How Catholic Social Teaching engages the world situation - second respondent

Response to Father Hehir

Russell Hittinger

I. Pontifical Engagement: Minervian and Cassandran Themes

I extend my sincere thanks to Father Bryan Hehir for his remarkably clear and elegant paper.  It is a brilliant stroke to make Gaudium et Spes the historical axis for the question of how the Church engages the world situation, and especially for assessing the broad framework linking CST and Catholic theology and ecclesiology.  On the theme of engagement in and with the world, he gives a balanced and nuance pictured of popes who not only teach in the formal sense of the term, but also engage in diplomacy and in apostolic and pastoral travels.  I also thank my colleague Pierpaolo Donati for his effort to disturb the serene surface of Hehir’s paper with some sharp and penetrating questions about the situation of CST over the past 125 years.

In this response I playfully refer to the ancient symbols of Minerva and Cassandra to consider different phases of CST as it has developed and continues to evolve since Rerum Novarum.  Hegel’s famously remarked in the Preface to The Philosophy of Right:  “One more word about giving instruction as to what the world ought to be. Philosophy in any case always comes on the scene too late to give it... When philosophy paints its gloomy picture, then a form of life has grown old. It cannot be rejuvenated by the [philosopher’s] gloomy picture, but only understood. Only when the dusk starts to fall does the owl of Minerva spread its wings and fly.”

Hegel probably to say that the Philosopher can grasp the whole of a thing only when it is complete enough to be understood – in the dusk – in the face of which there is no point legislating what ought to be.  Wisdom in historical matters is like the Owl taking stock of a civilization’s essential genius along with its tragic flaws.

This is not a perfectly apt metaphor for either Leo or CST.  The Leonine era included six subsequent pontificates that issued some 100 magisterial documents related to CST. [1]  Mineverian in this case cannot mean taking a snapshot of the world and then to stop talking.  There is no such thing as a total picture, not even from on high.  What’s more, many mistakes are apt to be made if one surveys the world as an Owl. Even so, Leo really was the epitome of CST as a “wisdom.”  One that needs to be distinguished, but never separated from our more recent hermeneutic “reading the signs of the times.”  It belongs to Casssandra (who had the gift of prophesy) to read “signs of the times”; but it belongs to Minerva to know the difference between wisdom and direct engagement in the changeable things of the human city. 

At the beginning of the modern tradition of CST, Leo said: “Nothing is more useful than to look upon the world as it really is…” (RN 18)  Even if Leo and his successors tended to look upon the world from on high – Pius XI went so far as to say, as from a “watch tower”[2] – they nevertheless wanted to understand the ordinary, concrete social and historical world.[3]  A generation later, Pacem in Terris (1963) and Gaudium et Spes (1965) went further, emphasizing the Church’s need not only to understand the world as it is, but to understand its “explanations and longings,” its “aspirations” and “undertakings.”  Among these are noted the world’s philosophies and ideologies, which in particular cases might be incomplete, misleading, or even false; still others are splendidly true; but in either case engagement with the world means careful and respectful attention to the “desires in the minds of men.”[4]

II.             The Great Institutions

The 19th century papacy had the daunting task of responding to what Leo himself called “the great conflagration.” [5]  In France, the Catholic culture of vows was swiftly turned upside down: 

·      In 1790, The Revolution first issued decrees prohibiting monastic vows, then solemn vows, and in their place required a clerical oath to the Civil Constitution of the Church

·      In 1791, marriage was made only a civil contract and celibacy for the secular clergy was relaxed;  

·      In 1792 decrees first allowed unilateral and no-fault divorce and then abolished the monarchy, thus the demise of the two great vows of the laity (husband to wife, king to the realm). 

Soon enough it was seen that revolution and deep social reform based on the Enlightenment was both ongoing and globalized.  For his part, Pius IX played the role of Cassandra, which he played rather well in his Syllabus of Errors (1864). Leo however asked, how do we civilize this situation? To borrow a tag from Charles Taylor, what is our social imaginary, our proposal for social order rightly apprehended? (What can we work with in social matters?  What is our proposal that at once satisfies truth about social matters without being anarchical or utopian?).

Leo and his student Pius XI pulled their teachings together on a wide map of social order according to the notion of three “great” or “necessary” societies.  Leo’s overriding theme was that in the mutual interest of state and church to preserve whatever helps persons to live, as he put it “well and happily,” which is to say societies “necessary” for human flourishing.[6]  Pius XI states: “Now there are three necessary societies, distinct from one another and yet harmoniously combined by God, into which man is born: two, namely the family and civil society, belong to the natural order; the third, the Church, to the supernatural order.”[7]  Leo’s division puts marriage first, because while people not “born into” marriage, matrimony is the “principle and foundation” of domestic society.[8]  To paraphrase and revise the Aristotelian dictum, the human person is a matrimonial-familial animal, a political animal, and an ecclesial animal. 

Human persons will live “well and happily” not only by inhabiting each society one by one, but by living in a condition of concord among the necessary societies.  In RN he admits:  “It is no easy matter to define the relative rights and mutual duties of the rich and of the poor, of capital and of labor.”  He did not throw himself into the myriad policies.  But there are principles.  In the first place there is, as Father Hehir noted, a moral framework: dignity of wage-labor, reflecting the human person as the image-bearer, capacitated to be provident for himself and others – a person who transcends animal instinct, who does not just produce but does so on the basis of rational foresight.  And hence the right to have at his disposal stable property.  The case is not made on the basis of a “state of nature” but rather on the rights and obligations of domestic society, and of .  ever widening associations interacting with polity and Church.  Human flourishing requires that social orders be balanced.

Just as the symmetry of the human frame is the result of the suitable arrangement of the different parts of the body, so in a State is it ordained by nature that these two classes should dwell in harmony and agreement, so as to maintain the balance of the body politic. Each needs the other: capital cannot do without labor, nor labor without capital. Mutual agreement results in the beauty of good order… RN 19

On this view, each is, in a certain respect, subsidiary to the others.  The Church inspires and forms men, women, and children in the virtues (especially virtue of religion, which is the first of the social virtues); the state maintains the complex order of justice, and the domestic society uniquely exemplifies not only our procreative generosity but the intimate social principle of affection and koinonia.  

Leo’s toolkit was rather simple.  Charles Taylor calls it “hierarchical complementarity” – society made up of different orders, and therefore having relations that are “truly mutual.”[9]  They need each other.  While they exist in themselves as true societies, they exist also for the other dignified orders.[10]  The necessary societies have two main marks:  (1) They enjoy and common good, and therefore each has, by analogy some aspect of the political by virtue of authority appropriate to their respective communities; (2) They are not merely instrumental (although surely subsidiary), but participate very deeply in the teleology of human perfection, which is to say eudaimonia.

In retrospect, it is surprising that an old-fashioned and relatively simply conceptual toolkit, consisting chiefly of a Thomistic interpretation of Aristotle’s Politics-II, should have worked so well over several decades.  We must remember that these men had training in law and philosophy but had no training social science.  The Leonine era had the appearance “on paper” of a great coherency precisely because in their Minervian way they focused primarily on perennial features of social order.[11]  (Once again,, Father Hehir is right to point out that the picture would change if we attended to papal prudence and diplomacy.)  It also met with moderate success because, putting to one side anarchists, radical socialists, and emerging totalitarians, the ruling secular powers (Germany, England, the new Italian state, and the 3rd Republic) were in no mood to get into a debate over the three necessary societies – at least not as such. The real quarrel was over how the three societies should be aligned.  The nation-states insisted that the state has the first and the last word over alignment.  Hence, the concrete issue – both in Europe and in the New World – was the schools.  The esteemed church historian Roger Aubert has called the school issue “the classic battleground”[12] – for the school was the locus of competition between the rights of church, parents, and state.  When Pius XI asserted that “the family is more sacred than the state,” his attention was focused chiefly by the issue of education and schools.[13]  Finally, the Leonine toolkit worked because the facts on the ground favored a solution based upon the tranquility of social orders:  two world wars, a Great Depression, the ugly specter of totalitarian movements, the re-building of Europe after WWII made the cooperation of societies or social sectors a matter of common sense.

As I remarked earlier, Minervians do not see everything – indeed, sometimes they miss very important social things.  While Leo understood the global reach of certain ideologies, he gave no indication in his thought or his teachings that market Capitalism was already a world system.  That investors in Bremen and London extended credit to cotton producers in Mississippi and India, who in turn induced and often compelled laborers to work for export markets rather than local and domestic subsistence; that there emerged global networks of banking, shipping, insurance, trading on futures, and the brand new industry of information (climatology, demographics, actuarial tables, methods of measuring both abstract and real property); that in the developed nations there emerged enormously large and complex corporations capable of coordinating distinct and dispersed operating units – about the time of Leo’s death, for example, U.S. Steel had assets greater than the annual revenue of the U.S. government; and that the system had penetrated and transformed the interiors of every continent. 

Father Hehir notes in passing that Leo’s condemnation of contemporary social and economic ideologies probably limited the terms by which he could criticize the relations between labor and capital on more than moral grounds.  Whatever the case, neither Leo nor Pius XI examined Market Capitalism as a complex global system, which was to miss the distinctively modern and secular nature of this phenomenon.  Instead, they considered it under the rubric of moral virtues and vices (concerning justice and appetitions, such as greed, and they considered how economic crises (pauperization of wage-labor, collapse of banks, etc.) affect the harmony of the three necessary societies.[14]  The system, so to speak, of totalitarianism seemed more urgent and worthy of their attention than the system of Market Capitalism.

One thing they did see, however, even if it was more in the mode of Cassandra, was that . the three necessary institutions of human flourishing might be reduced “to the genus of commercial contracts, which can rightly be revoked by the will of those who made them.”[15]  Social forms like marriage and family might be left to be determined either by state, or more likely by private contract with state sanctions – a societas arbitraria whose form is stipulated.[16]  This warning was sounded almost always in reference to liberal reforms of marriage and family law.  What if all three necessary societies are dis-incorporated from above?  No longer making good on, or exemplifying, perennial social forms but rather constructed, stipulated, and changed arbitrarily – as immanent systems without transcendent grounding, not even in nature.  What if the Leonine popes had connected in a systematic way global market economy and the disincorporation of the perennial social forms?  What if they had been trained in social sciences?

III.           JPII and The Second Globalization

John Paul II’s adult life corresponds to the second globalization (the first globalization, on my view, was the swift development of global capitalism in the late 19th century): the conclusion of WWII, rapid and global decolonization, the cold war as something more than a regional factor in Europe, the emergence of the globalized Church as we recognize it today, and the events of 1989, which precipitated Centesimus Annus.

John Paul certainly had a more ample toolbox for social analysis and social theory.  He understood right away that the social world of the late 20th century is more complex and dynamic, consisting or many more agents and networks than were admitted by the repertory of previous popes.  He didn’t need to be convinced that there are in plain sight multiple lines of causality running through what he dubbed the anthropological problem, the social problems, and the problem of the “logic” of market.  Just as Father Heihr said of Leo, John Paul wanted to situate in an up-to-date manner “economic competition within a moral framework.”  On balance, and for reasons still to be discussed in proper detail, he was not entirely successful in this endeavor.  For global Market Capitalism is an essentially competitive system that does not neatly fit our familiar notions of “social subjectivities” having a common life, with its own range of moral imperatives and sensibilities; it is placed under “civil society” only in the most awkward way.

In his book Modern Social Imaginaries, Charles Taylor argues that in modern times, economic life was the first social imaginary to achieve an identity independent of the political sphere.[17]  It is a new “normal order” of mutual enrichment that is at once profoundly social, let us say, interactive all the way down, but not easily classified under the usual rubric of collective action.  Agents reciprocally affect one another in some systematic way, yet the beneficence of the system must be evaluated in light of a concatenation that happens “behind their backs.”  So imagined, economic life is in tension with the other two modern social imaginaries, the “sovereign people” and “civil society,” for being based on competition, the economic society seems to lack either the collective action of political life or the many modes of benevolence of voluntary associations.  This economic social imaginary is normal but a very strange part of our world.  It severely tests the admonition of the Second Vatican Council to discern “desires in the minds of men.”

Before we look at how John Paul tackled the issue, it is important to remember that, from his interventions at the Council on the situation of atheism right through his magisterial encyclicals of the 1990s, he did not believe that the trifecta of anthropological-social-economic issues were due merely to errant ideologies and philosophies.  Rather, he thought that the tensions and continuities of that trifecta are deeply part of our common lived experience.  Pope Francis’s mode of prophetic engagement was a detectable voice even at the outset of the Wojtylan papacy – there are important matters to be seen in the fog on the ground, to be experienced and even suffered in the effort to be rightly apprehended. 

But I have now used all of the words that were given to me to use in this brief response to Father Hehir.  The story can be continued later …

[1] It is right to speak of a Leonine era because six popes came of age or were born during Leo’s pontificate.  Pius X (b. 1835), Benedict XV (b. 1854), Pius XI (b. 1857), Pius XII (b. 1876), John XXIII (b. 1881), Paul VI (b. 1897).

[2] A very revealing authorial report, like the Owl of Minerva: quasi specula circumspicimus.  Casti Connubii (31 Dec. 1930), §3.

[3] Not just the biblical understanding of the world.  For St. Augustine, the terrene city in which human beings organize their lives without God.

[4] GS §§ 4, 21; PT §§ 36, 79, 159.  The last quotation is from Dignitatis Humanae §1, approving of the quest for personal responsibility and freedom in the exercise of religious duties.  The phrase animorum appetitiones echoes the tenor of these documents.  Namely, not so much to assemble or to take apart a chain of ideas but to discern what people are actually trying to accomplish.

[5] Arcaum divinae (10 Feb. 1880), §28.  Acta Leonis vol. II, 29.  English translations collected by Carlen ((1981) and posted now on the Vatican website contain section numbering that was not in the originals, at least not until the early 1960s.  Hereafter, we cite the interpolated section and the page from the relevant Acta.

[6] Arcanum §4, 12.  Pius XI’s discourse on the necessary societies, Divini Illius (31 Dec. 1929), §§12-14, AAS 21 (1929), 52-53.

[7] Casti §11, 52.

[8] Arcanum §5, 12.

[9] Charles Taylor, Modern Social Imaginaries (2004), 10.

[10] On CST and dignified orders, see: Michael Rosen, Dignity, It’s History and Meaning (Harvard, 2012), and Jeremy Waldron, Dignity, Rank, & Rights (Oxford 2012).  

[11] Un ‘corpus’ dottrinale di grande coerenza … La dottromna sociale della chiesa nell formazione sacerdotale [Congregazione Per L’Educazione Cattolioca 30 Dec. 1988], §11.  Enchridion Vaticanum 11 Documenti Uffici.  See also Caritas in Veritate, §12. 

[12] Aubert (1981), 209. 

[13] A good summary of Leo’s thought on the school question is provided by Elsbernd (1985) at 305-309.   See also her very nuanced summary of Casti at 643ff.  Her word studies show very plainly how family issues were centered on education.  Pius XI, for example, refers fourteen times to the rights of the family and parents, in every case regarding education.

[14] For his part, Pius XI brought more of the global economic situation into view because of Great Depression: “Still, in order that what he so happily initiated may be solidly established, that what remains to be done may be accomplished, and that even more copious and richer benefits may accrue to the family of mankind, two things are especially necessary: reform of institutions and correction of morals. QA §77.  Note, however, it was to be remedied by social order.

[15] Humanum Genus (20 April 1884), Acta vol. IV, 43-70.  §21, 57.

[16] Casti §49, 558; §86, 573.

[17] Charles Taylor, Modern Social Imaginaries (2004), 83.


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