Catholic Social Doctrine: The Autonomy of Earthly Realities

Catholic Social Doctrine teaches that:

 “the more that human realities are seen in the light of God’s plan and lived in communion with God, the more they are empowered and liberated in their distinctive identity and in the freedom that is proper to them.” Comp. of the Social Doctrine of the Church (CSD) #45

This teaching leads us to a correct approach to earthly realities and their autonomy.

The Second Vatican Council in Gaudium et Spes (GS) emphasized this autonomy. The council fathers said, in part,

“If by the autonomy of earthly affairs we mean that created things and societies themselves enjoy their own laws and values which must be gradually deciphered, put to use and regulated by men, then it is entirely right to demand that autonomy. This….. harmonizes also with the will of the Creator. For by the very circumstance of their having been created, all things are endowed with their own stability, truth, goodness, proper laws and order. Man must respect these….” GS 36

There is no conflict between God and man but rather a relationship of love and mutual giving. The fruits of man’s activity in the world are objects of a gift to God and to His children. The rightful autonomy of creation as defined above never stands in opposition to, or contradiction of, God’s love and creative will. It stands as an autonomous gift, in which God has revealed Himself.

The human person transcends the limits of creation and its autonomy, because his end is God himself. Man is alienated if he does not transcend himself and fails to give himself to God to whom he is oriented. Society is alienated from itself if its social organization and economy make it difficult for man to offer himself in this way both to God and to his fellow human beings.

Earthly realities have their own autonomy, but as created realities they are both provisional and relative. There is what is called an eschatological relativity, in the sense that man and the world are moving towards their end, which is fulfillment of their destinies in God. There is also a theological relativity insofar as the gift of God is infinitely greater than human possibilities and expectations. Thus, any totalitarian vision of the State, and any purely intra-worldly ideology of progress are contrary to the truth of the human person and to God’s plan in history.

Why is all of this so important? One reason that makes sense to us all is this teaching warns against two extreme forms of social and political structure: Atheistic socialism/communism on one hand, and theocracies on the other.

For a more detailed discussion of this topic, refer to The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, nos. 45-48

About Deacon Bob

Moderator: Deacon Bob Yerhot of the Diocese of Winona-Rochester, Minnesota.
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