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.
LOPEZ: What’s the new generation you’re writing to, and how is doctrine or its application different for them?
FR. WILLIAMS: Since the world is evolving so quickly, Catholic social thought has to keep up and even look beyond what is happening right now, to the future. Each new generation of citizens grows up with a different matrix of cultural markers, with different experiences and assumptions about the world. Catholic social thought has to speak to the generation of today, by showing what changes and what doesn’t about the human person and society. Perennial truths about human nature remain the same, but many practical applications change with changing circumstances. A world dominated by technology, data sharing, and instantaneous communication, and where biotechnology has accomplished things both magnificent and troubling, raises ethical questions that were either nonexistent or practically irrelevant in the past. The social questions facing young people today are very different from those of generations past.
LOPEZ: When will the pope weigh in on Paul Ryan’s budget?
FR. WILLIAMS: I think you know the answer to that question. Never. It’s not in the pope’s job description to interfere with the nuts and bolts of political society. The pope is teacher and shepherd, and his role in the social sphere is moral and spiritual, centering on the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ as it relates to the human person. And so he will insist on respect for human dignity and the inalienable rights of the person, but he will not suggest what percentage of a state’s budget should be applied to health care, education, national defense, or the promotion of the arts. This is for citizens, many of whom have been formed according to Christian principles, to debate, discuss, and hammer out.
LOPEZ: What is this social justice we hear so much about?
FR. WILLIAMS: “Social justice” is a term that encompasses everything relating to the common good — that is, all those conditions of social life that allow people to freely and responsibly live out their vocation as human beings and citizens. Social justice is distinguished from particular justice in that it relates to society at large, with all its laws and institutions, rather than just the individual dealings between persons. Traditionally, social justice has been associated especially with solidarity and a special concern for the poor, though it also embraces the protection of freedoms, which is an integral part of the common good.
LOPEZ: Is there something to the idea that it does not belong to the Democratic party?
FR. WILLIAMS: No one party incarnates the ideal of the just society. In part this is because there are legitimate differences of opinion in areas where one “right” answer doesn’t exist, and in part because every party is also susceptible to simply being wrong in its approach to certain questions. It seems to me that the Democratic party has traditionally presented itself as the party of the poor and disenfranchised. Whereas Democrats do typically attribute a more expansive role to the federal government than Republicans do, including in the area of welfare and social assistance, the simple fact is that this is not the only possible approach — and perhaps not even the best one — for helping the poor. In short, we are all morally obliged to do our best to help the poor, but no one party has gained the indisputable moral high ground in this area. In other key areas of social justice — most notably protection of the life of the unborn — the Democratic party has tragically abdicated any claim to be the party of the poor and vulnerable.
LOPEZ: How much of Catholic social thought hinges on abortion?
FR. WILLIAMS: Pope John Paul II famously wrote in 1995 that the right to life, especially of the unborn, had taken the place of the worker question at the forefront of Catholic social concern. He wrote that if 100 years prior the Church could not be silent about the injustices suffered by workers, “still less can she be silent today” when the world is facing “still more grievous forms of injustice and oppression,” especially regarding unborn children, “whose fundamental right to life is being trampled upon” (Evangelium Vitae, 5). Pope John Paul chose to frame the abortion question as a matter of social justice and linked it to the times of Pope Leo XIII in what he called a “striking analogy.” Unfortunately, many peace-and-justice groups have failed to heed this call of Blessed John Paul II, virtually ignoring the life issues in their activity. The fact remains, however, that one cannot claim to be devoted to helping the poorest of the poor without paying attention to the greatest social injustice of our times.
LOPEZ: Is John Henry Newman essential to a careful analysis of Catholic social thought?
FR. WILLIAMS: Blessed John Newman was a fascinating figure and is truly a saint for our times. Though his academic interests lay more in the area of dogmatic theology, his thought proves especially suited to the area of Catholic social thought for three reasons.
First, he had a truly prophetic sense of the role that the laity are called to play in the Church. In an age of clericalism, Newman insisted that lay Christians are at the forefront of the life of the Church, especially regarding the transformation of the temporal order. His thought dovetailed perfectly with what the Second Vatican Council would later say about the critical role lay Christians play in the world and the direction that Catholic social thought would take.
Second, Newman’s teaching on conscience — still referenced today because of the clarity of his thought — has enormous importance for Catholic social thought today. In a time when Catholic politicians, for instance, can be claiming to be “personally opposed” to abortion, yet publicly support it, the integrity of conscience so brilliantly explained by Newman is a much-needed guide for Christians active in the public arena.
Finally, Newman’s interest in the development of dogma also proves particularly beneficial to Catholic social thought, an area where development is evident on an ongoing basis. Newman carefully explained the difference between true and false development, and his method sheds light on important questions faced by Catholic social thought today, from just-war theory to religious liberty.
LOPEZ: What does Catholic social thought have to do with the Gospel of Jesus Christ?
FR. WILLIAMS: Everything and nothing. On the one hand, Catholic social doctrine is a part of theology — moral theology, to be precise — and draws its inspiration from the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Living out Jesus’ commandment to love one another in the social context is what Catholic social doctrine is all about.
On the other hand, Catholic social doctrine argues on the basis of human reason and the natural law and does not represent a partisan, confessional proposition (see Caritas in Veritate, 28a). In this sense, it is open to everyone and seeks only the common good of society and no particular interest. The Catholic Church does not want to see its confessional beliefs made into civil law and rejects any sort of theocracy. Yet necessarily our moral judgments proceed from our understanding of who the human person is and how we are to treat one another, and this has religious roots as well.
LOPEZ: Jesus wouldn’t wage a war on women, so why are the Catholic bishops?
FR. WILLIAMS: I believe that charges of a war against women on the part of the Catholic Church are specious accusations meant to distract people from the real issues being debated. When the Church raises her voice in opposition to abortion, for instance, she does so not in opposition to women but in behalf of women, as well as in behalf of the children being carried in their wombs. Abortion is not therapeutic, and does deep moral, emotional, and psychological damage to women. To call it “health care” is disingenuous. The Church believes that God’s moral law is not an obstacle to human fulfillment but a requirement of it. God asks of us only what is truly for our good and the good of the human community.
LOPEZ: “The healthy separation of church and state.” You don’t really believe in such a thing, do you, Father?
FR. WILLIAMS: As Pope Benedict has pointed out on several occasions, the idea of separation of church and state is a product of Christianity, and something otherwise unknown in the ancient world, where state and religion were fused. When Jesus proposed that we “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s,” he was putting forward a revolutionary concept. The role of the state is to guarantee the common good — those conditions of social life that allow citizens to freely and responsibly pursue their personal development, the good of their families, and their God-given vocation.
On the other hand, the role of the Church in society is fundamental and cannot be reduced to a restrictive, private “freedom of worship.” In a truly democratic society, religious believers make an essential contribution to public discourse and their voice should not be silenced in the name of an absolutist separation of church and state. To say that the state should not establish a particular religion does not imply that the state should be hostile to religion or impervious to its influence.
LOPEZ: Is conservatism adequately Christian? Is liberalism?
FR. WILLIAMS: We live in a deeply polarized society. This simplifies things for us, since the labels of “conservative” and “liberal” allow us to neatly pigeonhole people into two well-defined, identifiable sets. Unfortunately, this does not do justice to the complexity of human life or to the nuanced positions possible in different political and cultural issues.
In the case of the Church, it is impossible to classify it as either conservative or liberal. She is essentially “conservative” in the sense that she hands on a deposit of faith that comes from her Founder and conserves the message of the Gospel in its integrity from generation to generation. Yet she is also “liberal” in the sense that she does not resist change, but rather promotes growth and true progress, and seeks the integral liberation of all people from the slavery of sin. The categories of true and false, good and evil, are really more important and basic than the categories of liberal and conservative.
LOPEZ: Is there a single encyclical that speaks most directly to our day?
FR. WILLIAMS: I am sure that papal encyclicals speak to different people in different ways. Personally, I think that several encyclicals of Blessed John Paul II are exceptionally relevant to the world of today. Fides et Ratio, on the complementarity and importance of faith and reason, offers a comprehensive look at the importance of these two key elements of human life and shows how they support rather than contradict one another. Veritatis Splendor, on the moral life of Christians and the real meaning of human freedom in truth, is as relevant today as it was in 1993. Evangelium Vitae, on respect for human life and its priority as the first human right, continues to speak to the present generation. Perhaps my personal favorite is the 1980 encyclical Dives in Misericordia, which beautiful expresses how the mercy of God stands at the core of the Christian message.
LOPEZ: Does the Vatican want one-world government and banking? Is the Vatican crazy? Can’t the Vatican stick to taking away women’s birth control?
FR. WILLIAMS: Yikes! Let’s look at this one item at a time. First of all, “the Vatican” includes many individuals, offices, and points of view, and often does not represent a single voice. If we want to talk about the official position of the Church, we should speak of her magisterium, or official teaching. In this regard, she certainly does not want one-world government or banking. In fact, Pope Benedict expressly rejected the idea of a tyrannical, one-world government in the strongest of terms in his 2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate. On the other hand, she does recognize the need for some form of global governance to promote the cooperation of nations and peoples for the universal common good.
Concerning birth control, the Church has continuously taught that recourse to contraception is immoral and that responsible parenthood should be lived out through natural family planning, which is extraordinarily effective and respectful of God’s plan for sex within marriage. She believes that contraception is damaging to the relationship of husband and wife and ultimately unworthy of their love for one another. But the Church has no police force. She does not chase down and punish Catholics who fail to live up to her teachings. She appeals only to conscience, and has no power of persuasion other than the force of her teaching in the name of Jesus.
LOPEZ: What do American politics today look like through the lens of daily Roman life and through the lens of Catholic social thought?
FR. WILLIAMS: As I mentioned earlier, American politics seem very polarized and acerbic. Yet there are signs of great hope as well. Recent political debate has touched on topics of enormous importance, going beyond merely technical questions to fundamental issues of human dignity, religious freedom, and the role of government in the life of the nation. From a European context, where there is a marked tendency toward statism and socialization, it is refreshing to hear an animated defense of subsidiarity and the role of civil society, which is so precious to us as Catholics.
LOPEZ: You wrote a book on conscience. Which sections do you wish we’d review now?
FR. WILLIAMS: Conscience is a fabulous topic, because it unites all human beings, believers and non-believers alike. It is a distinctive characteristic of the human person to evaluate the moral quality of his choices and actions, and to experience remorse or personal satisfaction depending on the blame or praise we receive from the moral voice within us. Right and wrong, good and bad, are essential categories of human actions, and our choices qualify us as good or bad simply as human beings. Whether we agree or disagree on specific issues, at least a common acknowledgment of the importance of moral goodness is critical for the quality of our life together as a society. Pragmatism and utility are not enough. Human beings need higher motivations and more noble pursuits than simply “what works.”
LOPEZ: If there is one principle from your book you’d hope both presidential contenders would consider, what would it be?
FR. WILLIAMS: That is a hard question. As you know, I insist over and over on the idea of religious freedom as well as the need to consider how different religious traditions square with the deepest beliefs and values as a Western democracy. But perhaps the most important principle of Catholic social doctrine to be taken into account in the present day is that of subsidiarity — the limitations on the role of the state and the importance of families, local communities, and civil society generally for the common good. Like all bureaucracies, the state has the tendency to expand, and needs to be kept constantly in check lest it lose its effectiveness in the service of citizens.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.