The Working Catholic: Social Doctrine Part Seven
by Bill Droel
There are scores of books explaining Catholic social doctrine. The outline for many of them is a chronology of papal encyclicals (from Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 On the Condition of Labor to Pope Francis’ 2020 On Social Friendship). Or the author might pick issues like peace, health care delivery, labor relations and the environment; quoting relevant official documents in each chapter.
The Church’s Best-Kept Secret by Mark Shea (New City Press ; 16.95) is different. In 159 pages written for a popular audience, Shea reflects on four social principles, giving two chapters to each: the dignity of each life, the common good, subsidiarity and solidarity. The encyclicals are referenced along the way. However, Shea prefers to illustrate the principles with lots of Scripture, some quotations from the early church and citations from C.S. Lewis (1898-1963).
Ethical consistency is Shea’s recurring theme. Some Catholics agree with our doctrine on some issues but not others. Other Catholics, including some bishops, claim to be consistent but mistakenly say one issue has greater moral weight than another. And some Catholics disingenuously claim to support Catholic doctrine, but they only use it to oppose policies or politicians they don’t like. “If your focus is on abortion, fine,” Shea writes. “But do not pretend to focus on it while actually spending your time and energy fighting against the Magisterium…and in favor of policies that harm the environment, fighting against a living wage and in favor of laissez faire capitalism.” The tone of The Church’s Best-Kept Secret is easy-going, not technical. But, as this riff shows, Shea can hammer points as needed.
There’s a difference between the world-as-it-is and “the way it is supposed to be,” Shea writes. Everyone has at least a dim notion of perfectibility, of a better situation, of the world as we hope it could be. He goes on to quote G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936): In the here-and-now people “do not differ much about what things they will call evil; they differ enormously about what evils they will call excusable.” For example, some people justify torture during wartime (though doing so became harder in the United States after the publication of photos from Abu Ghraib Prison). Yes, says Shea, soldiers sometimes have to kill combatants in self-defense. But the moment an enemy becomes a prisoner, torture is absolutely forbidden “as gravely and intrinsically immoral.”
In the same way some people excuse abortion because in their calculus the unborn are less equal. “Hairsplitting arguments about when a fetus becomes a person are meaningless,” Shea says. Each person has a right to live “the whole of human life for the whole of life.”
Over and over, Shea insists that a moral person cannot say that one issue must take priority over others. Concern over 20 or more issues does not dilute or fracture the brand. Yes, “there is plenty of room…for specialization and focusing on specific issues and ills.” But, to make one issue morally higher than another is to make some people in some situations more equal than others. A moral person cannot deliberately excuse evil.
There is obviously imperfection in the world-as-it-is. Yet the moral person retains a vision of a world as it is supposed to be and consistently strives to lessen evil and enhance good. At the same time, Shea concludes, one must refrain from becoming a justice warrior in the sense that they presume to create a perfect world. Such a person will likely be ineffective. Always “begin where you are, and not where you are not,” he advises. You are inside a family, inside a voluntary group, in a union, at a protest or rally. Then challenge yourself and others to move a step outside your comfort zone.
Shea is not the last word on social action, its history, its principles and its current applications. Most readers will quarrel with him on some pages; which is a sign of a good book. The Church’s Best Kept Secret is fresh, accessible and challenging.
Droel is the author of What Is Social Justice (National Center for the Laity, PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629).