Fr. Sirico, The Zwicks, and the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church

The Compendium has been heralded by some as a major achievement in Catholic tradition and a solid presentation of Catholic social doctrine. Deacon Kieth Fournier, for example, announced that “the Compendium has come at a vitally important time for all Catholics, other Christians and all people of good will who truly desire to build a culture of life and a civilization of love to replace the current culture of death, materialism and nihilism.” (“Neither Left nor Right: The Compendium of the Social Doctrine” March 11, 2005).

In June 5, 2005 (“The Clarion Call to Catholic Action” Catholic.org), Fournier praised the Compendium as

a bugle blast that should be heard throughout the entire Church, and, through her sons and daughters, throughout the whole world. Far from an indistinct sound, it is one that rings out with crystal clarity. This magnificent volume presents the treasury of the Church’s social teaching in one place. It is waiting to now be implemented and give form to a new Catholic Action. Never before has the distilled wisdom of the Magisterium of the Catholic Church been so beautifully organized, brilliantly articulated or thoroughly researched. . . .

What the Compendium does is to give Catholics, other Christians, other people of faith and all people of good will a complete sourcebook for the Social teaching. In this one volume we find all the references needed to study the Social Teaching and then to go “right to the source” by turning to the back. It provides the instruction that has been so desperately needed to give clear direction to those who are committed to Catholic Action. It will also be welcomed ecumenically by anyone concerned with true social justice.

Hence my suprise, then, upon learning that Mark and Louise Zwick have suggested that “neoliberal language” has infiltrated the very Compendium itself. The allegation is made in the review of Pope Benedict’s encyclical Deus Caritas Est (Pope Benedict XVI’s Matthew 25 Encyclical, God is Love: Charity and Justice Must Meet Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXVI, No. 3, May-June 2006):

Benedict recommends outstanding encyclicals of previous popes and their summarization in the Compendium of Catholic Social Teaching. Unfortunately, the Compendium itself, while filled with wonderful statements from Catholic social teaching, is also touched by the neoliberal language that has crept in everywhere in recent times. It includes a few statements that have come from neoliberal global capitalism instead of papal teaching or the Gospel. We hope that there will be a second edition which will eliminate those.

Examples: include No. 334: “The economy has as its object the development of wealth and its progressive increase…” (This is not from the Gospel or Catholic Social Teaching!) and No. 347: “A truly competitive market is an effective instrument for attaining important objectives of justice…” (Not true!)

While statements follow these which are from papal teaching and which may qualify them, the business man or woman who reads them may find a Calvinist interpretation which would make them feel justified in pursuing their “enlightened self-interest” instead of the charity and justice of Jesus Caritas.

With all the work and writing that John Paul II did regarding the foreign debt which is choking the poor all over the world, it is surprising that there is just one small paragraph on this subject in the Compendium in #195, in which it states that countries should pay their debts.

We are especially sensitive to the impact of the Compendium on the socio-economic reality of America because over the past 25 years we have received many thousands of immigrants and refugees from exactly that reality—refugees from the current global economic system. Those who work for a pittance in factories of multinational corporations are unable to provide for their families and forced to migrate, while CEO’s and stockholders receive enormous remuneration.

The Precursor to The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church — A Look Back

How, pray tell, did the Compendium come to be infected by this pernicious neoliberal language? — the answer can be found in a Zenit 2005 interview with Fr. Robert Sirico of The Acton Institute, in which he discussed the legacy of John Paul II to Catholic social doctrine:

In 1992 I met François X. Van Thuán, the saintly archbishop of Saigon, who was in exile in Rome. When the Holy Father asked him, then president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, to coordinate the compilation of Catholic social teaching, he asked me and the Polish Dominican Provincial Maciej Zieba to compile a collection of magisterial texts entitled “The Social Agenda,” which was published in seven languages.

In April of 2000, Fr. Sirico discussed the origin and content of The Social Agenda with Zenit News. The compilation consists of selections of over seventy-five documents from Catholic tradition from St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Gregory the Great, with “the major concentration . .. the magisterial texts of this century,” particularly those of John Paul II. Adds Fr. Sirico:

In my estimation I would say that the most decisive documents come from Pope John Paul II, especially Centesimus Annus (the most recent social encyclical, 1991), due to its ability to take account of the collapse of ‘real socialism’ and the globalization of the market economy. However, Centesimus Annus builds from the foundation the Church’s teaching tradition, while at the same time ‘re-reading’ or developing this tradition in light of momentous social, economic and political events.

Fr. Sirico worked closely with Maciej Zieba (president of the Tertio Millennio Institute in Krakow) in the five-month long process of editing the document, after which “a process began by which the collection itself was looked over by numerous advisors and consultants to insure both its scope and usefulness.” The compilation was published on April 27, 2005.

During the presentation of The Social Agenda, Cardinal V?n Thu?n commented: “This volume is an optimal instrument for those who want to have direct contact with the magisterial sources and, at the same time, a systematic presentation of them.”

At the same time, it was a “systematic presentation” which anticipated something much greater. In his preface to the published work, the Cardinal acknowledged:

Like any collection, this publication does not claim to be complete. The individual texts have been selected because of their significance, but it is hoped that the reader will be led to re-read them in their full context and thus become more familiar with the breadth of Catholic social teaching.

And, according to Fr. Sirico:

This collection also serves as a kind of preamble to the more significant Catechism or Compendium of Catholic Social Thought that the Holy Father called for when he promulgated the post-synodal apostolic exhortation “Ecclesia in America” in Mexico City in 1999. It is hoped this text will be an easy reference text for those concerned with and who teach the Church’s social doctrine, having at their disposal a distillation of texts from roughly the past century.

This is a collection of magisterial texts, and as such there is nothing innovative or “new” within them. What is striking, and I believe will be evident as one reads the volume, is continuity of the teaching, along with the Church’s willingness to engage the critical issue of the day from within its commitment to the human family.

Cardinal Van Thuan passed away in 2002. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church was published in its final form in October 25, 2004, under the direction of Cardinal Renato Martino, who praised the volume as a resource “without precedent in the history of the Church.”

* * *

As one might expect, Fr. Sirico’s involvement in the compilation of The Social Agenda received some flack from the left, inciting protests from the National Catholic Reporter (“Free-market priest compiles Vatican book” May 12, 2000) and Salt of the Earth (“Are conservative Catholics redefining Catholic social teaching?” November, 2000), a “social justice” monthly and sister publication of the Claretian U.S. Catholic.

So, it would appear that the Zwicks’ are on to something: the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church has Fr. Sirico’s and Maciej Zieba’s dastardly prints and neo-conservative agenda written all over it. What were John Paul II and Archbishop Van Thuan possibly thinking?

* * *

The Zwicks’ Criticism of the Compendium — An Analysis

Finally, let’s return to the Zwick’s objections to the alleged “neoliberal” content in the Compendium — which I think is revealing, in that their criticism relies on some rather selective quotation.

For example, take their excerpt of section 334, — “The economy has as its object the development of wealth and its progressive increase…” — which they vehemently protest, “is not from the Gospel or Catholic Social Teaching!”

If we examine this phrase in its full context (and indeed, the rest of the very sentence itself), we might find ourselves questioning the Zwicks’ interpretation:

The economy has as its object the development of wealth and its progressive increase, not only in quantity but also in quality; this is morally correct if it is directed to man’s overall development in solidarity and to that of the society in which people live and work. Development, in fact, cannot be reduced to a mere process of accumulating goods and services. On the contrary, accumulation by itself, even were it for the common good, is not a sufficient condition for bringing about authentic human happiness.

Or take their condemnation of the phrase “’A truly competitive market is an effective instrument for attaining important objectives of justice…’ (Not true!)”

Again, if we examine this phrase in its full context (under the heading, “The Role of the Free Market”), we find that it is contained in section 347, a reasonable assessment of the free market’s strengths and advantages:

. . . The Church’s social doctrine appreciates the secure advantages that the mechanisms of the free market have to offer, making it possible as they do to utilize resources better and to facilitate the exchange of products. These mechanisms “above all . . . give central place to the persons’ desires and preferences, which, in a contract, meet the desires and preferences of another persons.”

A truly competitive market is an effective instrument for attaining important objectives of justice: moderating the excessive profits of individual businesses, responding to consumers’ demands, bringing about a more efficient use and conservation of resources, rewarding entrepreneurship and innovation, making information available so that it is really possible to compare and purchase products in an atmosphere of healthy competitition.

I’ll concede such a positive evaluation of the market is more reminiscent of Michael Novak than the Houston Catholic Worker. At the same time, one has only to read further to find a reminder of the market’s inherent limitations:

348. The free market cannot be judged apart from the ends that it seeks to accomplish and from the values that it transmits at a societal level. Indeed, the market cannot find in itself the principles for its legitimization: it belongs to the consciences of individuals and the public responsibility to establish the relationship between means and ends. The individual profit of economic enterprise, though legitimate, must never become the sole objective. . . .

349 The Church’s social doctrine, while recognizing the market as an irreplacable instrument for regulating the inner workings of the economic system, points out the need for it to be firmly rooted in its ethical objectives, which ensure and at the same time suitably circumscribe the space in which it can operate autonomously. The idea that the market alone can be entrusted with the task of supplying every category of goods cannot be shared, because such an idea is based on a reductionist vision of the person and society.

So, it would appear that the Compendium’s recognition of the capabilities of the free market is clearly situated within a proper clarification of its limitations, not to mention an explicit condemnation of the reductionist worldview which is properly understood as neoliberalism.

Call me naive, but I find it difficult to see how any “business man or woman who reads them may find a Calvinist interpretation which would make them feel justified in pursuing their ‘enlightened self-interest’.” Methinks the Zwicks protest too much?

* * *
In his encyclical Deus Caritas Est, Benedict recommended the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church as a “comprehensive presentation” of the Church’s social teaching, and expressed the need for its study and implementation:

Marxism had seen world revolution and its preliminaries as the panacea for the social problem: revolution and the subsequent collectivization of the means of production, so it was claimed, would immediately change things for the better. This illusion has vanished. In today’s complex situation, not least because of the growth of a globalized economy, the Church’s social doctrine has become a set of fundamental guidelines offering approaches that are valid even beyond the confines of the Church: in the face of ongoing development these guidelines need to be addressed in the context of dialogue with all those seriously concerned for humanity and for the world in which we live.

Further Reading

  • The Social Agenda: Preface of François-Xavier Nguyên Cardinal Van Thuân, President, Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.
  • Ok, Something’s Odd Here . . . — Jimmy Akin takes issue with the presention of the Compendium [of Catholic Social Doctrine] by some as a kind of “parallel Catechism,” placing social teaching on the same level as dogmatic theology. (Dec. 8, 2004); Jamie Blosser has a thoughtful response to Akin, raising the question “whether the Church’s social teachings can be so easily separated from the Church’s dogmatic and moral teachings. Is not the Church’s social teaching not moral in its very essence?” — inviting further response by Jimmy Akin.
  • Toward a Proper Understanding of Neoliberalism – a response to the specious charge by the Zwicks that “Neoliberalism is known in the United States as neoconservatism. Its Catholic proponents are Fr. John Neuhaus, George Weigel, Michael Novak and Fr. Robert Sirico. Their publications are available through the American Enterprise Institue, the Ethics and Public Policy Center, the Acton Institute and First Things magazine.”
  • The Social Agenda – A collection the central statements of the Roman Pontiffs from a range of texts, including papal encyclicals, apostolic letters, and Conciliar documents, on matters relating to politics, economics, and culture.
  • The Tertio Millennio Seminar on the Free Society – founded in 1992 by Michael Novak, Rocco Buttiglione, Father Richard John Neuhaus, Father Maciej Zieba, OP, and George Weigel to deepen the dialogue on Catholic social doctrine between North American students and students from the new democracies of central and eastern Europe. The seminar is built around an intense study of John Paul II’s 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus, supplemented by readings from the classics of American political theory and contemporary articles.
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