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The Clarion Call to Catholic Action

By Deacon Keith Fournier
The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church Sounds the Trumpet

The Clarion Call to Catholic Action: The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church

By: Deacon Keith Fournier
© Third Millennium, LLC

“And if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle?” St. Paul, 1 Corinthians 14:8

The “Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church”, released this past March in the United States, is a bugle blast that should be heard throughout the entire Church, and, through her sons and daughters, throughout the whole world. Far from an indistinct sound, it is one that rings out with crystal clarity. This magnificent volume presents the treasury of the Church’s social teaching in one place. It is waiting to now be implemented and give form to a new Catholic Action. Never before has the distilled wisdom of the Magisterium of the Catholic Church been so beautifully organized, brilliantly articulated or thoroughly researched.

The Compendium is tenderly dedicated to “His Holiness John Paul II Master of Social Doctrine and Evangelical Witness to Justice and Peace.” The timing of its release is nothing short of prophetic, coming as it does in the wake of the passing to the Father of John Paul the Great and the elevation of Pope Benedict to the Chair of Peter. The time has come for an informed, educated, genuinely converted and courageously dedicated global movement of the lay faithful, a new Catholic Action, which will to take this treasure into the world of the Third Christian Millennium and build a new culture of life, family, authentic freedom and solidarity; a civilization of love.

What the Compendium does is to give Catholics, other Christians, other people of faith and all people of good will a complete sourcebook for the Social teaching. In this one volume we find all the references needed to study the Social Teaching and then to go “right to the source” by turning to the back. It provides the instruction that has been so desperately needed to give clear direction to those who are committed to Catholic Action. It will also be welcomed ecumenically by anyone concerned with true social justice.

There has been a tendency, one which I have written about extensively in the past, for even well intended Catholics and other Christians to be confused when it comes to how they apply their faith to their social participation and citizenship. The social teaching of the Church has often not been known outside of the academy or among a few who have “interpreted” it for others. Or, too often it has been treated as a sort of “after thought”; used in a kind of “proof - texting” application to bolster various political, economic or partisan positions.  

Some people have approached their work in the social arena (which encompasses politics and policy, economics, culture, arts…the entire domain of human and social interaction) as if limited political terms such as “conservative”, “liberal”, (or a host of variations on these two such as neo-liberal, progressive, neo-conservative or paleo-conservative) were, what I have called in past articles, “the noun” and “Catholic” more the adjective in their lives. In other words, they first derived their identity from these limiting labels and only secondarily by reference to their Baptismal vocation and the life orientation that it demands. Thus we hear of “Catholic Conservatives” or even “Catholic Liberals”. Even more unfortunate is the use of other terms, drawn from the political nomenclature of the age (or actually of another age) such as “left” or “right”, by detractors in an effort to pigeonhole and marginalize Catholics, other Christians and other people of faith who seek to inform their participation by the great social principles summarized in this great body of teaching called the Social teaching. Now, if anyone wants to know just what Catholic Social teaching really teaches, it is here, all contained in this one volume.

The theological roots of this body of teaching called the “Social teaching” go back, literally, to “the beginning. In the first Book of the Sacred Scriptures, the book of the beginnings, the Book of Genesis, we find the doctrine of creation and the clear beginning of the social doctrine of the Church. It reveals that we were created for relationship, with God, with one another, and with the created order. Throughout the Old Testament we also find clear social instruction concerning social relations.

Then, in the great event that forever changed human history, the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, the Word become flesh, we find the theology of charity, authentic liberation, and the roots of the Christian contribution to understanding the human vocation revealed as a call to true happiness and human flourishing as revealed in the humanity of Jesus. In His Paschal Mystery, His life, death and Resurrection, we find the deeper meaning of all human existence. The New Testament is also filled with “Social teaching” For example, the Sermon on the Mount contains the very essence of all of the moral and social teaching of the Church. In effect, Jesus Christ, in His sacred humanity is the Social Teaching- made visible in its complete perfection. How he lived, loved and related to others is the pattern for all truly human relations.

In the history of the early Church we then find a beautiful development of the social implications of the Christian faith. This is elucidated in the Christian Tradition. As the Church matured and passed through time and spread into every Nation, she recorded her inspired insights and wisdom in post New Testament writings and announced them to the faithful, for the whole world, in conciliar pronouncements. In the last one hundred or so years, the Magisterium, the teaching office of the Catholic Church, has continued to expound, develop and update this beautiful patrimony of social doctrine. She has done so as, in the words of the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council, an “expert in humanity”.

Following in the footsteps of Jesus Christ, the Church which is His Body on the earth walks the way of the person. She, as a society in her own right, lives in the midst of every age, with a foot in this passing world and another in the eternal. She offers insights for every age, and for the citizens of every Nation, on how to live in peace. She offers insights on how to structure any society in order to promote true justice and human flourishing. The early Fathers of the Church spoke of the Church as the “world reconciled” and, in the east; they used another pregnant description of the Church as the “world transfigured”. She exists to serve the various societies within which she resides and, as a part of her mission to the whole world, is committed to improving the social conditions of all men and women by promoting authentic social and economic justice, both nationally and internationally.

The full development of Catholic Social teaching is often associated with the promulgation of Pope Leo XIII’s “On Capital and Labor” and the trajectory of encyclicals since. They include the writings of Pope John XXIII, Pope Paul VI and, of course, the extraordinary contributions of Pope John Paul the Great. Yet, the Church has always reflected upon - and spoken to - the social questions of every age. This is evidenced in the earliest Patristic literature, both East and West. For example, we find tremendous social insights, presented with great aplomb, in such noted teachers in the West as St Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas.

At the root of classical Christian teaching concerning the nature of the human person is the understanding that Christians are called to live a unity of life. The Church proclaims the truth about Jesus Christ, who came to redeem the whole person - and to begin a new creation – both of which will be completed and fulfilled in the resurrection of the body and life in a new heaven and the new earth. Part of the problem has been the lack of good instruction, a full catechesis, of the faithful. The Baptized members of the Church all too often fail to recognize that their faith is not a hat that is taken off upon entry into the “real world”, whatever that term is meant to refer to. They have not even been instructed that there is such a thing as a “Social teaching”, let alone that it has relevance for their lives  and is meant to inspire and give structure to their own missionary vocation.

For the mature, truly catechized Christian, there should be no such language as that which is expressed in phrases such as “Well, that is ‘just business’, or ‘just politics’, or ‘just entertainment’…or so on. These expressions are often used to justify a dichotomy between the faith that one professes and the lifestyle that one lives. The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council referred to this “separation between faith and life” as “one of the greatest errors of our age.” Pope John Paul II regularly repeated this concern in his marvelous encyclicals and apostolic letters. The Christian faith is meant to be a light that presides over the totality of our fully human lives, informing our consciences and changing the way that we see all of human life and our interactions with one another at every level.

This modern phenomenon of compartmentalization among otherwise seemingly faithful Christians was not the way of the early Church. That is why, before Antioch, the early followers of Jesus Christ were referred to as “the Way.” They lived differently in the midst of the world of their age. They also lived in society very differently. This “difference” is noted in some of the early writings such as the “Didache” or “Teaching of the Twelve” where it is summarized in instructions. These early Christians went into the pagan societies of their age and changed them from within through their words, the witness of their lives and their heroic sacrificial lives. Our relationship with the world must be the same.

The Social teaching of the Church is meant to inform and influence social, economic, political and cultural life, through the work of Christians who not only know of it but have committed themselves to live by it and make it the foundation of their work and service in society. It speaks to - and should affect -all human interactions. It provides principles that reveal the truth about the dignity of every human person, the sanctity of every human life, the primacy and purpose of the family, the nature of human freedom, our obligations to one another (and most especially to the poor) and many, many other “social” concerns. It offers insights for good governance through the application of ordering principles such as subsidiarity and the insistence of full participation. The Social teaching of the Church speaks to issues of war and peace, economic justice, our relationship to the goods of the earth and the environment, and to international relations.

This teaching is called “social” for a purpose. It speaks to human society and to the formation, role and rightful place of social institutions. It reveals the truths that can be known by all men and women - because they are revealed in the Natural law. These truths are confirmed by and expounded upon through Revelation. Thus, this body of teaching is not simply “religious”, in the sense that it is intended only for religious persons. It offers insights that are of tremendous value to all men and women; and it offers them for every nation.

Now, with this Compendium, in one readable and brilliantly organized volume, we have that treasury of Catholic Social teaching made easily available - able to be proclaimed and used for a new Catholic Action. In one place, we have been given all of the sources of the Social Teaching from the Sacred Scriptures, the Tradition and the modern social encyclicals. With the publishing of this very helpful volume, no-one should be able to confuse any Catholic concerning what the Catholic Church has to say on the vital issues upon which she has spoken. That includes some misguided and unfaithful Catholic politicians.

The timing of this volume is of particular importance to those of us who live in the United States because we are soon to begin another critical election cycle in 2006. It has extraordinary implications for our future as a Nation and our place in the world. By the time we have finished all the various State, local and Federal campaigns of 2006, the 2008 presidential campaign will be well underway. During this cycle, no political party should expect a Catholic or, for that matter any orthodox, classical Christian, to vote for their candidate simply because of party affiliation. All candidates should be approached by an educated, catechized and fully prepared Christian constituency who can now make  reference to the Social teaching of the Church and apply it through a proper hierarchy of values.

The “Compendium of the Social Teaching of the Church” should be read, re-read, studied and then lived. It should become the primary source for the formation of a Catholic social conscience. Its teaching is meant to be implemented in our lives and become the foundation for our social, cultural, economic and political participation. It must become the measuring stick for all political, social, economic and cultural action undertaken by Catholics. Through our Baptism, we are all called, in accordance with our varied states in life and specific vocations, to continue the redemptive mission of Jesus Christ until He returns. That mission has a social dimension.

As faithful Catholics, we are called to build a new culture of life, family, freedom and solidarity. As we enter into the political arena in the coming election cycle, the Social teaching of the Church must help us to form the building blocks of our Catholic action and citizen participation. If it really does, it will make it nearly impossible for anyone to label us “left”, “right”, liberal” or “conservative”. Rather, it will be said of us that we are first, last and always, faithful Catholic Christians who are committed to building a new world where, in the recent words of Pope Benedict XVI, “development and the economy have a human face and in which the rights of man and international law are governed by the logic of charity and solidarity."

The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church is a clear bugle, sounding the Call to a new Catholic Action.
Deacon Fournier is a Deacon of the Diocese of Richmond, Virginia. He holds degrees from the Franciscan University of Steubenville, the John Paul II Institute of the Lateran University and the University Of Pittsburgh School Of Law. He serves as the Senior Editor of Catholic Online and a Contributing Editor of Traditional Catholic Reflections and Reports. He has also served as a human rights lawyer and public policy activist.


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