On the eve before what no doubt will be a significant election for Americans, I think it would be appropriate to think once more about the binding nature of the fundamental principles of Catholic social teaching and their immediate implications for political and economic realities. Pope Benedict XVI’s most recent encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, would make for good meditation before heading out to vote tomorrow.
We often hear this notion of “prudential judgment” tossed around haphazardly, usually by those who search for an excuse to disregard some principle or implication of Catholic social doctrine. While very specific, concrete policy decisions like setting speed limits or requiring possession of specific resident documentation (e.g., state ID cards) are, indeed, underdetermined by Catholic social doctrine and are, therefore, up to prudential judgment, the bulk of what the Church teaches in social matters is binding on the faithful. But why should I, as a Catholic, care about what Pope Benedict XVI or, for that matter, what any pope or council has to say about political ideologies, human development, distributive justice, and economic life? The simple answer is, if you accept the doctrinal authority of the Church, then it follows that you will accept Catholic social teaching, for to reject a substantive part of the latter is to reject the former. The history of papal social teaching certainly confirms this.
In his 1912 encyclical, Singulari Quadam, Pope St. Pius X declared that the Church’s teaching authority extends beyond the exclusive domain of faith and into the domain of socio-economic affairs: