For more than a century, Catholic social teaching was organized and propounded in light of three institutions thought to be necessary for human happiness: family, polity, and church. The Church insisted that human flourishing requires a dynamic concord between domestic, political, and ecclesial orders, and that membership in these three societies is not strictly voluntary. All of the chief principles of Catholic social thought were formulated and clarified using this three-fold institutional paradigm, focused on the harmonization of the three societies, beginning with Pope Leo XIII (1878–1903) and continuing for most of the following century.

Despite some great successes, especially during the post-war era, the picture eventually turned cloudy for the threefold model of human social life. First, what Pope John Paul II called the “anthropological crisis” deeply eroded confidence in a normative account of institutions. Beginning with marriage and family, the three necessary societies began to be seen as merely optional elements of individual lifestyle—choices and contracts reducible to personal preference or global economics.

Whereas the problem for the better part of two centuries was how to reduce the rivalry and conflict between the three necessary societies, today the main issue is a human sociability set free from normative institutions. We have entered a time of perplexities—a time of doubt and suspicion about social order that transcends private exchanges and distributions. We are in the fluidly “prophetic” era of Pope Francis. What does this mean for human society in its three basic institutions? Can peace still be made between them?

Russell Hittinger, Warren Professor of Catholic Studies at the University of Tulsa, took up these questions in a public lecture held at The Catholic University of America on Thursday, March 9th, 2017. Video of the event is available below.


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