Catholic Social Teaching in Class

In towns across America, students returned to school last week. Many returned to government schools, others to charter or private schools, and some 2.4 million entered the halls of Catholic schools.

Catholic schools represent, in many ways, the Catholic Church’s primary exercise of the command of Christ to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded…” (Mt 28:19-20 NIV). Catholic schools have played an essential role in the life of the Church in America since the first was founded in St. Augustine, Florida nearly 400 years ago. Catholic schools have served as a means to educate and form — spiritually, physically, mentally, and emotionally — whole generations of Americans, and continue to do so today. There always remains room for improvement, however; one area needing more attention is Catholic social teaching.

A better integration of Catholic social teaching into the curriculum of schools is one of the perennial calls directed at educators by conscientious organizations, scholars, and bishops. In light of this, Catholic teachers would do well to reflect on how the Church’s teaching can be communicated in a way that preserves its integrity and avoids merging it with a political agenda.

Catholics young and old, spurred by a genuine concern for the poor and marginalized, have long sought answers to that concern in Catholic social teaching. But, where the authentic social teaching of the Church looks to the community of faith for answers to the disturbing questions of poverty, injustice, and oppression, some advocate a more government-oriented approach. A serious examination of the issues of justice, equality, and liberty requires a more adequate understanding of Catholic social teaching. In addition, while there are deep spiritual dimensions to each of these issues, the insights of the social sciences, including economics, can help to offer solutions to the problems’ material dimensions.

The principle of subsidiarity, which teaches that a community of a higher order should not interfere in the activities of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, is a first principle in genuine Catholic social teaching. It requires each of us to be responsible for those who are suffering in our midst. Families, friends, associates, churches, local charitable organizations — these should be the first to respond to the needs of their brothers and sisters. Government should only be directly involved as the organization of last resort and should implement policies designed to support rather than replace intermediary groups. In this way, people are induced to serve one another, as Christ commanded.

While this sounds fine in theory, how does it play out in real life? Pope John Paul II presents an example in his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus. In discussing the social problem of unemployment, the pope outlines the roles of the players in solving it. Government should be involved, he says, both directly and indirectly. Its direct activities include defending the weakest, limiting the autonomy granted to determine working conditions, and ensuring that a minimum of support exists for those who are unemployed. Indirectly, government should create an environment conducive to the free exercise of economic activity. Entrepreneurs then have the opportunity to create and operate businesses, leading to abundant employment and myriad sources of wealth. In this way, government and private actors both have their roles to play and neither seeks to do that which the other can do more effectively.

Subsidiarity respects the proper roles of all the players. It allows government to have a role, as the final source of assistance, and as implementer of policies encouraging to the practice of subsidiarity, while, at the same time, being respectful of human freedom. It allows businesses and entrepreneurs to use their unique talents and abilities to serve the common good by, among other goals, fulfilling the responsibility to make a profit justly. It takes into account the insights offered by economics, as well as Catholic theology, and it allows everyone to take the lead in caring for those in need, instead of simply allowing a government agency to do so.

As students return to Catholic schools this month, it is important for those schools to teach them authentically. Students should not be taught that the aid of those in need depends upon government intervention, but rather, that it depends upon faith-filled individuals who take up Christ’s call to love one another, and who use their unique gifts and talents to serve their neighbors.

Clint W. Green is assistant to the President of the Acton Institute and a former middle-school teacher.

(This article is a product of the Acton Institute —, 161 Ottawa NW, Suite 301, Grand Rapids, MI 49503 — and is reprinted with permission.)

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