In this essay I do not intend to point anyone towards any specific political position. That said, I do intend to point my fellow Catholics towards a source of light in political decision-making. That source is Catholic Social Teaching, a rich body of literature penned by a number of Popes and religious bodies since the time of the industrial revolution through to the present day. This body of literature has been summarized in the Vatican’s Compendium of Catholic Social Teaching, and in it I have found not only consolation and guidance but also a theoretical framework capable of making my social and political life into something sacred. Perhaps it is for this reason that John Paul so emphatically recommended Catholic Social teaching as critical for the New Evangelization. 1
To begin, please spend a moment reflecting on three words: paradox, compromise and radical.
One of these words, paradox, refers to something which appears contradictory, but which, in actuality, is not. A paradox is different from a contradiction insofar as something which is paradoxical is not actually false, but only seemingly false. Consider this example: A good father must often to things which make his children cry. It may seem like such a father is not loving. After all, how could it be loving to make a child cry? Well, the reality is that sometimes love is tough. Sometimes fathers need to tell their children no, and sometimes doing so makes them cry. Thus, sometimes love is the sort of thing that makes people cry. It’s a paradox, but it is true.
The first word, paradox, differs from the second word, compromise, and it’s important that we understand the difference. Think about the example of the father with his children. It would be easy to look at the loving father and interpret his actions like this: “Sometimes fathers need to be loving, but sometimes fathers need to be tough. Good fathers should balance love and toughness. They should compromise between the two.” Is this interpretation correct? No! This is not a good way to interpret fatherly love. A correct interpretation would understand the true nature of love. The nature of love is to pursue the good of another — that is, we love someone when we do what is best for them. For example, it is loving to take alcohol from an alcoholic, even though doing it might cause a lot of suffering. After all, love is much more than a feeling. The father in this situation is not compromising. In fact, exactly the opposite is the case. To love, really love, sometimes you need to be tough. The nature of love is paradoxical.
Authentic love brings us to our third word: radical. What does it mean to be radical? The Latin root of radical is radix, which means “root” or “origin.” Thus, to be radical means to live in accord with the roots or the true nature of things. It means to go back to the fundamentals, to understand the reason for things, and to live in accord with that reason. Once again, a father who loves even when it is tough is loving radically. He knows the meaning of love, and he lives in accord with that meaning. He pursues the good of his children even when it is painful. Paradoxically, in certain situations, to be loving is to be tough. For this reason, the father is not compromising. Rather, it would be more appropriate to say that the father is radical — that the father loves his children with a radical love.
Catholic Social Teaching (CST) is sometimes difficult to understand. Why? Catholic Social Teaching is paradoxical. It does not allow us to compromise. And it requires us to be radical. CST is paradoxical because it often encourages us to believe two things which seem to be in contradiction, but which, in actuality, are entirely consistent. For example, CST encourages us to believe in both the common good and the right to private property, both the need to protect the environment and the need to protect the unborn, both the value of local business and the value of the common good. Believing all these things simultaneously is not contradictory; it is paradoxical. It is not a compromise, but it is radical.
Since I began studying Catholic Social teaching, I have found it to be among the most intellectually vindicating elements of my faith. It is vindicating because it relies on the prudence of individual Christians to apply it to concrete socio-economic positions. It does not make decisions for people. Rather, it offers considerations to be considered when making such decisions. It articulates certain goods, for example, the good of the environment and the primacy of the family, and encourages Catholic to weigh these goods and apply them to the specific political and economic decisions. In this way, the Church treats Christians like adults and asks them to make their own decisions. In most cases, the Church will define things at the level of principle but leave the application of that principle to the minds and hearts of individual believers. For example, the Church has said on many occasions that true Christians must have a deep respect for the ecological protection of our planet. Thus, in a certain sense, obedient Catholics are required to promote the dignity of creation. Thus, as a principle, Catholics must believe in the protection of the environment, and radically so. Nevertheless, it is perfectly acceptable for Catholics to disagree concerning the particulars of the application of this principle. For example, some Catholics may think it best to cultivate a greener planet through wind energy while others prefer solar. Both positions are acceptable, and neither is required by the Church. What is required is a radical commitment to the principle that God’s creation ought to be stewarded with care.
Our 21st century political milieu is complex, and the problems encountered in one area of the planet are not the same as those encountered in another. In such a complex situation, what is needed is not one-size-fits-all platitudes and heavy-handed positions. What is needed is an articulation of the goods to be prudentially weighed in a variety of different decisions. That, I propose, is the beauty of Catholic Social Teaching. It is not only clear, it is adaptable. And further, it encourages its followers to encounter the concrete situation as a sacrament, something particular and unique in which God seeks to speak to his people and which requires a unique response. Perhaps it is for this reason that Pope John Paul II insisted on the importance of the Church’s social teaching when he said, “The ‘new evangelization,’ which the modern world urgently needs and which I have emphasized many times, must include among its essential elements a proclamation of the Church’s social doctrine.” 2
For a deeper look, check out our Catholic Social Teaching Bible Study.