“The social doctrine of the Church developed in the nineteenth century when the Gospel encountered modern industrial society with its new structures for the production of consumer goods, its new concept of society, the state and authority, and its new forms of labour and ownership.”(Catechism of the Catholic Church 2421) It “comprises a body of doctrine, which is articulated as the Church interprets events in the course of history, with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, in the light of the whole of what has been revealed by Jesus Christ.” (n. 2422) It “proposes principles for reflection; provides criteria for judgment; gives guidelines for action” (n. 2423).

Nevertheless, deciphering and reconciling the ever-growing corpus of papal documents and pronouncements on modern society can be challenging. In this interview, Prof. Russell Hittinger discusses some recommended readings that can help us understand Catholic social teaching.

Dr. Russell Hittinger is currently Executive Director of The Institute for Human Ecology at the Catholic University of America, where he is also a Research Professor Ordinarius in the School of Philosophy. He is Emeritus Professor of Religion at the University of Tulsa and has taught or been a fellow at numerous other institutes of higher education. Since 2001, he is a member of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas, to which he was elected a full member (ordinarius) in 2004, and appointed to the consilium or governing board from 2006-2018. On Sept. 8, 2009, Pope Benedict XVI appointed Professor Hittinger as an ordinarius in the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, in which he finished his ten-year term in 2019. His books and articles have appeared through the University of Notre Dame Press, Oxford University Press, Columbia University Press, Fordham University Press, the Review of Metaphysics, the Journal of Law and Religion, the Review of Politics, and several law journals (both American and European). 

  1. Arcanum and Casti connubii
    by Leo XIII and Pius XI
  2. The Social Teachings of Wilhelm Emmanuel Von Ketteler: Bishop of Mainz (1811-1877)
    edited by Rupert J. Ederer
  3. Catholic Social Teaching: A Volume of Scholarly Essays
    edited by Gerard V. Bradley and E. Christian Brugger
  4. The Teachings of Modern Roman Catholicism on Law, Politics, and Human Nature
    edited by John Witte Jr. and Frank S. Alexander
  5. Selected articles (1) ( 2) ( 3) (4)
    by John Courtney Murray SJ
  6. Infidels and Empires in A New World Order: Early Modern Spanish Contributions to International Legal Thought
    by David M. Lantigua
Five Books for Catholics may receive a commission from qualifyng purchases made using the affliate links in this post.

I opened with the Catechism’s description of Catholic social teaching. Scholars such as you might find it accurate in some regards, inaccurate in others. How would you define or describe Catholic social doctrine?
I often use the word “thought” because CST consists not only of formal teachings by councils and popes, along with the ordinary magisterium of bishops, but also of the works of philosophers and theologians, both clerical and lay. So, for example, Jacques Maritain’s Integral Humanism (1936) is one of the most important and influential books on CST in the last five centuries. Even so, it would be misleading to call it “doctrine.” Moreover, a significant portion of magisterial documents about social matters explicitly target contingent and changing situations. Since I am not an ecclesial authority it seems best to speak of “thought.”

The main focus of CST is the study of human social orders. In modern times the teaching begins with what Leo XIII called the three necessary societies: Domestic (marriage and family), political, and ecclesial. Each is rooted in necessity understood as need. Men and women need one another to procreate, and then to jointly govern the household. Of course, children need the domestic order under parental authority. The child’s prospects for human flourishing are rather limited with that formation. But the domestic order itself needs a more comprehensive social order called polity. This need is rooted chiefly in the quest for justice beyond the household. The Church is rooted in perhaps the most profound need, namely the forgiveness of sins.

However, each of these social organizations is a potential theatre of excellence. They begin in a need, but if everything goes well, a rainbow of virtues emerges. Take a parent’s virtues of governance. Being parents is the greatest lesson in their lives and they become excellent at it. Plus, in doing so they perfect their own spousal concord. Similarly, a polity is not just about preventing murders, theft, and fraud. All sorts of important institutions emerge within it, such as public libraries, and monumental buildings. Several other kinds of associations begin to flourish. Traditionally, we call them arbitrary societies because membership usually depends on human choice, such as to enter the medical profession, academic life, or a soccer club. Of course, membership in the Church is more than just the forgiveness of sins. Baptism is the beginning of supernatural life and the exercise of theological virtues.

You mentioned the polity as one of the three necessary societies. Does Catholic social teaching bear the label of social teaching as opposed to political thought or political teaching to highlight that the polity is not the only society?
Yes, that is exactly right. That change was not made formally until the early twentieth century. Pius XI is important in this regard. Prior to him, churchmen referred to doctrina civilis – teaching on the most comprehensive social order, namely government. Pius changed the term to doctrina socialis, which includes teachings on political order.  Social problems of the late nineteenth century and the twentieth centuries are not just political in kind. Rather, there are multiple and complicated social problems.

One of the issues you have underlined in your writings is that, amid the growing body of papal pronouncements on social issues, the core doctrine remains unvaried, but the explanations and emphases are not always consistent. Does the general Catholic face any difficulties when trying to get a handle on Catholic social teaching?
We can speak of a very coherent epoch. It is sometimes called the “great coherency,” even in Roman documents. It goes from Leo XIII to Pius XII. Leo was born in 1810 and Pius died in 1958). Many of these popes knew one another. Pius XI was Leo’s student. Pius XII was ordained in Rome when Leo had published Annum sacrum for the new century. John XXIII was a seminarian in Rome. He wrote a fan letter to Leo about Rerum novarum. Paul VI had already been born. All these popes were united, in one way or another, around Leo XIII, who published Aeterni Patris, on the renewal of philosophy, particularly that of Thomas Aquinas.

What gave this epoch that coherency was the fact that we had three generations of popes who knew each other. This is very unusual. Second, they were all trained in a similar scholastic philosophy and theology. They had control over their terminology. It is as simple as that.

They were not hidebound to it, by any means. However, if you read what Leo says about the necessary societies and then what Pius XI and Pius XII have to say, you know that the framework has hardly changed. It changes towards the sixties. Indeed, everything changed in the sixties.

One of the things that happened is that Catholic thinkers began to approach the social sciences seriously. The social sciences were born during Leo’s time. That is also when all the great social scientists, such as Durkheim, were active. However, in their social teachings, the popes did not mention them, bar the occasional reference to Karl Marx or some French positivist. There was not a consistent or deep reckoning with the social sciences until the middle of the twentieth century. The Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences did not come into existence until John Paul II’s pontificate.

The third important thing: the popes began to teach more about international order. Take John XXIII’s Pacem in terris and Paul VI’s Populorum progressio. As that picture became bigger and more complicated, the terminology began to change. So, in Pope Francis's recent document, Fratelli Tutti, there are around forty instances of ‘family’. Only five pertain to an actual family, as opposed to, say, the ‘family of nations’ and so on. That is a change.

I really urge students to start at the beginning and become familiar with the main chassis of Catholic social doctrine. You might have some trouble doing that if you start with Pacem in terris.

Is the Leonine synthesis still applicable given Catholic social teaching’s current, broader focus on international affairs and modern social science?
My career in writing over the past twenty-five years tells me that it is. In fact, the Leonine synthesis on social order is indispensable.

Leo of course brings back Thomas's position on social order. Thomas insists that social order is not a substance. Some Platonists think that it is and that the body politic has an actual soul. Aristotle noted however that social form cannot be a substance. If it were, all of us, who are members of that society, would turn into one thing. On the other hand, neither is it a mere aggregate, such as the pile of sand in your driveway. The grains in a pile of sand are only related accidentally. Society lies somewhere in between. It is not a substance and it is not a mere aggregation. Rather, a society is a unity of order having a common end and a form of order, that is to say, a constitution or a paradigm for how common action is to be undertaken and preserved.

The next question for Leo is, “How many kinds of society are there?” Every society will have an intrinsic common good. We call this the form of order. Namely, how we do things together, like a crew team. A crew has an end: winning the race. The same is true of natural marriage-family, polity, and the Church. In the case of marriage and church, however, we notice not only a common end but also a fixed form of order. In marriage, we simply call it matrimony: one man and one woman who vow to be “as one” until death for the ends of procreation, mutual edification, and the sacramental life. The constitution of the Church is also fixed. It is apostolic, given by Christ, and animated by the Holy Spirit.

What makes polity tricky and international relations even trickier is that there is no fixed form. A polity can be governed by one, a few, many, or some combination of them. The chief end is justice, but the organization is somewhat left to human choice.

"These encyclicals are still the doctrinal heart and soul of the modern Catholic doctrinal understanding of marriage. I tell my students that they should read them first because they lay out the essentials of social ends and forms better than anywhere else."


The other problem is that many believe that Leo's social teaching is encapsulated in Rerum novarum which deals with the problems and fallout of the Industrial Revolution. However, he did not take that to be his sole contribution to social teaching. He wrote a whole series of social encyclicals before that.
Yes, he waited eleven years to write Rerum novarum. In fact, he wrote his principal social encyclicals before Rerum novarum. Here is the supreme example. Since the Council of Trent, there have only been two doctrinal Pontifical writings on marriage. Leo wrote Arcanum divinae in 1881. His student, Pius XI, wrote Casti conubii in 1931 to commemorate Arcanum on its fiftieth anniversary.

These encyclicals are still the doctrinal heart and soul of the modern Catholic doctrinal understanding of marriage. I tell my students that they should read them first because they lay out the essentials of social ends and forms better than anywhere else. Moreover, they are quite readable. If you read those two and understand them, you will learn eighty percent of what you need to know about CST.

You have written an essay on those two encyclicals in Christianity and Family Law (Cambridge University Press). Is that essay a good primer and guide to them?
Yes. But it is best to sit down and read the encyclicals first. None of it is rocket science.

Nowadays, when people talk about Pontifical documents on marriage, most think of Familiaris consortio and Amoris laetitiae. Why are the two encyclicals by Leo XIII and Pius XI, which virtually no one reads, so much more important than the better known conciliar and post-conciliar documents?
Because they are explicitly doctrinal. They are not just doctrinal, in the broader sense of teaching something. Take, for instance, the issue of contraception. It was resolved in the late sixties with Humanae vitae. However, the decisive doctrinal teaching of Humanae vitae goes back to Casti connubii on matrimony, and Casti in turn relies upon Leo’s Arcanum. Yet even beyond the issue of contraception, the social form of matrimony is ground zero for understanding social order. We naturally begin to make definitions and distinctions about social order on the basis of what we know about marriage and family. Even the more radical theorists who have little use for the traditional practices of marriage and family observe the importance of the most basic human social order. Their critique is actually an acknowledgement of the first society.

You have not included the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. Is this because, as you have explained in various interventions, it does not present the Church’s social teaching within a satisfactory theological and philosophical framework, but collates teachings, somewhat in the manner of a patchwork (stromateis)?
Yes. A brief history of the Compendium is in order.

In Ecclesia in America, John Paul II pleaded for a brief catechism on Catholic social teaching. It was meant to be a brief catechism. He probably had in mind something like the Old Baltimore Catechism: a slim volume with the essentials.

What came out was the Compendium. It is not brief at all. The index is almost as long as the document itself. What the authors of the Compendium thought they needed to do to meet John Paul II’s request was just to collect everything and show that, over the last century and a half, the Church had touched upon virtually all the different areas of social life. But it is not always well organized. For example, there is about as much said on the Kyoto freshwater treaties as there is on the topic of justice itself. I advise caution in using it for the purpose of gaining an integrated understanding of CST.

"Leo credits Wilhelm Emmanuel von Ketteler as the initiator of Catholic social teaching, at least in the modern sense of the term. That credit is well deserved."


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