Like the rest of Catholic teaching, the fundamentals of Catholic social teaching are permanently relevant and unchanging. They reflect the unchanging truth about man. They are part of the fullness of divine revelation Jesus brought to us as God’s definitive Word. “You shall not murder” could not have been a true moral principle in the year 120 but today be wrong. “You shall not steal” couldn’t have been true a hundred years ago but be false today. The essentials of human nature remain the same. God’s plan for humanity remains the same. So Catholic social teaching remains the same.
Still, Catholic social teaching can change in the sense in which we say Catholic doctrine “develops.” Over time, doctrine gets clarified in various ways as new questions or challenges arise.
Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and in response to questions or even objections raised within the Church, the Church deepens its understanding of God’s revelation. It can put its beliefs into new language, drawing on new ideas, to better express its faith, or it can reject new ways of putting things that leave out or contradict things it believes.
This process of listening to questions, responding to objections, and expressing the Church’s faith in specific language is part of the development of doctrine. Over time, it is possible for the Church’s beliefs, while remaining fundamentally the same, to develop or change in how they are expressed, with some implications of those beliefs, perhaps previously unrecognized, being spelled out and some ways of presenting ideas once thought helpful being dropped.
What is true of Catholic teaching in general is true of Catholic social teaching in particular. Catholic social teaching, while remaining fundamentally the same, can develop. The Church can come to see better the social implications of its beliefs. For example, although early Christians often tolerated slavery as a “given” in a fallen world, and some later Christians approved slavery as compatible with Christianity, the Church eventually recognized slavery as contrary to fundamental human equality and inherently contrary to justice.
Related to the idea of the development of doctrine is the fact that the moral law, which guides how we should treat one another, sometimes needs to be applied differently in different cultural situations. One society’s evils aren’t necessarily another’s. One community may have more resources available to address a problem than another community. How Catholic teaching is applied can vary greatly as social evils—and social opportunities for good—vary.
Although the Catholic Church has always opposed abortion, it did not need to speak out as forcefully on the topic in nineteenth-century America as it speaks about it today. Why? Because abortion wasn’t as widespread then as it is today; nor was it generally approved by civil law; indeed, it was illegal almost everywhere. But circumstances changed, as the US Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade (1973) declared abortion a constitutional right. Thus, the Church, in order to defend the right to life, had to speak more forcefully against abortion.
Similarly, although the Church has always opposed exploitation of poor people, the rise of modern industrial societies created a situation in which Catholic teaching developed and was better expressed on issues such as the rights of workers, private property and the proper use of material resources, the role of government, and the equitable distribution of goods through dynamic economic life.
These examples do not involve a change in the substance of Catholic social teaching but refinements of expression, different emphases, and different practical applications of it to the needs of other times and places.
This is an excerpt from Mark’s new booklet, 20 Answers: Catholic Social Teaching, on sale now from Catholic Answers Press.