Last week, the Vatican released a new magisterial (= authoritative teaching) document about “economic and financial issues” (Oeconomicae et pecuniariae quaestiones, the opening words and thus title). Co-signed by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the office for “Integral Human Development” (Vaticanese for social justice), it is a synthesis of the teachings of the bishop of Rome, Pope Francis, on this topic. It is “offered to all men and women of good will” (not just Catholics, 6). The bottom-line of the document, stated at the outset, is that economic markets must be “appropriate[ly] regulat[ed]” and based on “a clear ethical foundation” (1). Rejected is the false notion that economics are morally neutral (libertarianism, laissez-faire). Nothing is stated in the document that has not already been taught by Francis and/or his predecessors. Still, it is a timely reminder that will help Francis to promote his social magisterium.

What is the theological basis for this position? It is that love (charity) is aimed, not only at individual persons, but at the “macro” level (2). It seeks to build a “civilization of love.” Such a civilization, while not the Kingdom of God of which Jesus speaks in the gospels (e.g., Mark 4:30-32), is actually “an anticipation of the Kingdom of God” (ibid.). This distinction is crucial: it keeps us realistic about what can be achieved politically. No nation will ever be totally just; there will always be evil and iniquity because of humanity’s innate tendency toward selfishness (“original sin”). The Church rejects utopianism and millenarianism (see Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC], 675-77). Nevertheless, people of love (such as Christians) cannot use this fact as a pretext for retreating from politics and becoming “too heavenly-minded to do any earthly good.” The Catholic Church seeks to improve the world in accordance with its understanding of what is good and what is bad. It does not believe that faith and morality are purely private affairs, to be divorced from the public, secular, common good. Quite the contrary: “Politics, though often denigrated, remains a lofty vocation and one of the highest forms of charity, inasmuch as it seeks the common good” (Francis, Evangelii Gaudium 205). This belief is also well expressed in Vatican II’s 1965 decree on the laity (Apostolicam actuositatem):

5. Christ’s redemptive work, while essentially concerned with the salvation of human beings, includes also the renewal of the whole temporal order. Hence the mission of the Church is not only to bring the message and grace of Christ to human beings but also to penetrate and perfect the temporal order with the spirit of the Gospel. In fulfilling this mission of the Church, the Christian laity exercise their apostolate both in the Church and in the world, in both the spiritual and the temporal orders. These orders, although distinct, are so connected in the singular plan of God that He Himself intends to raise up the whole world again in Christ and to make it a new creation, initially on earth and completely on the last day. In both orders the layperson, being simultaneously a believer and a citizen, should be continuously led by the same Christian conscience.

The Catholic Church acknowledges the legitimacy of the secular, political sphere, but that sphere is bound, no less than the religious sphere, by God’s commandments: that is, by love (on the reduction of the commandments to love, see Matt 22:37-40 and St. Augustine’s seventh sermon on 1 John). In the Middle Ages, the Church sought to achieve its goal through Christendom, the fusion of Church and state into two sides of the same coin, with a state church. Since 1965, on the basis of the Second Vatican Council’s paradigm-shifting declarations on religious freedom (Dignitatis Humanae) and other religions (Nostra Aetate), the Church has acknowledged the goodness of the modern, liberal state and sought to work in harmony with it and other religions in promoting the common good. Thus we are talking, not about the takeover of the state by the Church, but about the active co-operation of all human agents in achieving social justice.

The essentially social, even political, nature of the Catholic faith remains a scandal to many people. The far-left would confine all religions (especially Catholicism!) to the realm of the private, banning public expressions of religion and political statements by clergy. (I’m looking at you, France.) On the right, in America the dominant religious force has been and remains Evangelicalism (though statistics indicate steep decline, which will accelerate because of its hypocritical support of Donald Trump). Traditionally, Evangelicals consider the pope to be the anti-Christ and Catholicism a Satanic “cult” (see the recent dust-up about megachurch pastor Robert Jeffress). Therefore, Catholic influence in politics is likely to be seen with suspicion, though the pro-life movement has somewhat mitigated this. More importantly, Evangelicals have traditionally regarded Christianity as essentially apolitical and private: it is about “saving souls” for a spiritual, otherworldly afterlife. For this reason, it has promoted indifference toward political and social issues, resulting in complicity in grave evils such as slavery and racial segregation (“slaveholder religion”). Just this week, a pastor proposed a resolution to the Southern Baptist Convention (the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S.) condemning “social justice”! This distorted version of Christianity offers the unjust a free chance at salvation without requiring them to behave justly, provided they don’t engage in the proscribed forms of sexuality. Even when Evangelicals object to certain changes in politics, namely the acceptance of abortion and homosexuality, the concern is one of “personal morality,” not social justice. In recent decades, however, we have seen the rise of a religious right that seeks political influence (sometimes this is called “dominion theology”). This movement is reminiscent of the old Christendom that the Catholic Church has since rejected. While the religious right seeks to outlaw abortion and homosexuality, it continues to leverage the old rhetoric of “personal morality” to justify its anti-immigrant and warmongering public policies, since these are political matters said to be outside the realm of religion and morality.

This perverted version of Christianity has, I’m sorry to say, infected many American Catholics. You see it every time you hear a Catholic–liberal or conservative–say that “the pope should stay out of politics.” The pope recognizes how widespread is this error, and that is why this document has been released. Morality (better: love) is both private and public. The popes oppose everything they consider evil, not just abortion and homosexuality, but war, capital punishment, racism and xenophobia, and economic inequality. It must be stated here, forcefully, that this pope tries to reach out to LGBT people, to include them and help them not to feel marginalized in the Church. The Catholic understanding of sex, marriage, and procreation shouldn’t be used to justify discrimination against gays and lesbians (see CCC 2358).

In modern Catholicism, there is a tradition of conservative dissent from the social doctrines of the Roman pontiffs that goes back to William F. Buckley, Jr. (founder of the National Review), who rejected St. John XXIII’s social encyclical Mater et Magistra (1961). A more recent example is when George Weigel (also in the National Review) rejected portions of Benedict XVI’s social encyclical Caritas in Veritate (2009). Conservative dissent has differed from the liberal in that it has tried to stay quiet, since conservative Catholics define themselves by their loyalty to the popes over against secularism and “modernism.” In the public eye, they succeeded in presenting themselves as being on the same side as the popes, even when they disagreed. In contrast, liberal Catholics, beginning with Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae (1968) condemning birth control, have been outspoken in their opposition. However, since Francis published his encyclical Laudato Si’ (2015) about the environment and his letter Amoris Laetitia (2016) calling for the re-integration of some divorced Catholics, conservative dissent has become louder than the liberal. We have seen countless conferences and petitions directed against him (just this month a “plea” from fifteen priests was released).

Over the days and weeks to come, expect to see publications like the National Review, National Catholic Register, Catholic “News” Agency, and LifeSite “News” publish pieces criticizing the new document. They will try to frame this as opposition to the “novelties” and “innovations” (perhaps even “heresies”) of Francis. The reality, though, is that his social teachings are in line with those of all the popes going back to the very first social encyclical, Leo XIII’s landmark Rerum Novarum in 1891.

In my next post, I will look at some of the specifics of Oeconomicae et pecuniariae quaestiones.

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Dr. Rasmussen is a Religious Studies teacher at Our Lady of Good Counsel High School in Olney, MD. He has a Ph.D. in Theology and Religious studies from The Catholic University of America, specializing in historical theology and early Christianity. He is the author of Genesis and Cosmos: Basil and Origen on Genesis 1 and Cosmology (Bible in Ancient Christianity 14; Brill, 2019).

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