If you had asked me as a young Baptist boy to explain the difference between Protestants and Catholics, I would have said that Catholics were the Christians who “have to do what the Pope tells them to do.” Now I’m an old Baptist and realize how naive I was. (I’m more likely to agree with the Pope on social doctrine than do many American Catholics I know.)
I’m still unclear, though, on where Catholics draw the line of demarcation between complete freedom of conscience and deference to magisterial authority. After all, if a Catholic can support abortion and still receive communion, what is off-limits?
One area that I had assumed was clearly in the optional category was papal social teaching. But several years ago, M.J. Andrew made a persuasive argument that the social encyclical Caritas in Veritate was binding on all Catholics:
The error that both Leo XIII and Pius X are correcting is one that is still made today in Catholic circles, namely, that the social teaching of the Church is in someway optional, non-binding, and/or merely prudential. Indeed, in many respects our inclinations and political proclivities, which often are merely products of our locale and social environment, are met by a powerful counterweight in Catholic social teaching. And rightly so. If, as the two aforementioned popes assert, our social life (i.e., family, political, and economic activity) are primarily religious and moral in nature, then the Church, by virtue of her authority in matters of faith and morals, is our touchstone for learning how to conduct that social life. . . .
Yet, we still encounter the stubbornly persistent opinion among Catholics that the Church’s social doctrine is not binding–and if it is authoritative, then it is not as important or consequential as doctrines of faith. But this position is certainly not to be found in Catholic teaching. Indeed, it is simply a pernicious prejudice.
Another Catholic thinker, Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, doesn’t quite go that far in his defense of Pope Francis’ Evangelli Gaudium. But in an article at First Things Gobry says Catholics should listen to the pope when it comes to economics:
Now this is usually the point when all of us suddenly become canon lawyers and note that the Church’s social doctrine is not endowed with ex cathedra infallibility and Catholics are allowed to dissent—and may even have a duty to do so. Sure. But is this most Gospel-driven way to relate to our “Mother and Teacher”?
To be a Christian is to be willing to be challenged, all the time, and to have the humility to let yourself be challenged—including, for Catholics, by the Church.
As people with strongly held economic views who take part in the public debate, we have acquired a certain toughening of the hide. We have become accustomed to thinking of ourselves as being part of a team, and to responding reflexively when we hear the rhetoric of the other team.
What the Church asks of us is to let go of our defenses and make ourselves open to her magisterium. Without abdicating discernment, we also have to force ourselves to open our hearts and let ourselves be challenged by Pope Francis’ words.
Both Andrew and Gobry provide interesting perspectives on how social doctrine should be considered. So who is right (or closer to being correct)? How much deference should Catholics give to the papal social teachings?