Mirror of Justice

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Sunday, June 28, 2009

What deference does a Catholic owe to the Church's social teaching?

Along with Lisa, I'm teaching in the St. Thomas-Villanova summer program in Rome.  This is only my third visit to Rome, so I still have a lot to explore, but one recurring theme is the extent to which the city is both an encouragement and an obstacle to my faith.  The encouragement comes on occasions such as last week's papal audience, when a large, exuberant, and diverse crowd becomes a tangible reminder of the Church's beauty and awe-inspiring scope.  The obstacles come as I routinely find myself face to face with chapters from history in which the teachings of Christ are practically impossible to discern in the Church's witness to the world.

I spent the afternoon today at the Jewish Museum in the Temple Maggiore, built on the site of the old Jewish Ghetto.  The museum painfully recounts the oppressive laws enacted and enforced by a succession of popes against Rome's Jewish community.  As a Catholic, it was especially troubling to recall how the Jewish community had to look to the birth of the secular Italian state as its source of liberation from the Church.

So was the Church's teaching over those centuries regarding how Christians should live with (or sadly, should not live with) the Jews an example of Catholic social teaching that was in error?  If I was a Catholic living in Rome during those centuries, would it have been just and proper for me to object to the Church's treatment of our Jewish neighbors, and perhaps even to engage in action designed to thwart the implementation of the Church's rules?  Even if the Church forbade me from doing so, or accused me of having a poorly formed conscience?  I assume the answer to all of these questions is "yes," right?

If so, then what deference do we owe Church authority in an area of social teaching?  Is it a matter of expertise (e.g., popes don't know much about economics?) or a function of the underlying principles (e.g., the sanctity of human life provides a more consistent and applicable rule than the universal destination of human goods does?)  Is a Catholic's stance toward CST driven solely by the persuasive merits of the teaching, or by the fact that it is the Church doing the teaching?  And if the latter, how do we distinguish the situation where a good Catholic should have (in my view) openly and vigorously dissented from the Church's social teaching about the Jews from today's situations where a Catholic believes that the Church's social teaching is in error? 

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Vischer, Rob | Permalink

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