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The Catechism of the Catholic Church on the State

One casualty during the heyday of secularism was the historic teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. A once virtually-universal voice, which for centuries had been the dominant Christian voice on political matters in many nations, was shunned by secular and atheistic political models. Besides secularism, there has also been a virtual symbiosis of the Protestant Reformation and the spread of western democracies; thus in much of the western world, Roman Catholic political theology frequently remained unknown. Yet, there is a rich tradition–not to mention a recent revival–of officially-codified systematic teaching on matters of state. The following survey of Roman Catholic teaching, taken from the recent Catechism of the Catholic Church, is selected to stress many of the themes that have also been explicated repeatedly in the best Protestant theologies of the state. Indeed, there is much substantial unity in this area, although some differences remain.

The bulk of political theology in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (hereafter, CCC) is contained in Part Three. Two major sections constitute the general principles of Roman Catholic teaching on the subject: (1) the discussion of Social Life and the Moral Law; and (2) the exposition of the Moral Law or the Ten Commandments. The arrangement of the treatment under these two loci is not adverse to the classical Protestant discussion of similar matters.

Authority in general is a topic of fundamental importance. CCC states: “Human society can be neither well-ordered nor prosperous unless it has some people invested with legitimate authority to preserve its institutions and to devote themselves as far as is necessary to work and care for the good of all. . . . Every human community needs an authority to govern it. . . . Its role is to ensure as far as is possible the common good of the society.” (nos. 1897-1898) CCC further qualifies that authority is legitimate “only when it seeks the common good of the group . . . and if it employs morally licit means to attain it.” Such “common good” is also the standard for an acceptable political form: “Regimes whose nature is contrary to the natural law, to the public order, and to the fundamental rights of persons cannot achieve the common good of the nations on which they have been imposed.” (no. 1901) The modern Catechism also recognizes the non-intervention of governments into other divinely mandated spheres: “It is preferable that each power be balanced by other powers and by other spheres of responsibility which keep it within proper bounds.” (no. 1904)

Consistent with historic Protestantism, CCC expounds and applies much of the Second Table of the Decalogue as the foundation of the political order. The fifth commandment 1 – to honor one’s parents – “constitutes one of the foundations of the social doctrine of the Church.” (no. 2198) Under this rubric, a full doctrine of the family is introduced–a contribution of massive importance in our day. The traditional family is an “institution prior to any recognition by public authority, which has an obligation to recognize it. It should be considered the normal reference point by which the different forms of family relationship are to be evaluated.” (no. 2202) This family is “the original cell of social life” and provides “an initiation into life in society.” (no. 2207) Further, “The family should live in such a way that its members learn to care and take responsibility for the young, the old, the sick, the handicapped, and the poor.” (no. 2208) In conformity with the non-usurpation of governing spheres, “Following the principle of subsidiarity, larger communities should take care not to usurp the family’s prerogatives or interfere in its life” (no. 2209)–an axiom which will properly delimit social policy.

Accordingly, the state is to support and encourage the well-being of the family: “Civil Authority should consider it a grave duty to acknowledge the true nature of marriage and the family, to protect and foster them, to safeguard public morality, and promote domestic prosperity.” (no. 2210) CCC, therefore, enunciates seven specifics (only one of which would be difficult to sustain from Scripture or tradition, i.e., the fifth item, although this is at least culturally relativized) by which the state is morally obligated to protect and support the family. The seven specifics, assigned as duties for the political community to ensure, are:

(1) the freedom to establish a family, have children, and bring them up in keeping with the family’s own moral and religious convictions; (2) the protection of the stability of the marriage bond and the institution of the family; (3) the freedom to profess one’s faith, to hand it on, and to raise one’s children in it, with the necessary means and institutions; (4) the right to private property, to free enterprise, to obtain work and housing, the right to emigrate; (5) in keeping with the country’s institutions, the right to medical care, assistance for the aged, and family benefits; (6) the protection of security and health, especially with respect to dangers like drugs, pornography, alcoholism, etc; and (7) the freedom to form associations with other families and so to have representation before civil authority. (no. 2211)

Many other worthy affirmations are contained in CCC’s exposition of the fifth commandment, the commandment from the Second Table receiving the fullest discussion. Nevertheless, CCC is prudent to state that family duties are “important but not absolute” (Mt. 10:37). Moreover, the command to honor parents “also enjoins us to honor all who for our good have received authority in society from God.” (no. 2234) Civil authorities are to serve, practice justice, care for the needs of its citizens, and “respect the fundamental rights of the human person,” all of course subservient to the “common good.”

Under the discussion of the commandment not to murder, CCC opposes intentional homicide, abortion, genetic engineering, euthanasia, and suicide. However, it allows for legitimate defense and respect for human life: “Human life is sacred because from its beginning it involves the creative action of God and it remains forever in a special relationship with the Creator, who is its sole end. God alone is the Lord of life from its beginning until its end: no one can under any circumstance claim for himself the right directly to destroy an innocent human being.” (no. 2258) Had CCC wished to equivocate or take a position less than the historic and ethical pro-life position, it could have. In the face of mounting selfism and promiscuity, however, CCC trumpets the Catholic consensus on abortion and any other attempts to murder innocent life:

These human rights depend neither on single individuals nor on parents; nor do they represent a concession made by society and the state; they belong to human nature and are inherent in the person by virtue of the creative act from which the person took his origin. . . . The moment a positive law deprives a category of human beings of the protection which civil legislation ought to accord them, the state is denying the equality of all before the law. When the state does not place its power at the service of the rights of each citizen, and in particular of the more vulnerable, the very foundations of a state based on law are undermined. (no. 2273)

The commandments prohibiting adultery, dishonesty, and greed are also to be respected by the civil magistrate. It is in this exposition of the 8th commandment, however, that one observes the appearance of conflict, as herein the Catechism seeks to blend classic views of property with the alloys of some modern views. CCC affirms that, “The right to private property . . . does not do away with the original gift of the earth to the whole of mankind.” (no. 2403) The eighth commandment forbids theft, in its manifold appearances: “The following are also morally illicit: speculation in which one contrives to manipulate the price of goods artificially in order to gain an advantage to the detriment of others; corruption in which one influences the judgment of those who make decisions according to law; appropriation and use for private purposes of the common goods of an enterprise; work poorly done; tax evasion; forgery of checks and invoices; excessive expenses and waste. Willfully damaging private or public property is contrary to the moral law and requires reparation.” (no. 2409)

Accordingly, “Promises must be kept and contracts strictly observed to the extent that the commitments made in them are morally just.” (no. 2410) The dignity and propriety of human work is upheld, as well as the need to love the poor. The implications of the eighth commandment for the state are exhibited:

Economic activity, especially the activity of a market economy, cannot be conducted in an institutional, juridical, or political vacuum. On the contrary, it presupposes sure guarantees of individual freedom and private property, as well as a stable currency and efficient public services. Hence the principal task of the state is to guarantee this security, so that those who work and produce can enjoy the fruits of their labors and thus feel encouraged to work efficiently and honestly. . . . Another task of the state is that of overseeing and directing the exercise of human rights in the economic sector. However, primary responsibility in this area belongs not to the state but to individuals and to various groups and associations which make up society. (no. 2431)

In these economic matters, the Church legitimately makes moral judgements about economic matters, with a “mission distinct from that of political authorities.” (no. 2420) Among the economic and political systems repudiated by such principles, CCC condemns:

Any system in which social relationships are determined entirely by economic factors is contrary to the nature of the human person and his acts. . . . A theory that makes profit the exclusive norm and ultimate end of economic activity is morally unacceptable. . . . A system that subordinates the basic rights of individuals and of groups to the collective organization of production is contrary to human dignity. . . . The Church has rejected the totalitarian and atheistic ideologies associated in modern times with communism or socialism. . . . Regulating the economy solely by centralized planning perverts the basis of social bonds; regulating it solely by the law of the marketplace fails social justice . . . Reasonable regulation of the marketplace and economic initiatives, in keeping with a just hierarchy of values and a view to the common good, is to be commended. (nos. 2423-2425)

In this recent Catechism, there are still remnants of unfortunate leftovers lingering from the zeitgeist of the 1960s and 1970s. For example, one wonders why some of the following were retained, other than to mimic a type of “balance”–not normally the ethos of catechetical instruction: “Access to employment and to professions must be open to all . . . For its part society should, according to its circumstances, help citizens find work and employment. . . . Unemployment almost always wounds its victim’s dignity and threatens the equilibrium of his life. . . . A just wage is the legitimate fruit of work. . . . inequality of resources and economic capability is such that it creates a real gap between nations. . . . There must be a solidarity among nations which are already politically interdependent.” (nos. 2433-2438) Admittedly, these are minor, somewhat qualified, and in pursuit of consensus. However, they stand out in the text as peculiarly contemporary, whereas most of CCC is consistently traditional.

Toward the end, CCC seems unable to resist the trend to award some matter of preference to the poor, even though this Catechism speaks of the duty of “preferential love” for the poor; a slight improvement over the earlier “preferential option” for the poor, but still a likely instance of seeking to be more hipster than thou. In addition, CCC calls for the “reform of international economic and financial institutions so that they will better promote equitable relationships with less advanced countries,” (no. 2440) an expression more compatible with a liberationist approach than that of upholding private property avowed above. “Rich nations” are singled out for certain duties, (no. 2439) and the cry for “full development of human society” (no. 2441) gives one pause in light of the recent history of such phrases.

Protestants–Calvinists in particular–are more skeptical of the prowess of human reason than the Catechism. Taking the noetic effects of sin seriously, one must treat some of the claims to the perspicuity of natural law with caution. It is not abundantly clear that the natural man understands the things of God (1 Cor. 2:11-14; Rom. 8:7). Prior to regeneration or conversion, natural insight or the application of the natural law is essentially restricted by the human legislator. It is not easily proven that all cultures hold to monogamy (7th commandment), nor that all cultures support honesty (9th commandment), nor that most cultures hold to the sanctity of life (6th commandment). Moreover, a realism which reckons the extent of depravity finds itself unconvinced that pagans champion the natural law. Hence, even though natural law is admittedly an integral and historic aspect of Roman Catholic teaching, a quick agreement on this subject between Catholics and Protestants may not be attained.

The biblically-informed Christian will rejoice at many of the political planks contained in CCC. Some Protestants will have a diminished skepticism upon reading these, while others will rejoice in the true ecumenicity of belief, even if limited to these areas. A fair understanding of Roman Catholicism is important for those who are co-belligerents, as well as in order to be honest in our treatment of another communion. Certainly fundamental differences remain between Catholics and Protestants, but any small sliver of unity should be welcomed. Meanwhile, this Protestant theologian is hard pressed to point to a more comprehensive or consistent modern confessional statement of political theology. The only treatises that come to mind are the Westminster Larger Catechism’s exposition of the Decalogue and Johannes Althusius’s Politica (1603).

Notes

  1. Since, the earlier parts of this work (Savior or Servant? Putting Government in its Place [The Kuyper Institute, 1996]) have numbered the Ten Commandments in keeping with the traditional Protestant enumeration, the succeeding comments will preserve such classification. Hence, even though CCC retains the Roman enumeration of the Decalogue, for consistency, my discussion reflects the Protestant taxonomy without seeking to discuss the inherent merits of either classification. Protestants may therefore accuse me of dodging an issue, while Roman Catholics will hopefully forgive me on the basis of my sincere pursuit of consistency.