A very common way of presenting Catholic social teaching is the formula “see, judge, act.” The method comes to prominence in the social encyclicals of St. Pope John XXIII, who explains it as follows: “First, the actual situation is examined; then, the situation is evaluated carefully in relation to these [church] teachings; then only is it decided what can and should be done.” Doing the right thing is hard enough, but it also depends on judging correctly according to the principles of Catholic social teaching. And judging well depends on seeing well.
St. Pope John XXIII speaks of examining the “actual situation,” but it’s rarely that simple. According to one summary of the method by Catholic Charities USA, seeing well involves a “critical assessment of reality.” This commonly equates to the phrase “signs of the times,” but the proper biblical references (Matt. 16:3; Luke 12:56) make clear that the signs of the times of which Jesus speaks are not “just there.” Instead, Jesus calls for his disciples to “read” them correctly. They aren’t just facts. This “reading” is what requires a “critical assessment”—not “critical” in the sense of being negative or urgent but in the sense of taking a step back, thinking more slowly, working through details, and trying to come to the best possible picture. Seeing society is more than just looking around.
Are we seeing accurately as a society? Let’s take two important public issues: environmentalism and crime. What is a “critical assessment” of the “actual situation” of our care for creation? For some, the language of “climate emergency” fits the catastrophic nature of the situation. Others minimize the threat by suggesting that we can adapt to the gradual warming and typically adding that a fully renewable energy system is unreliable and very expensive. And how about the situation of our cities? For some, criminals run rampant while lenient prosecutors and discouraged police officers stand by. For others, systemic racism and mass incarceration are simply a new version of Jim Crow. The internet makes it unusually easy to find anecdotes, theories, or even video evidence supporting one way of seeing the “actual situation” or the other.
I mention environmentalism and crime because, a couple decades ago, there was broad agreement about seeing certain problems. A global agreement addressed the hole in the ozone layer by banning certain chemicals causing it. In 1990 a strengthened Clean Air Act was signed into law by President George H. W. Bush, addressing that crisis and a number of other environmental threats like acid rain killing forests in the eastern United States. This package of new environmental regulations passed by astonishingly large majorities of both the U.S. House of Representatives (401-21) and the U.S. Senate (89-11).
In 1994 the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act was signed into law by President Bill Clinton to deal with high urban crime. It included provisions for much stronger criminal sentencing, large funding increases to hire more police officers, and a ban on assault weapons. The legislation passed the House on a voice vote, and it was approved in the Senate (95-4). Now, the merits of each of these pieces of legislation have been questioned—most obviously the racist effects of the harsher sentencing guidelines. Overwhelmingly, members of both parties across the spectrum agreed enough on what they were seeing that they could pass quite significant legislation responding to it.
Can the importance of seeing well in Catholic social thought help us overcome our current 50-50 stalemate so that we can once again act to address major social problems? Three things come to mind. First, people have to stop lying and manipulating information simply to support their own view. True, lobbyists, advertising, and political speeches were around in the 1990s—and long before that. But there were real limits on how far you could go and guardrails (e.g., objective journalists) to reinforce those limits. The very names of legislative proposals today are manipulative in the way that the previous examples are not. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says our responsibility under the eighth commandment “forbids misrepresenting the truth in our relations with others.” It uses words like sincerity, candor, and discretion for how we should speak. It rejects duplicity, dissimulation, detraction, and boasting. Seek to communicate, not manipulate. Demand straightforward, truthful, objective speech from those who speak on important public affairs.
Second, we need to start seeing every issue in terms of the common good rather than the interests of individuals or groups. The classic Second Vatican Council definition of the common good explains it in terms of “shared conditions” that benefit everyone—like clean air and basic public safety—and provide the underpinnings for all the different activities of citizens. It’s true that some public issues will involve conflicts between the interests of different groups. It’s the role of politicians who are seeking the common good to discern how to see the interest of the society as a whole in any particular conflict and then to work out compromises. Unfortunately, too often, politics is portrayed as a battle where each side is an advocate for one set of interests, promising that they will “win” and send the other side down to defeat. Do we “see” issues of group conflict as a good-versus-evil battle? Or do we look for how we are all in this together?
Catholic social thought calls us to act. But to act well, we need to see what is really going on.
Third, Catholic social thought has a preference for the poor and marginalized. As Pope Francis urges in the 2020 encyclical Fratelli Tutti (On Fraternity and Social Friendship), we should have the eyes of the Good Samaritan, seeing compassionately those who are bleeding and beaten by the side of the road. In doing so, we need to avoid turning this principle against the previous one, against the common good. Those who are suffering are not an “interest group.” They are people who are forgotten or deplored. Are we “seeing” those who are truly left out of our society’s practices?
Catholic social thought calls us to act. But to act well, we need to see what is really going on. No individual can do this alone. We need to develop a culture of truth-before-advocacy, one that recovers a shared ability to come to a common “critical assessment” of what ails our social world. Only from such a common seeing can we truly work together for the common good and especially for the marginalized. The alternative? A society torn in two by competing political armies seeking to vanquish half the citizenry. That just can’t work for long.
This article also appears in the February 2023 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 88, No. 2, pages 40-41). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.
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