Church role in a free society
If you follow my thoughts regularly, you will have noticed that I rarely mention the names of partisan political figures. I do not and will not tell anyone for whom to vote. What makes me an expert? I have enough of a job to decide my own vote. I believe that people are smart enough to make their own political decisions. But if I do not consider my office gives me any special insight into politics or economics, it does not mean I think the Church has nothing to say about the direction a country or society are headed, or what might enrich a culture. On the contrary. The Church has much to offer and has not been silent over the course of history, especially in the last 130 years or so. In fact, I would maintain, its role is essential.
Catholic social teaching, from Pope Leo XIII (Rerum Novarum, 1891) to Pope Francis is grounded firmly on a solid and true understanding of human nature that values the radical dignity of every human person, transcending tribe, race, nationality, class or any other labels a checklist by demographers might devise. Every person is made in the image and likeness of God, an incarnate spirit, endowed from the moment of conception with a divine spark.
Looking back on 100 years of Catholic social teaching, St. John Paul II articulated perhaps the most comprehensive vision of the essential role of the Church in society to date in his encyclical “Centesimus Annus” (1991). I am especially indebted to George Weigel’s summary of the social teaching of St. John Paul II in this encyclical.
Commemorating “Rerum Novarum,” from a very different time in history, right after the industrial revolution, the Holy Father looked forward to the new millennium and beyond. It was at a moment when the political and economic struggles of the 20th century seemed to have been resolved, politically, in favor of democracy as opposed to fascist and communist totalitarianism and, economically, for the free market, in contrast to state owned and controlled economies. Freedom seemed to have won.
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