Saturday, July 05, 2014

Catholic social teaching as "Gospel"

Just the other day I was watching a Catholic television station in the faculty lounge when I realized that a summary of Catholic social teaching was being presented as though it were the heart of the Gospel.

Back at my office, I did a web search and found a similar summary on the website of the USCCB in Washington, DC. The major points presented were these:
  • Life and Dignity of the Human Person
  • Call to Family, Community, and Participation
  • Rights and Responsibilities
  • Option for the Poor and Vulnerable
  • The Dignity of Work and the Rights of Workers
  • Solidarity
  • Care for God's Creation
While some might justly argue that significant points have been omitted in this summary of Catholic social teaching -- about the Social Kingship of Christ, for example -- it nevertheless struck me as a pretty good summary of many of the basic points of Catholic social teaching.

Two things struck me, however, as problematic in the sense of presenting points of significant vulnerability.

First, even when interpreted faithfully in conformity with Church teaching, none of these points of Catholic social teaching is the Gospel of Christ. These are points of social policy that express the demands of justice and mercy that follow from living in conformity with the demands of the Gospel. But they are not the Gospel. The Gospel, or "Good News," is the promise of salvation and deliverance from the dominion of the Devil by our regeneration and incorporated into the Body of Christ, the Church. To reduce the "Gospel" to these points of Catholic social teaching is not only misleading, as appealing as it may be to the watching world outside the Church, but to embrace a false gospel.

Second, although these points of Catholic social teaching express important principles of Church teaching, they are also capable of lending themselves all-too-easily to ideological distortion as they are presented here:
  • "Life and Dignity of the Human Person" lends itself to being interpreted in terms of a leftist entitlement agenda and gay rights.
  • "Call to Family, Community, and Participation" lends itself to being understood in terms of anthropocentric collectivism.
  • "Rights and Responsibilities" lends itself to being interpreted in terms of political liberalism, whether of classic "conservative" libertarianism or left-wing socialism.
  • "Option for the Poor and Vulnerable" lends itself to being interpreted in terms of Marxist Liberation Theology or the Campaign for Human Development.
  • "The Dignity of Work and the Rights of Workers" lends itself to being understood in terms of Marxist Socialism and its variants.
  • "Solidarity" lends itself to geo-political globalism and New Age universalism.
  • "Care for God's Creation" lends itself to the ideologically-driven views of Global Warming and Climate Change and Gaia/Nature-worship movements.
Together, these two areas of vulnerability present an insidious temptation for Catholics, who are already besieged by social hostility via the news media, to succumb to diminishing the Church's message in the world to that of the "Social Gospel" of feeding the hungry and clothing the poor and contracepting the sexually active, in order to garner the approval of the watching world.


Anonymous said...

Hi Phil, Chapters 1 and 2 of The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church ( does a fabulous job of grounding the Church's social doctrine in the biblical and theological foundations of the gospel of Jesus Christ. In my judgment, it is superior to the summary of the USCCB. Take a look. Ed

Pertinacious Papist said...

Excellent! Thanks, Ed. Phil

John (Juancito) Donaghy said...

I think you did a very poor search of the USCCB site. If you click on the links to each principle on this page: - you will find citations from scripture and from the tradition of the church behind each principle.

Pertinacious Papist said...


Yes, I know. I've read the whole thing. There's nothing wrong with the statements as such; and when interpreted in light of the supporting references, it's quite good -- though not as good as the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church.

The main problem is how "sound bite"-sized summaries of the teaching, especially in the summary wording of the USCCB statements, lend themselves readily to being mis-interpreted in a way that would be accepted widely as fashionably trendy, and in fact it HAS been thus (mis-)interpreted. Thanks.

JM said...

The Emergent Church in Evangelicalism is now enthralled with the social Gospel, and the fallout is pretty easy to see. Love of neighbor is the second greatest commandment, but the fixation with it now obscures the first. There is quite little talk of how to love God, by comparison, and while love of God is expressed through love of neighbor, the two are not the same thing, at least not in traditional Catholic theology. Frank Sheed theorized that people develop the imbalance out of sheer boredom with the invisible. I'd agree. Sure you can find the connections spelled out in proper verbage if you look hard, but doctrine fuels do-gooding and can't be second-placed. It has been, and you can see the effect in parishes that can't do enough good because they are closing. Social teaching is an *implication* of the Gospel. It is not the Gospel. But right now you'd never know.