Comment & Analysis

Church doesn’t take her own social teaching seriously

Cardinal Gerhard Müller.

Christopher Altieri

Of all the areas that constitute proper objects of the Church’s magisterium – her official teaching office – Catholic social teaching is the one that has, without doubt, received the greatest attention and development over the past century and a half. Why is it, then, that so few Catholics seem to have heard of it, let alone have it as a guide to their personal transactions and social/political engagement?

For one thing, the Church does not really take her own social doctrine seriously.

There are stories of all kinds, at every level of life in the Church: from the salaries paid to lay employees in parish settings, to shenanigans in diocesan chanceries, even to hiring and firing practices in the Roman Curia – where the former Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, has called for implementation of practices more closely in line with Catholic social teaching.

Responding to a question from EWTN’s Raymond Arroyo regarding Pope Francis’ dismissal of three officials – clerics – from his congregation, without entering directly into the merits of the case, Cardinal Müller said, “I am in favour of a better treatment of our officials in the Holy See because we cannot only speak about the social doctrine and we must also respect it.”

The final order for the officials’ dismissal reportedly came a few days before Christmas, 2016.

Dr Müller, whose commission as head of the Vatican’s doctrinal office was not renewed last month – a papal decision about which he was informed the day before the expiry of his first term, also told the German-language Passauer Neue Presse he was not satisfied with the way his own dismissal was handled. “I cannot accept this way of doing things,” the cardinal said. “[The Pope] did not give a reason,” he added, “[j]ust as he gave no reason for dismissing three highly competent members of the CDF a few months earlier.”

Budgets

Curial officials serve at the Pope’s pleasure, and cardinals – clerics generally – will not be lacking a place to lay their heads, should they find themselves suddenly and unexpectedly without employment. Parishes have budgets – often shoestring ones – and chanceries need personnel shake-ups as much as any other bureaucracy does.

Nevertheless, if the Church wants businesses to think of their employees as people, rather than chattel, the Church’s own institutional leadership needs to lead the way. If Church leaders cannot guarantee decent employment conditions and security to competent employees – let alone rewards for outstanding performance, they cannot fairly expect to be taken seriously when they call on governments and entrepreneurs to guarantee the same. If Church leaders want business owners and operators to have an eye toward something other than the bottom line, then ‘budget constraints’ and ‘strategic reorganisation’ cannot be the things Church outfits invoke when they let people go.

Even when – as appears to have been the case for Cardinal Müller and the CDF officials – there is no injury done in the strict sense, Church leaders would be wise to realise that example is the best and most effective leadership.

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Justice is more than fairness

It strikes me that we’ve lost sight of something important: justice and fairness are not identical. Sure, life is unfair. That is precisely why we ought to strive not only for justice, but fairness in all our dealings.

Still, we ought to be slow to call things ‘unjust’ and more willing to take the other fellow’s view of any dispute.

This would have two very salutary effects: it would make us less prone to the encroachments of the culture of victimhood, and readier to help the fellow who needs it, regardless of whether he is in the right. 

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What of empathy?

I cannot shake the impression that we’ve too often allowed the temptation to delight in being aggrieved, to supplant genuine thirst for justice.

This tendency to seek grievance and call it justice advocacy will make us incapable of empathy, deaf to genuine complaint, and blind to real issues of right.

One thing is certain.

The Church’s social doctrine would be more credible if her leadership were more often found behaving as though it binds them too, and if it were not so often set out as though the first hour labourers in Matthew 20 have a legitimate gripe.