Interview With Richard Myers of Ave Maria Law School

The author of a new encyclopedia on Catholic Social Thought explains why he believes the encyclopedia is needed, and why Catholic Social Teaching remains one of the Church’s best kept secrets.

Richard Myers, professor of law at the Ave Maria School of Law, is a co-editor of the two-volume “Encyclopedia of Catholic Social Thought, Social Science, and Social Policy,” published by Scarecrow Press. The other co-editors are Michael Coulter, Stephen Krason and Joseph Varacalli.

The work is a compilation of the teachings of the Church on society, social relations and the human person. It has approximately 850 entries from nearly 300 contributors, including prominent scholars, theologians and Church leaders such as Cardinal George Pell of Sydney.

In this interview with ZENIT, Myers explains why he believes the encyclopedia is needed, and why Catholic social teaching remains one of the Church’s best-kept secrets.

Q: Why is this Encyclopedia necessary now?

Myers: There have been pleas from successive popes that efforts should be made to make the Church’s social teaching better known. This encyclopedia is very much a response to that call.

The message of Catholic social teaching is timeless in a way, because it is an effort to bring the Gospel message to bear on the realities of social life. But I do think there is particular urgency to present this teaching at this time.

Pope John Paul II spoke frequently about the crisis in the modern world. There is a widespread sense that we are at A great turning point in world history. The Church’s social teaching has much to offer in shaping the hearts and minds of all individuals of good will and in shaping the culture.

The encyclopedia is also necessary because there is literally nothing else like it available.

Q: Why is Catholic social teaching such a mystery, not just to society at large, but also to many practicing Catholics?

Myers: I think there are many reasons for this. First, it is because of the many issues included within Catholic social teaching. Sometimes, people think of Catholic social teaching as consisting solely of the social encyclicals since “Rerum Novarum” in 1891. But the teaching is far broader than that.

The Church’s social teaching is designed to contribute to nothing less than a proper understanding of man’s place in the world and in human society — dealing with areas including human rights, the universal destination of goods, the family, the nature of human work, economic life, politics, environmental issues and issues of war and peace.

So, because of the great variety of issues addressed by Catholic social teaching, many fail to see that the teaching has a structure and a coherence that aid in understanding its full richness.

Second, the Church’s social teaching has developed incrementally — often in response to controversies such as industrialization or globalization or encounters with systems of thought such as Communism — and has not often been discussed in a comprehensive manner. I think that, as a result, many have failed to recognize the vast scope of the Church’s social teaching.

Third, I think there is a great temptation in the modern world to think that religion only deals with a narrow set of spiritual issues — such as the profession of faith, worship, and the sacraments — and that one’s faith doesn’t speak to the secular world of work, family life, economics and politics. However, the Church has fought against this sort of separation.

The Catholic faith is comprehensive in the sense that it speaks to theological doctrines but also provides insights into the moral realm and Catholics, particularly lay Catholics, have a right and a duty to defend in the public square the moral truths concerning the individual rights and society and the common good.

Q: How can Catholic social teaching be made more accessible to ordinary Catholics in the pew?

Myers: This is certainly a challenge. There must be a commitment on the part of all Catholics to proper formation emphasizing that the Church doesn’t speak to a narrow set of theological issues, but has something profound to offer about the basic realities of social life.

We view the encyclopedia as one effort to contribute to this task. Although the two-volume work is necessarily quite large, it is in reality quite manageable. The entries are mainly 1,000-1,500 words in length, so they provide a relatively brief discussion of key documents, themes and individuals who have helped to shape the Church’s teaching.

We sought to make the encyclopedia accessible to any educated Catholic, so the entries try to avoid academic jargon and overly technical terms, while still retaining a high scholarly level. We also provide appropriate cross-references and bibliographies for people who are interested in further study.

We believe that the encyclopedia will be particularly useful to those charged with transmitting the faith — including priests and others who teach the faith in schools and parishes. An increased emphasis on Catholic education is really critical and we hope that the encyclopedia will contribute to this task.

Q: How does the new encyclopedia complement the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, which came out in 2004?

Myers: Both the Compendium and the encyclopedia respond to the same basic need to make the Church’s social teaching better known. When we started our project in 2000, the Compendium didn’t exist. And although we didn’t coordinate our efforts, the two projects actually complement each other quite well.

The Compendium states the teaching at a more abstract theoretical level, whereas the encyclopedia’s distinctiveness lies, I think, in its particularity. The encyclopedia contains nearly 850 specific entries on key documents and persons who have developed Catholic social teaching and on the organizations that put that teaching into practice.

Q: Do you see the richness of the Church’s social teaching as a tool in the work of evangelization?

Myers: Yes, of course. The Church views her social teaching in precisely this manner. In his encyclical “Sollicitudo Rei Socialis,” John Paul II stated: “The teaching and spreading of her social doctrine are part of the Church’s evangelizing mission.” The Compendium makes the same point and links the Church’s social teaching to the new evangelization.

The Second Vatican Council taught that earthly realities and human institutions ought to be ordered to man’s salvation and that, properly understood, they can help to build up the Body of Christ. The Church’s social teaching, as is true of all of the Church’s teaching, is ultimately rooted in the truth of Jesus Christ and it is imperative that this be proposed to modern man.

Q: Catholic social teaching is quite radical in many respects. Why is it so much less well-known than teachings on life issues or sexual morality, for example?

Myers: I think there are a variety of reasons for this. First, the Church’s social teaching is difficult to describe in simple terms that can be captured in a sound bite or on a bumper sticker. The Church’s social teaching begins with foundational principles — such as the nature of the human person and the social nature of man — and then moves to a wide range of applications in the concrete situations of the modern world.

Many of the concrete applications reflect difficult prudential judgments about which the Church hasn’t spoken authoritatively. As a result, it may be true that the clarity of the teaching hasn’t come through.

Second, there has been a tendency for political actors to try to hijack Catholic social teaching in the service of partisan political causes. This happens on the both the left and the right, and I think this phenomenon leads some Catholics and others of good will to dismiss the whole project.

However, in contrast to the narrow vision of man offered by the modern world, the social teaching of the Church offers man a vision of great grandeur. It emphasizes man’s eternal destiny, and the need for us to pursue holiness and the perfection of charity in this world.

It is in the practical day-to-day world that we have an obligation to promote this richer vision of man and the Church’s social teaching provides the way in which to think about how this ought to be done.