Thursday, October 6, 2011

Catholic Social Teaching

The marvelous book, Church State and Society: An Introduction to Catholic Social Doctrine, gets a wonderful review from Ignatius Insight, and while it is a book I have only begun to delve into, I have learned enough that it has joined the social teaching canon of my apostolate The Lampstand Foundation.

An excerpt from the Ignatius review.

"The concept of justice as order in the soul of the individual needs to be rediscovered today." — Benestad, 144.

"Nowadays, service to others is often presented as the distinguishing characteristic of a Catholic university; but without linking that service to the prior task of seeking truth and achieving some order in one's soul through prayer, a sacramental life, acceptance of the Catholic creeds, and the practice of Christian morality. It seems na├»ve to me, and even Pelagian, to think that Christ-like service can be informed and embrace without a foundation in Christian doctrine and a basis in learning." — Benestad, 284.


“We have been waiting for this remarkable book for a long time, one that knows not just episcopal and papal thought but the whole history of theology, political philosophy, and philosophy at large. This book has roots not only in the Greeks and Romans, but also in Scripture and the great theologians of the Church. And it is aware of the pitfalls of language and ideas that often steer Christian thinkers into the heady, dangerous realms of ideology. Dr. Brian Benestad knows his Locke and Hobbes, his Marx, and the more modern liberal relativist theories associated with Rawls and other American writers.

“Benestad, at the University of Scranton, is the best qualified and able of American scholars to write an overall understanding of Catholic Social Thought, which has tended to become a rather narrow and isolated body of knowledge. Benestad's mentor, whom he often cites and whose collected essays he edited, was the late Father Ernest Fortin, A.A. Fortin, along with Heinrich Rommen, Jacques Maritain, Yves Simon, John Courtney Murray, and Charles N. R. McCoy, was certainly the most critical and acute mind in the intellectual circles of his time. Fortin covered the whole gamut of thought from Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero, to the Fathers of the Church, Aquinas, Aquinas, Dante, and into the modern world. Fortin was familiar with Strauss and Bloom and their critiques of modernity.

“This book is more than the "introduction" of its sub-title. It is nothing less than a critical, philosophical reflection on the whole tradition of what is loosely called "social thought or doctrine." It knows its way through the relation of reason and revelation. Its range includes economics, environmentalism, universities, political institutions, war, life and family questions, subsidiarity, and culture. Metaphysics is always just below the surface.

“Benestad, to be sure, unlike Plato, Aristotle, and the current pope, does not have much to say about music. But he makes remarkable use of classic literature and novels to illustrate virtues and vices. He is obviously a broadly learned man in the tradition of liberal education. This overlook of social thought is doubly necessary as many of the basic words and notions that are found in modern thought and in political usage are anything but neutral or friendly to what Catholicism is and what it holds.


“Thus, a major effort of Benestad is to clarify what is meant by "justice," "rights," "social justice," "values," and "dignity," the language that even the popes and bishops have, sometimes incautiously, chosen to use to explain Catholic positions in the public order. Each of these words has an ancient or recent history that is anything but self-evident. Different philosophies make each concept in effect equivocal, not meaning at all what other users mean.

“Each concept or word needs to be carefully distinguished. We need to see that what Hobbes meant by "rights" was not what Aristotle meant by justice. Among these words and phrases, perhaps none is more necessary to rethink than that of "social justice," a very modern phrase from the late nineteenth century that cannot, in spite of heroic efforts to do so, easily be reconciled with classic political thought or Christian terms. The phrase is inspired largely by modern liberal thought that presupposes human autonomy with no relation to natural or divine law.

“Benestad does a remarkably fine job in tracing the roots and implications of this phrase and how it might be properly used so that it does not bear its ideological baggage from Locke or Rousseau. A major reason that Catholic thought has not had the impact that it should is because words like justice, values, rights, and dignity come from Hobbes, Locke, Nietzsche, Weber, and Kant. They do not mean what it looks like they mean from a tradition of Aquinas or Aristotle. Benestad, to his credit, is well aware both that these words are the meat of modern discourse and the source of considerable confusion. The book is a constant effort to relate rights to duty, dignity to being, values to objective norms, and justice to virtue.

"Indeed, it might well be said that the major effort of Benestad is to show how no concept of justice as some sort of rearrangement of society can stand by itself apart from the classical emphasis on the need of individual virtue. We cannot have a "just" society if we do not have "just" people who know that justice is not a subjective "right" or "want" but something that is objectively "due."

“Aristotle's political philosophy had been well aware that regimes reflect the virtue of the people that composed it. He knew we cannot have a good regime and un-virtuous citizens. Modern thought has largely rejected this to claim that vice and disorder can be cured simply by change of regime. It doesn't and cannot happen that way, even though some regimes are better than others.

“Benestad is completely familiar with what is known as modern Catholic social thought from the work of Leo XIII on. He knows of Pius XI and Pius XIII, John XXIII, and Paul VI. He is aware that in John Paul II and Benedict we have something in the Church that has perhaps never existed before: two popes, one following the other, both working together, who are themselves first class scholars and (particularly in the case of John Paul II) charismatic leaders of world historic significance. The world has done its best to refuse to acknowledge their genius and the truth of their lives and teachings. In this sense, our intellectual problems are initially moral ones.

“Benestad is well aware of the extra-ordinary genius of the present pope. His appendix is devoted to Caritas in veritate, the pope's third "social" encyclical. At one level, it is amusing to realize that the Catholic Church has been headed since Leo XIII at the end of the nineteenth century by men of superior intellect, but more recently by men the equals of any minds or their own or any other time. How little this intellectual foundation of the Church is appreciated within the Church and culture is a judgment on the quality of the lived faith and ongoing intelligence of our time.

“The book contains four parts with twelve chapters. The first part concerns "the human person, the political community, and the common good." Part two covers "civil society and the common good, three mediating societies (family, Church, and universities). Part three brings us to private property and the universal destination of goods. Finally, part four is on the international community and justice. It is in this latter section that Benestad deals sanely with war and international institutions.

“One thing that particularly struck me about this book is that Benestad always makes his own judgment on the issues that he presents. The reader always knows where he stands on the issues, and why. He is quite critical of many of the politicized American episcopal initiatives in the social order, none more so than that of Cardinal Bernadin's confused "seamless garment" doctrine. Often such documents bear ideological traits that never should be there.”