A Higher Office
Politics in the City of Man, governed by the principles of Another.

. Fr. Thomas Williams, author of The World As It Could Be


Rome — What is the common good? How can moral principles guide policymakers? This is a question that is being answered in legislatures daily, in ways large and small. In recent days, a spotlight has been trained on Wisconsin Republican Paul Ryan and his engagement with critics of his proposed budget using the principles of Catholic social thought. Fr. Thomas Williams, professor of theology and ethics at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University and author of the recent The World As It Could Be, he discusses some of these issues with Kathryn Jean Lopez.

KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: Isn’t it remarkably audacious to pretend to know what the world could be?

FR. THOMAS WILLIAMS: We all have dreams about what the world could look like, and this is what moves us to action. Without an ideal to shoot for and tend toward, our efforts to change the world would be nothing more than shots in the dark. Aren’t most of our political and cultural debates really an expression of competing worldviews, i.e., visions of what the world could be?

Perhaps the more audacious claim is that we have an idea of what God would like the world to look like. Christians have a very specific understanding of who the human person is, how we are to treat one another, and what principles should govern our society. This comes to us from a God who created us and who, we believe, reveals himself to us through his Son Jesus.

Catholic Christians in particular have a whole body of social “doctrine,” based on the teachings of Jesus and centuries of philosophical and theological reflection. Our faith underscores the importance of human freedom and dignity, the fundamental equality of all people, our creation in the image and likeness of God, the need for fraternity and solidarity, religious liberty, and respect for the proper autonomy of individuals, families, and local communities. We believe that we are called to propose this vision in the public square, adding our voice to that of other citizens, for the betterment of our society.

LOPEZ: What’s the difference between Catholic “social thought” and Catholic “social teaching,” and why is that important?

FR. WILLIAMS: Catholic social doctrine, or social teaching, refers to a corpus of papal instruction on matters related to the organization of society. This instruction began in a systematic way with the 1891 publication of Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum, on the worker question, and continues to this day, most recently with the 2009 publication of Pope Benedict’s social encyclical Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth). This ongoing teaching touches on everything from family life to the political community to human rights to the economy.

As a category, Catholic social thought is broader than Catholic social teaching, since it goes beyond the official doctrine proposed by the Church’s magisterium and includes the study and reflection of many Catholic thinkers throughout the world on similar matters. Catholic social teaching furnishes an ongoing point of reference for Catholic social thought and stimulates Catholics to seek practical, creative applications of Gospel principles in society.