Part I – Learning from the Past
Chapter 5 – Insights from Catholic Social Ethics and Political Participation.
By Kristen E. Heyer, assistant professor of Christian ethics in the department of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University.
Heyer references the two Kingdoms model in her introductory remarks, observing that Catholics believe they are to be citizens of the City of God and of the earthly city. She acknowledges concern and confusion about how religion is to relate to culture. Nevertheless, “The Roman Catholic stance essentially holds that in spite of the risks and tensions that exist for a pilgrim people, discipleship requires faithful citizenship.” (101)
Background: A Roman Catholic Perspective on Public Engagement
Broadly understood, Catholic social thought and action are grounded in a theology of the fundamental goodness of creation, the mediation of the divine through the human (incarnation, sacramental principle), and the Catholic insistence on the universality of God’s concern. (102)
Heyer shows that Catholic social teaching is always connected to the social teaching of the church throughout the centuries while still being cognizant of the "signs of the times." She notes that over the past century the Church has emphasized the “citizens of two cities” approach social teaching. There is always an unavoidable tension between other worldliness and practical engagement. Additionally, there is ongoing tension between personal piety and the need to advocate for justice at the structural level, especially as it relates to the most vulnerable. “…The political order is not merely remedial of sin; it serves to achieve the common good.” (104) But this is not to be understood as an abrogation of personal responsibility. Heyer also points out that Catholic social teaching is significantly influenced by the fact that it is a world Church with connections to institutions like hospitals, schools, charities and universities. There is a deep institutional connection of discipleship and citizenship.
Insights from Catholic Social Ethics and Political Participation
I thought this section was one of the more intriguing portions of the essay. Heyer writes,
Catholic posture helps guard against risks such as an engagement that verges on co-optation; too optimistic or too pessimistic a view of the wider world; or disproportionate reliance upon a particular theological “canon within the canon. (105)
In fact, Ernst Troeltsch noted that the genius of the Catholic Church was the way it incorporated both “church” and “sect” types, co-opting the sectarian impulse into religious orders as a “sect” within the wider “church. (106)
Heyer describes a multilayered approach to Church authority. She identifies three layers:
- “thus saith the Lord” (for example, moral absolutes such as intentionally attacking noncombatants is absolutely forbidden.)
- “this is the official Catholic teaching,” and
- “this is our prudential judgment, and it depends upon our careful reading of the social realities and the best experts we have consulted, but reasonable people may disagree." (107)
She did not fully flesh this out but it would be interesting see how she applies this to a handful of presently controversial issues.
Heyer says that Catholic teaching involves both public theology and natural law. Public theology has at its center the imago Dei and the need to champion those that are most vulnerable among those God has created in his image. At the same time, the Church looks to natural law as a way to build relationships in common cause with others of goodwill outside the Catholic Church. As a consequence, many Catholic positions have a combination of theological and secular warrants. This has the twin advantage of educating and motivating the faithful while building bridges of commonality with the culture. Heyer goes on to note the that Catholic social teaching also recognizes a tension between having policy that is specific enough to influence action but broad enough to leave room for considerable disagreement about application.
Heyer writes “… Jesus’ primary message calls for repentance and interior conversion yet working to bring about a more just society also depends upon changing structures.” (111) She also notes that, according to social teaching, we must be at work with individuals and with structures at the local, national, and international levels, as well as the intermediate levels in between. This refers back to the earlier observation about the size and presence of the Catholic Church and its institutions, engaged with the public in so many different capacities, makes it well equipped to address a variety of issues at many levels.
Another aspect Heyer notes is the attempt to address a comprehensive range of issues and avoid single issue politics. She cites the consistent life ethic espoused by Joseph Cardinal Bernadin as an example. Not everyone agrees on all the applications of this ethic but the key is that is a multi-issue interrelated ethic focused on the realization of the ethic.
Conclusions: Ongoing Challenges for a Christian Public Ethic
Heyer points to the recent sex abuse scandal as evidence of the need for the Church to “…both embody and advocate the values it advances.” (114) She commends the “both-and” of Catholic thinking that keeps many seemingly antithetical values together (e.g.. Church and sect, theology and philosophy, charity and advocacy.) She also stresses the strength of the Catholic model in finding balance between co-optation and withdrawal.
It strikes me that the Roman Catholics may have the most sound social policy approach compared to the Evangelical and mainline traditions.
(This essay completes Part I of the book about “Learning from the Past.” Next week will begin the four chapters from Part II titled “Toward an Evangelical Methodology” starting with Chapter 6. We are one third of the way through the book!)