The Principles of a Society of Gratuitousness (Part 1)

It might seem odd that I would leave a discussion on the principles of Catholic Social Doctrine until the very end of this series of posts. I have a good reason for doing so. Principles ought not to be arbitrary constructs that people make up. They should be inherent to an underlying reality, an aspect of it, if you will. For instance, the principle of non-contradiction—the very first principle of all logic—is not something philosophers invented, but rather is something they discovered while looking at the way things are in reality, through the contemplation of being itself. It was revealed to them, as it were, that a thing cannot be and not-be at the same time and in the same relation. It was from this discovery that the foundational principle was then formalized and established, becoming the starting point for all rational thought. Likewise, we can’t even begin talking about principles of the social life if we don’t first contemplate the underlying reality to which they belong. All of my previous posts in this series have essentially been dedicated to presenting and observing that underlying reality. Now we can formalize and explicitly state those principles which many of you have probably already intuited.

First, however, it might be convenient to briefly discuss the purpose of having any principles. I have encountered many people who become frustrated with the Church’s social teaching because it doesn’t propose specific policies or solutions to social ills. It doesn’t tell us what economic or political system is the “most Catholic” (though it does condemn those that are clearly incompatible with Catholicism) or what party we ought to vote for. This is a good thing. The teachings of Holy Mother Church should not be tied to ephemeral and transient things. Political regimes collapse, economic systems change, new social forces emerge and the Church’s teaching should be capable of addressing all, regardless of time and place. Specific solutions are in a constant state of variation and only by having solid, permanent principles can they be worked out consistently. But I think there is more as to why the Church doesn’t give us specific answers to all our social questions and, instead, points towards these principles. I believe the Church is exercising her teaching office quite literally here; by providing us only with principles, she is encouraging her children to grow in both spiritual and intellectual maturity. The Church doesn’t tell us what to think but she gives us a set of principles so that we may learn how to think. And this is important because “It is not the role of the Pastors of the Church to intervene directly in the political structuring and organization of social life. This task is part of the vocation of the lay faithful.” (CCC, 2442) If the lay faithful are to properly fulfill their calling to engage in transforming the social, political and economic landscape, they cannot sit around and expect all the answers from their priest, or bishop or the pope. They can only live out their Christian vocation in the world if they have been formed in such a way that they are capable of finding those answers themselves, through reflection consistent with the beliefs and the teachings of the Church. The lay faithful must, therefore, learn to think with the Church (sentire cum Ecclesia). And so the Church gives us these lenses through which we can interpret the various social phenomena that surround us: “The Church’s social teaching proposes principles for reflection; it provides criteria for judgment; it gives guidelines for action.” (CCC, 2423)

With this in mind, let us turn our attention to the principles of social doctrine. As I mentioned above, we must begin with the underlying reality of social existence, namely, that the life of society is modeled on the life of grace. The life of grace begins when God, under no obligation and only out of sheer goodness, bestows His life upon Man. God, in giving His own life, is inviting Man to respond by a gift of self to both God and neighbor. In responding affirmatively to that invitation, Man is not only introduced into the dynamic of grace, but becomes an instrument of its replication. Similarly, in the life of society, a human person is born into a community (first and foremost the family but also into other communities such as the State) which bestows upon him all sort of gifts,  then invites him to multiply them for the good of the community. When that invitation is accepted, the person is introduced into the dynamic of gratuitousness on a social level, which he then helps to replicate.

Simply by meditating upon this dynamic, we encounter the very first (and perhaps the most important) principle of Social teaching, that of the Dignity of the Human Person. As we look upon this cycle of gift received, gift transformed and gift given, it becomes clear that the human person plays a central role in it. It is a person who receives the gifts, transforms them and then gives them to others. Institutions can only play, at best, an instrumental role. Therefore, all social entities and institutions, all economic and political systems, are good insofar as they serve the human person. Economic systems ought not to exist for the sake of creating wealth but for the sake of satisfying the material needs of the human person. Political systems ought not to exist in order to accumulate power but in order to enable the human person to live in community. Institutions ought not to exist for any other purpose than to serve the multifaceted needs of the human person. The goodness of any institution or any system can only be measured by how subordinate it is to the good of the human person. How important this principle is for the social doctrine of the Church was best expressed by Pope John Paul II:

“From this point forward it will be necessary to keep in mind that the main thread and, in a certain sense, the guiding principle of […] all of the Church’s social doctrine, is a correct view of the human person and of his unique value, inasmuch as ‘man … is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself’. God has imprinted his own image and likeness on man (cf. Gen 1:26), conferring upon him an incomparable dignity.” (Encyclical letter Centesimus Annus, 11)

This principle alone gives us reason enough for obliterating many of our modern systems and institutions. How many organizations do we know of that value profit, or a share of the market, over the economic stability of thousands if not millions of persons? How many laws exist that give some people the power to determine whether or not others the right to live? How many societies and communities have failed to provide for even the most basic necessities of the poor, the sick and the elderly? All the prophets of the Old Testament rage against Israel’s valuing money and riches over the needs of their brothers; preferring any material thing over the dignity of another human being is a crime that cries to heaven for justice. As if that were not enough, Jesus goes further and unites love of God and love of neighbor into a single commandment. As Pope Benedict XVI put it: “Love of God and love of neighbor have become one: in the least of the brethren we find Jesus himself, and in Jesus we find God.” (Encyclical letter Deus Caritas Est, 15) The inviolable dignity of the human person is backed by God himself.

More importantly, this main guiding principle should also lead us Catholics to question what and how we think about a great many things. It should make us realize that certain ideologies, both on the Right and on the Left, are wrong precisely because they fail to recognize, in its fullness, the dignity of the human person. If we begin by letting this principle guide our social thinking, we will have taken a huge step towards truly thinking with the Church. In my next post I will discuss the remaining principles, which hopefully will help us reach that worthy goal.

Tags » , , , ,

Related posts