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Mark Shea: Catholic both/and social teaching

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Studies in Catholic Thought immerses students in Scripture, theology and philosophy.
The Catholic Church is consistent in its social teaching, it’s us who are inconsistent.

The second of a three-part series on heresy

Last time in this space, we looked at heresy and its modern manifestation, ideology.  We noted that both of these phenomena are not so much lies as inflamed or cancerous truth.

Somebody gets one single truth fixed in their head as the Only Thing that Matters and then weaponises that truth to attack other equally important truths.

The more important that one truth is, the harder it is to get the heretic to see that the truths he attacks are also important because every attempt to do so seems to him an attempt to tear down or belittle his idolised truth.

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The Catholic genius is its capacity to embrace both/and thinking and avoid either/or manias.  To be sure, the Tradition can also grasp that certain things are either/or questions (“Either Jesus is God or he is not”).

The Catholic genius is its capacity to embrace both/and thinking and avoid either/or manias.

But it is also subtle and wise enough to know that most either/or questions are false alternatives (for instance, “Either Jesus is God or he is man”). The great heresies have, again and again, embraced such false alternatives and have, again and again, been defeated by the capaciousness of the Catholic worldview which reminds us that God is sovereign and we have free will, that the Father is God and so is the Son and the Spirit, that the Son is both fully God and fully man, that we are saved by faith and works, Scripture is both inspired and the work of human beings, etc.

The same holds true with the Church’s moral tradition, expressed in the Church’s social teaching.

That teaching has four basic pillars: The Dignity of the Human Person, the Common Good, Subsidiarity, and Solidarity. As with all the Church’s teaching, these aspects of Catholic Social Doctrine are intended to be understood in harmony with one another, not in conflict or competition. Think of them as the four legs on the throne upon which sits Adam, made in the image and likeness of God.

The Dignity of the Human Person can be summed up this way: Human beings, made in the image and likeness of God, are sacred from conception to natural death and intended for eternal happiness with him.

This is the idea that undergirds, not only the Church’s teaching on abortion and euthanasia, but her opposition to torture and unjust war, her advocacy of a living wage, her support for refugees, her support for education and the sciences, her call to abolish capital punishment, and her promotion of charities, state-sponsored social safety nets, and her demand for universal health care.

Some of those things strike some Catholics as “conservative” and some of them “liberal”, but that is not because the Church is inconsistent.  It’s because we are inconsistent.

The Church, on the contrary, is consistent.  It grasps that because each person is made in the image and likeness of God, therefore every person is made in the image and likeness of God and has a right to the goods of the earth necessary to his or her sustenance and flourishing.  That is what the Common Good addresses.  It extends the Dignity of the Human Person to every human person not contradicts it.

Because of this harmonious understanding, the Church’s Tradition can keep in right order such things as the right to life and property rights.  It can grasp that while we have a right to private property, that right does not trump the right to live.

It can see that the legitimate task of the state is, as Paul says in Romans 13, to ensure justice, while in no way denying that it is also the task of each one of us to care for our neighbour.

Because of this, the Tradition also sees that Subsidiarity is required so that each of us personally participates in the work of loving our neighbor and does not try to just leave the job to some remote bureaucracy.  We are each to be sacraments of the grace and provision of God to all.

And that, in turn, is because we are not only one in Adam as members of the human race but are, in Christ, “members of one another”.  So we can never say, “Your end of the Titanic is sinking” to our neighbour.  Our mystical union with one another means not only that we need each other to live but, in Christ, we need each other to be saved since the way we treat our neighbour is the way we treat Christ.


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