Ad Limina Apostolorum (Blog) | St. Augustine's Library
Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Akin on the New Social Justice Compendium 

Jimmy Akin expresses some concerns about the newly-released Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. Akin points out that the Compendium was originally conceived of as a 'parallel' to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which may have some troubling implications:

The announcement of a social doctrine "Catechism" seemed to further the placing of "social teaching" (about which Jesus and the apostles had to say little) on the same level as dogmatic theology (on which they had to say much). Indeed, the very use of the word "catechism" was disturbing, as a catechism is intended to teach the basics of the faith, not just one area only contingently attached to the doctrines of the faith.

Akin finds, to his surprise, that the promulgation of the Compendium was somewhat 'dumbed down' in terms of solemnity and authority, with a 'tepid' endorsement by the Holy Father that, so to say, 'damns with faint praise', giving the impression that the Vatican has made a concerted attempt to 'downgrade' the Compendium, perhaps hoping that it be 'buried in silence.'

I share Akin's concern that the social teaching of the Church not be so readily equated with its moral and dogmatic teaching, which admittedly admit [yeah!] of a greater degree of solemnity. But this concern is balanced with another (which Jimmy certainly shares as well) that the Church's social teaching not be itself downgraded to the level of 'optional' or 'throw-away,' a hodgepodge of socioeconomic suggestions paperclipped to the Really Important Stuff (tm) like the Pope and the Sacraments and all that.

The idea that the Compendium would be a 'parallel' to the Catechism of the Catholic Church does strike one as a bit odd. First off, the Catechism itself contains a hefty package of social teachings itself, including everything from private property to ecology, lumped under the heading of the seventh commandment. One might wonder why this same material needs to be reproduced in a second document, if it is already covered in the first. But this is more intelligible, I think, if the Compendium is thought of not as a 'parallel' but as a 'supplement,' to expand and clarify material contained more summarily in the Catechism. We have plenty of 'supplemental' documents like this already in existence; the U.S. Bishops just finished their National Adult Catechism, expected to receive a recognitio from Rome shortly. The famous Baltimore Catechism, in fact, was nothing but a supplement to the Catechism of the Council of Trent. Cardinal Thun uses the words 'similar to [the Catechism], which he seems (or at least claims) to be paraphrasing from the Holy Father himself. And if the Compendium is a mere supplement to the Catechism, rather than a 'parallel,' then it would make sense of why its promulgation was accompanied by significantly less pomp and circumstance as that of the Catechism.

But the fact that the Catechism already contains the Church's social teaching, at least in summary form, brings up another point. It simply doesn't make sense to think of the Catechism of the Catholic Church as a collection of the Really Important Stuff - like hard, dogmatic teaching - with the Church's social thought playing the the ugly red-headed stepchild. If the Church's social teaching is included in the Catechism, then it is the Really Important Stuff as well, or at least integral to it. The Holy Father, in fact, when he first called for the creation of this Compendium in 1999, made the point that this document would (a) be an expansion of material already contained in the Catechism, and (b) be essential to the task of the new evangelization:

To this end, it would be very useful to have a compendium or approved synthesis of Catholic social doctrine, including a 'Catechism', which would show the connection between it and the new evangelization. The part which the Catechism of the Catholic Church devotes to this material, in its treatment of the seventh commandment of the Decalogue, could serve as the starting-point for such a 'Catechism of Catholic Social Doctrine'. Naturally, as in the case of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, such a synthesis would only formulate general principles, leaving their application to further treatment of the specific issues bound up with the different local situations. (Ecclesia in America, 54)

Even further, I would press the question of whether the Church's social teachings can be so easily separated from the Church's dogmatic and moral teachings. Is not the Church's social teaching not moral in its very essence (even if it rarely advances to the level of solemn, dogmatic statements about morality)? Is it not also a 'doctrine' in the fullest sense of the word? In fact, the Holy Father has claimed the Church's principles of social doctrine, as enunciated especially in Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum, "belong to the Church's doctrinal patrimony" (Centesimus Annus 3), constituting a "genuine doctrine" (5), and "an essential part of the Christian message" (5). John XXIII called it "an integral part of the Christian conception of life" (Statement on New Social Justice Compendium, Cardinal Martino (I know, I know, but at least give him the time of day) said, "When, in any way whatsoever, one loses the keen awareness that this Social Doctrine belongs to the Church's mission, Social Doctrine itself is manipulated, falling prey to various forms of ambiguity and partisan application."

In sum, I would agree that the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church cannot be thought of as a 'twin brother' of the Catechism, to be placed on an equal footing. It is clearly (?) intended to be a supplementary outworking of principles already contained in germ in the Catechism itself. Thus, it has significantly lessened authority, as was made clear in the somewhat ho-hum nature of its promulgation. But neither can we expurgate and isolate the Church's social doctrine, as contained both in the Compendium (which I have yet to read) and in the Catechism, as something utterly dispensible and second-rate vis-a-vis the Really Important Stuff.

In any case, I do look forward to reading the Compendium (someday), and in the meantime, look forward to Jimmy's initial reactions upon reading it.

UPDATE: Jimmy posts a [very] thorough response.

# posted by Jamie : 11:21 AM


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