A different interpretation of the social encyclicals
by David Schmiesing
Thomas Storck’s article “Distributism, state power and papal teachings” was thought-provoking and interesting. His call for a wider reading of and meditation upon the Catholic social encyclicals is certainly worthy of support. However, there are several thoughts that occurred to me as I read his piece.
Mr. Storck says that “the papal, and perforce the Catholic, approach to state power in the economy cannot be reduced to Dr. Schmiesing’s principle of ‘less rather than more state intervention.’” It is true that Catholic teaching not only allows, but actually demands, that the state play a role in the social order, including the economy, in order to promote the common good. However, the Catholic notion of subsidiarity by its very definition leads to “less rather than more state intervention.” Subsidiarity demands that the primary responsibility for the economy remain in smaller, more localized institutions (including the family), and the state should intervene only at the point where the smaller institutions cannot deal effectively with a particular issue or task. It is not the case that responsibility for the social order lies with the state, which in turn delegates manageable tidbits to local entities; the opposite is actually more accurate.
Mr. Storck claims that the guilds were the epitome of the intermediate institutions called for by the social encyclicals and should be resurrected. However, it is very reasonable to interpret papal praise for the guilds much differently: not as a call for the re-creation of guilds themselves, but rather as a call for the creation and development of non-governmental institutions, or “intermediate bodies,” that serve the same purposes the guilds once did. John XIII wrote in his social encyclical Mater et Magistra, “Above all, it must be emphasized that enterprises and bodies of this sort, in order that they may survive and flourish, should be continuously adapted—both in their productive structure and in their operating methods—to new conditions of the times.” (No. 87) The guilds of old cared for orphans and widows, they encouraged the cultural and spiritual development of their members, and they helped to provide education and training to young people, among other valuable functions. Perhaps our current economic, political and cultural situation makes it very difficult for one institution to accomplish all of these tasks, but there do exist organizations performing one or more of these guild-like activities. The Knights of Columbus is one example of such an organization.
Finally, Mr. Storck writes that “If we accept that a normal family life allows a mother to devote herself full-time to the care and education of her children, what can we say about an economy that makes a normal family life so difficult for so many?” There are two problems with this statement and its implied conclusions. First, it seems that a major reason that “normal” family life is so difficult today is not the injustice of our economic system but rather the excessive materialism of our culture. It could be argued that most American families could live on the income of one spouse, but instead of living within their means, many Americans succumb to the temptations of our materialistic culture that establish bigger homes, fancier cars, Disneyland vacations, fashionable clothing, and restaurant meals as “needs”. These “needs” often compel the wife to secure a job outside of the home.
The second problem is with Mr. Storck’s notion of “normal family life.” While the social encyclicals clearly teach that the economy should be structured so that the mother is not required to leave her children in order to earn money outside of the home, it does not follow that the mother needs to be able to devote all of her time to the care of her children. In the agrarian economy that dominated western society prior to Rerum Novarum, the mother not only cared for and educated her children, but she also contributed to the economic well-being of the family by feeding livestock, helping with the harvest, and performing other economic tasks. Even if the family lived in a town, the mother tended a garden, prepared food for winter storage, made clothing, and perhaps even sold some of her produce or handiwork in the marketplace. If the mother had focused exclusively on nurturing and educating her children, the family would not have survived.
The industrial revolution wreaked havoc upon the family not because it forced the mother to contribute to the economic well-being of the family (she had always done this), but rather because it moved the primary economic activity out of the home and into the factory and office, thereby creating a situation where the only paying work existed outside of the home, so that mother was forced away from her primary child-rearing responsibilities. Ironically, the descendants of the industrial revolution—the computers, modems and telephones of the information age—are the very tools that have made it more practicable than ever for a mother to work in her home on a part-time basis and still make the care of her children her primary task. Perhaps Mr. Storck’s “normal family life” is an ideal which could be sought after, but it is not demanded by Catholic social teaching.
The knowledge and enthusiasm for the social encyclicals that Mr. Storck displays are admirable. However, a careful reading of the encyclicals does not necessarily lead one to the concrete applications that Mr. Storck has described. The encyclicals offer challenges first of all to the faithful: do not succumb to materialism, recognize the universal destination of all created goods, and understand the dignity of work. Secondly, the encyclicals offer general principles which the laity are to embody in social structures: the common good, subsidiarity, and the freedom and dignity of the human person. Mr. Storck is absolutely correct when he observes that it is not “the case, as some have asserted, that somehow Centesimus represents the overturning of all the previous documents—as if the Church had suddenly disavowed all that she formerly taught. Centesimus is firmly in the same tradition as its predecessors.” The timeless principles of Catholic social teaching will never change. But the prudential conclusions reached from that timeless tradition will surely vary from place to place and from generation to generation.
David Schmiesing, FUS Class of ‘92.
David Schmiesing, brother to Kevin Schmiesing, serves as Director of Business Services at FUS. He is a contributing editor of the Concourse and the father of four children.