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Catholic Social Doctrine More Than Mere Policy

Interview With Professor Russell Hittinger

ROME, MAY 5, 2007 (Zenit) - Beyond mere policy, Catholic social doctrine seeks to clarify the proper order and harmony among societies, says a Catholic author and professor.

Russell Hittinger, the William K. Warren Professor of Catholic Studies and a research professor of law at the University of Tulsa, spoke Wednesday at the "Foundations of a Free Society" conference organized by the Acton Institute, held at the Pontifical Lateran University.

In this interview with us, Hittinger discusses the history of Catholic social doctrine, starting with Pope Leo XIII, up to Benedict XVI's most recent contribution to the body of knowledge in "Deus Caritas Est."

Hittinger's most recent book is "The First Grace: Rediscovering the Natural Law in a Post-Christian World."

Q: Can you explain the seminal role Pope Leo XIII played in shaping what we now know to be Catholic social doctrine?

Hittinger: Pope Pius XI [1922-1939] is the first Pope to speak of social doctrine as a unified body of teachings that develop by way of clarity and application.

In "Quadragesimo Anno," Pius XI said that he inherited a "doctrine" handed on from the time of Leo XIII. By any measure, it is a prodigious tradition.

Beginning in 1878 with the election of Leo XIII, Popes have issued more than 250 encyclicals and other teaching letters; roughly half are related, broadly, to issues of social thought and doctrine. No government, no political party, no encyclopedia or university has produced such a continuous and voluminous tradition of social thought.

Leo XIII himself wrote some 100 teaching letters.

Why did he write so many encyclicals? The short answer is the collapse of Catholic political Christendom and the rise of the new secularist states in the 19th century.

To be disinherited politically was a traumatic event for European Catholics. Leo XIII understood the need to respond in a measured and reasonable manner.

Throughout the world Catholics looked to the papacy to provide leadership lest Catholicism become divided by the new nation-states.

To his credit, Leo XIII rose to the occasion. Leo XIII saw that he needed to supply not only juridical but also intellectual leadership.

His teachings proved successful because he was ready to ascertain what is open or closed in the secular mind, and to use the right mixture of dialectics and systematics to move the latter toward the former.

He gave Catholics a sophisticated body of thought about social issues that transcended what could be called simple statements of "policy."

His efforts also proved successful because his lengthy pontificate was the seedbed for future Popes; hence emerged a remarkably well-structured, yet quickly evolving body of social doctrine.

Q: Pope John Paul II's encyclical "Centesimus Annus" was written on the 100th anniversary of Pope Leo XIII's encyclical "Rerum Novarum." What elements from Leo XIII's encyclical are still relevant 100 years later? What developments in the encyclical were unique to John Paul II?

Hittinger: Like every subsequent Pope, John Paul II expressed his admiration and profound gratitude for the Leonine project. By my count, the world in which John Paul II came of age went through three deep changes.

First, after World War I: Nation-states were profoundly demoralized by the war, and this demoralization became fertile soil for the rise of totalitarian regimes that Leo XIII could have scarcely imagined.

Second, after World War II: Europe and her former colonies around the world undertook a painful and searching re-evaluation of their respective domestic orders, and the international order.

During these years, when Father Karol Wojtyla was a young priest, he saw the beginning of the human rights movement, the beginning of European Union, and both the hopes and disorders which followed upon decolonization.

Third, the revolution in Central and Eastern Europe that ended the Cold War: "Centesimus Annus" is John Paul II's grand narrative and philosophical analysis of all these changes.

To be sure, the Leonine principles are quite evident, but John Paul II deals with the crises of the 20th century.

I encourage people to read both encyclicals because the entire modern history of the Church is encompassed by the lives of Leo XIII and John Paul II.

The former was born in 1810, at the zenith of Napoleon's power, and the latter was born just a decade after Leo XIII's death, and brought the Church into the new millennium.

Q: Benedict XVI's encyclical "Deus Caritas Est" has elements of a social encyclical. In what ways does he follow "Centesimus Annus"? Does he bring a new perspective to Catholic social doctrine?

Hittinger: "Deus Caritas Est" perhaps does not break entirely new ground in social teaching. But it surely reiterates and makes more clear that the mission of the Church is not to be confused with the state and the other temporal instruments of social justice.

Benedict XVI was, of course, familiar with the problem, which surfaced acutely in certain strands of liberation theology. As the prefect of Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had written clear and careful instructions on this subject.

From one point of view, the second half of "Deus Caritas Est" continues the standing magisterial admonitions about turning the Church into a mere instrument of politics and the quest for justice.

Beyond the specific questions surrounding liberation theology, however, Benedict XVI wanted to remind us that while the Church teaches and promotes social justice, Christ gave the Church a very specific mission in the order of charity.

The integrity of this mission must be protected. And at a minimum, this means not confusing it with the ordinary objects and ends of civil governance.

Q: You spoke recently at the Acton Institute event "The Foundations of the Free Society" in Rome. How is the exercise of virtue important in building a free and just society?

Hittinger: The natural, acquired virtues and the supernatural virtues are like spiritual muscles, disposing the intellect and the will to achieve their proper objects -- namely, the true and good.

Some levels of justice and love are achievable with a minimum of virtue, but such achievement will not last for long without it. Any one who has married and raised children understands this point. So, too, does any superior of a religious order or congregation.

The first stirrings of truth and love provide an initial thrust toward right order. But without virtue they will turn out to be like seeds thrown on rocky soil.

Today there is a tendency to believe that right order ensues merely from arranging a rational set of incentives, as though truth and love were the products of a system.

Whatever "system" contains real human persons -- polities, markets, education, families -- it cannot succeed without the internal perfections of its members.

Q: Additionally, at the Acton Institute event, your lecture was entitled: "Societies as Persons in Social Doctrine." You argued that societies can be defined as a person. What do you mean by this and what ramifications does it have for Catholic social doctrine?

Hittinger: It should be obvious that social teaching presupposes that there is such a thing as society.

Indeed, there are many different kinds of society. Some are natural, in the sense that human life is either impossible or very difficult without them. In the older tradition common to philosophers, theologians and jurists, the family and the polity counted as natural societies.

Other societies are voluntary, such as clubs, sodalities, faculties, corporations and so forth. The Church is a supernatural society, though it has aspects of both natural and voluntary societies.

In her social doctrine, the Church has repeatedly insisted that we must carefully note the different objects and ends and modes of unity of these societies.

How can we do justice if we don't appreciate these differences?

For example, how can we do justice to a matrimonial society if we treat it the same as a temporary economic partnership? How can we do justice to a religious congregation if we treat it no different than a chess club?

I call societies "persons" in a restricted but important sense. A society is the bearer of rights and responsibilities that are not reducible to the aggregation of its members. The rights-and-duties bearing unity called a "society" is a subject of moral appraisal.

In the moral sense of the term, a society can harm and be harmed. In "Centesimus Annus," No. 13, this is what John Paul II meant by the "subjectivity of society."

He simply meant that a society is something more than mere intersubjectivity; rather, it constitutes a "subject" in its own right. All of us belong to more than one society.

Catholic social doctrine seeks to clarify the proper order and harmony among societies.

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