The primary thing that scared me about the Catholic church when I was thinking about converting was the central importance of “social justice” in Catholic moral theology. Coming from a liberal Protestant clergy background where “social justice” was a loaded denominational code word for “secular liberalism in Church form,” I was very gun shy of engaging in this field of theology in Catholic circles. About the only thing I knew about what Catholics meant by social justice were images of protesting radical nuns outside nuclear silos.
What came to amaze me in my study of Catholic theology is the brilliant amount of work that the Popes going back to the 1800s have done in the field of economic social justice and economic theory. I have read nothing even remotely on the same level of sophistication from any Protestant theologian. The first major encyclical on the issue was back in 1891 and is entitled Rerum Novarum by Leo XIII. There have been several since that time, namely the ones by John Paul II, who was a top notch philosopher.
Americans have a skewed view of economic beauty. We like money and making money. Our whole economy is premised on selling things: the more and bigger the better, even if people do not need any of it. Even if we are raping the planet of resources for material gain in the form of junk we do not need, we sell it. Individual consumer freedom is the cry of our age. As such, most Americans tend to see economic systems in very black and white terms, with an economy being either Capitalist (good) or Communist/Socialist (bad). There really is no other viable option in the minds of many.
Many delve into Catholic Economic philosophy and take away that the Church is anti-Capitalist. Ironically, Communists and socialists read the same documents and come away with an equally negative view of them, believing them to be anti-Communist or anti-Socialist. In some ways, these assessments are right because Catholic economic teachings are very clear to denounce the excesses of both systems because such systems where the economic ideology is central takes away people’s God given rights and dignity.
What the Catholic Church, including the new encyclical by Pope Francis, envisions is a 3rd way of creating an economic system, that is neither Capitalist nor Communist, but is a just society. To paraphrase how John Paul II puts it in one of his encyclicals: the economy is made to serve man, not man to serve the economy. Any economic system where people are the cogs to the system and a means to an end that is something other that God is an immoral economic system in need of adjustment.
Despite what political talking heads might have you believe, Catholic social justice calls us to work for a system that is beautiful and does not enslave us to a system that does not respects our dignity. This is something the Church offers the entire world, not just Catholics.
About R. Ashley Hall
R. Ashley Hall is a convert to the Catholic faith and a former Episcopal priest. He is originally from Tennessee but lives currently in Nebraska, and his interests include baseball, cooking, Patristic and moral theology, gardening, home canning, history, and calligraphy.