The theologian had just finished talking about Catholic social teaching and someone asked the obvious question about applying it to specific political issues. He swept out his arm as if he were brushing away a fly and said with an unconvincingly self-deprecating chuckle, “That’s for you to work out. I’m just a theologian.” Then he gave us a short pep talk, the canned one, on the importance of the laity in living out Catholic teaching and making sense of it in the complexities of real life.

I was a bit peeved. Not that he’d left the application to us. We divide this responsibility as we do everything in the body of Christ. Some people do the theoretical work, some people the practical. Okay so far. And nothing he said was untrue. But it was all of a degree of generality that left it two or three longs steps from the kind of generalization from which you can derive practical applications. He had the responsibility not just of offering principles but of offering principles that were more than platitudes. The “importance of the laity” pep talk let him punt.

This is a problem even with some official statements of Catholic social teaching. You don’t know what to do with them. I know something about theology and something about politics and I haven’t a clue.

Those explaining the statements will explain that the principles don’t clearly dictate a practice—effectively shrugging and throwing up their hands. You feel as if you’d bought a cookbook in which the recipes only included the lists of ingredients, and those without the amounts, which ended with a note saying “You’re the cook! You figure it out!”

There is a reason for this, of course. Principles need to be applied in different and always complex and ambiguous situations. The people best suited to apply them are the people immersed in the world. The principles will always be imperfectly realized.

And Catholic social teaching does tell us what to do in ways more easily applied to real life. The terms subsidiarity and solidarity have a definite meaning. Conservatives may push subsidiarity too far, as if it’s mainly an argument for very limited government, but they can push it only so far. Liberals may push solidarity too far, as if it’s mainly an argument for expansive government, but they can push it only so far. Both have to exercise their favorite principle in terms of the other.

But still, there’s often too wide a gap between the principle and application, so wide that we have no good way of knowing if we’ve applied the principle at all. This the theologian acknowledged with that sweep of the arm and that chuckle.

It’s not a question that can be worked out here. But I think it does point to a neglected aspect of the laity’s theoretical contribution to the understanding of the life of the Church in the world. The laity develop the teaching and discern the way it should work in real life not so much through the conscious application of principle—because how many people are called to master the principle?—but through the recognition of good, which presses us toward a society that, as Dorothy Day’s mentor Peter Maurin put it, “makes it easier to be good.”

In trying to live as Catholics, and as normal human beings, we identify some things as a good that ought to characterize human life. These are often small things, apparently at some distance from social and political life. Like breastfeeding, to take an example you definitely weren’t expecting. Though now fashionable and more accepted than it used to be, it still requires, as I wrote last week in Crunchy Granola Catholics, a counter-cultural life that social forces make difficult for everyone but the wealthy and make impossible for many of the working poor.

Speaking to a Vatican conference on breastfeeding, St. John Paul II said that “no one can substitute for the mother in this natural activity” but that social conditions make feeding their children themselves over the natural timespan very hard if not impossible for many mothers. He then quoted his declaration in Evangelium vitae that “A family policy must be the basis and driving force of all social policies. . . . It is also necessary to rethink labor, urban, residential and social service policies so as to harmonize working schedules with time available for the family, so that it becomes effectively possible to take care of children and the elderly.”

Then the pope asked “Is this a vague utopia, or is it the obligatory path to the genuine well-being of society?” It’s the second.

Even this brief reflection on the very individual and private act of a mother feeding her infant can lead us to a deep and far-ranging critical rethinking of certain social and economic presuppositions, the negative human and moral consequences of which are becoming more and more difficult to ignore. Certainly, “a radical re-examination of many aspects of prevailing socio-economic patterns of work, economic competitiveness and lack of attention to the needs of the family is urgently necessary.”

It privileges one form of family life that not every Catholic family will see as so definite or necessary a good. Yes, I admit that, but a) these families are the families whose insights for many reasons ought to be privileged; and b) the pope recognized the same thing.

What exactly this means for social and political life is not obvious. St. John Paul II’s ideal is as far from easy application as some of the more obscure statements on Catholic social teaching. But with this crucial difference: the practice as discerned by Catholic parents grounds our thinking in a concrete, specific good, something we can see, and gives us a measure for our theory and our practice. It does so especially when combined with other insights from Catholic life. We know we want to get there. We’re not left quite so lost as the theologian suggested.