Book review of
The Church’s Best-Kept Secret: A Primer on Catholic Social Teaching
New City Press
Earlier this month, Catholic writer and evangelist Mark Shea penned a mea culpa for the times he has put political ideology above the teaching of the Church and—as a “public figure in Catholic circles”—influenced others to do the same. As I read Shea’s essay that recounted all the ways he once justified the unjustifiable, I realized how guilty I am of similar sins.
When I was an undergraduate student studying Theology at a Catholic college, I proudly told others I was a “one-issue voter.” When I listened to speakers from Priests for Life and CatholicVote I uncritically believed everything they said about the righteousness of “my side” and the evil of the “other side.” I saw myself as unwaveringly orthodox in my beliefs and thought liberal Catholics were all heretics.
These things may sound like tropes, but I sincerely believed them at the time. It wasn’t until after college that I began to discover how little of the Church’s teaching I really knew. Mark Shea’s work played an essential role in my own process of conversion. His articles about applying the Catholic Church’s teaching to voting and politics were part of my introduction to Catholic Social Teaching. By the time the primaries for the 2016 U.S. election were ramping up I had become deeply skeptical of many of the politically conservative commentators I’d been listening to for years. He was influential in my turning away from media voices and toward what the Church actually teaches. It was then that I read the USCCB voter’s guide, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship. In that document, the bishops articulated precisely what I had been doing wrong, which I believe is also among the greatest idols for American Catholics. They taught:
“As citizens, we should be guided more by our moral convictions than by our attachment to a political party or interest group. When necessary, our participation should help transform the party to which we belong; we should not let the party transform us in such a way that we neglect or deny fundamental moral truths or approve intrinsically evil acts” (FCFC 14).
Given my own experience, when I picked up Mark Shea’s new book The Church’s Best-Kept Secret: A Primer on Catholic Social Teaching last year, I had high expectations. And I wasn’t disappointed. That same passage from Faithful Citizenship could have been the thesis for this book. In the introduction, Mark explicitly writes, “each therefore tends to evaluate the Church’s social teaching in light of their political and cultural priorities rather than evaluating their political and cultural priorities in light of the Church’s teaching” (page 12).
The temptation to put our political values before Gospel values, our party before the Church, is precisely what Shea challenges, head-on. He contrasts what it means to think with the “categories of the world” and to think “with the mind of Christ,” and urges his readers to do the latter. It’s this tendency, Shea claims, that has made the Church’s social teaching “secret.” It’s not that the Church has hidden these doctrines, it’s that we actively avoid listening to them. He says, “The Church’s moral teaching is regarded with tremendous confusion, not because it is confusing but because we are confused” (13). Our political ideologies have made us blind to the truth.
The content of the book revolves around the “four pillars” of Catholic Social Teaching: the dignity of the human person, the common good, subsidiarity, and solidarity. Shea warns his readers that our temptation will be to over-emphasize or under-emphasize some of these pillars because of our political biases. However, “just as a throne would tip over if each leg differed in length,” it’s precisely the balance and tension of these pillars that hold these doctrines up (21-22).
Weaving together the work of writers such as G. K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis with the magisterial teachings of Pope John Paul II and Pope Francis, Shea provides a very accessible catechesis for some of the Church’s most important, but also nuanced, teachings. As I read, I kept thinking about the different people with whom I wanted to share this book with, and the ways I want to incorporate it into the ministries I lead at my parish. I have never read a more thorough primer on Catholic Social Teaching that is this concise and approachable for regular Catholics.
Something that particularly struck me was how helpful this book would be as an introduction to Pope Francis’s newest social encyclical, Fratelli Tutti. Even though it was written months before the encyclical came out in October, it was as if Shea intuited the most relevant themes on which to focus. This book breaks down many of the barriers that often intimidate Catholics when approaching social encyclicals and other magisterial documents.
While I lack the qualifications to absolve Mark Shea of his past mistakes in substituting party politics for the Gospel, I can confidently say that this book certainly helps atone for those sins. This is a timely and valuable resource for Christians, especially in the United States, and one that I expect will be a vehicle of grace and conversion.