Catholic Social teaching: Neither right nor left

September 12, 2005

Read: Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, nn. 20-27

The Catholic Church's contribution to public debate in Canada is increasingly portrayed as a morally conservative agenda opposed to same-sex marriage and opposed to abortion. To be sure, those are major issues, ones of which the Church tends to speak not from a religious perspective, but from a view of what is good for the human person.

But when we look at the first section of the first chapter of the first part of the Church's Compendium of Social Doctrine, what do we see? We read God's words to Moses that he has seen the affliction of his people held in slavery and he has heard their cry and that he wants to lead them to a good land flowing with milk and honey (Exodus 3:7-8).

The Church chooses to begin this summary of its social teaching with a call to liberation. God calls for liberation because he loves his people and cannot stand to see them enslaved.


The Compendium quickly goes on to paint this liberation as having an economic component that must overcome unjust social structures. It says that it was unfortunate that the biblical law of jubilee and of the sabbatical year have never been fully implemented.

These principles call for the cancellation of all debts and the freeing of all slaves every 50 years (the jubilee) or every seven years (the sabbatical). The jubilee is not an arbitrary political program. It is invoked "in order to transform, continuously and from within, the life of the people of the Covenant, so that this life will correspond to God's plan" (n. 24).

Why do we need the jubilee? Because of the human tendency to gather all things to oneself - to use people as though they were things. The Compendium sees this as a consequence of our "original estrangement" from God, the breaking of communion between God and humanity that we traditionally call original sin.


This entrenched estrangement between God and man ensures the failure of all utopian designs. We will never build a perfect society. The attempts to do so inevitably lead to some form of totalitarianism as utopians find the only way to move towards perfection is by squelching human freedom. In doing so, they create, not heaven on earth, but a new hell.

The call for jubilee, however, is not utopian. It recognizes that social structures will inevitably go awry. But justice can still be approximated by transforming society "continuously and from within."

The goods of the earth are meant for all. For all to share in them with some degree of equity, there must be a periodic freeing of slaves and cancelling of debts.

The Compendium even says that the principles of sabbatical and jubilee "constitute a kind of social doctrine in miniature" (n. 25). In other words, the heart of what the Church teaches about society is summed up in this message of liberation.

It is often said that the Church's social teaching is its best-kept secret. In the first month of Pope Benedict's pontificate, the new pope referred to Africa 11 times in his public speeches, mostly calling for an end to poverty and corruption and the scourge of HIV/AIDS on that continent. None of those calls drew any notice in the international press. Pope Benedict did mention sex once during that month. That was, of course, the speech that drew media attention.

(If people think the Church is obsessed with sex and ignores poverty and economic injustice, they might well look to how the media covers Church pronouncements.)

Part Two of the compendium will include an extensive discussion of the importance and role of the family in society. It also includes a deeper look at the economy, politics, the environment, peace and other issues.

But right from the start, the Compendium makes clear that Catholic teaching on society will not be neatly categorized as right wing or left wing, conservative or liberal. The Church seeks to enhance the dignity of the human person according to God's plan for humanity, a plan that challenges all of today's prevailing ideologies.

(Second in a series of articles)