Social Doctrine is a Whole
by Christopher Dodson
Executive Director, North Dakota Catholic Conference
October 2009

A bishop visited a parish for confirmation and preached about the sacraments of confirmation and baptism. After the liturgy, the local priest asked a parishioner what she thought about the bishop’s homily. “Heretical!” she shouted. The priest was shocked. “Why do say it was heretical?” he asked the woman. She answered, “Because there are seven sacraments and he mentioned only two!”

The story is not true and I doubt if would ever happen. However, the same type of response does occur when a bishop, a bishops conference, or the Pope teach about the Church’s social doctrine.

I’ve written before about the cafeteria approach to Catholic teaching, including the Church’s social doctrine. That problem occurs when people pick and choose what parts of the social teaching they want to accept. Another problem, with similar causes, is when people think that emphasizing one aspect of the Church’s social teaching means excluding other aspects.

Catholic social teaching is an integral doctrine of the Church, not a set of disparate opinions about political issues. Since it is a doctrine, it is a whole, and should be viewed as such.

Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church states:

This doctrine has its own profound unity, which flows from Faith in a whole and complete salvation, from Hope in a fullness of justice, and from Love which makes all mankind truly brothers and sisters in Christ: it is the expression of God's love for the world, which he so loved “that he gave his only Son” (Jn 3:16). (No. 3)

Just as one cannot detach any particular teaching from the Gospel message, one cannot detach a particular social teaching from its whole.

Apparently aware of the tendency of some to pick and choose among the social teachings, Pope Benedict XVI, in his encyclical released in June,
Caritas in Veritate, addressed this very issue.

[T]he Church's social doctrine . . . is a single teaching, consistent and at the same time ever new. It is one thing to draw attention to the particular characteristics of one Encyclical or another, of the teaching of one Pope or another, but quite another to lose sight of the coherence of the overall doctrinal corpus. (No. 12)

There is a principle in the civil law applicable to how we should approach statements on social teachings. The principle is that statutes should be construed, if possible, so as to harmonize, and force and effect should be given the provisions of each. Expressions of Catholic social teaching, whether they come from official pronouncements of the magisterium, such as encyclicals, or from statements by bishops acting in their role as moral teachers, should also be read and interpreted with a view toward the whole and with a view toward harmonizing all parts.

Therefore, if a bishop writing about health care reform mentions the moral need for universal coverage, the exclusion of abortion services, and conscience protection, it does not mean that he excluded from consideration the Church’s teaching on subsidiarity, the dignity of work, and stewardship of creation. Likewise, if a bishop writes about subsidiarity and conscience protection, it does not mean that he precluded consideration of abortion issues and coverage for immigrants. We must recognize that no bishop writing about any subject will ever be able to explicitly discuss every aspect of Catholic social doctrine. Something will always be left out.

Failing to view Catholic social doctrine as a whole is due, in part, to our lack of understanding of social teaching. How are we supposed to know that the principle of subsidiarity is necessarily implied whenever a bishop talks about government action if we have never heard of the principle?

It is also due to our tendency to view statements by bishops on social issues according to our own political prejudices. As Catholics, we should receive, interpret, and apply those statements as the expressions of Catholic social teaching rather than as political statements. We should not judge a bishop’s statement on social issues, such as health care reform, according to whether we agree or disagree with what he wrote. Instead, we should receive the statements through the eyes of faith so that they inform and edify our actions in the temporal order.