Is Catholic social teaching, to use the modern vernacular, a “real thing”? Do we have to passively agree when the Church teaches about subjects that cross the line into economic or political territory?

In “The Myth of Catholic Social Teaching” at The Catholic Thing, John Zmirak claims that Catholic Social Teaching does not “exhibit the same crystalline integrity” as Catholic magisterial teaching, and therefore can’t possibly be as binding. He then zeroes in on several papal teachings having to do with economics and politics which he claims have been reversed: Usury, slavery, religious liberty, and torture.

Zmirak has a point. Too often, social teachings are used simply to club opponents. But they are in fact a set of principles offered to faithful lay people in the political sphere who can bring their experience to bear on an honest attempt to apply them. For instance, when the Catechism rejects both socialism and capitalism it leaves open the question of what “reasonable regulation” is. That’s the Catholic politician’s job, not the Church’s.

But Catholic social teaching isn’t as hopelessly unsure as Zmirak makes it out to be, either. He winds up his case with this telling paragraph:

Were those Catholic bankers who charged non-excessive rates of interest before the popes reexamined the question really committing sins against nature? Were Catholics who joined the abolitionist movement also sinning, by claiming that the institution was evil prematurely, before the popes got around to it? Were advocates of religious liberty before Vatican II material heretics, until that day in 1963 when the Council came round to agreeing with them? Were opponents of torture culpable for teaching a position before the Church approved it?

The paragraph makes the Church’s teaching seem absurd by equating teachings of the Church with their application in various times and places—in the most contentious way possible. Zmirak may be trying to show how absurd it is to treat Catholic social teaching as absolutely binding, but he makes the teaching look ridiculous in the process.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, before he was Benedict XVI, warned against just such an approach to the prudential application of tenets of the faith:

it comes to the question of interventions in the prudential order, it could happen that some Magisterial documents might not be free from all deficiencies. Bishops and their advisors have not always taken into immediate consideration every aspect or the entire complexity of a question. But it would be contrary to the truth, if, proceeding from some particular cases, one were to conclude that the Church’s Magisterium can be habitually mistaken in its prudential judgments, or that it does not enjoy divine assistance in the integral exercise of its mission. In fact, the theologian, who cannot pursue his discipline well without a certain competence in history, is aware of the filtering which occurs with the passage of time. This is not to be understood in the sense of a relativization of the tenets of the faith. The theologian knows that some judgments of the Magisterium could be justified at the time in which they were made, because while the pronouncements contained true assertions and others which were not sure, both types were inextricably connected. 

Cardinal Ratzinger is calling attention to the distinction between principles and their application. The tenets of the faith are principles. Principles don’t change over time, but their application does.

Take usury as an example. Zmirak defines usury as any “lending at interest,” and points out that it was condemned for centuries by popes and councils (which he names).

Usury was later redefined from ‘any interest’ to ‘excessive interest.’ That is not a minor tweak, but a fundamental change. To appreciate its significance, imagine a future pope redefining ‘contraception’ to make room for its general use, withholding permission only when it was employed ‘abusively.’

But by what principle did the Church condemn usury? Aquinas, following Aristotle, said that taking interest on a loan was akin to “selling what does not exist.” In a time of no growth, taking a payment merely and solely for the act of lending is just that. But in a growth economy, the Church saw that interest was no longer merely a case of “selling what does not exist.”

If you loan me money in a growing economy, you lose the gain you would have gotten from that money—so I owe you, not for “nothing,” but for your “cessant gain” and “emergent loss” (to use the terminology from English history).

If I were to take your money and not restore your loss, then I would be cheating you, not you cheating me. The same principle of justice that condemns interest in a no-growth economy demands reasonable interest in a growth economy.

And the same principle of justice rejects excessive interest, even to this day. St. John Paul II in a Feb. 3, 2004, general audience called usury “a plague that is a disgraceful reality even in our days that can place a stronghold on the lives of many people.” Pope Benedict XVI in his commentary on the Psalms on Nov. 2, 2005 condemned “the shame of usury, which destroys the lives of the poor.’”

So when Zmirak purports to show that the Church has done “a 180-degree reversal” on usury, the Church in fact did the opposite: She faithfully applied the principle despite changing circumstances.

It’s the same way with each of his examples. Slavery? The Church has always taught that human beings have equal dignity. Those human beings have arranged themselves in economic and political relationships that needed moral parsing to avoid abuse including: butlers, live-in maids, serfs, indentured servants, apprentices, the military draft, wards of the state, prisoners, and “suspicious” citizens rounded up into internment camps. Each arrangement is a kind of “slavery” but all those arrangements are not worthy of the same kind of condemnation.

It takes a wise magisterium to apply the principle of equal dignity over time, and while there are many examples of individual hierarchs making significant missteps, the Church’s record on slavery is actually pretty sound (as Mark Brumley, for one, points out).

Religious liberty? The Church has always taught the principle of freedom of conscience—St. Thomas Aquinas radically so—even though that principle’s application has varied over time. Religious liberty means one thing in an entirely Catholic culture, and quite another in a pluralistic democracy (as many have pointed out at length). Zmirak is right that the Church’s opposition to “religious liberty” heated up during the eighteenth and nineteenth century—when “religious liberty” was being used to mean the guillotine, the abolition of the clergy, and the disenfranchisement of Church schools.

Torture? Zmirak points to a dark history of Church involvement in torture and uses it to question the Church’s competency on social justice questions. The Catechism looks at the same dark chapter and sees the ways the Church’s social justice sensibility mitigated the damage. From the Catechism:

In times past, cruel practices were commonly used by legitimate governments to maintain law and order, often without protest from the Pastors of the Church, who themselves adopted in their own tribunals the prescriptions of Roman law concerning torture. Regrettable as these facts are, the Church always taught the duty of clemency and mercy. She forbade clerics to shed blood. In recent times it has become evident that these cruel practices were neither necessary for public order, nor in conformity with the legitimate rights of the human person. On the contrary, these practices led to ones even more degrading. It is necessary to work for their abolition.

It is true: The history of the Church’s social teaching does not “exhibit crystalline integrity.” But then neither does the history of the Church’s teaching on Christ’s divinity, or its teaching on the real presence in the Eucharist.

The Church is a human institution with a divine guide. The principles provided by the guide are strong and unfailing. The Church’s application of them is human and imperfect. But all things considered, even the prudential application the Church has made of its timeless principles has been a testament to the reliability of the magisterium.

Tom Hoopes is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas.

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