Saturday, July 2, 2011

Beyond Left and Right: the ongoing revolution of Catholic Social Teaching

Someone brought to my attention an excellent article by Nigel Zimmermann with the above title that recently received a "runner up" prize in The Tablet's essay competition. Nigel, a friend originally from Brisbane, has been a doctoral student in the Divinity School at Edinburgh University for the last few years. His long time interest in the thought of Pope John Paul II and the philosophical/ theological issues it raises is well known. (For example, I note that just a week ago at a conference in Krakow, Poland, run by The Centre of Theology and Philosophy, Nigel presented a lecture "On Human Life and the Eucharist: A Consideration of John Paul II's Eucharistic-Anthropology of the Gift.")

Anyway, this is how Nigel begins his Tablet essay:

Catholic Social Teaching (CST) is the hidden gem of twentieth-century Catholic thought. It goes unnoticed, unread and unimplemented, even by Catholics. It is a body of thinking which has undergone detailed development over the twentieth century and deserves its place "in the sun" of the 21st century. In nations such as Great Britain, it is of peculiar relevance, especially as we continue to adjust to a coalition of Conservative and Liberal Democrat and as the Labour Party undergoes re-branding with new leadership. But across the world, and not only in the materialistic West, there remains an idea in politics and social theory that one must subscribe to the Left or the Right; or at least set one's feet down in one of the many camps that now dot the Left-Right divide of contemporary politics. To this visceral assumption, present at the deepest level in our political elite and in our media-based cultural architects, CST asserts itself with the full force of a moral urgency. As an interruption of the entire Left-Right dichotomy, it is revolutionary.

CST does not understand itself simply to be a persuasive approach, or even something as unstable as a "movement" or a "cause", but brings its critique to bear upon our social and political contexts, precisely in the form of a moral engagement which rejects the underlying assumptions of the dominant Left-Right paradigm. How does it enter the fray? Three ways may be highlighted:

1. It begins with theology and not with politics.

"The root reason for human dignity lies in man's call to communion with God."

In these words from Gaudium et Spes (GS) the Second Vatican Council lays out a distinctly theo-centric basis for our social thought and action. According to GS, there is a reasonable basis for insisting on a transcendent category called "dignity", belonging to each human person; but this "reason" flows from God, whose origin is outside the realm of temporal politics. Indeed, it originates outside our normal categories of reason and rationality. The matter of human dignity then, with its divine foundation, falls within the ancient dialogue between faith and reason and is located universally in each particular person. This is not a social theory based in politics, but in theology.

2. It is aware of what is at stake.

CST, whether articulated by the Magisterium, Ecumenical Council, local bishops' conference, or expressed by the lay faithful, is a response to the horrors and inequities of history. In Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo XIII writes of those workers exploited by their employers. He exclaims, "Broken in spirit and worn down in body, how many of them would gladly free themselves from such galling bondage!" Because the Church is universal, as her members suffer, so the Church suffers also.

3. CST believes stubbornly in the irreducible dignity of each human person.

The whole person, the whole time: The Church refuses to grant an inch to the architects of Left and Right, who will at times ask us to compromise at least some people, some of the time . . .

Go HERE to continue reading.


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