Faith, Reason, and the Two Camps

By Daniel Saudek
November 16, 2014

Ethika Politika has featured much debate about Catholic Social Teaching (CST), the extent of its authority, and dissent from it. Apart from very few places on the web and in public discourse, there seems to be little awareness that these subjects comprise a problem worth debating. This fact, presumably, in turn owes to the fact that CST itself is hardly known: Conservatives, even when otherwise religiously orthodox, tend to view it with suspicion and to deny its authority, and most others wouldn't bother to read texts from the Church's magisterium anyway. Thomas Storck has thrown much light on this situation, in my view.

I share Storck's astonishment: it is strange indeed to see how people professing the importance of Christian values will defend a laissez-faire economic liberalism, which apparently acknowledges hardly any ethical limits to economic activity, except that private property must be respected and contracts fulfilled. Often, the right of states to provide for the common good is denied (as Pope Francis has emphasized), and taxes, social security, or redistribution of wealth are viewed with skepticism, if not rejected outright. Trade unions, "indispensable" according to the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (n. 305), seem only to be viewed as disturbances for an ideal, frictionless working of the economy. Environmental protection is likewise often dismissed as a kind of neo-pagan aberration, and the scientific consensus about the gravity of the ecological mess we are in is often flatly dismissed. The situation is astonishing, since the social teaching of the Church provides no basis for unbridled economic liberalism or for a rejection of the things mentioned above and which our conservative contemporaries seem to find so suspect.

Now, of course there are excesses in all these areas of which conservatives are understandably wary: There are indeed exaggerations of the social state, of bureaucracy and state interventions that override or abrogate the personal responsibility of the individual. Taxation sometimes is unjust. Free markets and entrepreneurship are indeed indispensable to the common good, so that it would be wrong to denounce free competition across the board as "capitalism." Trade unions, like all human realities, can become corrupt. And there is a form of environmentalism that fails to acknowledge man's place and role in the universe, and sometimes borders on the misanthropic.

But then many in the conservative camp do seem to throw the baby out with the bathwater, forgetting that abusus non tollit usum, and accepting CST only where it says something good about free markets. Moreover, a fundamental requirement of social justice is often bypassed, or even denied: the fact that the worker is entitled to a living wage for himself and for his family. Not only is this right a core element of CST, but it is also a rather basic result of natural law, and is acknowledged in the Universal Declaration of the Human Rights (art. 23). The basis of the worker’s right to a living wage is the right to life itself, which is arguably the most important principle of natural law theory and which lies at the foundation of CST. Conservative Catholic thinkers have been among the foremost advocates of the right to life of the unborn, and have often made most praiseworthy efforts against a relativistic culture of death. However, when conservative authors affirm the right to life in general, but ignore or reject the right to a living wage, something is clearly wrong with the premises that they employ.

Whence this situation? It arises in the wider context of the rough sociological divide with which we are all familiar, i.e. the one between the people in favor of traditional values, family, free markets, safety from crime, and all that, on the one hand, and those who like social justice, peace and development, equal opportunities, immigrants, environmental protection, and all that, on the other. If, as John Paul II once remarked, "a divided community fosters a fragmented vision of the world," the skepticism against CST can be read as a symptom of such a divide.

But I believe that there is another crucial cause: the fact that the relationship between reason and faith is still ill (although there are signs of recovery). For if this relationship is strained, on the one hand faith will shy the light of reason, and we fall into a fideism that does not admit that reason and science can prove anything; on the other, reason will close itself to faith, thereby limiting the horizon of man, and stifling his quest for the infinite.

What should all this have to do with the observation that CST is so often ignored by the (otherwise) orthodox, and doesn't get through to a wider public? There are two principal reasons for assuming that such a connection exists.

First, CST as formulated in the social encyclicals is marked by a two-wings approach, as opposed to a sola fide one. Its ingredients are not only "faith-resources" like Scripture and Tradition. Philosophical ethics enter into it, as does a careful attention to the results of social and economic sciences, which are indispensable for giving adequate responses to the challenges of any age. All this, under the guidance of the Spirit of Truth, enables the magisterium to give reliable guidance about social, economic, and environmental questions. But in a fideistic intellectual climate, out of tune with a two-wings one, such an approach will fail to be understood and simply won't resonate, but will rather be ignored shruggingly.

Second, quite a lot of CST is simply natural law and can in principle be known by the use of reason alone. The Church then acts as an advocate for ethical truths that we could also come to know without her, and adds her weight in their favor. Prohibition of the killing of the innocent, or the worker's right to a just wage, are examples of such truths. But that is not to say that all of CST can be derived through reason alone; much of it relies on faith as its foundation, e.g. the precept of observing Sunday. In either case, a consistent pro-life ethic is at work, which defends the right to existence of every human being, called to unfold her activity according to her nature.

But of course, saying that reason can arrive at a certain knowledge of some ethical truths will strike most of our contemporaries as a quaint medieval idea at best, one that nobody seriously believes. One is then left with either religious sources of evidence or intuition and feeling as the principal foundation of ethics. Both approaches are indeed most valuable and often lead to an admirable commitment to just causes. But when conjoined with a weak view of the role of reason in ethics, there is also the danger of a certain one-sidedness or even inconsistency. Such a dynamic could explain why many conservatives reject large parts of CST, or why some people committed to causes of social justice or environmental protection on the other hand support the availability of abortion, as though that were a sign of social progress.

If the two-camps divide and the poor resonance of CST are importantly due to the crisis of the relationship between faith and reason, then not only will it be necessary to "evangelize the counterculture and enlighten our fellow Catholics," as Storck says, although that is clearly required. The solution will also lie in fostering a fruitful interaction between reason and faith, in supporting a realistic view of reason and science that recognizes its ability to attain certainty about some questions, without thereby falling into a rationalistic scientism that pretends that all of reality could be crammed into our brains, and that confuses nature with our models of it. Enabling such an interaction is of course a colossal task, which requires a lot of collaboration and, to borrow a phrase from Seneca, "the diligence of a longer age" (naturales quaestiones, 7, 25, 4). This task can be likened to that undertaken in the High Middle Ages by the scholastics who engaged with the then cutting-edge Aristotelian science brought to Europe through the Muslim conquests.

An optimistic view of reason is also a safeguard against attempts to theocratically impose a social order based on faith principles. Benedict XVI's speech before the German Bundestag made it quite clear that "nature and reason," not revelation, are the basis of legislation. The social magisterium acknowledges that its job is not to engage in politics, and that it is not competent to give answers to technical questions. It cannot tell us what level of income tax is adequate, let alone for which party to vote. But recognizing this limit is not the same as falling into the relativism that effectively tells ethics to keep out of the economy. Just wages or the protection of the natural environment are not "technical issues," so that the Church does not overstep the limits of her competence when she demands that these requirements be respected.