Jeff Mirus, president of CatholicCulture.org, recently wrote about some problems with Catholic social teaching, commenting on Samuel Gregg’s piece, ‘Correcting Catholic Blindness.’ Mirus argues that “Catholic social teaching goes beyond strict principles to assess specific social, economic and political policies, it has too often tended to see the possibilities with a kind of tunnel vision. It sees (or rather its writers tend to see) through the lens of ‘what might be loosely labeled a mildly center-left Western European consensus.'”
…when it comes to social teaching, Samuel Gregg wants the Church (and Catholics generally) to pay attention to what actually does and does not work.
Catholic social teaching, even at the Magisterial level, invariably addresses two things, only one of which enjoys the protection of the Holy Spirit. The first is the moral principles which must govern our social, economic and political affairs—principles like the universal destination of goods, solidarity and subsidiarity. The second is the prudential application of these principles to real situations in the real world. The former enjoys the protection of the Holy Spirit; the latter depends on practical wisdom.
These prudential judgments may be colored by all kinds of irrelevant and even unworkable assumptions, as when Pope Paul VI stressed the need for government-to-government foreign aid, from first world to third world nations, in Populorum Progressio. This political and economic practice would seem to serve the principles of solidarity and the universal destination of goods. But as a practical matter, it has seldom been helpful and often makes things worse. For one thing, it has a marked tendency to shore up tyranny without ever reaching those it is supposed to help.
Mirus describes what he and Gregg do not want to see happen:
[Popes and bishops] have no special advantage in perceiving what actually works, or in determining which morally-neutral socio-economic policies ought to be pursued in a particular time and place.
By the Church’s own doctrinal teaching, to figure out “what actually works” in the temporal order is the competence of the laity. The essential role of the clergy in this process is to provide the sound spiritual and moral formation the laity need to secure their practical judgments within this context of Christian principles. This is why, as Catholics, we are obliged to adhere to the principles of Catholic social teaching, but not at all obliged to accept or work toward the policy recommendations that popes and bishops may seem to prefer.
Urging popes and bishops to both broaden their pragmatic horizons and become more practically specific might just be a zero sum game. It may emphasize a task for which they have no competence at the expense of a task that is rightfully their own.
On the other hand, insofar as Gregg would prefer that all Catholics, including ecclesiastical teachers, be more attentive to what actually works, and less attentive to the “mildly center-left Western European consensus” that so often seeps unbidden into official statements, this is a consummation devoutly to be desired. Here I will only stress that it is not always easy to see what actually works, or what will work, or what works best. Moreover, we must acknowledge that the social order always involves trade-offs. Every strategy has pros and cons.