In our polarized society — a society that shows signs of devolving into political violence — it is incumbent upon people of good will to work toward establishing common ground. How might we keep our society together? What might keep us from unraveling? Is there a social ethic that can inoculate people from the vices rampant in 21st century America?
Some are arguing that the principles of Catholic social teaching might be helpful for Americans to engage critically and seriously. Recently, the Wall Street Journal published a two-page feature on the topic (Feb. 6).
First, we should distinguish Catholic teaching from fundamentalism. The Bible and faith are not the sole sources for Catholic reflection on the social order. Reason plays a prominent and necessary role. (One commentator speaks of Catholic morality in general as “reason informed by faith.”) Catholic teaching on social ethics supports humanism. It is also important to note that the documents of Catholic social teaching are not only addressed to Catholics, but to “all people of good will.” (And we ought to recognize that, by definition, those committed to reasonableness are indeed “people of good will.”) Even though it is rooted in faith, it is thoroughly informed by reason and critical thinking. There is nothing in Catholic social teaching that is inaccessible to people of different religions or of no religious convictions at all.
The guiding principle of Catholic social teaching is the inviolable dignity of the human person. Every human being is a unique and beloved creation of God. As such, every human person deserves respect, care, love. (In the 18th century, Immanuel Kant would eventually recast this into the moral imperative to treat others as an end in themselves, not as a means to an end.) There is but one human family — a family that is wonderfully diverse, yet united by common hopes and dreams, rights, duties and obligations. The social order exists to help people achieve fulfillment; the customs, practices and laws of a particular society ought to be judged on how they help their citizens to do just that.
From these first principles flow the other fundamental principles of Catholic social teaching: the common good, subsidiarity and solidarity, the universal destination of goods, and participation.
Pope Francis has just contributed to the documents of Catholic social teaching with his encyclical Fratelli tutti (2020). In the introductory paragraphs, he reminds us that he and the Grand Imam Ahmad Al-Tayyeb, the Egyptian Islamic scholar, issued the following joint statement in 2019: “God has created all human beings equal in rights, duties, and dignity and has called them to live together as brothers and sisters.” Pope Francis and many leaders of the world’s religions would have us begin our search for common ground by a profound reflection on the human person and the one human family.
They recognize that partisanship and sectarianism, nationalist ideologies, racism and xenophobia are enemies of the common good and the creation of a more just and equitable world.
In the search for common ground, people of good will might do well by engaging the principles of Catholic social teaching.
Rev. Richard Peddicord, O.P., is in his ninth year as president of Fenwick High School.