NCR online: How to vault Catholic social teaching from ‘best kept secret’ category

By Michael Sean Winters

Catholic social teaching is proverbially considered the church’s “best kept secret.” Why is that? And what can be done about it? These are among the questions that will be addressed in the next couple of days at an ecclesial gathering focused on rebooting Laudato Si’ (link below) Pope Francis’ landmark 2015 encyclical on climate change. 

Link to

Laudato Si’

One of the reasons for the secret is that Catholic social teaching is too often taught as if it dropped from the sky with the publication of Pope Leo XIII’s seminal encyclical Rerum Novarum in 1891 (link below).

Link to

Rerum Novarum 

That text was deeply rooted in the natural law doctrines of the church and, in the manner of late 19th-century textual scholarship, in the sacred scriptures too. Key concepts like the universal destination of goods or the social mortgage on private property are not baptized versions of Marxism. They are rooted in patristic teachings about how the followers of Jesus Christ should live or in the Thomistic synthesis achieved in the high Middle Ages. 

When I first started organizing conferences on Catholic social teaching in Warsaw, the very first paper I requested was one that analyzed the scriptural and doctrinal roots of Catholic social teaching. It was delivered by Fr. John Strynkowski, who served for many years as the director of the U.S. bishops’ conference’s Committee on Doctrine. 

Here it is 

and it still reads well. Strynkowski looked at these roots again, from a different perspective, 

in this article in America.

Link to full article:

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  1. Sean O'Conaill says:

    Given that from 1968 support for Humanae Vitae was the decisive litmus test for becoming a Catholic bishop, why does anyone think there is any mystery regarding the ‘invisibility’ of Catholic social teaching post Vatican II?

    What Pope Francis has termed the ‘fixation’ with sexuality became embedded in Christendom far earlier – because equal concern for commandments nine and ten – against covetousness – would have endangered the relationship between the clerical institution and the social elites who ran the state. In never raising any question about Constantine’s claimed instruction from God to conquer under the sign of the cross in 312, the clerical church was virtually blessing the aggressive and acquisitive militarism that fuelled e.g. Charlemagne and Henry II of England and the Crusades – and kept Christendom going until the disaster of World War I. In Ireland it lasted until c. 1994, because of the empowerment of the Catholic clergy after 1921.

    Who has forgotten what happened to the Jesuit scholastic Ken McCabe – who annoyed Archbishop J C McQuaid by stirring up trouble over Daingean Reformatory and the underfunding of the residential institutions generally in 1964 – leading to the Kennedy Commission and the phasing out of those residential institutions? So vehement were the archbishop’s protests to Ken’s Jesuit superiors over Ken’s writing to Charles J Haughey that Ken felt obliged to leave the Jesuits before ordination, to be ordained instead in England, where he served until retirement.

    So surely Clonliffe seminary was never a hotbed of concern for Catholic social teaching either? In William King’s novel ‘A Lost Tribe’ – centred on the alumni of ‘St Paul’s’ in the Vatican II era (probably Clonliffe because some of them cycled to UCD) – none of his characters ever even discuss Catholic social teaching or the question that the RTÉ broadcaster Seán Mac Reamoinn was asking all of us UCD students back then: ‘What is the church FOR?’

    ‘Bums on seats, I suppose!’ That was the answer I got c. 2006 when I asked a priest friend how he thought priests generally would measure the effectiveness of their ministry. So long as dwelling upon the problematic of sexuality was effective in ‘packing ’em in’ there were only a few exceptional clerics with a driving concern for CST. That is why the scandals have been so devastating.

    In St Mary’s Rathmines (‘Spiritans’ – McQuaid’s own order) c 1958, I vividly recall a lesson in ‘Apologetics’ that assured me the Catholic Church had nothing to apologise for – but never any driving emphasis on social justice. That was the mindset of the Christendom church.

  2. Sean O'Conaill says:

    What can be done to prioritise Catholic social teaching?

    1 Realise and understand the deep confusion that exists in the church over the meaning of Christian sacrifice, stemming from a medieval theology that implies for many that God the Father approved of the shedding of the blood of Jesus, out of anger at our sins and a need for retribution.

    2 Understand that, in offering himself as the sacrificial gift, Jesus, in obedience to the Father, was instead transforming the meaning of ‘sacrifice’ into PEACEFUL self-giving – the ACTUAL service of others. (Those puzzled by this need simply ask themselves what meaning the Holy Thursday Eucharistic liturgy would have if Jesus had somehow evaded arrest in Gethsemane and skipped his trial and execution.)

    3 Stop prioritising VIRTUAL sacrifice ONLY – the liturgical representation of the LIVING sacrifices WE ALL have offered or will offer in ACTUAL service of others, in memory of Jesus.

    3 Stop prioritising the role of PRESIDING OVER the Eucharistic liturgy – to celebrate instead the ACTUAL sacrifices that all of us have made and will make, in memory of Jesus, as the fruit of partaking in the Eucharist.

    4 Point to the COMMON priesthood of the faithful, the priesthood of actual service, to which we commit ourselves when we affirm our baptism, as the most important priesthood in the church – because of the NEEDS of the wider community – especially of the poor, addicted and lonely – needs that are currently not being met because of ungiven gifts of service and friendship.

    5 Stop using the word ‘VOCATION’ to refer only or primarily to the ordained priesthood, to emphasise instead that ALL ARE CALLED EQUALLY to the actual service of others, the means by which the early church taught the wider society that GOD LOVES EVERYONE EQUALLY.

    Is it not obvious that Eucharistic liturgies that are indifferent to the unmet needs of a community are a form of sleepwalking at best, and of hypocrisy at worst?

    An understanding of ‘Vocation’ that is centred on the ordained priesthood can only strengthen the suspicion that this priesthood exists primarily to replicate itself and that the clerical institution overall is primarily self-interested. Only when our clergy can see and preach the primacy of Baptism, and of actual service, will the point of, and the importance of, ordination – and of Catholic social teaching – become clear.

    It was Christendom that exaggerated the importance of ordination and of the symbolism of sacrament and liturgy, detaching those from what they pointed to and signified – the healing and transformation of sinners into freely-acting agents of the love of God and of all humankind. We are on the threshold of a new era, but still trying to free ourselves from the nets thrown around us by the past.

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