The Changing Face of Catholic Social Thought

Author Father Thomas D. Williams on How the World Could Be

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ROME, OCT. 24, 2011 ( «Nowhere is the need for ongoing development more acutely felt,» writes Legionary of Christ Father Thomas D. Williams, «than in the area of the Church’s social teaching» — which makes Catholic social thought «one of the most exciting areas of theology in which to be engaged.»

In his new book The World As It Could Be: Catholic Social Thought for a New Generation (Crossroad), Father Williams, professor of Catholic Social Doctrine at Rome’s Regina Apostolorum university, discusses some of the most pressing and controversial issues facing Catholic social thought today, including multiculturalism, capital punishment, religious liberty, terrorism, human rights and global governance.

ZENIT: In a nutshell, what is Catholic social thought and why is it so important?

Father Williams: Catholic social thought is an ongoing reflection on the human person as a social being, and about how society can best be structured to provide for people’s flourishing both as individuals and in community.

This includes every example of «society,» from the smallest of societies — the family — to economic society, civil society, political society, and even the international or global society.

The Church, and in particular the papal magisterium, explores these realities under the light of both the Gospel and the best of human reasoning and experience, to offer principles and criteria for the better ordering of social relations.

This is critical because the Catholic Church has a singular understanding of who the human person is, and centuries of tradition in natural law theory. The Catholic Church is uniquely equipped to articulate these truths in the public square for men and women of today.

ZENIT: Why do you insist on the changing character of Catholic social thought, if human nature remains the same over time?

Father Williams: Human nature remains the same, but society and culture evolve. The geopolitical situation in our day differs drastically from the situation even 50 or 60 years ago. Since social doctrine involves the application of unchanging truths to changing social conditions, it is always fresh and new, and always in need of updating. This makes it a fascinating area to work in.

As one of hundreds of possible examples, let’s take the area of «just war theory.» There are important, unchanging principles undergirding our evaluation of armed conflict, but the application of these principles takes on very different hues as war itself has evolved. One thing is an analysis of two tribes going at it with bows and arrows, another thing when they are mowing each other down with machine guns, another when they have developed atomic weapons capable of destroying entire cities, and another still when those wielding this force are not states but transnational bands of terrorists. Certain core principles will hold true from one situation to another, but other aspects of our moral evaluation will necessarily be colored by these changing realities.

ZENIT: In your book you describe a certain antagonism between «multiculturalism» and «political correctness» that may seem counterintuitive. What is going on in these cultural trends?

Father Williams: Though the worldview underlying both multiculturalism and political correctness may be basically the same — a postmodern form of secular humanism — the trends themselves express an age-old problem regarding unity and diversity.

Multiculturalism, along with its sisters «pluralism» and the «celebration of diversity,» is a centrifugal movement away from uniformity and toward the greatest possible diversity, often for its own sake. Cultural differences are valued just because they are different, and people are encouraged to accept and embrace these differences in an open and nonjudgmental way. One lifestyle is considered as good as any other, and to think otherwise is «intolerant.»

On the other hand, we can also observe the contrary trend, that of political correctness, which exerts a centripetal pressure toward uniformity of speech and values, and seeks to limit the actions of those who think differently. Here certain standards are held to be universally binding, and those who step outside these bounds are held accountable.

An exaggerated emphasis on diversity easily falls into moral and cultural relativism, where right and wrong lose their meaning and any action or belief is considered equally good and valid. An exaggerated stress on unity yields the opposite problem: a cultural dictatorship where citizens are obliged to walk in lockstep with the reigning set of social mores, whether they embrace them or not.

In the end, for all of us the important question becomes: Where should we necessarily be united as a society and where should we allow for, and even encourage, diversity? This is particularly significant in organizing our modern western democracies, since at some point we must define what is non-negotiable for the survival and flourishing of our society, and what should be left to the free exercise and decision of individuals and groups. 

ZENIT: You spend a good part of the book exploring Benedict XVI’s contribution to Catholic social thought. Has he really added anything substantial, or do you devote so much space to him just because he is the pope du jour?

Father Williams: Both, I suppose. By all accounts, and even if he weren’t pope, Benedict XVI is one of the most profound and incisive thinkers of our day, and a true intellectual force to be reckoned with. Long before becoming pope, he had written extensively on questions of Catholic social thought, and his reflections on religious liberty, the moral foundation of democracies, culture, Church and state, faith and reason, and relativism are incredibly apt to this day.

As Pope, Benedict’s contribution to Catholic social doctrine has already been significant. His first encyclical, considered «programmatic» (setting the orientation for his entire pontificate), dealt with the theological meaning of «love» or «charity» and the relationship between love as eros and love as agape. The second half of the encyclical, however, delves into questions of social ethics, including the correct relationship between Church and state, faith and reason, and charity and justice.

His 2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth) is a full-fledged social encyclical, and deals with some of the most urgent social questions of our day, especially that of the recent economic crisis. It’s not an easy read, but it offers much food for thought. Even Benedict’s choice to highlight the principles of charity and truth in dealing with the social order, rather than «social justice,» is worthy of consideration.

Benedict showcases Pope Paul VI’s 1967 encyclical letter Populorum Progressio, calling it the «Rerum Novarum for our time,» and in so doing turns our attention back to the question of integral human development as a proper yardstick for measuring social progress. As great an encyclical as it was, Rerum Novarum was quite limited in its scope, addressing the worker question at the end of the 19th century and evaluating the socialists’ proposal to combat the negative fallout of the industrial revolution. «Integral human development» is a broader and more comprehensive criterion than private property and identifies more closely with the common good.

ZENIT: In your book you warn that a common understanding of «dignity» cannot be taken for granted, and that we need to be careful to define our terms well to avoid confusion. What are your concerns here?

Father Williams: All of Catholic social doctrine turns on a proper understanding of the human person with his unique dignity. We consider the human person to be «the only creature on earth that God willed for its own sake» (Gaudium et
Spes, 24) and the only earthly being created «in the image and likeness of God.» This elevates human beings above the rest of creation and gives human beings a unique status as well as a unique responsibility of stewardship.

Not everyone sees things this way. For many, dignity is not a characteristic that is possessed equally by all human beings, or one that is exclusive to human beings. Some consider dignity to admit of degrees (some could have more dignity than others) and some consider it to be a quality of other beings that aren’t human (the dignity of plants and animals). Still others use the term to justify actions that are contrary to Christian morality, such as euthanasia or homosexual relations.

Dignity, however, is the grounding for universal human rights as well as the foundation of our understanding of equality. If dignity falls by the wayside or is modified in significant ways, so are rights and equality.

Here, our Christian faith becomes particularly important. While the American founders considered human equality to be «self-evident,» it was self-evident only in a distinctly Christian culture. Basic human equality grounded in a universal human dignity is not self-evident in many parts of the globe today that lack a historically Christian worldview. We should think twice before jettisoning the Christian roots of our culture that make basic premises of western society seem «self-evident.»

In a similar vein, Pope Benedict has warned that other religious traditions, such as Islam, cannot be assumed to be equally compatible with basic principles that western society holds dear. This may be an unpopular stance these days, but it is honest and deserves a serious hearing.

ZENIT: What direction do you see Catholic social thought taking in the coming years?

Father Williams: There has been a trend in Catholic social thought to include life issues as some of the most critical social issues of our day, and I think this will continue. In the past, social justice was interpreted excessively in economic terms, as if the economy were the only sphere in which justice operates. Pope John Paul worked to counteract this, by declaring that nowadays the greatest social injustices to be seen in the world are those attacking human life, especially where it is most vulnerable. Pope Benedict has followed suit. In Caritas in Veritate, he states that «Openness to life is at the centre of true development,» denouncing an «anti-birth mentality» and calling a growing lack of respect for life a new form of «poverty and underdevelopment.»

Another important trend seems to be a greater focus on religious liberty as the true thermometer of cultural progress. Respect for religion and the freedom of peoples to worship God according to their convictions has occupied a more central place in Catholic social teaching in recent years, and will likely continue to grow in importance as secular society becomes more hostile to religious belief.

Finally, the «shrinking» of the world due to cultural and economic globalization has called for more and more reflection on the universal common good and how it is best to be safeguarded and promoted. One area that still requires considerable thought is the concept of global governance, and what form it should take to effectively advance the common good while respecting principles of legitimate autonomy and subsidiarity. Pope Benedict has made it clear that global governance should not be confused with a «world government,» but must be approached in a multi-tiered fashion, involving various sectors of society in a common effort at global cooperation. He has continually shown himself to be a true realist, suspicious of simplistic, ideological programs, and deeply committed to the Christian truths about man and society. This is the future of Catholic social thought.

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