Monday, February 20, 2012

Book Review: Catholic Social Teaching

Catholic Social Teaching, 1891-Present: A Historical, Theological, and Ethical Analysis by Charles E. Curran (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2002. 272 pp)

Born in New York, Charles Curran received his B.A. from St. Bernard’s College. Upon earning two doctorates in theology in Rome, he was ordained for the Diocese of Rochester. In 1965, Curran was appointed to the faculty of Catholic University of America. Throughout his distinguished career, Curran has been in conflict with the Church’s teaching on various moral issues. Despite maintaining a position of “faithful dissent,” the Vatican declared that Curran step down from faculty in 1986. Now, Curran serves as the Elizabeth Sherlock University Professor of Human Values at Southern Methodist University.

The Industrial Revolution 

The rise of the Industrial Revolution caused Christians to reconsider their preconceived notions of work and ethics. While society previously functioned on an agrarian-based economy with subsistence acting as the core value, the Industrial Revolution introduced the notion of capital. Although Locke primarily proposed property as a God-given gift ensuring survival in nature, the Industrial Revolution transformed property into a self-generating monetary giant. Capitalists could leverage property in order to gain more property and the Church needed to address this shift. Beginning in the late 19th century, the Catholic Church began noting the social issues of laborers and the poor in a body of thought now known as “Catholic social teaching.”

While Charles Curran’s Catholic Social Teaching exists as a holistic ethical position, for the sake of brevity I will focus on the movement’s methodology before applying it to economic thought.


In order to evaluate the influence of Catholic social teaching, Curran begins with the theological methodology behind the movement. But first, it is important to note that Catholic theology always emphasizes the notion of a “both-and” approach instead of an “either-or” approach. The word “catholic” means universal.

Theology in the Catholic tradition strives for a universal appeal. If an issue caters to a “both-and” approach over an “either-or” approach, Catholic theology points to the inclusive option. This notion is easily seen when viewing Curran’s proposed canon for Catholic social teaching, the past 100 years portray shifts in ideology yet the overall thread of “catholic-ness” remains the same.

Reason and Natural Law 

Photo by Ramon Duran
To illustrate the theological methodology of Catholic social teaching, Curran separates the positions in to pre- and post-Vatican II. Pre-Vatican II, Curran suggests that Catholic social teaching emphasizes reason and natural law; Post-Vatican II, Curran suggests a shift toward a preferential option for the poor. Beginning with Leo XIII’s encyclical, Rerum novarum, we clearly see the influence of Thomas Aquinas and the elevation of reason and natural law in theological methodology. Curran notes:
Rerum novarum recognizes the important role of reason as a source for moral teaching and frequently invokes natural law and its principles. The first part of the encyclical proves the human right to private property, in opposition to the socialist position. The right to have property as one’s own is based on human nature and is one of the chief points of distinction between human beings and all other animals” (26).
Curran contends that the normative position of private property finds purchase in Rerum novarum precisely because of the laws of nature and the reasonableness of the position. This line of reasoning runs directly from Thomistic principles.

Preferring the Poor 

However, a shift from natural law and reason governing theological methodology occurs post-Vatican II. No longer did natural law offer the citation for universal statements. Catholic teachers, with the help of the new field of liberation theology, began to recognize the different lenses by which human beings view the world. Reason, then, is not a universal truth created in Rome, but rather a construction influenced by regional context. Curran suggests that Catholic social teaching shifts to a theological methodology of solidarity:
“Solidarity helps us see the ‘other’—whether that other is a person, people, or nation—not just as an object to be exploited but as our neighbor and helper, called with us to share in the banquet of life which all are invited equally by God. The church has an evangelical duty to take her stand beside poor people, helping them satisfy their basic rights without losing sight of other groups and the common good” (36).
Without condemning the previous teaching documents that rely on reason and natural law for its premises, post-Vatican II documents shift to a theological focus on the preferential option for the poor.

Ethical Methodology: Historical Consciousness and Individualism 

From theology, an ethical methodology flows. Curran proposes that Catholic social teaching focuses on the shift to historical consciousness (even though John Paul II’s writing opposes this concept) and a greater emphasis on individualism.

To begin, where previous ethical trends in the Catholic Church focused on immutable truth, Catholic social teaching centers on historical consciousness. Curran states,
“Historical consciousness gives more importance to the particular, the contingent, the historical, and the changing” (54).
The shift to historical consciousness recognizes the particular context of cultures. The context of Rome differs from that of Latin America. As such, Catholic social teaching desires to remain ethically conscious of these differences.

Secondly, Catholic social teaching emphasizes the person as a subject. Curran argues,
“The Catholic tradition in general and Catholic social teaching in particular traditionally have emphasized the basic dignity of the human being who is an image of God through reason and the power of self-determination” (67).
For this reason, Catholic social tradition tends to recognize the rights of the marginalized whether it is the poor in society or the exploited workers in urban factories. Ethically speaking, a person who is an image of God deserves basic human dignity.

An Economic Order: Where Catholic Social Teaching, Locke, and Wesley Meet
Photo by Catholic Church (England and Wales)
Upon settling theological and ethical methodology, Curran explores the ways in which Catholic social teaching informs the economic order. He concludes that the movement influences the both purpose of material goods and wealth and the preferential option for the poor, among other issues.

Similar to John Locke’s argument for private property, Catholic social teaching operates under the premise of private property in the economic order. Leaning on the principles of dominion found in Genesis, Catholic social teaching affirms both the intrinsic value of work and the value of the laborer completing the work.

Even though Catholic social teaching affirms the intrinsic right to private property, it differs from Locke’s conception of private property specifically in its instrumentality. Curran writes,
“In this life, private property must always be justified by how it relates to the destiny of the goods of creation to serve the needs of all. Private property is not the first and most important reality with regard to the understanding of material goods and wealth” (181).
While Locke and proponents of Catholic social teaching agree on the principle of private property, Catholic social teaching differs from Lock in that private property exists for others not for the individual.

Likewise, Catholic social teaching resembles the theology of John Wesley when it promotes the preferential option for the poor. As mentioned earlier, Catholic social teaching believes that the plight of the poor carries special consideration. As such, Catholic social teaching promotes a distributive justice similar to Wesley. The movement suggests that justice function proportionally, not arithmetically. Meaning, Catholic social teaching promotes justice that disproportionally taxes the rich instead of a system that taxes equally.

Speaking in economic terms, Curran states,
“Justice for the worker insists on the fundamental importance of the material needs of the worker but calls for something in addition—active participation and sharing by the worker in the enterprise” (195).
Much like Wesley’s third principle of “giving all you can” in his sermon, “The Use of Money,” the distributive justice in Catholic social teaching urges the affluent to give to the poor. In business terms, Catholic social teaching strives to widen ownership. Where capitalism usually concentrates power at the top amongst a few people, Catholic social teaching desires greater rights for the workers.


Catholic social teaching addresses the economic shift from agrarian to industrial methods. Beginning with a catholic theology that includes reason, natural law, and a preference for the poor, Catholic social teaching professes an ethic that promotes historical consciousness and individualism. While similar to Locke in the promotion of private property, Catholic social teachings takes a further step suggesting that private property exists for external ends. The movement also agrees with Wesley in promoting a distributive justice that requests a “give-all-you-can” attitude of Christian people.

If you are interested in Catholic theology and another way of doing business, I recommend Charles Curran’s Catholic Social Teaching.

Verdict: 4.5 out of 5
Posted by: Donovan Richards

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