Little Platoon Seminar: Catholic Social Teaching (Guidance for Turbulent Times)

April 15-15, 2023
University of Washington

“It is not possible to understand man on the basis of economics alone, nor to define him simply on the basis of class membership. Man is understood in a more complete way when he is situated within the sphere of culture through his language, history, and the position he takes towards the fundamental events of life, such as birth, love, work and death. At the heart of every culture lies the attitude man takes to the greatest mystery: the mystery of God … When this question is eliminated, the culture and moral life of nations are corrupted.” --POPE ST. JOHN PAUL II (from Centesimus Annus)

Catholic Social Teaching (CST) took formal shape in the late nineteenth century within the context of an emerging capitalism and concurrently emerging Marxist reaction to it; it developed in the 1930s in the face of the Great Depression and the Nazi, Fascist, and Communist alternatives to democracy; and it evolved in the 1960s in connection with the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.  It reached its fullest and most profound elaboration with the celebrated social encyclical of Pope John Paul II in 1991, Centesimus Annus, issued in the aftermath of the collapse of Communism in Europe and end of the Cold War.

Catholic Social Teaching is a great help for orienting yourself in the increasingly troubled, complicated, and dangerous times in which we live.  A familiarity with CST will help you to understand and evaluate constitutional orders, political systems, political parties, social policies, and cultural trends.  Rooted in Scripture, the Fathers of the Church, and an array of Catholic thinkers and activists over the centuries, CST is one of the Catholic Church’s greatest contributions to the modern world.  We ignore or neglect it to our detriment.  And it is not for Catholics only.  Though growing out of the tradition of the Catholic Church as it encountered modern economic and political systems, CST is based largely on human reason and historical experience, and is accessible to all people of good will, of any religion or no religion.

This little platoon will consist of an introductory lecture on CST that features Pope Leo XIII’s seminal letter to the Church, Rerum Novarum, and contributions from popes from Pius XI to Francis and from the Second Vatican Council.  Then students will discuss CST based on their reading of portions of Centesimus Annus, which presents CST in a most comprehensive, insightful, and up-to-date way.  After concluding remarks, everyone will be served lunch.

Dr. James Felak

James Ramon Felak is the Newman Center Term Professor in Catholic Christianity at the University of Washington.  He specializes in the history of East Central Europe and the History of Christianity, especially Catholicism, and is especially interested in the topics of nationalism, religion, communism, fascism, and democracy.  He regularly teaches courses on the history of Christianity, on modern European and East Central European history, and on “Catholic Classics in Historical Context.”  He is author of three books–two on Catholics in Slovakia in the 1930s and 1940s, and the most recent one on Pope John Paul II’s visits to his native Poland during and right after Communist rule over that nation.  That latter book, entitled The Pope in Poland: The Pilgrimages of John Paul II, 1979-1991, draws heavily from the dozens of speeches the Pope made while in Poland, as well as from documents of the government, the Communist Party, and the political police on the papal visits.  It presents and analyzes John Paul’s use of Poland’s history and saints in his addresses to his compatriots, his outreach to ethnic and religious minorities, his views on Poland’s place in Europe, his defense of truth and human rights, and his clever engagement with the political authorities.  Felak is from a steel mill town in southwestern Pennsylvania, and is married with four children.