Applying Catholic Social Teaching (Part 2)

by Apologetics, Evangelization, Social Justice

If you missed Part 1 of this series, find it here!


Gray Areas?

The center of Catholic Social Teaching is the heart of Christ. Our love for the poor and a desire for true justice is at the heart of the Gospel. Over the course of history there have been hundreds of different cultures, customs, circumstances, political systems, and so forth. How do we apply the social teachings of the Church in these various times and places?

The teachings of the Church outlined in part one of this series belong to the unchanging deposit of Christian doctrine. They fall under the unflinching category of Faith and Morals. Faith and Morals have been infallibly declared by the teaching authority of the Church or they apply to all places, times, peoples, and circumstances. This means that Catholics of good will are not at liberty to disagree on these central teachings of the Church.

So, when it comes to Catholic Social Teaching, are there any gray areas? Are there any areas of social involvement where Catholics can disagree and still be fully in compliance with Catholic guidelines and principles?

St. Thomas Aquinas, quoting Aristotle, said, “In medio stat virtus (in the middle stands the virtue.” This summarizes St. Thomas’ approach to theology and philosophy. He would take two extreme positions and show where each position was correct and where each position erred. In doing so, he stood in the middle and found the virtuous truth. In this way, St. Thomas Aquinas exemplifies the Catholic both/and position in theological pursuits.

These gray areas belong to the area of Catholic political and social engagement called prudential judgment. Prudential judgment is making decisions, in line with the Faith and Morals of the Church, using the virtue of prudence. “Prudence is the virtue that disposes practical reason to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it; ‘the prudent man looks where he is going.’ (CCC 1806)”

Prudential judgment takes practice, it takes listening to God, and it takes being formed in the principles of Catholic teaching. The solutions Catholics may take on social welfare systems, minimum wage, and other political issues will and can vary from person to person. Further, what works well in one area of the world may be wholly inappropriate in another locale. Rarely is anything black and white. However, there is usually a solution which borrows from both one side and another. This is the perennial Catholic both/and position. So, it is important to learn how to allow God to form us to make the best decisions.

Principles of Subsidiarity

To make the best decision possible, the Church often employs the organizing principle of subsidiarity. Very basically, this principle states that the best decisions for a local community are made at the lowest possible level, which is also the highest level necessary. The Pope makes decisions based on the common good of the whole Church on earth, whereas a local bishop makes decisions only in his particular geographical area or diocese. Likewise, a pastor represents his bishop and makes decisions for his own parish and parish boundaries.

Pope Pius XI illustrates this principle and safeguards the diversity of humanity and richness of her talents when he says, “… it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do (QA 79).” So, if an entity has proper authority and they are the closest to the situation, they ought to make the decision.

Subsidiarity is always ordered to the common good. This means that governments have the solemn responsibility to create the conditions of human flourishing. The proper authorities must be ready to provide the resources and direction necessary to direct the community to the common good. However, each individual has something to offer and ought to be engaged in their own welfare as well. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI puts it this way: “Subsidiarity respects personal dignity by recognizing in the person a subject who is always capable of giving something to others (CV 57).”

Subsidiarity transcends any political system or political affiliation. This guiding principle of Catholic social teaching represents the great Catholic both/and. We have an obligation to the poor and vulnerable, and we have an obligation to maintain the dignity and productivity of all people. In other words, subsidiarity must be linked to the principle of solidarity. If we have subsidiarity without solidarity, society becomes disconnected and privatized to the extreme. If we have solidarity but no subsidiarity, society “gives way to paternalistic social assistance that is demeaning to those in need (CV 58).”

Therefore, subsidiarity is linked arm in arm with the teaching of the Church on solidarity, explained in part one of this series.

Rational Thought, Healthy Emotions, and the Formation of Conscience

Our Lord Jesus Christ exemplified the Catholic both/and perfectly because it was He who gave it to us. In the Incarnation, the second Person of the Blessed Trinity took on flesh. In other words, He took on a human nature while retaining His divine nature. He did not become partly human and partly divine. He is both fully God and fully man. Therefore, He is the perfect model for humanity of what we can be.

Our Lord is the embodiment of Wisdom, literally. He is the uncreated Word of God which was spoken by the Father eternally. Therefore, when He speaks in the Gospels we hear the words of the wisest man to ever walk the face of the Earth. Though He is fully God, He is still man. He had to grow in knowledge of language and customs. Jesus shows us what the human person is capable of, in some measure, when unencumbered by sin. This is not to say that we will be like Him in all things, but He does call us to grow in knowledge and love of Him. Therefore, inspired by the gifts of the Holy Spirit and led by our Lord who is the Eternal Word, we can begin to think clearly.

The more we learn about Jesus, about our Catholic Faith, and about the world around us (from God’s perspective), the more we will grow in our capacities for rational thought. There are many brilliant atheists, but what they lack cannot be supplied by human effort. The grace of God to enlighten our hearts and minds comes from Him alone. So, it is a good thing to pray for clearer thinking and opportunities to learn more.

Second, it does no good to think clearly if we are unhealthy emotionally. There will be times in our lives when we are compromised by our passions and emotions, and therefore, are not thinking as clearly as we ought to be. It is important to reflect on our emotional state, seek the counsel of a good friend or spiritual director to enlighten us, and pray to the Lord for emotional health. Only Christ can bring us true peace in the storms of life. But no good decision can be made while we are not in our right state of mind.

Being able to see when we are unhealthy emotionally takes a great deal of introspection and self-knowledge. As an important note, by emotional health, I do not mean mental disorders. Those suffering from anxiety, depression, bipolar, and so forth are not incapable of making good decisions, of course.

I am referring more to emotional health as it relates to both our own personal spiritual life as well as our interaction in the public sphere. How do we react when challenged? Are we calm and balanced? Do we seek the common good or only our own good? Are we willing to listen when confronted with someone who disagrees with us? Without good self-knowledge and emotional health, it will be very difficult to apply Catholic Social Teaching authentically and effectively.

Thirdly, we must form our conscience. If our own conscience is guiding us to act in ways incongruous with the Faith, then we are serving our opinions, not the Lord Jesus. This is a tricky thing because the Church tells us to give first answer to our conscience. If our conscience is compelling us to act a certain way, we are obliged to listen. However, the Catholic both/and comes into play here. We are called to both follow our conscience and work to form it in accord with the teachings and principles of the Church.


Looking at issues belonging to the area of prudential judgment can be messy and difficult. It is our duty as Catholics, as followers of Christ, and as people of good will to educate ourselves before making decisions. We must understand, to the best of our ability, the Catholic principles undergirding any specific issue.

We must also be willing to dialogue with those who may disagree with us. And we must understand that the solution will likely not be achieved by an either/or solution. Usually, the truth lies in the golden mean between two extremes. Catholic teaching is, and has always been, a both/and approach that requires rational thought, healthy emotions, and formation of conscience.

Very rarely are our best ideas formed in a vacuum. We may come up with solutions to problems before we have all the information. We may be making decisions based on our own personal good rather than the common good. Our Lord, through His Church, challenges us to avoid taking extreme position. We must both advance the Truth and act always in Charity. We must both serve the poor and vulnerable and acknowledge their inherent dignity and worth. We must both grow in knowledge of Catholic Social teaching and put it into action in our daily lives.

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