Fr. Longenecker has posted an interesting blog in which he compliments a piece by Ross Douthat at the New York Times which I agree seems insightful. The trouble is that some of those who are accusing Pope Francis of being ‘naïve and simplistic’ about the economy are actually ‘naïve and simplistic’ about the Church’s social doctrine and doctrine of the Church’s magisterium. Just to clarify I am not talking about Fr. Longenecker, who for me has been a great stimulus for thought.
One small historical example would be the fact that when Leo XIII condemned ‘socialism’ he mostly meant what we today call ‘communism’ though he may have had in mind what later developed as National Socialism in Germany. My point is that modern western democratic governments which happen to be frankly mildly ‘socialist’ when compared to the US are probably not what Pope Leo had in mind with his condemnation of ‘socialism’.
Nor has the developing social doctrine of the Church taken sides and condemned all attempts at modern democratic socialism (as defined above). A recent work by Maciej Zięba, OP (Papal Economics, ISI Books 2013) has a section highlighting the change and ambivalence in the use of these terms through various modern Popes in the Church’s Papal teachings (p. 57-60).
I think Fr. Longenecker is on to something when he says;
What if the Pope isn’t trying to ‘take sides’ economically, but rather asking for new dialogue in which the Church’s venerable ethical traditions are allowed to question our current economic theories? Are we right as Catholics if we say that the Pope has no authority to say anything in this area? I want to be careful here. It is the broad principles of social doctrine which are timeless and binding, but what reaction is called for by the Catholic faithful to the ordinary magisterium of the Church when it suggests certain critiques or application of these principles to real situations?
Tim Worstall, a Fellow at the Adam Smith Institute in London, contributes an otherwise interesting opinion piece to Forbes about Evangelii Gaudium in which he fasley concludes,
While Worstall is partly right, (it is OK to disagree about the nature of a desired economy) yet his comment displays a common misunderstanding of authority and infallibility. This opinion falsely believes that if something is not formally pronounced in an infallible statement we are free to ignore it as mere opinion. Recently Avery Cardinal Dulles published a work on Magisterium (Magisterium: Teacher and Guardian of the Faith, (Naples, FL: Sapientia Press, 2007) which outlined some of the nuances of this doctrine including various levels of infallibility attached to Church documents. Dr Martin Rhonheimer points out that it is important in the case of the Church’s social doctrine to observe a “distinction between two levels: on the one hand, the level of the principles of the doctrine of the Catholic faith; on the other hand, that of their concrete historical application. (Nova et Vetera, English Edition, Vol. 9, No. 4 (2011): 1029–54). Dr Rhonheimer notes;
Fr. Anthony Figueiredo has pointed out that “the classical conception of the magisterium emphasizes four basic characteristics regarding the teaching function of bishops”. First the Pope is seen as the head of the college of bishops. Since all authentic teaching authority is concentrated in the episcopal order, and since the pope is the head of the College of Bishops, then the pope is the supreme and universal teacher of the Church. Secondly the pope and bishops alone are the authentic teachers of the Church because they have received their office or powers through Holy Orders. Those who have received these orders are given the special assistance of the Holy Spirit (Luke 24:25) which is rooted in the gift conferred on the Apostles enabling them “to know the mind of God, and to interpret Scripture as God willed” This assistance of the Holy Spirit allows the magisterium of the Church to be infallible in two ways: in an extraordinary way in the infallible definitions of a Council or in the infallible pronouncements of a Pope when he speaks ex cathedra, and secondly in the “ordinary and universal teaching of the pope and the bishops in union with him.” This does not imply that other acts of the magisterium which are in the form of solemn definitions, are necessarily subject to error and a matter for open debate.
While paying attention the distinction made by Fr. Rhonheimer above, what sort of response from the faithful is called for in relation to papal teachings which are not given at the highest level of infallible pronouncements? The fathers of the Second Vatican Council specifically outlined the degree of ascent various types of teachings.
The Catechism quotes this point explicitly noting;
Again returning to Fr. Rhonheimr’s distinction, in the Church’s social doctrine we must be in complete submission to the general principles of social doctrine but the concrete historical situations are subject to change and debate. While Lumen Gentium 25 might not have as great a force for the specific historical applications of social doctrine, should not the principle be that we are at least willing to listen to the Pope and to allow our hearts to be challenged by what he says in these areas? Rather than dismissing the Pope as ‘naïve and simplistic’ are we not rather called to offer him docility and respect? I was particularly moved by a post on First Things by Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry in this regard. Once again I do acknowledge that their can be respectful disagreement on the specific applications of social doctrines. I should point out that this respectful dissagreement requires that one knows the principles of the social doctrine and that one is applying them rightly, and not that in an unprincipled manner we can do what ever we want. Yet as a further challenge to those of us who are catechists, what example are we giving to to other Catholics if we publically disrespect the Holy Father’s official teachings?
 Figueiredo, Anthony J. The Magisterium-theology relationship: Contemporary theological conceptions in the light of universal church teaching since 1835 and the pronouncements of the bishops of the United States Tesi Gregoriana: Serie Teologia 75. (Rome: Pontificia Universita Gregoriana, 2001), p. 30.
 Ibid., p. 32.
 Ibid., p. 33.
 Germain Grisez, “Infallibility and Specific Moral Norms: A Review Discussion,” The Thomist 49 (1985): 248-87 and his “The Ordinary Magisterium’s Infallibility: A Reply to Some New Arguments,”Theological Studies 55 (1994) 720-32.
© Scott McKellar 2013