[Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. His works include Mary, Mother of the Son (Amazon), Salt and Light: The Commandments, the Beatitudes, and a Joyful Life (Servant), The Heart of Catholic Prayer: Rediscovering the Our Father and the Hail Mary (Our Sunday Visitor) and The Work of Mercy: Being the Hands and Heart of Christ (Servant). He is also the author of Making Senses Out of Scripture: Reading the Bible as the First Christians Did (Basilica), By What Authority? An Evangelical Discovers Catholic Tradition (Ignatius), and This is My Body: An Evangelical Discovers the Real Presence (Christendom). An award-winning columnist, he has contributed numerous articles to many magazines. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the popular blog Stumbling Toward Heaven. He spoke to Charles Camosy about his new book, The Church’s Best-Kept Secret: A Primer on Catholic Social Teaching (New City),]

Camosy: What does it mean to say, as your new book’s title does, that Catholic Social Teaching is the Church’s best-kept secret?

Shea: Sometimes we cannot see things because we are not looking at them, or they are hidden, or our eyes do not function. Other times, we cannot see things because of the way that we have been taught to see. You are taught to the black and white cubes all facing one way, and then suddenly one day you see them all facing the other way. The cubes didn’t change. The way you saw them did.

Catholic Social Teaching is the Church’s best-kept secret not because the Church hides it, but because the way we have been taught to see keeps us from seeing what is, in fact, in plain view. It is all there, summed up in the Church’s four pillars of the dignity of the human person, the common good, subsidiarity, and solidarity.

The trouble is that we do not get our ideas on how to order our common life from the Church. We get them from our parents, our peers, Sean Hannity, Rachel Maddow, Rush Limbaugh, a host of mini-popes on social media, Netflix, that mouthy guy at the water cooler at work, that thing we read once in a book whose title we can’t recall, our gut, a favorite priest, our brother-in-law, a YouTube conspiracy theory, or a vivid dream we once had.

Mark Shea. (Courtesy to Crux.)

That’s not really surprising. Most people don’t curl up with the Catechism or the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church on a rainy Saturday afternoon. Nor do average Catholics pore over the social encyclicals of the Church. We tend to listen to trusted tribal elders, not to research tomes. Consequently, our approach to the Church’s teaching tends be backward from the way the Church intends. Whereas the Church wants us to start with the gospel and build out from that to forming a way of life, we tend to start with what we want to believe and then we loot and pillage the Catholic tradition for philosophical baubles with which to accessorize our worldview. So we never really see the Tradition in its fullness. We just see just the bits we like. The rest we throw away as “too liberal” or “too reactionary”, “too modern” or “too medieval.” My book aims to start the process of learning the Church’s social teaching as the Church actually teaches it.

How would you describe the Church’s “social teaching” in relation to what some describe in U.S. culture as “social justice”?

Broadly speaking, Catholics approach the Church’s moral teaching (which is the same thing as her social teaching at the end of the day) in two ways. Some think of it primarily as directed toward how to order our “personal” (and this typically means “sexual”) lives. The other school tends to see it as primarily addressing how to order our common life together. The result of this utterly un-Catholic schism in approaching the Church’s teaching is played out in very visible ways.

I once taught on Catholic social teaching at a parish. As I stood there at the podium, the division was crystal clear. On my right was the parish peace and justice group, deeply concerned with a host of matters that concern the Church as well: Health care, food for the poor, access to clean water, unjust war, torture, homelessness, the death penalty, domestic violence, gun violence, labor rights, a living wage and so forth. On my left sat the pro-life group, deeply concerned about abortion, euthanasia, sexuality, the integrity of the family and so forth.

These two groups hated each other, which I found baffling since, from the Church’s perspective, both their missions were integral to the Church’s mission. The idea of pitting being pro-life against social justice was and remains foreign to me as it is foreign to the Church.

If we advance the idea that each person has intrinsic dignity and value as a creature made in the image and likeness of God and is one for whom Jesus Christ died and rose to redeem (as the pro-life movement absolutely insists), then it follows absolutely that every person is entitled to the goods of the earth necessary to live, flourish, and reach their full potential as glorified, divinized saints in the kingdom of God.

That is to say, the idea of the common good follows from the dignity of the human person, and therefore peace and justice groups should be thick as thieves with pro-life groups. That they see themselves as enemies is one of the signal achievements of Hell in our time.

This may sound like too simple of a question, but what is, in fact, Catholic Social Teaching? Obviously, some encyclicals–like Rerum Novarum— “count.” But others are ambiguous. Is Evangelium Vitaepart of Catholic Social Teaching? What about Humane Vitae?

Yes, all of these, and the following as well:

Quadragesimo Anno (After Forty Years) – On Reconstruction of the Social Order

Mater et Magistra (On Christianity and Social Progress)

Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth)

Populorum Progressio (On the Development of Peoples)

Laborem Exercens (On Human Work)

Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (20th Anniversary of Populorum Progressio)

Centesimus Annus (The Hundredth Year)

Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason)

Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love)

Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth)

Laudato Si’ (On our Common Home)

Catholic social teaching as an organized body of doctrine is barely 130 years old. But its roots, like all developments of doctrine, go right back to apostolic tradition and, indeed, to the Old Testament as well. Its core, like that of all Catholic moral teaching, is the two greatest commandments: Love God and Love Your Neighbor as Yourself. But it is unique in that it is specifically a response of the Church to modernity and post-modernity. It was, if you will, invented by Leo XIII in the extremely late 19th century in response to the crisis of industrial civilization and the strain it was placing on the human community.

Then as the 20th century revved up into war, famine, and crisis after crisis, the Church was spurred to delve into its tradition again and again to confront the rapidly developing situation. Consequently, Catholic social teaching always has one foot in eternity and the other foot in very swiftly changing history. No more perfect illustration of this can be found than in the fact that The Church’s Best-Kept Secret, published on Sept. 21, will already be slightly outdated on October 3, when Pope Francis signs a new social encyclical called Fratelli Tutti. On to the revised third printing!

What level of authority does Catholic Social Teaching have, particularly when it comes to public policy? You’ve heard that the Church is an “expert in humanity” but not in public policy, which often requires a prudential judgement based on particular contexts which vary over time.

I have an intense resistance to questions like this because I think they have caused a lot of mischief in the life of the Church. On the one hand, it is perfectly true that there are different levels of authority to Church teaching and such distinctions matter. The Church is not a totalitarian state where that which is not forbidden is compulsory. The Church, in fact, cherishes liberty. That is why, in addition to the dignity of the human person and the common good, the Church emphasizes subsidiarity. The Church likes it when ordinary people do the ordinary things they do and use their freedom to do good and creative things.

But there is something deeply pernicious about an over-focus on “levels of authority” when it comes to the Church’s moral guidance in social teaching. Unlike with sexual matters and ritual observances (which can be magnets for the scrupulous), the problem plaguing the American Church with respect to social teaching is not an excess of scrupulosity in matters such as money, power, race, class, and the use of violence.

On the contrary, the great problem we face is that virtually none of the Church’s guidance regarding social teaching is anything like “dogmatic” and that is often used as an excuse for blowing it off. Many Catholics believe the term “prudential judgment” means “You are free to do whatever you like and can ignore the Church’s guidance in matters of social justice if it’s a nuisance.”

That is false. “Prudential judgment” is about how best, not whether, to obey the Church’s guidance. So, for instance, when two popes and all the bishops of the world are saying, “Your proposed war in Iraq does not meet just war criteria,” the fact that this is a prudential judgment does not mean, “Feel free to go to war anyway.” Particularly when the people claiming a superior prudential judgment to the Church’s give no indication of manifesting the virtue of prudence.

So my basic view about the Church’s guidance in social teaching is not to ask, “Is this dogmatic? Do I have to obey or can I just blow this off? How little can I obey the Church and still be able to get away with it?” (which is often what lies behind questions about “levels of authority”).

Rather it is to approach the Church’s wisdom as a great vat of wine from which I get to drink. It is to ask, “How much of this can I implement? How much of this can I knead into our culture? How rich can I make the world with this great gift of the Spirit?” It’s the difference between the bride who cannot wait to be with her groom on her wedding night and the bride who asks, “How often do I have to kiss him for it to technically be a marriage?” Minimum Daily Adult Requirement thinking in what is supposed to be a relationship of love — whether with God or man — is the sign of an unhealthy relationship. “I’m not doing it unless it’s dogmatically required” is likewise not healthy.

What implications does this authority have, in your view, for faithful Catholics thinking about the 2020 US elections? 

I want to stress that this book is not intended as a political manifesto of any kind, nor as being addressed to current events in American politics. My goal, in fact, was to write a book that will be just as useful for understanding the Church’s social teaching in a century as it is now. So while The Church’s Best-Kept Secret, if it does its work properly, will definitely impact the way you think about this election (and every other election from here on in) it will also impact the way you think about how you shop, and how you view your neighbor, and what you do with your money, and the way you worship, and what you think about your responsibility for the earth, and how you view human reproduction, and what you do about buying chocolate, and a host of other things.

That said, I definitely think that viewing our politics through the lens of Catholic social teaching will have a revolutionary effect on it. Much of Catholic politics has been whittled down to a few slogans and shibboleths that involve scarcely a movement of the gray matter. The use of the unborn as human shields for a host of grave evils is a serious problem. So is the fear of the first, rather than the second, death.

Catholics who are convinced they are forever on the precipice of persecution in the United States are often blind to the fact that they are siding with those who inflict mass hysterectomies on women at the border, or destroy water supplies for refugees in the desert, or kidnap children into ICE rape camps, or send them home unaccompanied by adults to wander alone in gang-infested streets. None of this is “pro-life.” And yet by a weird sleight of hand, many who fancy themselves “pro-life” wind up defending all this, not the unborn, because it becomes their real priority to defend the current administration, not the unborn.

A fully Catholic worldview cannot endure weaponizing the unborn into the opposite of all other forms of human life. In the Catholic picture, the unborn are related to, not the opposite of, all human beings, made in the image and likeness of God. That is Solidarity, the fourth of the pillars of Catholic social teaching. God grant that we overcome our divisions and embrace it.