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Neither Left nor Right: The Compendium of the Social Doctrine

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By Deacon Keith Fournier
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"There has been a great effort in recent years by neoconservative and libertarian Catholics and Calvinists to revise Catholic Social Teaching ... ." Houston Catholic Worker, March-April 2005

I received my Houston Catholic Worker yesterday. It is one of several publications that I really look forward to. As is my custom, I immediately grabbed it from amidst all the other mail and made time to read it. Why? Because I can always count on having my "comfort zone" rattled by its articles and my conscience seared by its passion for the poor. In a particular way, I look forward to the prophetic writing of Mark and Louise Zwick. One of the many "punchy" articles in this issue began with the quote with which I began this article.

I have long maintained that the only real hope for turning our contemporary culture from its current death march is to follow the path paved by the Social teaching of the Catholic Church. This collection of teachings is a modern treasure, yet still, unfortunately, it remains hidden in a field. This wonderfully developed set of principles affirms the inviolable dignity of absolutely every human person at every age and every stage, from the first home of the womb to the sanctuary of the death bed. It also presents the family as the first vital cell of every social grouping, the first mediating institution.

The Social teaching affirms that the truth concerning the dignity of life and the primacy of the family is written in the Natural Moral Law and is not simply a "religious" notion. Thus, the path to human flourishing and truly human community will never be found in ideologies that promote false notions of freedom as either a license to do whatever one wants or misguided libertarian notions that equate freedom with isolated individualism. We are not isolated individuals. Rather, we were made for communion and it is in relationships that we find our human fulfillment and flourishing as well as the path to true peace. Thus, the dignity of every human life and the institution of marriage and the family is not only to be protected in law but must be promoted through the development of social and economic conditions, as well as legislation and public policy, that encourage and promote their flourishing.

This teaching develops the foundational understanding of an authentic human freedom that is both a freedom from oppression as well as a freedom for participation. This freedom is to be exercised to do what is right and true if it is to bear its fruit. It insists that there is such a thing as objective truth that can be known by all men and women because it is revealed in a Natural Moral Law that can also be known by all. This Natural law is confirmed by revelation but is not simply "religious", in the sense of the latest polemical efforts in our current secular age that have sought to relegate the truth about life and family to the realm of the "religious" so as to engage in a cultural revolution. The Natural Law presents a firm, unchanging foundation for the Social Teaching, its approach to authentic social and economic justice and its call to all men and women to serve the common good. Thus, the Social teaching of the Catholic Church is not just for Catholics, or for that matter for other Christians or for religious people. It presents real and practical principles for ordering our relationships together at every level.

It affirms our obligations in solidarity to one another. These obligations must not be shirked by the individual, the family, the community, the State or the international community of Nations, because we are our brothers (and sisters) keeper. It provides profound insights concerning the "goods" of the person and then challenges all human persons to share these goods with others - and especially with the poor -, reminding us that there is a "universal destination" to the goods of the earth. It insists that we not only have an obligation to the poor, but encourages us to adopt a love of preference for them.

Italso commends the application of the principle of subsidiarity as an ordering principle for human institutions and governments because governance is at its best when it is closest to those being governed. Yet, it is in no way "anti"-government, insisting instead that government should be both efficient and good, reflecting the moral good that can be known - and therefore must be done -by all. We are not fully human persons in isolation because we were made to give ourselves to the other and find our fulfillment in family and community.

This body of teaching is neither "right" nor "left". It can not be called "liberal" or "conservative", at least in the contemporary political meaning of those terms. It is above all of these limiting categories. That is why statements like the one with which I began this article force me to stop and consider my own political and economic vision. There is no doubt that some on both the "right" and the "left" of the political spectrum have tried to clothe their ideologies and "pet" positions in the terminology of this body of teaching. However, the Social Teaching of the Church requires an entirely different approach. You cannot simply take pre-existing political or economic positions and either figuratively or literally "clothe" them in the terminology of the Social Teaching of the Catholic Church.

Rather, one must approach this body of teaching in prayer and allow it to inform how one thinks about all of the issues of our age, willing to be challenged by the prophetic dimension of this rich teaching.

Fortunately, the Church who is both our mother and teacher, is also, in the words of the Council Fathers an "expert in humanity." She has provided those of us who are called to not only know this teaching but to offer it as the path to a building a more just society with a new resource for this important work. The "Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church" is now available.

This historic work is dedicated to Pope John Paul II who, in his 1999 Apostolic Exhortation "Ecclesia in America," asked for "...a compendium or approved synthesis of Catholic social doctrine...which would show the connection between it and the new evangelization."

The "Compendium" has come at a vitally important time for all Catholics, other Christians and all people of good will who truly desire to build a culture of life and a civilization of love to replace the current culture of death, materialism and nihilism. We are called to follow the way of the Lord, the way of authentic peace and justice, and this Compendium will be a great resource for our task of finding that way.

That way, like the Social Teaching of the Catholic Church, is neither right nor left. In the months ahead I will be presenting excerpts from this compendium and developing its themes in a series of articles. All in an effort to unpack the treasure so as to make it known and help, in any way that I can, to promote both the New Evangelization and a New Catholic Action.


Deacon Keith A. Fournier is a Roman Catholic Deacon of the Diocese of Richmond, Virginia who also serves the Melkite Greek Catholic Eparchy with permission. He is a graduate of the Franciscan University of Steubenville, the John Paul II Institute of the Lateran University and the University Of Pittsburgh School Of Law. Long active at the intersection of faith and culture, Deacon Fournier is a human rights lawyer and public policy advocate. He is the Senior Editor of Catholic Online and a Contributing editor of Traditional Catholic Reports.


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