Interview With Professor Russell Hittinger
ROME, 4 MAY 2007 (ZENIT)
Beyond mere policy, Catholic social doctrine
seeks to clarify the proper order and harmony among societies, says a
Catholic author and professor.
Russell Hittinger, the William K. Warren Professor of Catholic Studies
and a research professor of law at the University of Tulsa, spoke
Wednesday at the "Foundations of a Free Society" conference organized by
the Acton Institute, held at the Pontifical Lateran University.
In this interview with ZENIT, Hittinger discusses the history of
Catholic social doctrine, starting with Pope Leo XIII, up to Benedict
XVI's most recent contribution to the body of knowledge in "Deus Caritas
Hittinger's most recent book is "The First Grace: Rediscovering the
Natural Law in a Post-Christian World."
Q: Can you explain the seminal role Pope Leo XIII played in shaping what
we now know to be Catholic social doctrine?
Hittinger: Pope Pius XI [1922-1939] is the first Pope to speak of social
doctrine as a unified body of teachings that develop by way of clarity
In "Quadragesimo Anno," Pius XI said that he inherited a "doctrine"
handed on from the time of Leo XIII. By any measure, it is a prodigious
Beginning in 1878 with the election of Leo XIII, Popes have issued more
than 250 encyclicals and other teaching letters; roughly half are
related, broadly, to issues of social thought and doctrine. No
government, no political party, no encyclopedia or university has
produced such a continuous and voluminous tradition of social thought.
Leo XIII himself wrote some 100 teaching letters.
Why did he write so many encyclicals? The short answer is the collapse
of Catholic political Christendom and the rise of the new secularist
states in the 19th century.
To be disinherited politically was a traumatic event for European
Catholics. Leo XIII understood the need to respond in a measured and
Throughout the world Catholics looked to the papacy to provide
leadership lest Catholicism become divided by the new nation-states.
To his credit, Leo XIII rose to the occasion. Leo XIII saw that he
needed to supply not only juridical but also intellectual leadership.
His teachings proved successful because he was ready to ascertain what
is open or closed in the secular mind, and to use the right mixture of
dialectics and systematics to move the latter toward the former.
He gave Catholics a sophisticated body of thought about social issues
that transcended what could be called simple statements of "policy."
His efforts also proved successful because his lengthy pontificate was
the seedbed for future Popes; hence emerged a remarkably
well-structured, yet quickly evolving body of social doctrine.
Q: Pope John Paul II's encyclical "Centesimus Annus" was written on the
100th anniversary of Pope Leo XIII's encyclical "Rerum Novarum." What
elements from Leo XIII's encyclical are still relevant 100 years later?
What developments in the encyclical were unique to John Paul II?
Hittinger: Like every subsequent Pope, John Paul II expressed his
admiration and profound gratitude for the Leonine project. By my count,
the world in which John Paul II came of age went through three deep
First, after World War I: Nation-states were profoundly demoralized by
the war, and this demoralization became fertile soil for the rise of
totalitarian regimes that Leo XIII could have scarcely imagined.
Second, after World War II: Europe and her former colonies around the
world undertook a painful and searching re-evaluation of their
respective domestic orders, and the international order.
During these years, when Father Karol Wojtyla was a young priest, he saw
the beginning of the human rights movement, the beginning of European
Union, and both the hopes and disorders which followed upon
Third, the revolution in Central and Eastern Europe that ended the Cold
War: "Centesimus Annus" is John Paul II's grand narrative and
philosophical analysis of all these changes.
To be sure, the Leonine principles are quite evident, but John Paul II
deals with the crises of the 20th century.
I encourage people to read both encyclicals because the entire modern
history of the Church is encompassed by the lives of Leo XIII and John
The former was born in 1810, at the zenith of Napoleon's power, and the
latter was born just a decade after Leo XIII's death, and brought the
Church into the new millennium.
Q: Benedict XVI's encyclical "Deus Caritas Est" has elements of a social
encyclical. In what ways does he follow "Centesimus Annus"? Does he
bring a new perspective to Catholic social doctrine?
Hittinger: "Deus Caritas Est" perhaps does not break entirely new ground
in social teaching. But it surely reiterates and makes more clear that
the mission of the Church is not to be confused with the state and the
other temporal instruments of social justice.
Benedict XVI was, of course, familiar with the problem, which surfaced
acutely in certain strands of liberation theology. As the prefect of
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger
had written clear and careful instructions on this subject.
From one point of view, the second half of "Deus Caritas Est" continues
the standing magisterial admonitions about turning the Church into a
mere instrument of politics and the quest for justice.
Beyond the specific questions surrounding liberation theology, however,
Benedict XVI wanted to remind us that while the Church teaches and
promotes social justice, Christ gave the Church a very specific mission
in the order of charity.
The integrity of this mission must be protected. And at a minimum, this
means not confusing it with the ordinary objects and ends of civil
Q: You spoke recently at the Acton Institute event "The Foundations of
the Free Society" in Rome. How is the exercise of virtue important in
building a free and just society?
Hittinger: The natural, acquired virtues and the supernatural virtues
are like spiritual muscles, disposing the intellect and the will to
achieve their proper objects
namely, the true and good.
Some levels of justice and love are achievable with a minimum of virtue,
but such achievement will not last for long without it. Any one who has
married and raised children understands this point. So, too, does any
superior of a religious order or congregation.
The first stirrings of truth and love provide an initial thrust toward
right order. But without virtue they will turn out to be like seeds
thrown on rocky soil.
Today there is a tendency to believe that right order ensues merely from
arranging a rational set of incentives, as though truth and love were
the products of a system.
Whatever "system" contains real human persons
polities, markets, education, families
it cannot succeed without the internal perfections of its members.
Q: Additionally, at the Acton Institute event, your lecture was
entitled: "Societies as Persons in Social Doctrine." You argued that
societies can be defined as a person. What do you mean by this and what
ramifications does it have for Catholic social doctrine?
Hittinger: It should be obvious that social teaching presupposes that
there is such a thing as society.
Indeed, there are many different kinds of society. Some are natural, in
the sense that human life is either impossible or very difficult without
them. In the older tradition common to philosophers, theologians and
jurists, the family and the polity counted as natural societies.
Other societies are voluntary, such as clubs, sodalities, faculties,
corporations and so forth. The Church is a supernatural society, though
it has aspects of both natural and voluntary societies.
In her social doctrine, the Church has repeatedly insisted that we must
carefully note the different objects and ends and modes of unity of
How can we do justice if we don't appreciate these differences?
For example, how can we do justice to a matrimonial society if we treat
it the same as a temporary economic partnership? How can we do justice
to a religious congregation if we treat it no different than a chess
I call societies "persons" in a restricted but important sense. A
society is the bearer of rights and responsibilities that are not
reducible to the aggregation of its members. The rights-and-duties
bearing unity called a "society" is a subject of moral appraisal.
In the moral sense of the term, a society can harm and be harmed. In "Centesimus
Annus," No. 13, this is what John Paul II meant by the "subjectivity of
He simply meant that a society is something more than mere
intersubjectivity; rather, it constitutes a "subject" in its own right.
All of us belong to more than one society.
Catholic social doctrine seeks to clarify the proper order and harmony