Catholic Social Teaching (CST) consists of papal and episcopal (bishops' conference) documents that, starting in 1891, seek to address the social and economic challenges of rapid industrialization, the concentration of wealth, and the redistribution of resources. These teachings on the “social question” are also a critical and corrective commentary on the excesses of 19th and 20th century communism and capitalism alike—both the failure of markets and authoritarian governments to preserve the dignity of the human person, the dignity of work, and the common good of society. Catholic Social Teaching prioritizes labor over capital; dignity of work is the cornerstone of the tradition.
In 1986, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) identified the need for a critical reevaluation of the U.S. economy in Economic Justice For All: Pastoral Letter on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy. Their decades-old proposal is prescient today. They called for the creation of “a new American experiment,” a continuation of the experiment our founders began—a "new form of political democracy, […] a new venture to secure economic justice for all (p. 22).”
While the dignity of work is the cornerstone of Catholic Social Teaching, it has largely been abandoned by the USCCB. Since 1976, the USCCB has written a Catholic voters' guide, known as Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship. Early guides argued for voting in line with a comprehensive Catholic Social Teaching philosophy that addressed myriad social injustices, including economic, racial and environmental injustice. After the USCCB's 1986 Economic Justice for All, however, there was a sharp abandonment of social teachings criticizing the excesses of American capitalism and the devaluation of the dignity of work.
Alongside the USCCB's abandonment of the dignity of work, corporations have vigorously advanced a three-pronged political agenda to destroy it: (1) breaking up unions and paying workers as little as possible in the name of the maximization of shareholder value; (2) capturing the American political and judicial system to block regulation, taxation, workers' bargaining power, and equal pay for equal work; and (3) co-opting the Christian justice and civil rights social philosophies and narratives for themselves.
Corporate-funded think tanks, like the American Enterprise Institute, have misconstrued Catholic Social Teaching, most notably, concepts like the dignity of work, solidarity, subsidiarity, and social justice. In the late 1970s, AEI began recruiting neoconservative intellectuals, like Catholic theologian Michael Novak, for the purposes of gutting core principles of the tradition so as to fit them within a neoliberal framework. Such efforts led Novak to write treatises like The Theology of the Corporation and Social Justice Isn't What You Think It Is to advance this goal.
Novak's theological and philosophical legacy lives on in reactionary public policy proposals and neoconservative intellectual circles today, for example, in Former Rep. Paul Ryan's (R-Wis.) 2012 budget, The Path to Prosperity, which sought to defund the social safety net, and in Noah Rothman's book, Unjust: Social Justice and the Unmaking of America, that argues social justice opposes meritocracy. The fusion of corporate money and theological and philosophical frameworks to justify corporate greed, alongside the USCCB's abandonment of their moral obligation to defend the dignity of work, has led to the silencing of a prophetic Christian voice against the excesses of capitalism and the radical devaluation of the American worker.
The belief that only market mechanisms can lift people out of poverty is idolatry of the market; and a talking point from AEI. The maximization of shareholder value as the single commandment of C-suite executives competes in the deprivation of workers; and a talking point from the Mises Institute. These economic ideologies defended by right-wing politics, of which the Catholic hierarchy is currently embedded, are fundamentally at odds with Catholic Social Teaching.
Nonetheless, neoliberal think tanks, with blessings from the American church and wealthy corporate donors, continue to overwhelm the public policy debate with argument ending statements that disenfranchise the American worker from fully realizing dignity of work and building up an authentic democratic community with an eye towards social justice---all of which Catholic Social Teaching demands.
The Catholic Social Teaching Revitalization Initiative (CST.RI) is a project founded by Salta Collaborative, a group of Vatican II researchers, writers, and political theologians committed to placing the fundamental principle of the dignity of work at the center of the public policy debate. Our work involves deconstructing Michael Novak's theology of the corporation, reconstructing an American Catholic social justice philosophical tradition, and calling all persons of good will to a future-oriented political theology of economic inclusion.
And our revitalization initiative has cause for hope. Pope Francis’ first social teaching document, Envangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), powerfully recaptures Catholic Social Teaching from clericalism, neoliberalism, and corporatism. In it, he combined two fundamental concepts—the dignity of the human person and the dignity of work—and announced the creation of a contemporary commandment: “Just as the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills (par. 53).” Pope Francis makes explicit the social sin of the exclusion, exploitation, and oppression of workers, he reaffirms the principle of the priority of labor over capital, and he explains how people of good will ought to proceed: (1) No to an economy of exclusion; (2) No to the new idolatry of money; (3) No to a financial system that rules rather than servers; and (4) No to the inequality which spawns violence (par. 52 – 60).
Salta's mission is to form consciences that say NO to an economy of exclusion and inequality. We take up the Spirit's call to the advancement of American Catholic Social Teaching as a political theology of work and worker solidarity contra Michael Novak's theology of the corporation. This advancement can't only speak to American Catholics; it is a call to all persons of good will. Therefore, Salta situates itself on the fringes of the Catholic communion, that is, with the spirituality and social critique of Generation None, an intra-generational cohort of persons, mostly ex-Catholics, who no longer identify with the church or accept the simplicism of moral discernment from its teaching authority, the bishops. Generation None, however, still believes in a faith-that-does-justice inspired by the radically inclusionary ministry and prophetic teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ.
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