Peter Henriot, S.J., and his colleagues at the Center of Concern in Washington, D.C., were the first to popularize Catholic social teaching as the church’s “best-kept secret.” Their perception, that even among Catholics the church’s social teaching was not well known, seems to have been widely shared. In 1997, at the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for America, the bishops, with a firm push from their Latin American members, proposed to Pope John Paul II that a catechism of Catholic social teaching be prepared to disseminate this treasure better among the Catholic people, in order to help them read the signs of the times with a view to social action.
From the beginning, the preparation of the social catechism became intertwined with the Catechism of the Catholic Church. By the time Pope John Paul delivered the apostolic constitution Ecclesia in America in Mexico City in January 1999, the project had come to be described as a compendium that included a catechism, with the universal catechism as the starting point for the whole endeavor. The reason for this seems to have been that some were afraid that a second catechism might confuse the faithful. What was left after five years was the compendium or compilation of statements, which was a valuable resource but not the catechetical tool for popular evangelization the synod had envisioned.
The task of producing the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church was given to the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. Because of the death of Cardinal Nguyen Van Thuân, president of the council, as well as differences among individuals who worked on the text, there has been a gap in time between the papal proposal and the appearance of the book. Though the compendium’s copyright date is 2004, the American edition did not become available until 2005 because of the need to make corrections in the English translation.
A Compendium of Doctrine
There are two important words in the title of this new publication, “compendium” and “doctrine.” As a compendium the book provides “a concise but complete overview” of the church’s social teaching. Its aim is “to sustain and foster the activity of Christians in the social sector.” Little in the text is novel; it is meant to summarize and thematically present the social teaching of the church as found principally in the documents of the hierarchical magisterium.
Doctrine is the second telling word. In 1979 the French Dominican Marie Dominique Chenu published a book that equated social doctrine with ideology. He argued that during the pontificates of John XXIII and especially Paul VI a new style of social teaching had developed, one that avoided overreaching claims to perennially valid and universal principles and conclusions. Chenu believed the social teaching of the 1960’s and 70’s embraced a method that was more historically situated and inductive. The older, more deductively abstract approach to social doctrine he described as ideology.
On several occasions Pope John Paul II directly and clearly rejected Chenu’s view, even if he did not mention the French Dominican by name. Thus, including the word “doctrine” in the title of the volume reflects the conviction of the recently deceased bishop of Rome. The authors of the compendium are confident that they are presenting principles and values that are timeless and universal.
John Paul II’s influence on the text goes well beyond the title. A useful list of sources and citations is provided. The list, however, raises a concern: the tendency, so prevalent of late, to give too much weight to the papacy of John Paul II. There are more citations of John Paul II than of all previous popes combined, more than all conciliar references combined, more than all patristic and medieval authors combined. Indeed, the only thing that approximates the number of citations of the recent pope’s writings is references to the Bible, and even of these the number is less. This overreliance on one papacy is unfortunate, even if not entirely unexpected in the ecclesial context in which the volume was created.
One may recall the recent debate over the proper medical care to be given to Terri Schiavo, in which some Catholics were prepared to overturn centuries of moral teaching on the basis of one papal speech to a special audience. John Paul II’s remarks on medically assisted nutrition and hydration were never promulgated to the universal church, nor were episcopal conferences ever told to revise their local hospital directives in light of the papal remarks. These facts were simply overlooked in the rush to proclaim a novel position to be the official teaching of the church. Such is the confusion that can result when too much weight is given to any and all remarks of a single pope. Above all, it must be remembered that there is a great range of authority exhibited in the various documents of the church’s magisterium. The citations throughout the compendium reflect this variety. There are, for example, over 90 references in the volume to talks that John Paul II gave during general audiences over the 28-year span of his papacy. These speeches cannot be given the same weight as papal encyclicals or conciliar constitutions.
Any vision of the good society must have as its foundation a correct view of the human person and the nature of the good life for persons. If the church presents a sound understanding of the human person, then much else falls into place. The compendium follows this customary approach: “integral and solidary humanism” is the phrase used in the introduction to convey the Catholic reading of the human person. Human beings ought to be considered in their fullness, not simply in their political or economic dimensions, for persons have cultural, psychological, social, moral and spiritual facets as well. Such multidimensional beings must also be understood as essentially relational, embedded in a web of associations that bind us to one another and that present us with obligations and opportunities for responsible living.
Part One of the volume consists of four segments, the first of which explores the place of the human in God’s plan, followed by the second, which provides an explanation of the church’s social mission. Then comes a third chapter affirming the personalist principle behind Catholic social teaching: Every expression of society is founded upon and must serve the good of the human person. There is also a treatment of human rights, as these are understood in Catholic teaching. Concluding this initial section is a fourth chapter that presents the foundations of the church’s social teaching and explains basic principles found in the tradition—common good, universal destiny of goods, subsidiarity, participation, solidarity—and fundamental values: truth, freedom, justice and love.
Option for the Poor
A noteworthy aspect of Chapter Four’s straightforward account of basic principles is that the option for the poor is treated as a subtheme or derivative principle of the universal destiny of goods. There is a logic to the placement, but it does not permit the full significance of the option for the poor to be explained. There is an epistemological as well as moral dimension to the option for the poor. In Catholic social teaching the poor are not simply objects of moral concern; they are regarded as having a distinctive experience that gives insight into the meaning of the good news.
To accept the option for the poor as one of the fundamental principles of Catholic social teaching is to embrace a particular angle of vision from which to view reality and engage in discernment. Placing the option for the poor under the rubric of the universal destiny of goods misses a crucial point—namely that the option for the poor runs throughout the tradition of social teaching as a distinctive motif that influences how Catholics understand the meaning of other basic principles. In 1967 Paul VI proposed in Populorum Progressio that economic decisions should focus on the poor as a privileged place from which to begin ethical reflection. This suggests that the option for the poor is not simply one principle among many, even less a subcategory of another norm.
Theological Vision and Social Mission
An important strength of this first part of the volume is that it provides a more explicit theological exposition of the social tradition than is given in summary overviews that move quickly to a discussion of ethical principles. A difficulty with some popularizations of Catholic social teaching is that the tradition is summarized as a roster of moral norms that may appear to be arbitrarily selected and not necessarily related to one another. By following the approach of the Second Vatican Council’s “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World” (Gaudium et Spes), the compendium attends to the theological vision that undergirds the social teaching. The second chapter, clearly inspired by John Paul II’s teaching, then provides insight into the linkage between the church’s social teaching and the new evangelization.
Taken together, these early chapters demonstrate that the church’s engagement with political, economic, social and cultural life flows from its religious mission. The social mission is intimately tied to the work of evangelization; it is the effort to advance the encounter of the Gospel with the life of people who must live in particular historical settings. Discerning how God is to be found in these specific contexts and what the Spirit of God asks of us in our human situation is both the source of the social teaching and the motive for ministry to society. A special benefit of this first part is that any reader will be hard pressed from here on to push Catholic social teaching to the margins of the church’s pastoral mission.
The compendium’s second and longest part, composed of seven chapters, treats the major areas of social teaching grouped in chapters that address family, work, economic life, politics, international community, the environment and the promotion of peace. The inclusion of these last two topics as separate chapters is indicative of the ongoing development that marks a living tradition. It is doubtful that had a compendium been published even three decades ago there would have been an entire chapter devoted to the environment. Also it is likely that an earlier compendium would have had as its final chapter one with the title “War and Peace” or some other designation that would give prominence to the church’s longstanding adherence to the just war tradition. That tradition is not abandoned in the compendium; the text reaffirms not only the right to resist aggression but the duty to intervene in cases of humanitarian crisis. But the overarching thrust of the chapter is the positive duty to promote peace and the need to develop alternatives to war. Indeed, there is a direct reference to the danger of so-called preventive war.
Another facet of the compendium, reflective of the spirit of the times, is the clear ecumenical awareness and the stated desire that the document be viewed as an effort to speak to the interests of all people of good will. The appeal to an appropriate humanism as a foundation for Catholic social doctrine is a way to open the conversation to those outside the Catholic community. The compendium is “an instrument for fostering ecumenical and interreligious dialogue” between Catholics and all who seek the good of humankind. While papal social encyclicals and many episcopal conference statements have long been addressed to a wider audience than Catholics, it is useful to be reminded that our engagement with the wider world is not for the purpose of imposing a “Catholic” answer to pressing social questions.
Chapter Twelve constitutes the entire final part of the volume. It discusses moving from church teaching to pastoral activity and pays particular attention to the role of laypersons in this process. This final chapter emphasizes and develops a theme that is stated at the very outset of the compendium—namely, that Christians must shape a new world based on an integral and solidary humanism. Followers of Christ, we are told, cannot turn away from this role, for it is one they assume by virtue of their baptism. The responsibility of Christians to be committed to social transformation is affirmed again and again throughout the compendium.
The compendium concludes with an excellent analytical index. It runs 163 pages, just five pages shy of being half as long as the main text. It will help readers find a comment on topics ranging from abortion to youth and much else in between. This is the most helpful feature of the volume and will make it a valuable reference tool.
Throughout history, Christian engagement with worldly affairs has waxed and waned. Like other people, Christians have their activist moments and times when they tire. Believers may despair or be confused by the wider world. For more than a quarter of a century the example of John Paul II was a goad to social engagement. This book serves to remind readers, in a less dramatic manner, of one of the late pope’s strongest convictions. As the brief conclusion reaffirms, the “purpose of the Church’s social doctrine is to propose the principles and values that can sustain a society worthy of the human person.”