Human institutions and salvation

Human institutions aren’t just for breakfast or play time or work time. The Compendium of Social Doctrine observes the following:

…worldly things and human institutions are ordered, according to the plan of God the Creator, towards people’s salvation, and that they can therefore make no small contribution to the building up of the Body of Christ.” (CSD §11)

First off, I think it is safe to say that the CSD is not calling for the establishment of Christian fast food chains, nor for Catholic bowling alleys. Rather, it takes a broader perspective. Human institutions as such “are ordered … towards people’s salvation.” Let us consider for a moment how this can be, since we are so accustomed to living in a world where the divides between secular and sacred make such a thought seem downright theocratic to us, perhaps.

So we begin with the observation we made in a previous post: Man is a social creature, and so it is good for me to have fellowship with others. It is not good for me to be alone. So I do have fellowship with others. I probably need more of this myself, but we naturally seek out other people because it is good and healthy for us to spend time with them.

This being the case, it is inevitable that we are going to want some of our gatherings to have more lasting, more permanent existence. We apply our brains to our gatherings, and out of that brainpower comes order: the birth of an institution. It takes on a structure, with some people doing one thing and others something else, but all for the common good of the institution’s members. But we are not the only ones who have plans for our institutions and groups. God has a plan, too, as the CSD points out. And His plan is that our institutions are ordered to the end of people’s salvation. Again, it is the common good in view (not just one individual’s salvation).

Well, how can this be?

I will freely concede that it is obscure at best to me how an institution like Pizza Hut is ordered to my salvation, no matter how much I like their stuffed crust pizza (which I happen to like a lot). But the CSD has a bit more to say in §11 about the subject:

Priests, men and women religious, and, in general, those responsible for formation will find herein a guide for their teaching and a tool for their pastoral service. The lay faithful, who seek the Kingdom of God “by engaging in temporal affairs and directing them according to God’s will,” will find in it enlightenment for their own specific mission. Christian communities will be able to look to this document for assistance in analyzing situations objectively, in clarifying them in the light of the unchanging words of the Gospel, in drawing principles for reflection, criteria for judgment and guidelines for action. (emphasis in original)

In short, when Christian morality and principles are brought to bear on our institutions, one effect is to nurture the spiritual life of those within them and of those who come into contact with them. In more general, natural terms, I can imagine a certain benefit which is ordered to salvation: the exercise of charity as the guiding principle of human institutions should by rights have the effect of nurturing charity both among an institution’s workers and likewise those served by it. And one way that we love God is by loving our neighbor.

Okay, I don’t know exactly how persuasive that is. But it makes at least a little sense to me, so I am going to go with it.

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Posted in Rerum Novarum

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