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Catholic social teachings

Prof. Emeritus Rice | Thursday, March 9, 2006

It may come as a news flash, but Catholic teaching is about more than sex and the right to life. It covers the entire range of human experience. But how much do you, yourself, really know about Catholic social teaching? If the answer is, “Not much,” don’t feel so bad. You have plenty of company. “[M]ore than in any other historical period,” said Pope John Paul II, “there is a breakdown in the process of handing on moral and religious values between generations.” Over the past four decades, religion classes at Catholic schools have focused on making collages or imparting the gospel of political correctness. The students, when they become parents, cannot pass on to their children what they never received. But now, help is at hand.

In his first encyclical, “Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love),” Pope Benedict XVI included a reading list which could be a remedial study assignment.

After affirming the need to build “a just social order in which all receive their share of the world’s goods and no longer have to depend on charity,” “Deus Caritas Est (DCE)” listed the interventions of “the papal magisterium” in response to the changing “social problems” resulting from industrialization and later developments including “the growth of a globalized economy.” Several great popes have developed this teaching, starting with Pope Leo XIII’s “Rerum Novarum” in 1891. Pope Pius XI followed with “Quadragesimo Anno” (1931) and Pope John XXIII with “Mater et Magistra (Mother and Teacher)” (1961). Pope Paul VI contributed “Populorum Progressio” (1967) and “Octogesima Adveniens” (1971), addressing especially the social problems in Latin America. John Paul II left a trilogy of social encyclicals, “Laborem Exercens” (1981) on the dignity of work, “Sollicitudo Rei Socialis” (1987), and “Centessimus Annus” (1991) which cautioned against the acceptance of a materialist capitalism as an alternative to the failed prescriptions of Marxism.

At times the guidelines in these documents have met with indifference or hostility from Catholics across the political spectrum, including National Review’s adolescent eruption, “Mater Si! Magister No!” in response to John XXIII’s Mater et Magistra.

Even a Notre Dame student would find it a daunting task to plow through all those papal teachings. Benedict, however, comes to the rescue by recommending the “Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church,” published in 2004 by the Pontifical Council on Justice and Peace. In 255 pages of text, with a detailed index, the Compendium synthesizes all those teachings, beginning with the foundational principle of the dignity of the person which arises from his creation in the image and likeness of God. From that dignity arise the organizing principles of solidarity and subsidiarity, both of which are stressed in DCE. The Compendium covers the family, human work, economic life, the political and international communities, the environment and war and peace.

The Compendium provides a useful overview of the social teachings. But if you want a really short, but excellent, introduction, take a look at “Citizens of the Heavenly City: A Catechism of Catholic Social Teaching”, by Dr. Arthur Hippler, director of the Office of Justice and Peace of the diocese of LaCrosse, Wisconsin. In 154 pages, including notes, Hippler covers it all in a format suitable for individual or group study. The foreword, by Most Rev. Raymond L. Burke, now Archbishop of St. Louis, praises the book for its “attention to the totality of the Church’s social teaching, beginning with the sources … and then progressing to a study of the social implications of the love of God and the love of neighbor.” Hippler covers, concisely and accurately, the what and the why of the teachings on family, life, capital punishment, the environment, war and peace, free speech and the common good as well as the just wage and economic justice.

The social and moral teachings of the Catholic Church provide the only coherent response to the dominant utilitarian culture. If you want to be clear about those teachings, Hippler’s book will do it for you. Its format is attractive. It is reliable and easy to read.

With Benedict’s emphasis on the social teachings in DCE and elsewhere, with the convenient Compendium and with the appearance of accurate, reader-friendly books like Hippler’s, no one, especially at Notre Dame, has any excuse for ignorance of the rich and comprehensive social teachings of the Church. So take a look. You might be surprised at what you will find.

Prof. Emeritus Rice is on the Law School faculty. His column appears every other Thursday.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.