The Tension & Openness Of Catholic Social Doctrine

A pair of excellent articles published over the last two days illustrate the debate among Catholics regarding the social justice vision of presumptive Republican vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan. Father Robert Barron, writing on RealClearReligion, notes the inherent tension that can seem to exist between solidarity and subsidiarity. And William McGurn in The Wall Street Journal opines that left-wingers in the Church have substituted political orthodoxy for orthodoxy of faith.

The Church's social vision began its development under Pope Leo XIII in the late 19th century

Let’s start with Father Barron’s points. The Church’s modern social doctrine, as developed since the time of Leo XIII in the late 19th century and continuing through today, has consistently put forth two principles—that the government does have a role to play in protecting society’s most vulnerable. That would be the solidarity part of the equation. But that it’s preferable for as much of this help as possible to be done by the more local form of government—the subsidarity part of the equation.

Furthermore, acknowledging the need for a government role is quite different than acknowledging the primacy of left-wing solutions. McGurn is correct in noting that political left-wingers have a much narrower dogma than anything the Catholic Church herself ever created, and they are much more ruthless in cracking down on heretics. The Wall Street Journal is admittedly an odd venue for this sort of argument, given the paper’s consistent demonization of anyone who contradicts it’s vision of unfettered global free trade, but McGurn’s point is still well-taken.

And thus we come to Paul Ryan. There’s nothing in Ryan’s proposals nor in his general rhetoric that denies the basic premise of a government role. A voucher for Medicare comes from the government. An option that payroll taxes be diverted into a private account rather than the low-return Social Security Trust Fund is enforced by the government.

You might not like these ideas. But to believe they step outside the boundaries of Catholic orthodoxy is to have drank the Kool-Aid of the political left within the Church that has voluntarily set itself up as the enforcer of doctrine and crusher of heretics.

There's room in the Catholic Church on both sides of the political aisle, united around defense of the unborn child.

The reality is that whether it’s on faith or political debate, the Catholic Church is in fact rather roomy when it comes to accommodating a wide variety of perspectives. There are naturally core elements of faith that must be accepted, and though political ideas aren’t on the same level of importance, there are general boundaries set up that debate must stay within. When it comes to economics and social justice, there’s really nothing in the mainstream political debate that steps outside of it.

What steps outside the broad and inclusive vision of the Church is the notion that the most vulnerable, the unborn, have no right to existence. It was the choice of one powerful politically constituency in this country to place that right under assault, and they shouldn’t be allowed to cover it up by placing dispute over economics and social justice policies on the same plane, or even pretending that the Catholicity of the ideas is in dispute.

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



  • Franklin

    Weird. Why is the church spending so much time and money trying to change laws in order to ban gay couples from the rights and responsibilities of civil marriage? Seems that two adult gay humans should be able to use their own free will and make decisions for themselves? Why is the church interfering in their lives?



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