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There is no ‘liberal’ Catholic social teaching

Catholic care for the poor is a bit older than the Enlightenment. By a couple of millennia

By on Monday, 18 March 2013

Poverty: we care a lot (AP)

Poverty: we care a lot (AP)

Will Hutton, the famous thinker and writer, has written a piece for the Observer, in which he ponders on the spread of enlightenment values, and in a wide ranging survey, has this to say about the recent election of Pope Francis:

Jorge Mario Bergoglio is pope because he embodies – at least in Catholic eyes – the best of the western Catholic tradition. He may defend core values on marriage and sexuality, however irrelevant and unjustified they now seem in secular Europe and America, but is avowedly liberal on social issues and poverty. Catholic social policy, with its commitment to justice, fulfilling work and the necessity to enfranchise every human, is one of the better components of the religion’s tradition.

This social policy was an outgrowth of the Church coming to terms, over the 19th century, with the Enlightenment. If it is so survive in the 21st century, it will have to come to terms with the Enlightenment’s view that sex is not immoral and sexual preferences should not be stigmatised. Pope Francis might also come to regret his alleged compromises with the Argentinian junta that may dog his papacy. But nonetheless he is the best the Roman Catholic church can offer in holding an impossible line – and might prove to be one of the last who tries to do so. Soon, there will be no part of the world, not even the Catholic church, not touched by Enlightenment virtues.

Reading this, one experiences several “yes, but” moments. There is no such thing as “Catholic social policy”; there is something called Catholic social teaching or magisterium, which is rather different. It is interesting to note how Hutton substitutes a political word for a religious one. But, and it is an important but, the Church is not a political party, and religion and faith transcend political belief.

Next, Hutton assumes that the Church’s social teaching is somehow “liberal”; this too represents a serious category error. It is indeed liberal in the old fashioned sense of generous, but it would be reductionist to see it as liberal in the political sense; and what does liberal mean anyway? But far more seriously astray is the idea that the Church’s concern for the poor is somehow the fruit of the Enlightenment. Rerum Novarum is more or less as far as you can get from the programme of, for example, the great reforming ministries of Lords Grey and Melbourne; far closer to the social programme of the Emperor Napoleon III, who was a liberal, of course, but of a very different mould. Social reform in Britain, such as the various Factory Acts, were often sponsored by Tories and opposed by Liberals. Suffice it to say that the label “liberal” is misleading when applied to Catholic social teaching.

If one wants to label Catholic social teaching, how about calling it “evangelical”? And here we expose the nonsense of its Enlightenment roots. The Church’s concern for the poor goes back to the fifth chapter of Saint Matthew’s gospel and the words of Jesus about the blessedness of the poor in spirit. That predates the Enlightenment by at least 1,600 years.

Again, just as the term liberal is wide one, we need to be aware that there were several Enlightenments, starting with the Scottish one. It is perfectly true that some people in the eighteenth century, who considered themselves enlightened, would have agreed with Hutton that “sex is not immoral and sexual preferences should not be stigmatised.” These peoplke were known as libertines. Oddly, though, hardly any sensible person agrees with this position nowadays, as far as I can see. Whatever Hutton means by the phrase, it is surely the case that responsible people believe that some sort of sexual restraint in at least some circumstances is desireable, and that certain forms of sexual expression are immoral. Incest is immoral, surely? So is rape. So is sex in public places. And so on. Indeed, some sexual preferences should be stigmatised and still are. The acting out of quite a few sexual preferences in Britain today remains illegal.

So, I am not quite sure what Huitton means when he refers to the Enlightenement “view” of sex. The Church’s teaching makes good sense to me. Now, I cannot possibly provide a complete vindication of Church sexual teaching in an article of this length. But what I will say is this. Hutton implies that sexual desire is somehow immune to moral scrutiny. In the same article he implies that it is quite correct that economics should be subject to ethical scrutiny. This seems like a contradiction. In our dealings with our neighbour in financial matters, and also in sexual matters, we are subject to the same law of charity established by God, though, clearly, as economics and sex are so different, in different ways. But why should our consciences, or the Church, or the Pope, be excluded from the bedroom, but not the marketplace?

  • patrickhowes

    Excellent article!If you also factor in that there is no liberal interpretation of the Church´s line on drugs,then we will be 100% orthodox!

  • LocutusOP

    Well put, father ALS. I get quite annoyed when people use the word “liberal” or “conservative” when describing Church teaching – as though somehow the Church has been inspired by them. The only place these words have any sort of relevance is with regards to the liturgy, where they might quite rightly be applied at times.

    There is Catholic teaching – full stop. As Pope Benedict remarked in “A pilgrim journey of faith” (as I believe it was called), the opposite of “conservative” in Church terms is “evangelical”.

    As far as Catholic teaching is concerned there is “faithful” and “unfaithful” (which very easily slides down to “heresy”).

    Words like “liberal” are essentially meaningless since what is liberal today could be considered ultra-conservative tomorrow, and these words mean different things in different places and different times. God’s word, however, remains the same, and we can choose to follow it faithfully, or discard it.

  • James Callender

    Brilliant article, Father

  • Peter Bolton

    Totally agree. Thank you, Father.

  • Pastor in Valle

    Bravo, Father.

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    When the Pastor says it is good…. I take notice.

  • James H

    That second quoted paragraph is a type for trendy ‘thinking’

    The church was supporting the poor and making exploitation a crime centuries before the Enlightenment caught on; the church has never taught that ‘sex is wrong’, only fornication; the Pope’s alleged compromises with Galtieri remain alleged, and are therefore only important to the media; and if you’re expecting future popes to slobber after the left-wing media in a vain search for approval – dream on, Willy.

  • Frank

    Thanks for the article father.
    In my opinion the church’s teaching on this is radical and if it were followed more often then many issues would just disappear or be significantly reduced.

  • Charles

    Excellent points Father; I also see it as a mistake to assume the Enlightenment was infallible as Hutton does. The founding fathers of my country where mostly adherents of Enlightenment thinking and much of our constitutional problems today are consequences of excesses of that Enlightenment thinking. One major excess is the unrealistic and idolatrous worship of laws; I observe in real life that some laws can be evil because the politicians that made them are corrupt and they often make bad laws. Law worship is just as superstitious as worshiping Zeus.

  • Hannah

    This is a great article. I don’t usually comment articles to agree or disagree, because so often it’s a bit of both – but I am really impressed with your clear, logical, biblical writing. Nice work.

  • Brother Burrito

    With respect, “Blessed are the poor in spirit” does not refer to the impecunious, but rather to those who have been driven to beg God for His saving spiritual help.

    Such people are the future citizens of Heaven. It is their great desire that will get them there.

    The Catholic attitude to money should be to earn as much as is decent, and to do it honestly, so that it can be given in alms or otherwise spent AMDG.

  • bert

    I was very shocked to see Father Lucie-Smith on Newsnight last week not dressed like a priest but looking just like a politician. Is he ashamed of being a true CATHOLIC?????

  • Pope Zicola

    Well said, Father! A fine, fine article.

    My take on this whole thing with the so-called ‘liberal’ media is that they can’t take it that there is ‘another way’ of living life – a more sensible, solid set of age-old, tried and trusted priorities and values compared to theirs which have been given centre stage for once… thanks largely to the retirement of Pope (Emeritus) Benedict XVI.
    Let me explain…
    It was plain to see that Pope (Emeritus) Benedict XVI was very unwell and – I’m only guessing, here – that if he was told by doctors to not take any more long-haul flights for the rest of his pontificate, it was like having a now essential tool taken away from the workbench which you badly need for your job.
    If popes didn’t travel as far or as wide (as in the years before Pope Paul VI), then things would have been a tad more bearable in office for Benedict – like I said, just a tad.
    In retrospect, it was delicious that Benedict XVI wrong-footed even those close to him about his wish to retire. As one commentator said that in the age of email, Twitter, Facebook, Twitface and 24 hour news, this was a total bolt out of the blue – not even of the magnitude that struck the lightning rod on the dome of St Peter’s Basilica not long afterwards.
    What happened thereafter was that the world woke up – the Roman Catholic Church IS important, it IS relevant, it IS influential, it DOES matter and it AIN’T GOING AWAY!
    As the threadbare cliché goes, God moves in mysterious ways. Trust in God is not misplaced and it is folly to second-guess Him.
    It doesn’t take away the view that the whole episode has not ceased to be painful, even with the election of Pope Francis.
    Now, after the conclave and the election of our new pope, Francis, the libertines – er, sorry, ‘liberals’- are worrying that their collective ‘chummerings’ will be deprived of the oxygen of publicity in time. That they will eventually get nowhere fast with their condescending piffle towards people, faiths and organisations who are ‘different’ and not slaves to whatever is de rigeur – whether it is bell bottoms, puffball skirts, transcendental free love or blow up ‘whatevers’ in the wardrobe.
    Pope Francis has given us the clarion to proclaim the Gospel – calibrated by the fine pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI.

  • Pope Zicola

    I’d accept an excuse that it in the wash, Father L-S..
    *tsk!* Talk about letting the side down!
    Are you not proud that you have a white-collar job/vocation with a difference?
    ‘gotta admit, I didn’t watch Newsnight, bert … but it is annoying that, when it comes to priests and their clerical collar, they don’t wear it on air (with the exception of EWTN).
    Why? And more importantly… why not?

  • Pope Zicola

    I couldn’t agree with you more, Charles – especially your last sentence…
    … and people call Roman Catholics ‘superstitious’!
    They should take a look in the mirror.

  • Terry B

    a belief or notion, not based on reason or knowledge, in or of the ominous significance of a particular thing, circumstance, occurrence, proceeding, or the like.
    a system or collection of such beliefs.
    a custom or act based on such a belief.
    irrational fear of what is unknown or mysterious, especially in connection with religion.
    any blindly accepted belief or notion.

  • Jonathan

    I agree that Hutton errs when he suggests that Catholic social values are entirely a byproduct of modern enlightenment thought. But I also think that Father Lucie-Smith is throwing out the baby with the bathwater here. For surely the interesting point here is that Hutton arguably has it the wrong way round: for modern liberalism was in important ways very deeply influenced by Christian values. These did not necessarily flow directly from Catholicism, but it remains the case that there is an important point of contact between the history of modern liberal political ideologies, and faith.

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    See my comment in a previous post.

  • Pope Zicola

    Yep, people DO call Roman Catholics ”superstitious”.

    Of course we aren’t flaming superstitious! Duh!

  • Jonathan West

    So, I am not quite sure what Hutton means when he refers to the Enlightenement “view” of sex. The Church’s teaching makes good sense to me. Now, I cannot possibly provide a complete vindication of Church sexual teaching in an article of this length. But what I will say is this. Hutton implies that sexual desire is somehow immune to moral scrutiny.

    I rather suspect that what Hutton means by this is that there are a wide range of consenting sexual activities in private about which there is no reason to take a moral position. He is probably taking the view of Lord Wolfenden, who wrote the following in a report concerning the possible legalisation of homosexuality.

    Unless a deliberate attempt is made by society, acting through the agency of the law, to equate the sphere of crime with that of sin, there must remain a realm of private morality and immorality which is, in brief and crude terms, not the law’s business.
    Wolfenden Report 1957

    As a society, we have decided that a great many forms of sexual expression should not be regarded as criminal, even through Catholic teaching on the subject continues to regard them as sinful. Not all of course, rape and incest remain crimes and probably will do so indefinitely. But that is not because they are sinful, but because they are tangibly harmful to the victim.

    So the ongoing challenge to catholic teaching on sex is to justify its claim that various forms of sexual expression are sinful even though they do not cause any apparent harm.

    There are two possible approaches to this, and I’ve seen both of them tried. They are to a certain extent mutually contradictory.

    1. The prohibited actions are harmful really, it is just that most people don’t want to notice the harm done.

    2. It doesn’t matter whether there is any harm done here on earth, if you engage in these activities you put your immortal soul at risk because you are disobeying God’s command.

    The problem with #1 is that people generally are reasonably bright and can make their own decisions as to whether a consensual activity is harmful or not. The problem with #2 is to ask why God would be so irrational as to define as sinful an activity that is not harmful.

  • Sister S

    Have you read, “Love and Responsibility”. It answers most of the questions you have. The church does not see these issues as separate from social justice. It’s part of the vision of the human person.

  • James M

    “…sex is not immoral and sexual preferences should not be stigmatised.” These people were known as libertines.

    ## Sex is immoral ? That’s the implication – so I hope that all those who commit the sin of begetting children within the bond of confess it. To say is sex is immoral, is Gnosticism – not Christianity. Are continence & chastity not, in some sense, “preferences” ?

    Confused thinking and unthinking anti-liberalism – as though all the Church’s problems would vanish if “liberalism” (whatever that means) did, is magical thinking. F minus, & no gold star.

  • James M

    Even if they are to some extent a product of it, that would not in make them, or the Enlightenment, invalid in those respects. Unfortunately some people can’t believe a thing is Christian unless 1) Christians began it or 2) it is approved by Christians or 3) both. It helps if one overlooks the Church’s behaviour when it has been the only acknowledged authority in a society – the Church’s conviction of human dignity was not exactly obvious when it allowed slavery and torture. Sometimes people have to oppose the institution, for it to behave in a Christian manner.

    I look forward to Father Lucie-Smith’s explanation of how Innocent IV’s Bull “Ad extirpanda” (1252), authorising the use of torture by the Inquisition, is to be regarded as an expression of Catholic social doctrine, and how it is really in agreement with CCC 2297:

    “Kidnapping and hostage taking bring on a reign of terror; by means of threats they subject their victims to intolerable pressures. They are morally wrong. Terrorism threatens, wounds, and kills indiscriminately; it is gravely against justice and charity. Torture which uses physical or moral violence to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred is contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity. Except when performed for strictly therapeutic medical reasons, directly intended amputations, mutilations, and sterilizations performed on innocent persons are against the moral law”.

    ## What those who damn the Enlightenment wholesale forget, is that if the Church had not behaved in unChristian ways, that particular movement might not have arisen. If something happens in society to which Christians object, that is often a sign of something wrong or defective among Christians. But it’s much easier to treat such disagreements as (unjustified) “enmity”.


    “404. The activity of offices charged with establishing criminal responsibility, which is always personal in character, must strive to be a meticulous search for truth and must be conducted in full respect for the dignity and rights of the human person;
    this means guaranteeing the rights of the guilty as well as those of the
    innocent. The juridical principle by which punishment cannot be inflicted if a
    crime has not first been proven must be borne in mind.

    In carrying out investigations, the regulation against the use of torture, even in the case of serious crimes, must be strictly observed: “Christ’s disciple refuses every recourse to such methods, which nothing could justify and in which the dignity of man is as much debased in his torturer as in the torturer’s victim”.[830] International juridical instruments concerning human rights correctly indicate a prohibition against torture as a principle which cannot be contravened under any circumstances.”

    ## A pity the Church didn’t get the memo – no doubt all the evidence for the use of torture by the Inquisition is all a nasty Protestant slander. This too is revealing of Catholic episcopal psychology:

    “Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput made media-catching public pronouncements
    during the Democratic National Convention here that Catholic pro-choice
    then-Senator Joseph Biden should not take communion while he was in
    town. It was a strong anti-abortion political statement. U.S. bishops have taken very public similar stances against pro-choice Catholic lawmakers Patrick Kennedy and John Kerry.

    But, as the Atlantic’s Andrew Sullivan and his readers have pointed out this week, the bishops have responded only with silence after a major Catholic Republican figure appeared on Catholic television to stand by his advocacy of torture in the War on Terror and argue that the torture was in-line with Catholic teaching.”

    It remains to be seen whether the new Pope is any better. One must hope so. The Enlightenment was needed, very badly.

  • The Great Stalin

    The word “preferences” would be better called “desires”.

    “Preferences” indicates that a choice has been rationally made, whereas these things are decided by the low passions, namely lust.

  • Jonathan

    I agree, entirely. It’s often the case that the indignation of Christians on political topics is first /political/, but is then justified in religious terms.

  • Fides_et_Ratio

    Catholics do not generally want to make homosexual acts a crime. We just don’t want the state to promote this behavior.

  • Fides_et_Ratio

    Straw man.

  • Jeffocks

    Yes, absolutely right. It is quite anachronistic to refer to the church’s social teaching as ‘liberal’. Conceivably some catholic values have entered the policy arena over hundreds of years and have found a home in some progressive or liberal ideologies. But it cannot be argued that catholic teachings are by ‘reverse engineering’ somehow ‘liberal politics’.

  • Jonathan West

    You go further than that. As the Pope said when he was Cardinal Bergoglio “In the coming weeks, the Argentine people will face a situation whose outcome can seriously harm the family…At stake is the identity and survival of the family: father, mother and children. At stake are the lives of many children who will be discriminated against in advance, and deprived of their human development given by a father and a mother and willed by God. At stake is the total rejection of God’s law engraved in our hearts. Let us not be naive: this is not simply a political struggle, but it is an attempt to destroy God’s plan. It is not just a bill (a mere instrument) but a ‘move’ of the father of lies who seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God.”

    Do you really believe that somebody who says this would not make homosexual acts a crime if he had the opportunity?

  • Ronk

    Why don’t you try responding to what he actually said? rather than responding to what you claim to know that he would do if he had the opportunity (in the infinitesimally unlikely event that he ever gained any political power in any country other than the Vatican City state)?

    The Pope is actually agreeing with Lord Wolfenden. It is NOT the law’s business to enquire whether people sodomise each other in private and if they do to give official recognition and status to them because they sodomise each other as if this was the basis of society.

  • Jonathan West

    Are stable loving partnerships not the basis of society? I suggest that they are, and therefore the church is misguided to refuse recognition to a specific category of such partnerships.

  • Julian Lord

    Sodomy is not the basis of “stable loving partnerships“.

    Oh and no, to answer your question, “stable loving partnerships” are NOT the basis of society — society is, always has been, and always will be based on the family.

  • Jonathan West

    There are families with and without marriage. So why does the church care about who is and isn’t allowed to get married?

  • Julian Lord

    Because so-called “gay marriage” is a direct assault against the teachings of the Church.

    Because Holy Matrimony is a Sacrament — and so called gay marriage defiles it.

  • Chatto

    As for the dreadful use of the word ‘policy’ in this kind of article, as usual Chesterton was right on the money: ” The new hypocrite is one whose aims are really religious, while he pretends that they are worldly and practical…It is a fight of creeds masquerading as policies. I think these reverend gentlemen do themselves wrong; I think they are more pious than they will admit.” [What’s Wrong with the World].

  • Jonathan West

    What relevance would that have to non-Catholics?

  • Julian Lord

    I answered your question starting with the words “So why does the church“, and you respond to my answer by referring to “non-Catholics” …

    I don’t think you’re interested in any answers to your questions, you’re just fielding them in order to express your anti-Catholicism.

    There are no non-Catholics in the Holy Church. They are therefore irrelevant to the answer that I provided you with.

  • Jonathan West

    It is relevant if the church seeks to impose its ideas on non-Catholics, which it is of course doing by intervening in the debate about same sex marriage. So the question is entirely relevant.

  • Euthebass

    Our country was embraced by the greatness of Catholic social action until 1536, inspired by the gospel, and lived out in the lives of the holy men and women of the monastries, who were focused on the love of God before anything else. Their destruction caused widespread deprivation, yet their continue to be holy lives who say to the most deprived: “Jesus is real. God’s love is real, and you are loved.” They reach out healing hands with courage in what Jean Vanier calls “the scandal of service.” Blessings to you, Father, for your words.

  • Julian Lord

    As I said — you’re just stating your (trite) anti-Catholicism, as if it constituted an argument.

    Do you NEVER worry about secularist ideas being imposed on non-secularists ?? As secularistic and atheistic organisations are of course doing by intervening in the debate about same sex marriage ?

    Meanwhile my point still stands — that I answered your question, and that you are introducing objections against my answer that were not provided in your phrasing of that question in the first place.

  • Jonathan West

    If I were as anti-Catholic as you fondly imagine, I would not have gone to such trouble to protect predominantly catholic children from the child sex abuse that occurred at Ealing Abbey and St Benedict’s School. The “anti-catholic” mantra is trotted out all too often, whenever religious privileges are under threat or religious answers are not treated with the unquestioning deference they used to enjoy.

    Same sex marriage is no threat to Catholics – if you’re against same sex marriage all you need do is avoid marrying somebody of the same sex. But you aren’t prepared to settle for that, you want there to be no same sex marriages for anybody, even among non-Catholics. And apocalyptic predictions about The End Of Society As We Know It are entirely wide of the mark – we have had same sex marriage in all but name for several years and society seems to have managed to carry on regardless.

    And do please remember that the Catholic church opposed civil partnerships on the basis that it was same sex marriage in all but name and therefore would undermine marriage. Now we are all being expected to forget this and to believe that the church now thinks that it actually being called marriage is what will now cause the downfall of society.

    Your original point was not about the sacrament of matrimony but on the societal effect on the family. That is a secular issue, and so it is entirely reasonable for you to be expected to justify in secular terms the imposition of your religious ideas on those who do not share your religion. I’ll e interested in argument along those lines you might want to make, but I haven’t seen you even get started yet.

  • Julian Lord

    And do please remember that the Catholic church opposed civil
    partnerships on the basis that it was same sex marriage in all but name
    and therefore would undermine marriage

    … which is quite obviously, exactly what has happened.

    Nice trick of yours “if I were as anti-Catholic as you fondly imagine” immediately followed by a string of directly anti-Catholic teachings and statements, BTW.

    the societal effect on the family

    Your words, not mine.


  • Jonathan West

    I think that you are getting mixed up between discrimination against Catholics and an intellectual challenge to Catholic ideas. It is only the former which can reasonably be described as anti-Catholicism. I will challenge anybody in the church to match my record on working to protect Catholic children. If I’m to be regarded as anti-Catholic for doing that then the same applies to most of the members of the church itself.

    But ideas should always be open to challenge, that is how we learn. After all, it is only by challenging my ideas that you could ever possibly get me to become a Catholic.

    So, I think that you throw around the anti-Catholic jibe whenever you find yourself without a good response to secular criticism of Catholic ideas. Even your fellow Catholics will realise what you are doing. i could have flagged your post as inappropriate, but i would rather it stood there so people can see what you think in your own words.

  • John Roesch

    In the context of western civilization, in terms of Anglo-American politics, Iberian-American politics, and Continental-European politics, that which is truly conservative is a secular version of traditional Catholic political thought and is inline with Catholic Social Teaching. This has been repeatedly pointed out by political scientists. We have inherent God-given rights that are intrinsic to our soul and existence in accordance with natural law. With these inherent rights are responsibilities in their exercise to others in the local community and to the national body. Along with these inherent natural rights and responsibilities are prior obligations or duties to society which too are in accordance with natural law. One of these duties is to take care of people in need. The Catholic Church is vigorously and justifiably opposed to socialism and Marxism as well as extreme classical liberalism (libertarianism a.k.a. Ayn Rand Objectivism), extreme nationalism, and secular social liberalism and hedonism (progressivism). All these secular ideologies have proven their destructive power in human affairs!