What is Catholic Social Teaching?

West and George

Robert George and Cornel West

As the Believe Me book tour marches on, I have been talking a lot about the way white conservative evangelicals have adopted a playbook that teaches them to engage the world through the acquisition of political power.  This partly explains why 81% of American evangelical voters pulled a lever for Donald Trump in 2016.  I have suggested that thoughtful evangelicals have offered alternative playbooks, but the Christian Right has largely ignored them.  I wrote about some of those alternative playbooks here.

Over at First ThingsPrinceton’s Robert George explains one of these alternative playbooks:  Catholic social teaching.  The Catholic approach to social, political, and moral life has been getting a lot of traction among some evangelical thinkers and, as I see it, informs much of the National Association of Evangelical’s current thinking on these issues.

Here is a taste of George’s piece:

So we need to get at the truth, and here we’re blessed to know that the Church is a teacher of truth. There are truths to which we reliably repair because they are taught definitively by the Church. That doesn’t mean that there is no room within the Church for conversation and debate—but there are some important things that are settled. And let me begin with what I believe is the most important, most foundational principle of Catholic teaching about how we should conduct our lives and order our lives together: the principle of the profound, inherent, and equal dignity of each and every member of the human family. That is the “anchoring truth” (to borrow a phrase from my friend Hadley Arkes). All Catholic social teaching, all Catholic teaching about how we should conduct our lives, is founded on it.

Now there are debatable questions about how this principle should be applied, but there are some questions that are scarcely debatable for those who truly affirm the principle, who understand what each of these words means: “profound,” “inherent,” and “equal.” The principle means, for example, that we must respect and protect the life of every human being, from the tiniest embryo all the way to the frail, elderly person who is at the point of death. It means that we must respect and protect the life of the physically disabled or cognitively impaired person, and treat that person’s life as equal in value and dignity to the life of the greatest athlete, the most brilliant scientist, the most successful investment manager, the most gifted musician, the most beautiful fashion model or actress. It is hard for us to do this, and follow through on it consistently, because we naturally rank people, and for some purposes that’s a perfectly legitimate thing to do. It’s not wrong to choose the best basketball player for the team. It’s not wrong to feature the prettiest fashion model on the magazine cover. It’s not wrong to award tenure based on the quality of a scholar’s research and teaching. But when it comes to fundamental questions of human dignity and the protection of the laws, there can be no legitimate ranking, no distinctions, no discrimination. All are “created equal.” 

That means that we as Catholics must be fervent pro-lifers—tireless defenders of life, beginning with the precious life of the vulnerable child in the womb. This is non-negotiable. It also means that we must be fervent anti-racists, because to distinguish invidiously among people, to discriminate on the basis of some irrelevant feature like race, is to violate the principle of the profound, inherent, and equal dignity of each and every member of the human family. As Catholics we must understand that all of us are brothers and sisters. Nothing can change that. 

Read the entire piece here.

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