A wonderful article from Crisis Magazine.
“What is the magisterial authority of Catholic Social Teaching (CST), and how is it applied to real world situations? Catholic Social Doctrine is simply the voice of the Church, starting with the Sacred Scripture and the Church Fathers, that lays out the principles of how justice and charity are to be lived out in the world.
“The contemporary era of CST began with Pope Leo’s XII’ Rerum Novarum in 1891, and continues up to Pope Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate. Through the social documents, one can see a gradual development that reflects the Church’s study of the times. That is to say, the Church is always looking to update and clarify the basic principles of Social teaching, given new economic situations and technologies, without ever contradicting authoritative past teaching.
“Confusion enters in when Catholic lay faithful (and in some cases clergy) mistakenly claim for their opinions the absolute magisterial authority of the Church and correspondingly denounce as un-Catholic the conflicting positions of others, whether their political criticism comes from the left, right, or center. The basic error is the failure to see that the foundational teachings and principles of CST can be applied in practice in a wide variety of ways — and working out the application of such principles in any given case rightly falls mainly to the laity, not the hierarchy. The magisterial Church’s role, normally exercised through the local ordinary (the bishop), is to point out when these applications appear to diverge from the principles and teachings themselves.
“Conflicting opinions on CST fall into three basic camps:
1. Those (including both some on the Catholic Left and Traditionalists) who seem to believe that all CST is Catholic doctrine, from basic principles of social justice down to their specific applications in the documents. They would argue, for example, that Pope Paul VI’s 1967 encyclical Populorum Progressio requires Catholics to support government-to-government aid to developing nations (regardless of conflicting opinions about whether such aid actually harms the recipients). This group makes little distinction between the principles and their application.
2. Those who hold that the principles of CST constitute definitive Church teaching and require assent, but that the applications found in Church documents are strictly prudential.
3. Those who hold that CST constitutes the combined institutional wisdom of a Church that has existed since the Roman Empire. This group would argue that, while Catholics should follow CST, the principles are of relatively recent origin and therefore do not constitute definitive doctrine.
“Before delving deeper into these questions, we should also consider another modern development: the post-Vatican II emergence of national conferences of bishops (known as episcopal conferences), and the extent to which, especially in the United States, such conferences speak and teach authoritatively on issues of Catholic social teaching. There has been much confusion in this area, going back to the American bishops’ conference’s endorsement of controversial documents largely written by bureaucrats. The most noteworthy of these statements, emerging during the Reagan years in the context of the Cold War, dealt with nuclear weapons and was titled “The Challenge of Peace.”
“The reaction from the Catholic right was great. One of the founders of this magazine, Michael Novak, spearheaded a group of lay Catholic writers who issued a “pastoral” letter disagreeing with some of the conclusions of the conference’s document, as well as with the bishops’ authority on the subject and the extent to which their teaching was normative for their flock. The Novak piece, which took up an entire issue of National Review, was later published as Moral Clarity in the Nuclear Age (Nashville: Thomas Nelson).
“Happily, the collapse of the Evil Empire and the end of the Cold War made “The Challenge of Peace” largely a dead letter. However, in 1997, the Committee on Marriage and Family of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) issued an even more controversial document titled “Always Our Children: A Pastoral Message to Parents of Homosexual Children.”
“On the bright side, this document led the Vatican (or, more precisely, Pope John Paul II) to issue a clarifying motu proprio (a document issued by the pope on his own initiative and personally signed by him), Apostolos Suos, on May 21, 1998. Apostolos Suos confirmed the limited authority of national bishops’ conferences, along with their associated committees, commissions, advisors, and experts. Since Vatican II, these had tended to usurp the fundamental canonical responsibility of an individual bishop as chief teacher of the faith in his diocese.
“In a statement apparently directed principally toward the USCCB, the Holy Father wrote, “Commissions and offices exist to be of help to bishops and not to substitute for them.”