The Primacy Of Catholic Social Doctrine

Labor Day is twelve days away and the Catholic bishops in the United States have weighed in with a document regarding the economy and condition of labor. Bishop Stephen Blaire authored the piece and he’s come under critique from fellow CV blogger Tim Shaughnessy. I disagree with Tim’s critique and believe it elevates conservative economic doctrine higher than Catholic social doctrine.

My latter charge—which by the way is conceded by Tim himself, when he writes “this document, and much of Catholic social thought, is an incomplete understanding of how wages are determined.” If you agree with this statement, you won’t find anything I have to say remotely persuasive, because I draw on Catholic social doctrine. But if you believe in the primacy of the latter than there are two key points that have to be addressed…

Catholic social doctrine gives labor primacy over capital

*Labor has primacy over capital in the economic relationship—John Paul II writes in Laborem Excercens, that “labour is always a primary efficient cause, while capital, the whole collection of means of production, remains a mere instrument or instrumental cause.”

*It is appropriate and just to pay someone based on their needs, not merely their production—In an article by Father Robert Johansen at Crisis Magazine (a venue sympathetic to the economic stances of Catholic conservatives), Fr. Johansen pulls together a variety of sources from JPII to Thomas Aquinas to the origins of creation itself to demonstrate that “A just wage, then, should provide a worker with enough to live, and perhaps a little more, so as to enable him to live “becomingly.”

The latter belief is usually associated with Marxism, given Karl Marx’s “from each according to his abilities to each according to his needs” phrase. This proves not that the idea is wrong, but that Marx stole one good idea from the Catholic Church to make his war against faith and family attractive to working-class people who needed to be enticed on board.

The principles above affect not only government policy, but private economic relationships as well. There’s a huge gray area of sorting out actual implementation that goes well beyond what anyone can write in a single blog post.

The current political climate, in which everything is seen through the Obama vs. Romney prism will poison a debate like this. So does the deeper political problem which is that one party has been hijacked by a  radical left-wing movement that won’t even accede human rights to the most vulnerable among us in the womb and as such can never be trusted with political power. The need for this economic debate underscores the necessity of getting legitimate Democrats, rooted in their party’s finest traditions back in control.

But the crux of the matter is this—when it comes to formulating a broad understanding of what’s right and wrong in the economic sphere, do you believe that revenue and price considerations are all that matter? Or does work, as Blessed John Paul II writes, have a subjective dimension that goes beyond that?

When it comes to understanding justice in an economy, do you back a doctrine developed over better than a century by an array of popes, or one pieced together by a slew of intellectuals at conservative think tanks? I’ve got nothing against the latter, but it’s their ideas that are subject to the former, not the other way around.

Dan Flaherty is the author of Fulcrum, an Irish Catholic novel set in postwar Boston with a traditional Democratic mayoral campaign at its heart, and he is the editor-in-chief of



5 thoughts on “The Primacy Of Catholic Social Doctrine

  1. […] want. But suppose lots of people begin to produce things that, in the long run, nobody wants at allThe Primacy Of Catholic Social Doctrine Dan Flaherty, CatholicVote.orgWhen it comes to formulating a broad understanding of what’s right […]

  2. Solidarity Guy says:

    Exercens, not excercens (sic). But it’s great that you are looking into what Pope John Paul II had to write about these issues instead of blindly following Republican economic policies which are clearly antithetical to Catholic social teaching in just about every way and at every level imaginable.

    1. Sue in soCal says:

      Ahhh! I meant to click the dislike and now it won’t let me change it! Republican economic policies are no more antithetical to Catholic social teaching than Democrat economic policies. I would refer you to the encyclicals dealing with the social teaching of the Church for clarification.

    2. Idaho Mark says:

      I would tend to agree with Sue, both the left and the right have elements of their policies that are antithetical to Catholic social teaching. However Catholics can in good consciences disagree on how to care for the poor, how our economy should be structured and even how people should be paid. Yes, Catholic social teaching is clear that we have a preferential option for the poor, our economy be just. How that is accomplished is open for debate, and weighed against governments role and moral duty to maintain a stable country and economy for future generations. To call republican policies antithetical to Catholic teaching while not recognizing the error in policies in democrat policies is short sided. Social Justice is important, something our popes, bishops and priests, while continue to debate and guide us in. Our Church has consistently taught that abortion is always and in every case evil and murder. To support a candidate and party that so openly supports abortion and euthanasia is something I do not believe a Catholic in good conscience can support.

  3. Everett says:

    Dan, I’d like to take the time to briefly say that it has been a pleasure reading your work since you’ve joined CV, in particular your seeming goal to place Catholic teaching above partisan political dogma.

    I’m particularly pleased that the selection of Paul Ryan has brough Catholic Social Teaching to the forefront, and seemingly made people go back and read Rerum novarum, Quadragesimo anno and Centesmius annus, among others. Each of these documents contains numerous statements that each party would find distinctly unpalatable. The notion of living wage is certainly one of those.

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