Christianity's Indispensable Social Teaching

CARDINAL GEORGE PELL

Christianity is not a private lifestyle choice, although some in society would like to confine it to this. Christian living and Christian values have public benefits and consequences, and people who are serious about their faith generally seek to live it out in an appropriate way in every part of life. The Church offers its social teaching to all Christians and people of goodwill as a series of reflections on the best way to advance the common good and defend important human values.

Cardinal George Pell

R&L: You have done some scholarly work on the history of the church's social thought. What is Roman Catholic social teaching, and why is it important, particularly with respect to non-Catholics?

Pell:
Modern Catholic social teaching is generally traced back to Pope Leo XIII (who reigned from 1878–1903) and, especially, to his great encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891). This encyclical built on the work of socially aware bishops and thinkers, especially from Germany, France, and the United States. As the encyclical's title suggests, it focused on the new social and political situation that had emerged in Europe over the course of the nineteenth century, and it spelled out a set of broad principles that were drawn from the natural law and concerned the rights and obligations of workers, employers, and the state. It repudiated socialism and defended the right to private property and enterprise, supported workers' rights to a just wage and to organization in unions, and insisted on the importance of the family and the beneficial role of voluntary organizations in modern society. It caused a great stir at the time, but it is interesting how much of it we have now come to take for granted.

Christianity is not a private lifestyle choice, although some in society would like to confine it to this. Christian living and Christian values have public benefits and consequences, and people who are serious about their faith generally seek to live it out in an appropriate way in every part of life. The church offers its social teaching to all Christians and people of goodwill as a series of reflections on the best way to advance the common good and defend important human values. It is not an alternative ideology — a "third way" between capitalism and communism, to use an old-fashioned phrase. While the church's social teaching frequently entails practical suggestions on specific questions, its main concerns are to maintain and improve the decencies of public life and to provide sustained Christian reflection on the principles that should animate and govern political, economic, and social arrangements in a good society.

R&L: How has the church's social teaching influenced your ministry in the realms of culture, the marketplace, and the political arena?

Pell: The social teaching of the church has been a significant influence and resource for me in my work as a priest and bishop. When I was growing up in the middle of the last century, social teaching received a considerable amount of attention in Australia through the influence of Bob Santamaria, one of our greatest Catholic intellectuals and activists, who made it the center of his own work. So the major encyclicals and the discussions around them were familiar to me as a young man, and I have followed the explorations of that teaching under John Paul II with great interest.

It is part of my job as a bishop to speak out on social issues — not all the time, but when necessary and appropriate. It is sometimes difficult to know when to speak and when to keep silent. For example, an important issue in Australia at the moment is the handling of refugees who come to our country, and I have spoken on behalf of the Australian bishops on this matter. Earlier in my career I was part of a bishops' inquiry into the distribution of wealth in Australia, and I was also head of the bishops' overseas aid organization, Caritas Australia. The applications of Catholic social teaching in these areas are obvious. Less obvious, perhaps, is the application of this teaching in our engagement with the secular culture, and this has been a long-standing interest of mine. I try to give one or two major public addresses each year on aspects of this question, and I see this clearly as part of the work of evangelization. I am not interested in entering public debate simply to build a profile. The major reason for engaging with these issues has to be my duty as a bishop to spread the Good News. This does not mean we should confine ourselves to pious platitudes. John Paul II has provided a great lead in this, as in so many other things.

R&L: Pope John Paul II has written in his encyclical letter Centesimus Annus that "the Church's social teaching is itself a valid instrument of evangelization." How is this true?

Pell: This sentence comes from section 54 of Centesimus Annus, and it is worth reflecting on the explanation that the pope himself gives for this claim. The church's social teaching focuses on the individual person and his life in "the complex network of relationships" that constitute modern society. It might be said that we do not need religion to tell us that human beings are social animals and that life in society gives rise to certain responsibilities, and the pope implicitly concedes this point. But the definition of human identity is not exhausted by sociability. We can fully understand our nature only through the revelations of faith. We are social beings, but we are also creatures of God. We are destined not only for society but also for eternity. Our life in society should be understood as part of the journey along the road to salvation.

It is for this reason that the pope says that "it is precisely from faith that the church's social teaching begins." The Christian life is not lived in private, and, for Catholics, the church's social teaching is not an optional extra. The social encyclicals form part of the Magisterium of the church and are not merely for discussion purposes. On the other hand, we should not think that we can fulfill our duties as Christians simply by becoming involved in social justice issues. A related misunderstanding is to attempt to hold on to our young people by encouraging their interest in social issues without encouraging a deepening of their faith. After over thirty years of trying this, however, we can confidently say that doing this, in fact, works against evangelization.

The social teaching of the church is first and foremost Christian teaching; "it proclaims God and his mystery of salvation in Christ to every human being, and for that very reason reveals man to himself." As the Holy Father emphasizes in Centesimus Annus, "in this light, and only in this light," does the church's social teaching then go on to concern itself with issues such as human rights (including the rights of working people), family, education, the role of the state, war and peace, economy and culture, and "respect for life from the moment of conception until death." It is interesting to note that the pope includes family and life issues on his list of social concerns. To date, these issues have been quarantined from the church's social justice work; while there have been some pragmatic advantages in doing this, it has probably made it easier for people to forget about the crucial role of faith in underpinning this work.

R&L: You have written that John Paul II's "major ethical contribution to date is, in fact, a critique of Western culture's view of freedom and a demonstration of freedom's connection with truth, particularly the truths expressed in the natural moral law." What is that critique?

Pell: Last year, a young Dominican priest in Australia, Fr. Anthony Fisher, who is one of the world's leading Catholic bioethicists, attended a major conference of regulators of artificial reproductive technology. At this conference, one of the presenters argued strongly that, on issues such as artificial reproductive technology, governments and lawmakers should refuse to receive submissions from groups such as the Catholic Church because democracy has nothing to do with morality; it is all about respecting individual choice. The concept of freedom at work here — and in the transgressive "breakthroughs" of artificial reproductive technology — is one of limitless possibility. There is nothing to which we can or should say "no" if it is part of an individual's self-realization. The only acceptable limits are those that are necessary to protect minors (even this is assailed by some), the health of others, the well-being of the environment, and property rights.

This may sound like a caricature, but we know it is not. And what the pope has said, in effect, is that freedom in this form is not only unsustainable in the longer term but also representative of a radical human diminishment. Freedom is a great good and part of our essence as human beings, but it is not an end in itself. It is a gift, and it is meant to be used for a purpose. That purpose is the service of truth, which, when we realize the truth about ourselves, means the service of others. When human autonomy is treated as an absolute, freedom becomes the increasingly brutal assertion of self against others; it becomes self-defeating. To avoid this, freedom needs truth. This does not entail establishing a theocracy but, rather, reflecting on what it means to be human and on what sorts of political, social, and economic arrangements are needed to encourage the development of a society based on service of others rather than on ruthless self-realization. The Holy Father, in his major encyclicals and public addresses, has tackled the problems facing the secularized culture of the West, and the fact that the question of truth and freedom is now squarely back on the public agenda undoubtedly represents a major ethical contribution.

R&L: How should one understand Catholic social teaching's view of the market? What are the conditions and extent of its affirmation of free markets?

Pell: Contrary to some people's expectations, the Catholic Church is not an enemy of the market. In a development of social doctrine, the pope clearly set out the church's approach in section 42 of Centesimus Annus. It is not a simple matter of saying that a free-market economy is always and everywhere good. A great deal depends on what we mean in talking about a free-market economy. If we mean "an economic system which recognizes the fundamental and positive role of businesses, the market, private property, and the resulting responsibility for the means of production, as well as human creativity in the economic sector," then the church supports the free market. But if we mean "a system in which freedom in the economic sector is not circumscribed within a strong juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality, and which sees it as a particular aspect of that freedom, the core of which is religious and ethical," then the church opposes it.

In his remarks about globalization over the course of the past year, the Holy Father seems to have given priority not so much to whether a global free economy can help make poor countries wealthier but to how it affects their culture and society. The questions we should ask about globalization — Does it promote individualism at the expense of justice? Does it respect cultures? Does it work to enfranchise people? Does it serve or subvert freedom? Does it damage families and local communities? — are really the same sorts of questions we have to ask about any given set of economic arrangements, including the free market.

R&L: How do you view the church's involvement in and ministry to the world of business?

Pell: I think this is an area where we could do a bit better. The network of guilds or professional associations for Catholics is much weaker now than it has been, and, in many cases, these associations have simply gone out of existence. As willingness to join groups with formal membership structures declines, regular forums with different audiences on particular moral challenges in business might be one useful contribution.

There are many fine Christians who are senior and successful business leaders, and their witness and example to their colleagues are invaluable. But I think we could do more to develop the idea of business as a vocation and to deepen business people's understanding of the importance of their work — not just for themselves and their families but for society as a whole. Business people could be more aware of the moral imperatives that drive and restrict their activities.

R&L: To your way of thinking, what is the appropriate role of the clergy in a free society?

Pell: We currently have a situation in Australia that illustrates the typical problem facing clergy and church leaders when they address important public policy issues. As I mentioned, the Catholic bishops — and many other Christian leaders — have recently spoken out on the question of refugees attempting to enter Australia. The political and cultural Left has universally welcomed this intervention, whereas some of those on the Right have told us that the church should stay out of politics. On the other hand, we are currently awaiting a decision from our High Court (the equivalent of the United States Supreme Court) on an appeal lodged by the Catholic bishops. This appeal challenges a court decision striking down a state law restricting access to assisted reproductive technology to married and de facto couples and giving access to single women and lesbians. Broadly speaking, the bishops' intervention in this matter has been supported by the political and cultural Right, while those on the Left have told us to stay out of politics.

My view is that very few people are consistent in saying that the church should stay out of politics, because there will always be an occasion where they will welcome the clergy's support on one issue or another. If, as church leaders, we believe that there are occasions where our contributions to the moral debate are necessary, we have to accept that almost every time we speak — on whatever issue it may be — someone, somewhere, will tell us to stay out of politics. This does not mean we should be any less careful in assessing whether an intervention is necessary and appropriate, or in framing it in terms of principle rather than politics. It does mean that such interventions will very seldom be welcomed generally, and never universally.

In the Catholic tradition, priests and bishops are not permitted to hold public office, and, as a matter of practical prudence and professional integrity, they should refrain from using their positions to advance the political interests of any party, except in extreme situations. We encourage lay people to be actively involved in their communities, and practical party politics is their business, not the business of the clergy. We live in democratic societies, and Christians and Christian churches have the right to be heard, like everyone else.

R&L: I understand that you visited Poland last summer. What is your sense of the type of free society that is emerging in the formerly communist countries of Eastern Europe? What role is religion playing in that development?

Pell: Yes, last July in Krakow I visited the Tertio Millennio Seminar on the Free Society. It was set up by Fr. Maciej Zieba, O.P. (a remarkable priest, intellectual, and commentator) and run by Michael Novak, George Weigel, and Fr. Richard John Neuhaus. I was impressed with the young people I met there from both central and eastern Europe and the United States. It is a great initiative, and I was very happy to be part of it, if only in an informal way.

In Poland, as George Weigel has said, we have an unusual and unprecedented situation: an attempt to build a democratic society, both on the basis of a modern and Catholic culture, and in the aftermath of fifty years of Nazi and communist rule. This situation should be watched with interest because, if it is successful, it could show us what shape democracy could take in its next phase — some might say the shape democracy will have to take if it is going to survive and prosper and live up to its promise as a source of human flourishing. Can democracy be something other than secular democracy? This is the question that will be answered, in part, by the success or failure of the Polish experiment.

The situation in eastern and central Europe is immensely varied, and it is still in its early days. Religion played a critical role not only in keeping culture and the spirit of freedom and solidarity alive under communism but also in bringing the totalitarian regimes to an end, given the pivotal role of Poland in the communist collapse. Religion now has a critical role in building stable, prosperous, and democratic societies, and in widening the possibilities of democratic life. However, both clergy and lay leadership will need to develop instincts for cooperation and compromise — essential in a democracy but less useful in the struggle against totalitarianism.

R&L: What do you see as the primary challenge for Christian social thought in the future?

Pell: The Holy Father has said that it is "from faith that the church's social teaching begins." The primary challenge will be to keep the faith community strong so that a sufficient number of committed professionals — especially lay men and women, rich in faith and theologically prepared — will continue to be available in public life to explain and develop the Christian social justice tradition in our changing world. We have to remain a credible voice in the public square.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Cardinal George Pell. "Christianity's Indispensable Social Teaching." Religion and Liberty 12, no 2 (March/April, 2002).

Religion and Liberty is a publication of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty.

This article reprinted with permission from the Acton Institute.

THE AUTHOR

Cardinal George Pell is archbishop of Sydney, Australia. He holds a Licentiate in Theology from Urban University, Rome (1967), a Masters Degree in Education from Monash University, Melbourne (1982), a Doctorate of Philosophy in Church History from the University of Oxford (1971) and is a Fellow of the Australian College of Education. He was Visiting Scholar at Campion Hall, Oxford University, in 1979 and at St Edmund's College, Cambridge University, in 1983.

He is the author of God and Caesar: Selected Essays on Religion, Politics, and Society and Issues of Faith and Morals, written by Cardinal Pell for senior secondary classes and parish groups. Since 2001, he has been a weekly columnist for Sydney's Sunday Telegraph.

Copyright © 2003 Acton Institute


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