Catholic Social Thought, and more specifically Catholic Social Teaching, is called the best kept secret of the Roman Catholic Church. It seems one of the greater difficulties, and reason for why the CST is so unknown, is the loss at how to bridge the encyclical genre (and its philosophical assumptions) and the average lay person’s understanding. Apparently there is an effort to work the social teaching deeper into the catechetical process, especially for children since it is already emphasized for the adult catechumens. Welp, being a protestant, I’ll let them figure that all out, but I also figure putting up a summary or two of a couple interesting encyclicals wouldn’t hurt. The following is a short summary of Octogesima Adveniens (or A Call to Action on the Eightieth Anniversary of Rerum novarum).
Octogesima Adveniens (1971) was addressed directly to Catholics and called Christians to action, emphasizing local church work for social justice in relation to urbanization and the environment. OA was released on the eightieth anniversary of Rerum Novarum and the tenth anniversary of Mater et Magistra.
OA begins with the involvement of salvation history within human history. It appeals for help within the midst of “flagrant inequalities”, and with “a new perspective [on] the grave problems of our time” (2). In short, it makes a universal appeal for more justice through Christian action. However, in light of the diversity of the problematic situations, it would be more than a stretch to write a universal answer. Instead, the local community is called to judge their situation to the Gospel, with the help of the bishops and Holy Spirit, and to respond with “principles of reflection, norms of judgment and directives for action from the social teaching of the church” (4). Within the encyclical, there is a strong trust on the universal aspect of the Gospel that will hold all Catholics together, despite distinctly different action from one local group to another. However, the local community is not left up to its own interpretation, but has help from the bishops to converse with “other Christian brethren and all men of good will” and the social teaching of the Church. The theologizing of the local community is not left up to them, but shouldered by the divine and human educators who help discern the way forward with the local community.
The encyclical focused on specific issues that must become primary because of “their urgency, extent, and complexity” (7). The new social problems are identified within the unbalanced, expansive, and technological urbanization. The problems are: Christians are isolated in the city; the youth are left adrift; the roles of women are unprotected and limited; the workers are maligned; victims of changes are now the new poor; the continued existence of the old, but rampant discrimination; the need to emigrate to flee terrible circumstances, work for food, and maintain a healthy life while connected to family is not met; falling employment and education; the rise of social communication through image that may capitulate to oppressive power rather than the common good; and the abuse of the environment (8-21). These problems lead to different or new forms of exploitation and oppression, and “if man lets himself rush ahead without foreseeing in good time the emergence of new social problems, they will become too grave for a peaceful solution to be hoped for” (19).
Within human growth, two aspirations seem universal and become more important over time: equality and participation (22). However, legislation often fails to keep up with such aspirations. Despite, or perhaps in spite of, such insufficiency, equality and participation develop a democratic society – a political society that a Christian is to participate within. Yet, a Christian cannot simply follow a Marxist or liberal political ideology: “The Christian faith is above and is sometimes opposed to the ideologies, in that it recognizes God, who is transcendent and the Creator, and who, through all the levels of creation, calls on man as endowed with responsibility and freedom” (27). Still, Christians can reject an overarching philosophy, but nonetheless engage the subsequent historical action or movement that follows from Marxist or liberal ideology. With such a pragmatic politic, a Christian can see value in either movement, despite its utopian aspirations, without losing the distinctiveness of Christianity. However, political philosophies are not alone, but work in conjunction with a scientific and technological society built on the primacy of rationalism and a latent narcissism. Regardless of the questionable foundation, Christians will find a promising dialogue with the human sciences that can, within their limited territory, contribute to Christian understanding.
Yet, despite the pragmatic politics advocated, there still lies within the encyclical a deep suspicion of (a modernist/Hegelian notion of) progress: “What is the meaning of this never-ending, breathless pursuit of a progress that always eludes one just when one believes one has conquered it sufficiently in order to enjoy it in peace?” (41). The encyclical answers the human tendency towards peace that will never come through the established notion of progress: “For a Christian, progress necessarily comes up against the eschatological mystery of death. The death of Christ and his resurrection and the out pouring of the Spirit of the Lord help man to place his freedom, in creativity and gratitude, within the context of the truth of all progress and the only hope which does not deceive” (41). It is through this Christological rubric that the encyclical orients the dynamic social teaching of the church, the need for greater justice, and Christian interaction, or political action, with structures and responsibility for the common good (42-47). In light of all the problems of the world and the necessity for the local community to help develop its own action, the encyclical ends with a challenge to Christians for their involvement, but also noting that no single answer will be the same to engage the problems at hand.