Catholic social teaching may not give specific answers,
but it still requires action
By Tony Staley
Catholic social teaching provides guidance, if not always specific answers, to society's problems. But even where there are no specific answers, Catholics are still obliged to seek solutions to the problems.
In discussing Catholic social teaching and public policy at a recent seminar in Washington, Samuel Gregg, an expert on ethics and public policy, said it doesn't offer specific answers to social and economic problems, but rather guidelines that leave "tremendous room for prudential judgment."
"Bishops and priests should not and cannot claim to invoke magisterial authority when it comes to matters such as the precise degree of state intervention in the economy," said Gregg, director of research and academic affairs at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Gregg was the main speaker at a seminar on Catholic social teaching in seminaries sponsored by the Faith and Reason Institute as part of the Pew Charitable Trusts three-year project on "Catholicism in the American Public Square."
"Seminaries should be teaching our future priests that when they speak about most public policy matters, they should remind the faithful that they are normally expressing prudential judgments that are in no way binding upon the faithful," said Gregg, who advocates teaching modern economics in seminaries. "People should not propose their opinions as the church's teaching."
On issues such as providing universal health care, "the choice is between not only good and bad options but also a range of good options, some of which are incompatible with one another but compatible with the church's teaching," said Gregg.
"One group of Catholics may conclude that it is best realized by a predominantly state-funded system," he said. Other Catholics using the same evidence and principles "may conclude that private health insurance, with the state providing a minimum safety net, is the most prudential approach."
There is a difference, he said, between social and economic issues, and matters such as abortion, which the church judges as intrinsically evil. "The church's moral tradition has articulated an unambiguous, non-negotiable position to which Catholics are required to give assent: the unborn must be accorded the equal protection of the law, and abortion is to be legally prohibited and never publicly promoted," Gregg said.
Gregg raises several valid points. But, his words must not be twisted to argue that nothing is definite so we don't have to work for justice. That obligation remains. Nor should we allow our seminaries to add economics courses that lean heavily to the left or right. Sadly, economics seems to offer even fewer answers -- let alone moral ones -- in confronting social problems than does church teaching. We cannot ignore that reality.