Catholic Social Teaching and Consensus

The Centre for Theology & Community l

Our Co-ordinating Fellow, Fr Simon Cuff, has just had Love in Action – his guide to Catholic Social Teaching (CST) – published by SCM Press. The formal book launch is on 18 March in central London. Here he reflects on the importance of CST in our fractured society…

As a society, we are in desperate need of consensus. We disagree about how to tackle rising inequality, about how to solve the disparity of income across regions, about how to relate to the European Union. We even disagree about how best to disagree. We are in desperate need of consensus, of common ground.

We know that common ground exists. Jo Cox, the MP murdered during the Referendum campaign taught us in her maiden speech in Parliament: “We are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us”. We know that common ground exists, but we’re reluctant to do the hard work of compromise. One of the lessons of Brexit has been that in a world of social media echo chambers and cosy bubbles, we all need to learn how to do the difficult business of compromise and how to disagree well as we seek that common ground.

Until we find consensus, we remain divided. Within Scripture, S. Mark’s Gospel reminds us: ‘If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand’ (Mark 3.24-5). We know that the Easter feast we are preparing ourselves for this Lent celebrates Christ’s ultimate overcoming of the divisions we make for ourselves: ‘In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!’ (Col 3.11). Christ reconciles us to himself, and ourselves to each other. We are still living this process of reconciliation. The gift of consensus-making that has been discovered within the Social Teaching of the Roman Catholic Church is one way of living out our Risen faith, sharing in the reconciliation of all things.

In the midst of our divisions, Catholic Social Teaching has much to offer to all Christian communities seeking to play their part in that of overcoming divisions which is life in Christ. The principles of Catholic Social Teaching derive from more than a century of thought and praxis within the Roman Catholic Church about how to overcome such divisions and social ills.

The extremity of division in society is nothing new. Widely recognised as the foundational document of Catholic Social Teaching, Rerum Novarum, the 1891 letter of Pope Leo XIII was written in part in response to such divisions between the newly urbanised rich and industrial poor, and to offer practical solutions to the worsening living conditions of those urban poor at the end of the 19th Century.

The whole tradition of Catholic Social Teaching begins with the need to seek consensus in the midst of opposing extremes. Leo XIII writes Rerum Novarum in order to mediate between these divides opening up within industrialised Europe at the end of the 19th Century, between ‘the enormous fortunes of some few individuals, and the utter poverty of the masses’.[1] He does so in the midst of ‘the conflict now raging’ in part, to stem ‘the spirit of revolutionary change’.[2]

Rerum Novarum features one such example of the kind of consensus which Catholic Social Teaching has arrived at for the sake of mediating between opposing extremes – the living wage. Pope Leo XIII writes that it is ‘a dictate of natural justice more imperious and ancient than any bargain between man and man, namely, that wages ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage earner’ [Rerum Novarum 45]

The just or living wage is a concrete example of this search for consensus between possible extremes. Catholic Social Teaching neither allows free reign for employers to set exploitative wages, nor does it call for wages that are so high they risk unemployment. The call for a living wage is a safeguard against exploitation, whilst securing dignity for the worker without calling for such a high minimum wage that it risks unemployment.

Likewise, Catholic Social Teaching’s view of private property negotiates a path between those who wish to emphasis the absolute right to private property, and those who wish to emphasise the universal communal destination of all the goods which God has given us. The position articulated within Catholic Social Teaching achieves a consensus between these two extremes. Private property is permitted as the best means of administration, but all property is destined for common use.

Pius XI articulates this position in an encyclical of 1931: God has ‘given man the right of private ownership not only that individuals may be able to provide for  themselves . . . but also that the goods which the Creator destined for the entire family of mankind may through this institution truly serve this purpose’ [Quadragesimo Anno, 45]. In a 1981 encyclical, Pope John Paul II spells out how this consensus was arrived at: ’The right to  private property is subordinated to the right to common use, to the fact that goods are meant for everyone’ [Laborem Exercens, 14]

We can look at one further example in the reception within Catholic Social Teaching of one of the insights of Liberation Theology regarding the social or structural nature of sin. Whereas the tradition of Liberation Theology is happy to assert that sin can be social and structures within society can be sinful, initially the Church was reluctant to identify sin outside of sinful individuals. Two important Conferences of Latin American Bishops meeting at Medellín in 1968 and Puebla in 1979 assert that there are unjust structures and a situation of social sin as a daily reality across their continent.

Pope John Paul II’s initial reluctance to ascribe sin to structures or situations is found in his 1984 apostolic exhortation, Reconciliatio et Paenitentia. Social sin he argues ‘is a case of the very personal sins of those who cause or support evil or who exploit it’ (§16).

However, in his 1987 encyclical, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, we see the compromise position which Catholic Social Teaching reaches. Structural sin is permitted as a concept, but its links to personal sin made clear: ‘“structures of sin” . . . are rooted in personal sin, and thus always linked to the concrete acts of individuals who introduce these structures, consolidate them and make them difficult to remove… They grow stronger, spread, and become the source of other sins, and so influence people’s behaviour’. [§36]

John Carr calls this process of finding consensus and discerning truth between extremes ‘in the often ideological and polarised economic debate… “the Catholic AND”.[3] Carr’s “Catholic AND” is the feature of Catholic Social Teaching which ‘brings together complementary ideas and values into a more coherent and integrated framework’.[4] For example, ‘private property is both a right and a responsibility, there is both a duty to work and a right to decent work, wages etc.’.[5]

The ability of Catholic Social Teaching to find consensus across divided positions, and to seek truth amongst extremes means that it offers important lessons for negotiating the current divided societies in which we live. The documents of Catholic Social Teaching demonstrate how keeping in mind certain foundational principles of decency and dignity can negotiate divides and find ways through extremes. It does not allow a free-for-all, or support of whichever position is popular or politically expedient. Instead, it seeks consensus by applying an agreed set of foundational concerns and ideas to the changing problems of living in the world.

Catholic Social Teaching has shown itself to be an important witness in how to negotiate living and leading in a divided society. It encourages us to hold fast to a small number of core principles essential to our faith, and to show as much flexibility as we are able in our application of these core principles to the many and changing social problems we face. In so doing, it shows us the importance of finding a consensus which is not simply the whim of a majority, or that excludes some or part of society from its scope, but seeks to discern truth amongst the many conflicting and divided voices of our day.

As the divisions in our society seem no closer to being overcome, Catholic Social Teaching is a lesson in consensus according to red lines which safeguard the dignity and image of God in each and every human being, and brings together opposing groups around a hopeful vision of the common good. Catholic Social Teaching offers us important lessons in compromise and consensus, lessons which are surely needed as we negotiate the ever-increasing divisions of our day. This Lent let us learn these lessons of compromise and consensus as we strive to live out even now the unity which Christ has brought about, in which there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, Leave or Remain.

[1] Rerum, 1

[2] Rerum, 1

[3] Carr, J., ‘Moving from Research to Action: Some Lessons and Directions (from a Catholic Social Ministry Bureaucrat)’ in Finn, D. (ed.) The True Wealth of Nations: Catholic Social Thought and Economic Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2010) 341 – 349, 346

[4] Carr, ‘Research to Action’, 346

[5] Carr, ‘Research to Action’, 347

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