by IHE Fellow Andrew M. Yuengert, Ordinary Professor of Economics and Social Thought
“They live in the ordinary circumstances of family and social life, from which the very web of their existence is woven. They are called there by God that by exercising their proper function and led by the spirit of the Gospel they may work for the sanctification of the world from within as a leaven.” – Vatican II, Lumen Gentium
Catholic Social Doctrine (CSD) compares the laity to leaven – mixed thoroughly into society, occupying every social space, acting where they are to sanctify the world. The leaven metaphor (like all metaphors) is imperfect; its limits can help us to see the challenge of communicating CSD to the laity, and inspiring them to act on it to sanctify the social order.
Think about what leaven does. Leaven doesn’t work according to some master plan; it’s not a voting bloc banding together to lobby the bread to rise. It is instead a sort of local catalyst. Each bit of leaven works where it is, converting glucose into CO2; by these separate actions it causes the dough to rise.
The documents of CSD don’t read like a manual for leaven; CSD reads like a manual for ‘bakers’ – for public policy. Unless the leaven decides to lobby for a better baker or different temperatures, the baker’s manual won’t be interesting. Of course, the laity aren’t just ‘leaven’. Catholic citizens care about the social order – about how it is ‘baked’. The principles of CSD serve as a guide for the laity as citizens, but outside of politics – and much of social life is outside of politics! – the laity won’t find much guidance for their other ‘social work’: raising families, building networks of friends, starting informal social initiatives and businesses.
True, Catholics are spread throughout society like leaven, but they are not passive like leaven in the hands of a public policy ‘baker’. Each Catholic (and every person, Catholic or not) is himself a baker, and his work is important to him – as part of his flourishing, as a contribution to the communities to which he belongs, and as a participation in God’s loving work. If CSD is indeed ‘social’, then its most basic principles (human dignity, common good, solidarity, subsidiarity, option for the poor) ought to apply to every social project, embodying wisdom for every family, community, and business. The work of promoting CSD ought to bring its principles down to the level at which the laity live, enabling them to weave those principles into “the very web of their existence.” If Catholics can recognize and embrace that wisdom, at work “in the ordinary circumstances of family and social life,” then the insights of CSD can have their greatest effect, from the ground up.
This perspective is a healthy corrective to the tendency of public policy analysis to overlook the ‘social work’ carried out in families and in small communities. The task of public policy – the design and reform of laws, regulation, and institutions – is crucial, but all too often public policy analysis treats persons like predictable, passive, and manipulable leaven, to be managed solely for the sake of whatever loaf the government is baking. From the personalist perspective of CSD, government is not the only baker; society is full of them, at every level, in every family, Church, business, association, and neighborhood – all doing important work, all necessary for the flourishing of persons and society.
Andrew Yuengert, Ph.D. is an IHE Fellow and an Ordinary Professor of Economics and Social Thought at the Busch School of Business at The Catholic University of America. Dr. Yuengert has made research contributions in several fields: economic philosophy, Catholic Social Teaching, the empirical study of religion, labor economics, and finance. He is a former president of the Association of Christian Economists, and currently serves as editor of its journal, Faith & Economics.