In assessing the dynamics of the Catholic Church’s social doctrine, Russell Hittinger has noted that the “tradition is not only multi-disciplinary, but internally multi-faceted as one pope introduces new themes even while circling back upon the work of his predecessors. It is the Roman way to introduce new considerations while at the same time tightening their connection to the preceding tradition.” It is obvious that Pope Francis has “tightened the connection” of his magisterium to that of prior popes when one considers how he relies on Paul VI for the link between evangelization and development in Evangelii Gaudium, or his recapitulation of the teaching of John Paul II and Benedict XVI on creation in Laudato Si’. Yet what are the “new considerations” in Francis’s contribution to Catholic social doctrine? One important place to look is his proposal of four new principles of Catholic social teaching in EG ## 217-237, principles which also reappear at various places in LS (see ## 110, 141, 178, 198, 201). These new principles are: “time is greater than space” (EG ## 222-25); “unity prevails over conflict” (## 226-30); “realities are more important than ideas” (## 231-33); and “the whole is greater than the part” (## 234-37).
Someone with a simplistic understanding of CST as the application of a set of timeless, theoretical principles to new social conditions will wonder how there could be any new principles. Such a view might be incorrectly prooftexted from magisterial documents (e.g. Sollicitudo rei socialis # 4). Rather, Francis is making explicit with his new principles what has been implicit in the prior teaching and activities of the Church: that CST is not merely a theory about the nature of society, but a socially-embodied practice that seeks to achieve the flourishing of society. We might say that Francis’s new principles reveal that CST is a practice that 1) has an intrinsic relation to the end described by the theory, a just and peaceful society; and 2) thus has, to use Alasdair MacIntyre’s language, goods internal to its mode of applying the theoretical principles to social realities beyond mere expediency to that end. The further implication of Francis’s new principles is that the object of CST’s theoretical knowledge, a peaceful and just society, can only be achieved by cultivating a “peaceful and multifaceted culture of encounter” (EG # 220) through an improved practice of CST in harmony with others in society.
Francis outlines his four principles in chapter four of EG, which is devoted to the “social dimension of evangelization.” The immediate context concerns attaining peace by means of social dialogue. The principles “derive from the pillars of the Church’s social doctrine” (# 221), namely, the dignity of the human person, the common good, subsidiarity, and solidarity. Lest the pillars remain “mere generalities which challenge no one” (# 182), Francis proposes his new principles to guide the application of the pillars in constructing a peaceful society. In this way he affirms in the order of theory the priority of the pillars, for his new principles “derive” from them; but in the order of practice he affirms the priority of social process, dialogue, and encounter. When one learns the origins of Leo XIII’s seminal encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891) in both nineteenth-century lay European “social Catholicism” and the Thomistic theorizing of Leo’s theologians, one recognizes that this twofold priority has always been more or less operative in the Church’s approach to the social question.
Each of Francis’s axioms is meant to counteract and overcome ineluctable tensions that arise in the life of any social body. For example, “time is greater than space” speaks to the tension between “fullness and limitation,” between hoping for continued improvement along the future horizon (“time”) and the tendency to hold onto already established privileges, powers, or institutional responses in the present moment (“spaces”). Francis writes that this axiom should lead us to prefer “processes” over “spaces,” since “time governs [and] illumines” spaces (# 223). This axiom depends on deeper theological concepts such as time and even sin, yet it is meant to push the practitioner of CST to act by initiating new processes with a patient eye toward the future, in accordance with the objective criteria for achieving true human flourishing.
Another axiom is that “realities are greater than ideas,” corresponding to the tension between the ideas of politicians and social theorists for change and the realities to be changed. “Ideas,” Francis teaches, “are at the service of communication, understanding, and praxis” (# 232). When ideas do not correspond to reality’s true nature, they cannot inspire effective action. The disconnection between words and things leads to “formal nominalism” and “rhetoric,” generating a political discourse that fails to inspire people. What does inspire people to action are “realities illumined by reason.” The other tensions addressed by the other two maxims are divergent responses to conflict (“unity prevails over conflict”) and local and global considerations (“the whole is greater than the part”).
The orientation of these principles to action implies that applying CST to social realities is itself a practice normed by CST’s own moral-social vision about what conduces to human flourishing. Just as the virtues are necessary means to happiness, so that one could say that the virtues are constitutive of happiness, so the practice of CST is a means intrinsically related to achieving a just society. A correct process of application constitutes a part of the peaceful society insofar as the application requires active dialogue with others in the midst of social tension. Peace in dialogue itself anticipates the social peace to be achieved. So the end is contained in the practice, and the practice in the end. Hence Francis says in EG # 221 that “these four specific principles . . . can guide the development of life in society and the building of a people where differences are harmonized within a shared pursuit. I [offer them] out of the conviction that their application can be a genuine path to peace within each nation and in the entire world.” The process of CST (encounter through dialogue) is constitutive of the goal (a peaceful and just society).
Take the example of “unity prevails over conflict.” Two parties opposed to one another could either ignore their conflict or they could become “prisoners” to it (EG ## 226-27). But if those parties come together to dialogue about their conflict, they have already in an inchoate way achieved the goal of unity. The practice of dialogue is therefore not just an efficient means to unity and then to peace, but the necessary means to it. This makes sense when one remembers that society, like a successful dialogue, is nothing other than a cooperative peace, an operational unity of many different persons, families, and communities. The participant members of society lose something when they are forced into unity, rather than overcoming conflict together in cooperation with one another.
Pope Francis’s contribution, therefore, is to discuss explicitly how CST is a social theory that should both generate and be generated from a way of life oriented as a necessary means to perfecting the discipline’s subject matter, society. As a praxis, it necessarily involves various “encounters” or dialogues between government and people, scientists and ethics, proposals and realities, between religions, and so on. Should we expect anything different from a pope whose personal style is best summed up in the word, “encounter”?
Barrett Turner is assistant professor of theology at Mount St. Mary’s University, in Emmitsburg, MD. He recently completed his doctorate in moral theology and ethics at the Catholic University of America, writing on the development of the Church’s social doctrine on religious liberty.
 Russell Hittinger, “The Coherence of the Four Basic Principles of Catholic Social Doctrine: An Interpretation,” in Proceedings of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences , ed. Margaret Archer and Pierpaolo Donati, no. 14 (Vatican City: Pontificia Academia Scientiarum Socialium, 2008), 77.