THE SOCIAL DOCTRINE OF THE CHURCH AND THE CULTURE OF LIFE
Distinct from the Church’s charitable works (although very much related to it) is a body of teaching known as the Church’s “Social Doctrine”. This is a relatively recent development going back to the turmoil of the Industrial Revolution of the 1800’s.
As Pope St. John Paul II explains it in his Encyclical Letter Centesimus Annus (cited in the Catechism of the Catholic Church):
The social doctrine of the Church developed in the nineteenth century when the Gospel encountered modern industrial society with its news structures for the production of consumer goods, its new concept of society, the state and authority, and its new forms of labor and ownership. The development of the doctrine of the Church on economic and social matters attests the permanent value of the Church’s teaching at the same time as it attests the true meaning of her Tradition, always living and active. (PAR 2421)
An illustration of the kind of storm and stress which engendered this new Social Doctrine may be seen in the case of Rev. Dr. Edward McGlynn (1837-1900), the original labor priest, striding across the stage of New York City politics in the post-Civil War era.
He was the pastor of St. Stephen’s, a large working-class parish in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen. A radical both in his politics and his theology, he found fault with the institutional church’s sole reliance on organized works of charity as woefully inadequate to the social realities of the day: “You may go on forever with hospitals and orphan asylums and St. Vincent de Paul Societies, but with them you can’t cure the trouble.” (James R. Barrett, The Irish Way: Becoming American in the Multiethnic City, 2012) He also thought that a church populated by the poor should take its lead from them.
Exasperated with the priest, New York’s Archbishop Corrigan removed McGlynn from his parish and excommunicated him. He did not anticipate the popular outcry. “Seventy-five thousand marched to Union Square to demand his re-instatement. McGlynn’s portrait was plastered onto the walls of tenement flats along with those of Christ, the Virgin, and the saints. Priests declined positions replacing him; the parish janitor would not stoke the furnace; and the Sisters of Charity organized their orphans to stage skits in support of him. Enraged, the archbishop ordered the orphanage closed and the nuns disciplined.” (Barrett)
The Vatican ended up over-ruling Archbishop Corrigan and he had to re-instate Dr. McGlynn as pastor of St. Stephen’s.
The articulation of a new kind of Social Doctrine for the reform of society, distinct from charitable good works, in response to the crises of a century-and-a-half ago, ought to keep us grounded in this truth: that the defense of human life must also concern itself with people’s living conditions being a human life.