Acton Commentary

Back to School on Catholic Social Teaching


In towns across America, students returned to school lastweek. Many returned to government schools, others to charter or privateschools, and some 2.4 million entered the halls of Catholic schools.

Catholic schools represent, in many ways, the CatholicChurch's primary exercise of the command of Christ to “go and make disciples ofall nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and ofthe Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded...”(Matthew 28:19-20 NIV). They haveplayed an essential role in the life of the Church in America since the firstwas founded in St. Augustine, Florida nearly 400 years ago. Catholic schools haveserved as a means to educate and form, spiritually, physically, mentally, andemotionally, whole generations of Americans, and continue to do so today. There always remains room forimprovement, however; one area needing more attention is Catholic socialteaching.

A better integration of Catholic social teaching into thecurriculum of schools is one of the perennial calls directed at educators byconscientious organizations, scholars, and bishops. In light of this, Catholicteachers would do well to reflect on how the Church's teaching can becommunicated in a way that preserves its integrity and avoids merging it with apolitical agenda.

Catholics young and old, spurred by a genuine concern forthe poor and marginalized, have long sought answers to that concern in Catholicsocial teaching. But, where theauthentic social teaching of the Church looks to the community of faith foranswers to the disturbing questions of poverty, injustice, and oppression, someadvocate a more government-oriented approach. A serious examination of the issues of justice, equality,and liberty requires a more adequate understanding of Catholic social teaching.In addition, while there are deep spiritual dimensions to each of these issues,the insights of the social sciences, including economics, can help to offersolutions to the problems' material dimensions.

The principle of subsidiarity, which teaches that acommunity of a higher order should not interfere in the activities of acommunity of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, is a firstprinciple in genuine Catholic social teaching. It requires each of us to be responsible for those who aresuffering in our midst. Families,friends, associates, churches, local charitable organizations--these should bethe first to respond to the needs of their brothers and sisters. Government should only be directlyinvolved as the organization of last resort and should implement policiesdesigned to support rather than replace intermediary groups. In this way, people are induced toserve one another, as Christ commanded.

While this sounds fine in theory, how does it play out inreal life? Pope John Paul IIpresents an example in his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus . Indiscussing the social problem of unemployment, the Pope outlines the roles ofthe players in solving it.Government should be involved, he says, both directly and indirectly.Its direct activities include defending the weakest, limiting the autonomy grantedto determine working conditions, and ensuring that a minimum of support existsfor those who are unemployed.Indirectly, government should create an environment conducive to thefree exercise of economic activity.Entrepreneurs then have the opportunity to create and operatebusinesses, leading to abundant employment and myriad sources of wealth. In this way, government and privateactors both have their roles to play and neither seeks to do that which theother can do more effectively.

Subsidiarity respects the proper roles of all the players. It allows government to have a role, asthe final source of assistance, and as implementer of policies encouraging tothe practice of subsidiarity, while, at the same time, being respectful ofhuman freedom. It allowsbusinesses and entrepreneurs to use their unique talents and abilities to servethe common good by, among other goals, fulfilling the responsibility to make aprofit justly. It takes intoaccount the insights offered by economics, as well as Catholic theology, and itallows everyone to take the lead in caring for those in need, instead of simplyallowing a government agency to do so.

As students return to Catholic schools this month, it isimportant for those schools to teach them authentically. Students should not be taught that theaid of those in need depends upon government intervention, but rather, that itdepends upon faith-filled individuals who take up Christ's call to love oneanother, and who use their unique gifts and talents to serve their neighbors.