Social Encyclicals and Social Sciences

Author: Fr Paul-Anthony McGavin

Social Encyclicals and Social Sciences

Paul-Anthony McGavin
Priest of the Archdiocese of Canberra and Goulburn, Australia

Reflection on Caritas in Veritate

Social Encyclicals are not written by social scientists, nor firstly addressed to social scientists. They are, rather, theological discourses occasioned by particular social issues. As such, Papal social Encyclicals may legitimately be subject to critique by social scientists from the perspectives of their expertise. That, however, is not the core purpose of this essay. My main purpose is to highlight the methodology that Pope Benedict XVI espouses in Caritas in Veritate. As may be expected, his methodology is theological, but it displays an approach and a manner of proceeding that has a wider relevance to other areas of investigation, and, not least, to investigation and applications that fall under the wide-ranging heading of "social sciences".

Areas comprehended by "social sciences" include: economics, politics, sociology, public policy, organisational behaviour, corporate governance — to name but a few. The methods for these areas of investigation and ensuing applications may seem remote from "theology". At least this is so when theology is viewed as treating the data of God's self-revelation and action: how do we know the nature of the unknowable God? — because God reveals his nature; how do we know the purposes of God? — because God manifests these in his acts. In this sense, theology treats what God makes known — what we call "revelation". And in this sense, theological method is mainly "deductive": that is, theology mainly makes inferential deductions from the data of revelation of God's nature and acts (particularly in "sacred history" and in "salvation", and, supremely, in the Person of Jesus Christ).

The deductive perspective is central for the present Holy Father (and for his predecessors). An example in Caritas in Veritate is his appeal at n. 45 to the 'datum' of revelation. Although fundamental for Pope Benedict XVI, this perspective does not, however, fully encapsulate his method (nor that of his predecessors). The present Holy Father also emphasises the "inductive" method. The strength of this emphasis is seen in his strategic use of the term "discover" (or "re-discover") (nn. 2 1 , 27). He does not use these terms simply inductively — because for him, contemporary "discovery" in de-Christianised societies may be to hear for the first time the proclamation of the Gospel, or in the cultural decay of contemporary society for it to re-discover the roots of its cultural vitality. But the Pope's language of "discovery" also comprehends inductive method as used in modern social sciences — it comprehends objective investigation of an experiential world.

Yet this last aspect of "discovery" espoused by the Pope nevertheless remains "theological" (although "philosophical theology" in its method). This is so because it is predicated upon a classical Catholic understanding of "natural law": that is, the observance of natural processes that allows one to infer a lawfulness that is inherent in the natural order (nn. 35, 52, 59). The Pope at one point embodies this "natural law" approach in a contemporary metaphor, moving from the expression "environmental ecology" to appeal to a "human ecology" (n. 51). That is, just as we can observe degradation of physical ecological environments, we can also observe the degrading of human environments, where the human actors do not observe and respect the inherent conditions for human ecological health and vigour (what he calls "integral human development", nn. 30, 51)

The distinction between "deductive" and "inductive" methods may be taken as a starting point for observing that the Holy Father comprehends an the inductive method, but really has an integrative method. As an example, I refer to the Holy Father's commentary on the wondrous manifestations of human nobility and dignity found across all cultures and all ages — as a manifestation of the Nature that created this human nature (n. 52). But human folly provides such strong contrary evidence that this manifestation may well not be "discovered", and the understanding of a loving Creator not be induced. The robustness of the Christian understanding is reinforced by "induction", but is really founded upon "deduction", by revelation (eg, "God created man ... in the image of God ...; male and female he created them", Genesis1: 27 ) .

In a sense, this interplay between "induction" and "deduction" is true of the social sciences. The methodology typically is to start with a hypothesis (perhaps partly "induced") and to subject this to empirical investigation, so that the hypothesis ("theory") and the testing of the hypothesis ("empirics" or inductive method) interact to build a robust understanding that provides a basis for applications (policy implications, praxis). Some examples of the methodology at work are stronger than others and I would argue that, in general, what I call "ideologies" represent weaker applications. One example is Communism: Marx's Manifesto is not a sound piece of social science, but a diatribe and a tract — and its application gave rise to much human suffering. Even philosophically, the Manifesto was (is) crude; it gave a "war cry", a "banner", an "ideology"; but it did not give viable applications because it was defective both in deductive and inductive method.

The "ideology" presented as the "occasion" of Caritas in Veritate is that markets (in this case, financial markets) are self-regulating. Crucial to the emergence of recent and present international financial disruptions was the weakness of public policy formulation and governance of financial markets in the USA (particularly of higher-risk housing finance in the so-called "sub-prime mortgage market"). But this break-down in financial markets was not a failure of "social science" as such. The application of soundly-based understandings of economics, corporate governance, public policy, etc., could arguably have averted the worst aspect of this major disruption and its ensuing human hardships. It was "ideology" — an unquestioning belief that markets always "work" and always work to achieve socially desirable outcomes — that was the causal influence, the "driver". This is not to gainsay human greed and folly, but to emphasise instances where "economics" can be blamed or "corporate governance" can be blamed, when it is really expedient recourse to "ideology" that is to be blamed.

It is here that the present Encyclical is at its weakest (and earlier Encyclicals also) — because a Pope cannot be presumed to be conversant with complex social science understandings. As a Bishop and as a theologian, a Pope may have acute theological understanding of human conditions (as is well manifest by our present Pope and recent Popes), but may have secondhand and not-well-informed nor up-to-date understandings of what is known to social scientists. An example of this in Caritas in Veritate is where the Holy Father at n. 37 implies his understanding that the generation of goods and services is compartmentalised in the market order and the distribution of goods and services in the political order. At n. 41 he refers to this as a "binary model" of the market and the state. In fact, however, economic, political and social orders are institutionally integrated. The kind of compartmentalisation or dichotomisation to which the Holy Father alludes is not really a sustainable perspective from an informed social sciences perspective.

Certainly it is common at introductory levels to use a "binary model" — because working in two-dimensions allows a simplified diagrammatic presentation of complex analysis. For example, "wage employment" may be scaled on a vertical axis and "income distribution" scaled on a horizontal axis in order to expound a point of principle. The principle is of the assignment or tying of means and ends, of instruments and purposes. One of the "discoveries" of the Economics of Public Policy is that multiple policy ends (multiple public policy objectives) typically require multiple policy instruments (multiple means of addressing objectives). And where a single instrument is used for multiple objectives, its effectiveness is diminished — especially if an instrument is tied to an objective in respect of which it is weakly instrumental. This is demonstrated time and again where wages policy is used as an instrument of income distribution, with the result that queues for wage employment lengthen and those with lesser labour market skills are deprived of labour market access — and with an attendant diminution in labour market mobility and increases in poverty and criminal activity.

Differences in understanding between theologians and social scientists may arise from philosophical differences. It is, for example, not uncommon for theologians implicitly to draw upon a simplistic "labour theory of value". But the greater differences are in induced or empirical understandings. At a level of praxis, social scientists usually have more informed understandings of social processes than theologians and, thus, are usually more accurate in relevant policy formulation.

Yet it is here, where the Holy Father may seem weakest, that he in fact is strongest: because his Encyclical is predicated upon an approach (a method) of discovery. Essentially, the Holy Father shows himself and the Church as searching for and open to the truth. In this search the Encyclical displays a fine interplay between what is "received" (in the sense of revelation, of tradition, and retrieval of tradition [of "gift"]) and what is "induced" in the sense of empirical observation and implementation, of "praxis". And, further, the Encyclical displays a fine appreciation of what is proper to what the Pope at points refers to as different "spheres" (he particularly speaks of economic, political, and social) and of the inter-penetration of these "spheres" — so that they are not segmented in understanding and in action. And this approach is cast in a re-statement of the principles of "subsidiarity" and of "solidarity" (nn. 41, 47, 49, 57, 58, 67), which has strong resonance with contemporary approaches in areas such as organisational behaviour and corporate governance (see L'Osservatore Romano English edition, 16 September 2009, p. 9).

But, further, the Pope's profound appreciation of the inherent ordering of things (of "natural law") becomes a strong urging that inherent "lawfulness" be discovered in all human "spheres" — whether economic, political, or social. And, moreover, the process of "discovery" is not simply predicated on what is "from man" — it is not simply subjective. It is predicated also on what is "from above", from God. God's self-revelation of love and truth is both the foundation and the thrust of this long and complex Encyclical. The Encyclical is an appeal both to professional competence of the kind outlined in this essay and to moral consistency as understood objectively (n. 71, 45).

It is the discovery of love in truth that is the motive and the end in authentic human endeavour. The Encyclical displays a largeness of mind and of heart, and a great endeavour for action, for praxis, of love in truth as the path and as the means for "integral human development". As such, it is an eloquent call for institutional development to be engaged by persons as actors with God in bringing about God's purposes in his world and in ours (nn. 37, 71, 72). And the Encyclical provides an articulate and cogent paradigm for this discovery and implementation, for action.

Pope Benedict XVI powerfully outlines in this Encyclical the fundamental method, the means and the inspiration for addressing the malaises of our era. As such, his Encyclical is a great and salutary service to the Church and to the world of today.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
25 November 2009, page 12

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