Brian Davies, head of development education at CAFOD, opens a major new series on the church's social teaching by outlining the principal sources
NEXT year, 1991, we shall be celebrating the hundredth anniversary of Pope Leo XIII's encyclical letter on the condition of labour, known as Rerun Novarum (from the first two words of the Latin text). The document was the first of a series of official papal pronouncements on Catholic social thought that have been produced over the last century in response to the changing complexitites of modern life.
Of course, the roots go much further. A wealth of social insight was inherited from the prophets and other writers of the Old Testament. And the basic inspiration comes from the gospel, in which Christ presented his message of good news to the poor. The fathers of the church and the great theologians have also elaborated these themes to give us altogether a rich body of social teaching on which to draw.
According to John XXIII, "individual human beings are the foundation, the cause and the end of every human institution . . . On this basic principle which guarantees the sacred diginity of the individual, the church constructs the whole of her social teaching" (Mater et Magistra, 58).
The church has proceeded to elaborate her teaching mainly in response to pressures placed upon the different areas of social, economic, political and cultural life. But the foundation is the same — the promotion and integral liberation of human : beings.
We certainly should not have in mind some master-plan or magical blueprint for society with ready made solutions to all problems. In its simplest terms, Catholic social teaching is the application of gospel values, through the Christian tradition, to the social issues of the day.
While there are permanently valid principles at the base of the church's teaching, there is also change — producing different options in response to different cirumstances and conditions.
We would surely all be aware of such a body of teaching, if it actually existed. Yet it is not too much to suggest that most Catholics have hardly heard of it.
Still, social teaching, instead of being the familiar theme of homilies to the parish, has become "our best kept secret". Why should this be so? A number of factors seem to have contributed: (1) The documents are rather abstract and dry in content. Most people would not find them an easy read.
(2) Dealing as they do with controversial social issues, the topics may well disturb and make the reader feel uncomfortable.
(3) For many people, a "papal encyclical" is almost immediately associated with Paul VI's Humanae Vitae, the statement of the church's position on birth control that gave rise to so much dispute and dissent.
(4) More generally, authoritative statements of any kind — whether from church or government sources — are less attractive these days than acts of authentic witness.
But there is a more fundamental reason for the neglect of social teaching. What right, after all, has the church to speak on economic and political issues? These are secular matters (it may be said) in which the church has no competence. It should confine itself to strictly "religious" issues and leave these affairs to others who are better qualified.
Christians, however, cannot divorce faith and the vision that it brings from life and public affairs. A disembodied church, separated from the world, would no longer be the church of Jesus Christ. The second Vatican Council clearly recognised that we share responsibility for secular as well as for religious history.
In spite of all these difficulties, there has been growing interest in what the church has to say on the political and economic issues of the day. As parents, citizens, workers, teachers, business and professional people, as well as disenfranchised, suffering and oppressed people, we are constantly challenged by the crises that confront us in the social order, both nationally and internationally. We seek guidelines and principles to help
provide us with a Christian perspective.
What can we say, as Christians, about peace and the arms race, about economic justice and third world development, about racism, sexism and human rights, about the dignity of people and the sacredness of life or about work and trade unions?
People are discovering that there is a considerable body of thinking that gives support and meaning in all these areas of contemporary concern. There is a growing self awareness by the church as it seeks to discover its duty to transform and change the social, economic, political, cultural and technological structures according to the mind of Christ. The challenge was squarely accepted at the 1971 Synod of Bishops:
"Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appears to us as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the gospel, or in other words, of the church's mission for the redemption of the human race and its liberation from every oppressive situation." (Justice in the World, 1971).
In the last 100 years, 11 documents have been published which together constitute the most authoritative social teaching of the Catholic church. Of these eight are papal documents, two are statements prepared by the Synod of Bishops, and one is the Pastoral Constitution of the second Vatican Council, the most important document in the church's social tradition. They are:
Rerun Novarum (1891) — The Condition of Labour — Leo XIII Quadragesima Anno (1931) The Social Order — Pius XI Mater et Magistra (1961) Christianity and Social Progress — John XXIII Pacem in Terris (1963) — Peace on Earth — John XXIII Gaudium et Spes (1965) — The Church in the Modern World Vatican II Populorum Progressio (1967) The Progress of Peoples — Paul VI Octagesima Advenlens (1971) A Call To Action — Paul VI Justice in the World (1971) Synod of Bishops Evangelii Nuntiandii (1975) Evangelisation (from 1974 synod — Paul VI Laborem Exercens (1981) Human Work — John Paul II Sollicititudo Rei Socialis (1988) — Social Concern — John Paul II
There are no easy answers to be found in the social teachings.
What can be found is a social wisdom which can be used along the lines indicated by Paul VI in A Call to Action: (I) be attentive to the signs of the times; (2) analyse the situation proper to one's own country and circumstances; (3) make the analysis in the light of the gospel and the social teaching of the church; (4) then take responsibility for specific decisions and effectively implement them.
If appropriate actions are discerned in this way, then they will have the hallmark of Christian authenticity.
• Most of the key texts are to . be found in Proclaiming Justice and Peace: Documents from John XXIII to John Paul II, edited by Michael Walsh and Brian Davies and published by CAFOD. A new and complete version will be available in November of this year. CAFOD has also produced Our Best Kept Secret, a "primer" outlining the background and key ideas of the major documents of the last hundred years.
Next week: Ian Linden, General Secretary of the Catholic Institute for International Relations, on respect for human rights in Catholic social teaching.