Orthodoxy and Roman Catholic Social Thought

Then Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. And Pilate said to them, “Behold the Man!” John 19:5

Childhood of Christ by Gerard van Honthorst, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. Feast for St. Joseph the Worker was instituted by Pope Pius XII in 1955 to underline the dignity of work.

In a famed episode of The Twilight Zone in 1962, aliens known as Kanamits make first contact with earth, claiming that they come in peace. They offer advanced technology that eliminates famine, disease, and war. When they go, they leave behind a book, written in their undecipherable alien language. Naturally, the cryptographists get to work decoding it, led by scientist Michael Chambers.

While some responded with skepticism toward the Kalamits’ mission, their technology works. A new era of peace and prosperity sweeps across the globe. To seal the deal, Patty, a member of the cryptography team, successfully translates the title of the alien book: “To Serve Man.” It seems they did come in peace after all.

The Kalamits return and offer humans expeditions to their home planet, which they claim to be a paradise. Swept up in the optimistic fervor, even Michael Chambers chooses to go. However, as he’s about to board the Kalamits’ flying saucer, Patty comes racing to stop him. He’s on the spaceship’s stairs. She’s held back by Kalamit security, and so she cries out the horror she discovered: “The rest of the book, it’s … it’s a cookbook!” Just then the stairs retract, and Chambers, despite his struggle to escape, ends the episode a prisoner aboard an alien cattle car, on the menu for an extraterrestrial Thanksgiving.

In a way, Roman Catholic social thought began with Pope Leo XIII crying out like Patty, “It’s a cookbook!” What worried Leo was a revolutionary fervor sweeping across the working classes of Europe. The socialists promised to cure all of society’s ills, but the pope feared their medicine would be worse than the malady.

In his 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum—on the topic of the “new things” or “revolutionary change” of the industrial era—Leo began the modern Roman Catholic social encyclical tradition by accepting some of the terms and critiques of revolutionary socialism while rejecting the overall worldview and answers it proposed. The subtitle of the work is “Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor,” using the terms “capital” and “labor” throughout to indicate socio-economic classes, as did Marxist analysis, instead of as factors of production, as does mainstream economic science. The pope furthermore warns that “to misuse men as though they were things in the pursuit of gain … is truly shameful and inhuman.”

A socialist at the time would likely agree with that, but for Leo this led to drastically different conclusions—an extended defense of private property and a rejection of class conflict, metaphysical materialism, and violent revolution. All persons—rich and poor, employer and employee—“are children of the same common Father, who is God” and “each and all are redeemed and made sons of God, by Jesus Christ.” Eating the rich may sound just to the desperate, but the pope insisted there was a better way. The most important solution to the condition of the working classes, to Leo, was Jesus Christ. 

Furthermore, the answer also consisted of a human person’s social nature, all the ways in which we need each other, such that Catholic workers’ unions and mutual aid societies, which in some cases included rich and poor alike, had a primary role to play. State assistance should be reserved only for where the fruits of labor and Christian charity proved inadequate. So, too, the family, as the most fundamental social institution, has rights and duties over/against the state and for society. 

Indeed, much of Catholic social teaching rests upon the natural law, “the law written in [our] hearts” (Romans 2:15) and attested by our conscience, by which all people recognize the truth of basic, Ten Commandments morality and the cardinal virtues. What we are by nature dictates how we ought to treat one another. The fact that “it is not good that man should be alone” (Genesis 2:18) means that we all have a duty to be “a helper” to one another. The fact that God made us the apex of his creation such that no irrational animal but only another human person could be “comparable” to us, enjoins on us a “primordial moral requirement of loving and respecting the person as an end and never as a mere means,” as Pope John Paul II put it, from the womb to natural death. 

From this centrality of human dignity, the Roman Catholic tradition derives three fundamental social principles: the common good, subsidiarity, and solidarity. 

The common good is the social dimension and goal of morality—all those conditions necessary for a full and flourishing life. We might say that the common good is another name for social justice. While it can be traced as far back as Aristotle, its appropriation by and development in Christian theological reflection, most prominently by the Western, medieval saint Thomas Aquinas, grounds the Roman Catholic conception.

Subsidiarity, as Pope Pius XI outlined it, dictates that “the more perfectly a graduated order is kept among the various associations [of society] … the stronger social authority and effectiveness will be the happier and more prosperous the condition of the State.” Think again of the Catholic workers’ unions and mutual aid societies. The more that churches and associations of private citizens can do to help one another, the more resources the state has to allocate to more pressing problems. To be clear, the state has a positive duty to offer help (“subsidium”) where needed but also a negative duty to refrain or withdraw when its involvement would interfere with the successful functioning of the various associations of civil society. 

Photo by Tom Parsons on Unsplash

Lastly, there is both a de facto and a moral dimension to solidarity. Our lives are interconnected in manifold ways, all the more apparent to us in the rapid globalization of the Information Age today. This interdependence is an undeniable fact, but for it to be a moral reality, we must overcome the “structures of sin” that impede our true communion, and in this sense, “It is a virtue directed par excellence to the common good,” as the Compendium of Rome’s social teaching puts it.

These principles come together to promote the values of truth, freedom, justice, and love in a nuanced and careful critique of, and dialogue with, what has become a perennial “spirit of revolutionary change,” to quote the opening words of Rerum Novarum. From the Industrial Revolution, to the rise and fall of fascism and communism, to the sexual revolution, to climate change, to the financial crisis of the last decade, these principles have allowed Roman Catholic clergy and laity to, at their best, creatively and faithfully respond with love and prudence to the unique challenges of each passing era.

More could be said than I can cover in this short summary, and those interested can explore the sources cited herein, but I think this has been sufficient to conclude with an Orthodox assessment. In sharing the doctrine of humanity as the image of God and even much of the philosophical development on display in Roman Catholic social thought, including natural law, Orthodox Christians who hope to apply their faith to the social crises of our era—from poverty to racial injustice to climate change and more—would certainly benefit from deeper engagement. 

That said, I also think seeing what Rome has accomplished sheds light on what we Orthodox might uniquely contribute. As just one example, Orthodox theological anthropology features a much stronger emphasis on the need for asceticism for true communion with God and our neighbors. Though Roman Catholics have their own venerable ascetic tradition, references to asceticism are almost entirely absent from their social teaching. This seems to me a major oversight. While all Christians are expected to pray, fast, and give alms, organized asceticism in the institution of monasticism has historically had an immeasurably positive social impact in the founding of hospitals, orphanages, and schools; the adoption of new technologies; the economic development of nations; the expansion of international trade; the cultivation of spiritual practices and teaching; the spread of the Gospel through evangelism; and so on, in both the East and the West. 

Surely, we Orthodox should at least have something to say about that, and thus I conclude with a challenge to any readers so inspired: “The harvest truly is plentiful, but the laborers are few” (Matthew 9:37). In the meantime, I will “pray the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers” (Matthew 9:38) for this calling, and I will continue this series of essays by examining the work and thought of other sources of inspiration in their turn.


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