From John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation on the Lay Vocation, Christifideles Laici:
The situation today points to an ever-increasing urgency for a doctrinal formation of the lay faithful, not simply in a better understanding which is natural to faith’s dynamism but also in enabling them to “give a reason for their hoping” in view of the world and its grave and complex problems. Therefore, a systematic approach to catechesis, geared to age and the diverse situations of life, is an absolute necessity, as is a more decided Christian promotion of culture, in response to the perennial yet always new questions that concern individuals and society today.
This is especially true for the lay faithful who have responsibilities in various fields of society and public life. Above all, it is indispensable that they have a more exact knowledge -and this demands a more widespread and precise presentation-of the Church’s social doctrine, as repeatedly stressed by the Synod Fathers in their presentations. They refer to the participation of the lay faithful in public life, in the following words: “But for the lay faithful to take up actively this noble purpose in political matters, it is not enough to exhort them. They must be offered a proper formation of a social conscience, especially in the Church’s social teaching, which contains principles – of reflection, criteria for judging and practical directives (cf. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Instruction of Christian Freedom and Liberation,72), and which must be present in general catechetical instruction and in specialized gatherings, as well as in schools and universities. Nevertheless, this social doctrine of the Church is dynamic; that is, adapted to circumstances of time and place. It is the right and duty of Pastors to propose moral principles even concerning the social order, and of all Christians to apply them in defence of human rights. Nevertheless, active participation in political parties is reserved to the lay faithful” (proposition from the Synod).
I think the holy Pope’s main point is this: Catholic social thought is the lay vocation. The Church informs our thinking about family, politics, economics, and culture. (Those are the four elements traditionally summarized, including in this papal document.) To miss out on Catholic Social Thought is precisely to miss out on how our faith penetrates into our lives as lay people.
Unfortunately, in my experience, apart from abortion (which is certainly a key part), orthodox Catholics tend to be told that Catholic social thought is purely optional, something with no doctrinal authority whatsoever. What the Church thinks about economics is treated as roughly equivalent to what your grandmother thinks about economics. The more I’ve studied Catholic social thought, the more I’ve heard the Popes – all of them – strenuously rejecting that kind of dissent. As John Paul says above, “Above all, it is indispensable that they have a more exact knowledge -and this demands a more widespread and precise presentation-of the Church’s social doctrine.” Indispensable.
Of course, how can they believe unless they hear, and how can they hear unless it is preached? I used to dissent from Catholic social doctrine because I hadn’t the foggiest idea what it was. The assumption that it is okay to dissent leads many priests and lay people never to bother to learn what it actually teaches.
A subordinate point the Pope makes is that part of Catholic social doctrine is the recognition that it requires application. The Church teaches, for example, that employers have a responsibility to the families of their employees. It also teaches – this is part of Catholic social doctrine – that it is up to employers to figure out how to live out that responsibility. The Magisterium doesn’t pretend to answer every question; they don’t pretend that the answers are simple. But it does teach a lot.
A parallel: the Church teaches the obligation of parents to love their children and to teach them the faith. It doesn’t pretend to explain every detail of how we go about that. But to dissent – to say that I am not required to love my children and teach them the faith – would be a denial of Church teaching about marriage. I think we all agree about that.
What is less commonly acknowledged is that, though the Church does not teach every detail of how we live economic, political, and cultural responsibility, she does teach a lot – too much, obviously, for this short blog post – about the responsibilities we have. We have to welcome immigrants, for example – though there is plenty of room to discuss how we go about doing that.
To reject or minimize what the Church does teach is, as St. John Paul says in the introduction to the same document, to succumb to “the temptation of legitimizing the unwarranted separation of faith from life, that is, a separation of the Gospel’s acceptance from the actual living of the Gospel in various situations in the world.”