, including objective truths known only by revelation, is a particular strength of Williams’ work.

Williams draws attention to two of Benedict XVI’s most important”and perhaps most contentious”advances in the Church’s teaching. The first is what he describes as Benedict’s modification of the Church’s call for a “global political authority.” Williams argues that the Church’s call for global authority is far from a minor hobbyhorse of an over-enthusiastic Vatican bureaucracy but rather a “basic tenet” of Catholic social doctrine, dating back to John XXIII’s 1963 encyclical Pacem in Terris . Since every level of human communal existence, including the international, must serve the common good, there must be a proportional authority at every level to safeguard it. The new and permanent reality of globalization needs to be guided to its proper end, the common good of the entire human community.

Unlike previous papal calls for an unspecified world government, what Benedict proposes is a dispersed and stratified global governance, operating at various levels, with no single locus of authority, and abiding by the principle of subsidiarity. This, Williams claims, is a more detailed and nuanced vision of the necessary world political authority, one providing protection against that authority’s admitted dangers, and marks a significant development in Catholic social doctrine.

But the old idea of “world government” is not so easy to distinguish from the supposedly chastened ideal of “global governance.” Last October’s proposal by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace for a “world Authority” with universal jurisdiction and a “central world bank” to regulate the global financial and monetary markets showed little indication of having absorbed Benedict’s insights on promoting global solidarity through subsidiary means.

Even Benedict’s welcomed qualifications have left legitimate questions about the Church’s longstanding proposal, including more than fair concerns about how such a world political authority would be accountable to the people and not rendered ineffective by a proportionately immense bureaucracy. If Benedict has enriched our ideas of global governance, further clarifications are certainly necessary to reassure sympathetic skeptics.

Benedict XVI’s second significant advance in social teaching is his “bold proposal” that political authorities should discern among particular religions to determine their contribution to the common good. Religious liberty does not mean that all religions are equal, and the common good can either be promoted by religions or threatened by their pathological distortions. Because religions determine culture and culture affects the common good, political authorities have no choice but to distinguish between religions and even to favor some religions over others, in order to fulfill the state’s duty to safeguard the common good.

“The Pope,” Williams writes, “was no doubt aware of the hornet’s nest he stirs up when suggesting that government is competent to judge between one religion and another.” Williams here echoes Fr. John Courtney Murray’s caution that public authority is incompetent to judge transcendent truths, including the theological truths of religion. Reason can purify religion of harmful deviations, but can it finally judge the truth and value of a supernatural revelation that calls for religious submission of the intellect? Benedict XVI’s proposal, according to Williams, is different: It asks public authorities to make “an application of the intellect” and “an anthropological judgment, based on universal principles of the common good.”

There should be little doubt about where Benedict thinks this will lead. Williams notes the claim by then Cardinal Ratzinger that Christianity has proven to be “the most universal and rational religious culture.” But he does not mention Benedict’s implicit suggestion that this governmental discernment of religions will lead political authority and the society it serves to the rational discovery of Christianity as the one true religion, which brings with it the fullness of truth about the human person necessary to guide the protection of the common good.

The related and critical challenge that Williams recognizes in passing but does not treat in depth is how to achieve the acceptance of these objective truths by political authorities in what Benedict XVI refers to as the “sphere of the autonomous use of reason.” Williams explains that the Church presents its teachings to the political sphere using only the vocabulary of the universally accessible natural law. He endorses Benedict’s conviction that not the slightest degree of confessionalism is required for civil powers to recognize necessary objective referents because, he claims, such referents can always be derived from unaided reason.

At the same time, however, he acknowledges that the ultimate and surest foundation for human dignity is found in and known by the revealed truths of man’s creation in the image and likeness of God and by his universal vocation to divine beatitude. As the Church teaches in Gaudium et Spes , “By no human law can the personal dignity and liberty of man be so aptly safeguarded as by the Gospel of Christ which has been entrusted to the Church.”

So, then, how can the autonomous state, which properly functions according to the principles of reason alone, come to accept the data of Christian revelation necessary to safeguard human dignity? Williams claims that truths obtained by divine revelation often require a “retracing of steps” to explain rationally why they are true. However, Church doctrine insists that many revealed truths are supernatural in nature and cannot be rationally demonstrated but must be accepted by an assent of the intellect as it is moved by the will, the assent being based ultimately on the authority of the one who has made his revelation known by external evidence.

The World as It Could Be offers a skillful evaluation of the recent contributions by Benedict XVI to Catholic social thought, and in the process it raises critical questions about the baseline principles that govern the relationship between faith and reason and consequently between the Church and the state. While acknowledging the practical difficulties of implementing the principles of Catholic social teaching, Williams insists, with the Church, that “sober realism must not lower our gaze or deter our pursuit of what is noble and blessed.”

Fr. David Pignato teaches systematic theology at Saint John’s Seminary in Brighton, Massachusetts.