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The Second Bill of Rights

The Second Bill Of Rights 

February 21, 2023 |  1,431 words  |  Politics, Philosophy, Religion

More on Christianity versus Liberal Democracy

Everyone is always singing the praises of liberal democracy, but these days many enthusiasts are expressing concern about the future of the institution.  Populist uprisings here in the United States and across Europe are seen as threatening the rule of law, and the idea of free and fair elections.  It seems the will of the people is not always a reliable arbiter of social policy, at least not when it contradicts that of our leading opinion-makers, or of the cognoscenti already in power.

But hasn’t that always been the dark underside of the radical autonomy ushered in by classical liberalism a half a millennium or so ago, and which defines the liberal democratic order?  

Most democracies have historically tried to mitigate the potential damage of an unrestrained outbreak of radical autonomy by limiting the franchise to the right kind of people.  While still describing their elections as “free” and “fair.”  In the case of our country’s Founders, some of the most revered signers lobbied hard for only property owners to cast ballots.  The common rabble was thought of as not having a vested interest in the outcome, and couldn’t be relied upon to vote responsibly.  This sort of gerrymandering has been happening ever since, both here and abroad, in one form or another.

The current state of classical liberalism, like that of liberal democracy, is also being hotly debated, at least among certain elite thinkers and opinion-makers.  Some are explaining “Why (Classical) Liberalism Failed.”  Others are contributing to forums asking “Is (Classical) Liberalism Worth Saving.”  The crux of the problem seems to be the way individual autonomy, when taken to an extreme, threatens the civil liberties of the wider community.  This puts a strain on the rule of law and makes it difficult to keep things from unraveling completely.  The potential for complete social unraveling has been a recurring theme under classical liberalism and liberal democracy, since it’s hard to avoid such extremes of behavior where flawed human beings are concerned.

As a culture we have agreed this strain is worth putting up with, in return for enjoying wonderful everyday liberties like religious freedom and freedom of speech.  Not to mention the crown jewel of classical liberalism: free market economics.  This last has bestowed untold riches on even ordinary working people, as basic income has increased 25 times in real terms since 1800.  

That is quite an impressive statistic, one many economists are fond of citing.  But there is more to the story, now that we are several centuries into the grand narrative.  After envisioning the ideal of a truly globalized economy for hundreds of years, we have finally arrived at its universal implementation.  And what is there to report?  The interests of most people in developing countries are being served quite well, along with the interests of elites in advanced countries.  Meanwhile, the interests of the working and middle classes in developed countries are being served hardly at all.  The very people that did so well in the three decades after World War II.

Which goes a long way toward explaining the populist uprisings being experienced here in the United States and across Europe.

It’s not that we should have stuck with the so-called “mercantile” economic system that proliferated in the 16th Century.  Only that when we started to substitute laissez-faire economics as part of an embrace of classical liberalism, we unfortunately turned our back on Christianity.  This expressed itself in a new focus on individual freedom as opposed to a concern for the common good.  This change in focus has yielded the injustices and glaring inequities we are experiencing in our free market system today.  Despite the post-1800 “enrichment” economists are forever raving about.  


We are taught the liberties and freedoms espoused by classical liberalism and codified in the liberal democratic order are contingent on limiting the size of government.  But when classical liberalism was first getting off the ground a half a millennium or so ago, it wasn’t “big government” in the cross hairs.  The new, revolutionary concept of individual emancipation was seen as a liberation from all previously held authority, custom, and tradition.  In other words, the elite thinkers and opinion-makers of the day were making a conscious decision to topple Christianity, the authority of record and primary keeper of custom and tradition, in favor of having us all go our own way.  In morals, politics, and economics.

The irony is that so many of today’s most enthusiastic advocates of limiting government so as to unleash economic growth consider themselves to be faithful Christians, without realizing their economic prescriptions are often at odds with the essential precepts of Christianity.


The presidential administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1933-1945) remains an object of ridicule for those who see a commitment to limited government as the driving force behind our nation’s remarkable success.  FDR is still a poster child for what many regard as socialist policies that are anti-American and stifle economic advancement.  While I am not qualified to debate the relative merits of Roosevelt’s many legislative initiatives, or care to defend his long and varied record in public office, I will say this: There is no denying the man’s life-long interest in social justice issues, first developed during his time at Groton Prep School in Massachusetts,  which he entered at age 14.

A much older FDR unveiled what he described as a “Second Bill of Rights” during his last State of the Union address, delivered to Congress  in January 1944.  (His better known and more frequently cited “Four Freedoms” speech was presented during his State of the Union address of three years earlier.)  By 1944 he had accumulated quite a bevy of boisterous critics, and they pounced on this particular speech as nothing less than a radical reworking of the American creed.

Instead of simply ratifying the central idea of classical liberalism, which defines “freedom” as protection from the abusive powers of government (described by some as “negative freedom”), Roosevelt proclaimed government could provide citizens with “positive freedoms,” in the form of tools they need to live lives of honor and dignity.

Here is the slippery slope of “How Classical Liberalism Morphed Into New Deal Liberalism,” as one scholar has put it.  FDR’s wacky and wild-eyed 1944 bullet points included:

  •  The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the Nation.
  •  The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation.
  • The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living.
  • The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad.
  • The right of every family to a decent home.
  • The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health.
  • The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment.
  • The right to a good education.

Roosevelt’s many ideological opponents, then and now, abhor even the slightest hint that government should provide any of the above.  And who knows, maybe they are right.  Maybe it is Corporate America that should take a closer look at this Second Bill of Rights, and figure out how to work a social conscience into its playbook.  Maybe being profitable isn’t the only thing a successful corporation owes the wider community. 

Regardless of who does what, it’s obvious there is a shortfall being generated by our current approach.  It is equally obvious that everything in Roosevelt’s idealistic (quixotic? unrealistic?) Second Bill of Rights aligns with the precepts of Christianity, and constitute what might be described as the Christian social order.  That we are no longer willing to acknowledge that, and no longer wish to discuss the situation in those terms, reveals how our commitment to the liberal democratic order has led to our complete rejection of Christianity.

So, listen, by all means let’s continue with this emancipation of the individual and this limiting the size of government.  Or, emancipating the individual and expanding government as needed to address the social fall-out.  Either way, if the objective is a well-ordered society, where every citizen has a reasonable shot at leading a life of honor and dignity, all these liberated individuals (and corporations) should consider an emergency infusion of empathy.  

Especially that segment of the population who are clever or advantaged and get to live above the fray.  For they too often employ a radical autonomy as their modus operandi.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.

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Selective Ridicule

Selective Ridicule

February 13, 2023 | 1,198 words | Politics, Philosophy, Religion

Christianity versus Liberal Democracy

Everyone is always singing the praises of “liberal democracy” these days.  Not only is it universally thought of as the best possible form of government, it’s the only one any reasonable person will even consider.  This despite the strife and turmoil being experienced in democracies around the world.  And despite how we here in the United States have not done a particularly good job over the last 250 years keeping some of our own golden promises, such as the “all men (and women?) are created equal” clause in our country’s founding documents.


Somehow coming up short on such a fundamental premise has not prompted Americans to re-think their enthusiasm for, or question their commitment to, the liberal democratic “rule of law.”  Probably because they see it as the only game in town.


Christianity, on the other hand, has not been so lucky.  It no longer elicits the same degree of loyalty it once did.  In searching for a viable operational system that works for modern-day society, many elite thinkers and leading opinion-makers passed on the idea of religious belief and practice a long time ago.


And the rest of us have followed suit.  Christianity is no longer seen as a reliable arbiter of social thought or and public behavior, having been relegated to a merely private matter with no bearing on the larger community.


There is a consensus among opinion-makers and common folk alike that Christianity has been tried and found wanting.  It enjoyed its time at the top, running the show, but failed to deliver peace and prosperity.  Determined to find a better way, we adopted a system of “checks and balances” and now assume the problem is solved.  But there is something askew with the conventional wisdom.  Look how mightily our three branches of government have struggled to mete out simple justice over the last 250 years.  Then consider how much harder it has been for Christianity to get the mass of Western humanity to embody the divine directive “love your neighbor as yourself” for the last two millennium. 


Yet that degree-of-difficulty does not earn the Catholic Church, as the primary purveyor of Christianity for much of history, any wiggle room in the public eye.  Christianity in general, and Catholicism in particular, has been shunted to the side of any serious political science discussion.  Apparently, the Achilles heel of Catholicism is that it operates without consulting “the will of the people.”  This makes its shortcomings and outright failures more reprehensible, and less forgivable, than those of a run-of-the-mill secular institution. 


My contention is this: There was no reason to abandon the Christian social order half a millennium or so ago in favor of classical liberalism – the ideology at the heart of the liberal democratic order – due to the so-called failure of the former.  When things go wrong it is not necessarily the operating system in question that is to blame, but the people attempting to apply the system.  Flawed human beings trying to implement the lofty objectives of liberal democracy are no better or worse than the flawed humans who have been trying to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ. 


We have been taught that liberal democracy is synonymous with reason, and is therefore the rational alternative.  But instead of an objective analysis of the advantages and benefits of one system (liberal democracy) versus the other (Christianity), we have embraced liberal democracy (and rejected Christianity) based on a highly emotional appeal to liberating the individual from any prior constraint: moral, political, and economic.  This liberation, it should be noted, is widely viewed as the key to “human flourishing.”


Having said that, I realize many Christians who embrace liberal democracy and the broader tenets of classical liberalism do not see themselves as rejecting Christianity.  Far from it.  In my experience, they typically see the liberal democratic order as a perfect embodiment of their Christian ideals.  A timely update, if you will, of the Christianity they know and love and profess belief in.  But to my mind that’s only because these well-intentioned souls have been let down by their teachers, and cannot see the forest for the trees.




There are many things to like about liberal democracy in the abstract:  Representative government with free and open elections.  The protection of individual liberties such as freedom of speech, and freedom of religion.  With these rights being codified in law, and therefore not subject to the whim of an unelected ruler.  Along with an emphasis on the separation of powers, an independent judiciary, and a system of checks and balances between branches of government.  But these lovely-sounding concepts are fatally undermined by the faulty  premise at the heart of classical liberalism, which serves as the ideological wellspring and jumping off point for liberal democracy.


That premise involves elevating individual autonomy and individual freedom and individual rights above any other consideration, such as the common good.  Classical liberalism asserts the individual knows best, does not require any guidance in moral, political, or economic matters, and should therefore be set free to direct his or her own path in life.  Unencumbered by any previously-held authority, custom, or tradition.


Following this line of thought, there is a corresponding belief in the power of the individual to figure everything out as he or she goes along, and that things in the larger society will work out for the better, eventually.


If you are looking for a quick explanation of how liberal democracy currently functions in opposition to Christianity, I would offer this straightforward observation.  The former encourages chutzpah in all things, while the latter encourages humility.


I would also suggest the Achilles heel of classical liberalism and liberal democracy is that it removes all limits to individual appetite.  It assumes an invisible hand and enlightened self-interest will corral and mollify age-old, socially-corrosive predilections such as pride, greed, wrath, envy, lust, gluttony, and sloth.




It seems that Christianity in general, and Catholicism in particular, has spent the last century or so trying to adapt belief and practice to the liberal democratic order, in one way or another.  For the Anglican Church, a seminal event might be the Lambeth Conference of 1930.  For the Catholic Church, the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) comes to mind.


I am not critical of these efforts.  But I do think the larger society would reap more benefit if the adaptation came from the opposite direction:  If the liberal democratic order, which now reigns supreme, could bring itself to work the basic precepts of the Christian social order into its thought process.


Giving priority to individual freedom in social, political, and economic life, with the pursuit of individual happiness understood as the highest good, may sound reasonable.  And focusing on limited government and economic freedom to get there does indeed make a degree of sense.  Especially to the clever or advantaged among us. 


But this logic ignores the larger philosophical issue.  Namely, the important role humility and moderation (i.e., limiting individual appetite) play in a well-lived life, and contribute to a well-ordered society.  And how practicing these virtues naturally makes citizens more empathetic toward their fellow citizens.  Especially toward those citizens less advantaged or less clever than themselves.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.

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Ridiculing Catholicism

Ridiculing Catholicism

October 31, 2022  |  4,463 words | Religion, Philosophy, Economics, Politics   

Ridiculing Catholicism for being out-of-touch with the modern world is super easy, and it’s so much fun!  Okay, yes, that sentence is gratuitous, and designed to get your attention. 

You must admit, though, there does seem to be a thriving cottage industry that has grown up around trashing the Church’s track record.  As if this bloated, mean-spirited institution has done nothing but impede the overall progress of humanity, while keeping its followers depressed and guilt-ridden for the last two thousand years.

At least that seems to be the consensus among fashionable opinion-makers.  And I have noticed many practicing Catholics now taking up this line, actively participating in what has become a popular parlor game.  

Sure, some of them may be innocently-if-awkwardly expressing a wry sense of humor, or a good-natured anti-authoritarian streak.  But in the main I find such Catholics to be more than a little self-conscious and defensive about their faith.  Many have joined the chorus of complaint as if trying to establish their enlightened (or “woke”) bona fides for secular friends and co-workers.  These folks strike me as being a mite too ready-and-willing to distance themselves from their own narrative, without ever really spending time to learn the ins-and-outs of what went down.  Because, let’s face it, life has always been complicated, and history defies easy categorization.  Instead, they seem to be taking the accusers at their word, ready to assume the worst of their own forebearers.

I was reminded of this while reading an essay/book review by Timothy Egan that appears in the Sunday, October 2 edition of the New York Times (NYT)Mr. Egan’s reflections are prompted by a new “big book” about the Catholic Church’s last 250 years:  Catholicism: A Global History from the French Revolution to Pope Francis, by John T. McGreevey, a professor of history at Notre Dame and author of three previous books on Catholicism.

Not that I have any reason to think Mr. Egan himself falls into this slightly odorous category.  Though I am unfamiliar with his work beyond this one essay, the NYT identifies him as a winner of the National Book Award, with his most recent effort being A Pilgrimage to Eternity: From Canterbury to Rome in Search of a Faith.  At the very least, it would appear Egan takes this stuff seriously, which is always a good start.

But he does manage in this short piece to touch on what has become a familiar litany of Catholic faux pas of the recent past.  The very points of contention secularists use to scorn the Church’s claim to any sort of moral authority.  The same faux pas that make so many Catholics cringe, and compromise their participation in public discourse.

Which is to say, many Catholics are no longer comfortable bringing an authentically Catholic perspective to the discussion of contemporary social issues.  Or comfortable even trying to figure out what that perspective should be.  They have, to a large extent, adopted “accepted wisdom,” and think/speak in the current anti-Catholic vernacular.

In fact, when it comes to criticizing the Catholic Church, Catholics can often be found leading the way, so as not to be criticized themselves for being three steps behind the times.




Timothy Egan begins his October 2 essay/book review with an entertaining anecdote about his fear of authoritarian nuns who wielded a stiff ruler back in grade school, and his disappointment with the priest who, charged with explaining the intricacies of Church history and papal doctrines to 12-year-old charges, could muster nothing better than, “Well, it’s a mystery.”

Mr. Egan and I are the same age, and I am willing to bet our experiences in Catholic school were very similar, even though we grew up on opposite coasts.  I, too, used to comment for comedic effect on how tough the nuns were on us, but did so as a source of pride.  I stopped once I realized this fond memory was being used to tar-and-feather my old teachers as repressed, sadist virgins out for blood.  Go ahead and denigrate me as just another too-polite “good Catholic boy” if you will, but I have always harbored a deep respect for the nuns who taught us in grade school.  These determined, purposeful women really had their you-know-what together, as we used to say.  Even as a kid that level of focus impressed me no end, as did their vocation.  They were willingly giving themselves to a life of service.  In this case, that service was attempting to educate and civilize a room full of six dozen chirping little people, half of whom were young male hooligans.  A sturdy constitution was an absolute prerequisite for taming that crowd.

And what of the fact little Timmy found “all those monarchs and ministers, the papal edicts and parsing of purgatory, (and) the vast inexplicability of the doctrine of infallibility” a spiritual muddle?  Well, can even the brightest twelve-year-old be expected to grasp the intricacies and inner workings of the oldest institution in the Western world?  Can a teacher of such tadpoles really be blamed for keeping things simple and going a little light on the details?    


The two above examples constitute the easy stuff, of course, and Mr. Egan goes on to raise many more challenging concerns.   Catholicism may be vibrant and growing steadily outside of Europe and North America, but “that vibrancy is due in part to a legacy of spiritual imperialism – cross and sword at the head of armed colonizers.”  “Spiritual Imperialism”?  That seems a rather harsh, broad stroke assessment of the admonition we were given in Matthew 28:19, to “Go, and make disciples of all nations…”

Egan is not surprised “a top-down insular institution did not know what to make of government by the people,” and “took a more cautious view of the many democracies that sprouted between the American Revolution and the various revolts of the 19th century.”  This is undeniably true.  But he ascribes the caution to “a faith that had long relied on kings and despots as staunch allies.”  “Relied”?  Couldn’t this so-called reliance just as easily be interpreted as a simple case of judiciously working with what was in place at the time, for the spiritual and material well-being of the population at-large?

Mr. Egan then takes a couple of high-profile 19th century popes to task for being late to the party when it came to appreciating the advantages and benefits of the ascendant liberal democratic order, based on pluralism, that was sweeping over the West.

Exhibit A:  In an 1832 encyclical Pope Gregory XVI wrote that freedom of conscience was likely to “spread ruin,” and freedom of the press seemed “monstrous.”  Exhibit B:  In 1864, Pope Pius IX is said to have formally rejected the idea the Vatican should come to terms “with progress, liberalism, and modern civilization.”

These statements are so anachronistic The Times saw fit to feature them in its Page 3 above-the-fold feature, “Of Interest: Noteworthy Facts from Today’s Paper.”  Reading them, the natural reaction is to think:  Oh, my word, how can anyone with even a modicum of intelligence possibly take the Catholic Church seriously?

But if the reader can look at them in a broader historical context, they become more understandable as part of an intellectual and spiritual continuum that is still worth referencing, and yes, even preserving.

Take the hallowed concept known as freedom of conscience.  This, as we know, is a cornerstone of the modern age, which could be said to have kicked off with the Protestant Reformation (1517).  It then got super-charged by the Enlightenment, which became the ideological inspiration for the American Revolution (1776) and the soon-to-follow French Revolution (1791).  Our revolution, whatever its’ ideological flaws, did not result in the beheading of George III.  The king and queen of France were not so lucky.  Neither were French clergy and orders of women religious.  Somehow the rousing slogan “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” translated into lots and lots of officially sanctioned murder, with much of the bloody mayhem directly aimed at the Catholic Church.  

Under the circumstances, Catholics (and the pope) could be forgiven for continuing to believe in the year 1832 that the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment understanding of individual conscience was still rather problematic, and ran counter to “not my will, but your will be done.”  One might say this is where Catholicism has always differed from the Protestant/Enlightenment ethos.  And still does.

On a side note, getting in touch with God’s will for us is what the Catholic mystics – some of whom are referred to as “doctors” of the Church – are always taking about in their visions.  I would only add that seeking God’s will should not be an idle pastime, reserved for quiet moments of contemplation.  When making important decisions, in either our personal lives or our public, economic/political lives, we should always be appealing to something more objective than individual conscience.  “Conforming our will to God’s” is a phrase Catholics still hear at Sunday Mass on a regular basis.  I take that to mean trying to base our actions on something more than what we may feel is true, or what we may desire for ourselves at any given moment. 

Then there is the old-timey idea that freedom of the press, if unleased on the world, would prove to be monstrous.  But hasn’t that actually come to pass?  Doesn’t our current for-profit free press seem sort of monstrous?  Think Russian hacking of our elections, rampant hate speech on the internet, and political attack ads.  If I was Pope in 1832, I could see myself saying pretty much the same thing Greg XVI did on these two subjects, in pretty much the same way.  Not that he had the last, definitive word, by any means.  Or that we should not continue to adapt/develop the teaching to better embrace/respond to changing times.

 As for Pope Pius IX supposedly condemning “progress” in 1864, that seems an oversimplification designed to get a rise out of those already prone to look down their nose at pre-Vatican II Catholic thought.  As the Church’s shepherd-in-chief, Pius was trying to respond to the rise of capitalism, socialism, and industrialization, and address how these big new developments were damaging the social fabric, and denying average citizens their inherent dignity as human beings.  While he may not have hit the nail on the head in every sentence he penned, he was at least giving it his best shot.  And you may have noticed society is still grappling with these same issues now, in 2022.  “Progress,” you might say, has been a mixed blessing. 


Look, I realize liberal democracy based on pluralism is the form of government we must now work with, and I am not pining for the good old days of a confessional state.  But forgive me if I do not enthusiastically raise a glass and give a robust, revolutionary toast to “the people, the source of all legitimate power.”  Because, based on the two-hundred-year plus record with “the people” being in charge, I am not that impressed with the results.

There is no question these 19th century popes and their teaching are what todays’ reform-minded Catholics want no part of.  They would like nothing better than to see this stuff expunged from the permanent record, to use a contemporary legal phrase.   

I hope my seeing value in the entire two-thousand-year history of how Catholicism has been trying to figure out how best to apply the teaching of a man whose time on earth was short and seemingly inconsequential, does not make me out to be a traditionalist stick in the mud.

It has become commonplace to view the last 250 years of Catholicism’s history as an epic struggle between two opposing factions: reformists and traditionalists.  But I consider myself to be neither.  As an example of my lack of partisanship, I feel no need to play the “good pope, bad pope” game that most everyone I know seems to be caught up in.  Especially since the designations are subject to change depending on the season, and on who is doing the evaluating.

“Pope” strikes me as being a particularly thankless job, one I would not want for all the tea in China.  And the popes of the last few centuries I’ve read something about have all struck me as putting their best foot forward under some trying circumstances.  Even if none of them ever managed to get everything exactly right.


Timothy Egan continues his book review/essay by tackling The Jewish Question, and Catholicism does not fare very well in his estimation, as you may have gathered by now.  He writes that author John T. McGreevy, in the recently published Catholicism: A Global History under consideration, “is dutiful, and at times outraged, in sections that show how the contagion of antisemitism infected so many Vatican leaders.  Social justice attacks on the excesses of capitalism turned into ugly and undisguised tropes against Jews.”

While my academic prowess certainly cannot hold a candle to that of either Mr. Egan or Mr. McGreevey, I have been reading the Church’s social justice attacks on the excesses of capitalism for a few years now, and have yet to notice a particular ethnic group being called out.  The excesses of capitalism are to be found in certain behaviors, and are not the unique purview of any one ethnicity, as far as I can tell.

Mr. Egan continues: “It was the same story in criticism of the rise of communism.  Father Charles Coughlin, the most famous Catholic priest in the United States, promoted conspiracy theories of Jewish global cabals and defended the 1938 Nazi violence of Kristallnacht.”

I am keenly aware the Fr. Coughlin of 1930s fame is one of those lightning-rod figures any respectable Catholic is now supposed to shun out of hand.  And I am certainly not here to come to his defense or make his case.  For one thing, I confess to not knowing anything about the Nazi violence of Kristallnacht in 1938.  But Coughlin was far from a lone voice in drawing attention to what many at the time saw as the undue influence of international bankers that seemed to be driving world conflict.  And while not claiming to be an expert on the matter myself, the Catholic Church did apparently see communism as the greatest evil facing Christianity in the 1930s, before Hitler went nuts.   The record would also seem to demonstrate unequivocally that communism derived its intellectual firepower from a core group of Russian Jews that took the reins there in 1917.  

Then for some reason at this point in his review Mr. Egan drops in a note about how Pope Pius IX, in the middle of the 19th century, condoned the forced conversion and kidnapping of a Jewish boy from Bologna.  Again, pardon me for not knowing the details, but something tells me there is another side to this story, one that does not paint Pius IX in such an appalling, unforgiveable light.

Next, we read about “(a) pair of notorious Vatican agreements – one with Mussolini in 1929, the other with Hitler in 1933 – (that) were designed to protect Catholics.  They were quickly broken and gave the Nazis and Fascists cover for some of their crimes.”

This anecdote almost borders on being a crude exaggeration, not worthy of a serious scholar.   What are we to make of it?  That the Vatican, along with the rest of the civilized world, had yet to learn Mussolini and Hitler were, in fact, the worst possible bad actors?  That the Vatican was wrong to try to protect Catholics?  Or is it to simply show the Vatican was mis-guided in its perception of communism as the greatest threat to humanity?

Yes, that last sentence seems to be the main thrust of this section.  For Mr. Egan then tells his readers: “Thanks to the dogged scholarship of David Kertzer, we know much more now about the unholy alliance between fascism and the Catholic Church.”

On my goodness, an “unholy alliance”?  I certainly would not have wanted to be put in the position of having to choose between the fascists and the communists.  Would you?  Are we to hold the Church in contempt for trying to make some sort of accommodation with what it saw as the lesser of two evils? 

I am also not sure why Joseph Stalin’s massacre of some 20 million Christians in the Soviet Union during this same stretch never seems to make it into these accusatory overviews of the Vatican’s so-called reprehensible calumny with fascism.


Egan closes out his review with the same thing John McGreevey’s book apparently does – the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).  This is generally heralded by progressive Catholics as the singular event that wiped away the Church’s historical sins, and re-made Catholicism for the modern era.

Again, I am no expert, but after reading my fair share of the sixteen (16) documents of Vatican II, I’ve yet to come across anything that strikes me as a paradigm shift in the Church’s self-understanding, or what progressives enthusiastically refer to as “new” theology.  

Though we should give the hopeful progressives their due for the boatload of welcome changes ushered in by the Council which the more radical traditionalists still cannot bring themselves to acknowledge.  As author George Weigel shares in a new book, The Vital Legacy of Vatican II, a few of the highlights would include greater lay participation in all aspects of Church life: liturgical, educational, managerial, evangelical.  Along with fully realizing Catholicism’s claim as a global institution, as churchmen from outside its historic European core began to take prominent roles in shaping the Catholic future.  Then by formally recognizing the altar-and-throne alliances of the past were no longer possible under modern political conditions, the Church has been transformed from a supporter of the political status quo into one of the world’s foremost defenders of basic human rights, and a leading critic of the political status quo.  No matter what your preferred political status quo happens to be.  

Regarding those grouchy traditionalists that do nothing but bash the Council, Weigel, who most would consider a rather staunch traditionalist himself, has this to say:

“Thoughtful assessments of Vatican II and its legacy must acknowledge that the pre-conciliar Catholic past was more brittle and fragile after two world wars, and more vulnerable to the cultural tsunami of the 1960s, than some nostalgic traditionalists imagine.  Moreover, bunker Catholicism is a betrayal of the commission that was central to John XXIII’s original intention for Vatican II: ‘Go… and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them all that I have commanded you (Matthew 28:19-20).’”

Which is not to dismiss the critics of Vatican II altogether, since they have also managed to make a few valid points along the way.  Such as how the council decided to replace the Latin Mass, lock, stock, and barrel, with a Mass said completely in the local vernacular.  While intended to make this central act of Catholic worship more accessible, the effort has in many ways sort of back-fired.  By dispensing with any hint of Latin, Vatican II ushered in a liturgical era in which things have gone a little off the rails, where the Mass has “often been dumb-downed into banality, if not downright silliness,” in the words of Mr. Weigel.  As many a practicing Catholic can attest, you do not have to be a radical traditionalist to recognize a deficient modern liturgy when you encounter one.

So we now have a contentious situation in which hard-core traditionalists refuse to participate in the new “Novus Ordo” Mass, and go to great lengths to find an out-of-the-way Latin Mass.  While progressives accuse such people of causing schism, by failing to acknowledge the Novus Ordo rite that became the officially-sanctioned norm after Vatican II.

Which is a shame.  Both sides in this controversy have a legitimate perspective that deserves a fair hearing, as is so often the case.  There was (and is) an obvious middle ground when it comes to the Mass.  Why not preserve Latin in the major parts, such as the Sanctus, etc., and use vernacular in the other parts.  The traditionalist view that the world went to hell in a handbasket once Latin was thrown out is too extreme.  But so is the progressive view that all Latin should be done away with as a vestige of a claustrophobic, hierarchal past.


Getting back to Timothy Egan and his October 2 review/essay, he notes there is still much debate over whether Vatican II is responsible for the dramatic decline in the number of practicing Catholics across Europe and North America, and for the thousands of Catholic priests and religious sisters who abandoned their rectories and convents in the decade after the council, in the largest such exodus since the 16th century Reformations.

Because this decline and abandonment follows a corresponding trend in Protestant faiths, Mr. Egan theorizes it could be more than a strictly Catholic issue, and might mean much of the world “simply has little use for religion in modern life.”

Here Egan perfectly captures the spirit of our age, but I am disappointed at how easily he seems to acquiesce and even endorse it.  This runs counter to an earlier, more expansive view of Catholicism as “the only thing that frees a man from the degrading slavery of being a child of his age.”  Apparently, some really smart Catholics no longer see their faith in such liberating terms.  

The contemporary notion that we have intellectually evolved to the point of having outgrown the need for religious conviction and religious practice is highly presumptuous, in my view.  It implies we are each a god in our own right, and no longer require any guidance beyond what our own unerring conscience provides.  No need to reference any objective moral standard, or attend to the straight and narrow.  This sort of hubris makes me think maybe Gregory XVI was barking up the right tree back in 1832, after all.

Which leaves the sexual abuse scandal as the elephant in the room, accompanied by what Timothy Egan describes as “its ongoing waves of official hypocrisy.”  Many would say this is the biggest single reason one-time Catholics have stopped practicing their faith, and have started to criticize the institutional Church instead.  And who can blame them.  The perpetrators of this abuse have certainly earned their place in Dante’s eighth circle of hell.  But this appalling story might still have a redemptive Christian twist before all is said and done.   We are taught even such desperately troubled souls are worthy of mercy should they choose to repent with a contrite heart.

Although Mr. Egan does not touch on the following aspect of the scandal in his short piece, many critics think this tragic turn of events proves the Church’s all-male, celibate priesthood is a hopelessly unworkable policy.  But others have suggested what the scandal reveals more than anything else is a post-conciliar breakdown in seminary training and discipline of the clergy, both of which became major contributors to the crimes of clerical sexual abuse.

As George Weigel implies, one could view the scandal itself and our reaction to it as a window into how “the once-thriving Catholicism of Western Europe – countries whose theologians and bishops were the principal movers and shakers of Vatican II – has largely disappeared since the council, replaced by a Church of the Zeitgeist that seems far more liberal-Protestant and woke-progressive than Catholic.”


Timothy Egan closes his review by observing Mr. McGreevy’s 528-page history features “too much infighting among long-forgotten church gatekeepers wielding Latin encyclicals and proclamations on sex. And not enough on the simple spiritual philosophy at the center of the world’s largest faith.”  This easy-going, live-and-let-live refrain comes across as a Catholic-lite sort of remark, and does make it feel like many of the Church’s intramural critics are more woke-progressive these days than Catholic, to borrow Mr. Weigel’s formulation.  

The encyclicals Mr. Egan seems to dismiss as elitist are indeed always composed in Latin.  But left unsaid is how these documents are then routinely translated into a slew of different languages, and disseminated to the four corners of the earth.  Each one is readily available for download on the internet, and written in clear, concise language that is easily accessible to the lay man and woman in the street. 

Tim Egan is certainly not alone is wishing the Church’s simple spiritual philosophy could be imbibed and enjoyed without having to put up with what now strikes our emancipated sensibilities as a tangle of restrictive rules and regulations.  But wishing does not necessarily make a thing so, and experience continually reminds us doing what feels good in the moment does not always yield the best results.

Without wanting to get too preachy, the spiritual philosophy which appears to be so simple has proven itself devilishly hard for most of us to implement.  That may have something to do with our inherently fallen nature, despite what folks like Jean Jacques Rousseau have preached on the subject.  

You may have also noticed Christ’s message is rather deceptive in its apparent simplicity.  This should not be surprising, since we have it on good authority the messenger himself was the most radical and counter-cultural individual you could ever hope to meet.  Unsettling in the extreme, some have testified.

Attempting to discern the deeper meaning of Christ’s various parables, and apply that meaning to all manner of situations to be found in daily living, is what has taken humanity so long to figure out.  But we keep trying, despite our many fits and starts.


There are many things in my life for which I am grateful, but at the top of the list is being Catholic.  No doubt Timothy Egan feels the same way.  In my case, returning to the fold at age forty after an extended period of youthful rebellion was the best thing I could have hoped for.  I don’t regret my long sojourn sampling other intellectual traditions and spiritual disciplines, because it broadened my outlook and helped me develop a rich appreciation for fellow travelers who actively seek the truth.

It’s the extensive exploring I did in my twenties and thirties that has helped me “know the place where I started” in a much more comprehensive way. 

So then dear reader please allow me to end my brief defense/rebuttal with a tip of the cap to Timothy Egan, John McGreevey, George Weigel, and yes, even David Kertzer.  I feel a special kinship with anyone who takes things seriously and is trying to put their best foot forward.  Even when they disagree with me.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.

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Why Libertarian Catholics are Wrong on Economics Part 4

Why Libertarian Catholics are Wrong on Economics Part 4

September 27, 2022 | 1,694 words | Economics, Politics, Philosophy, Religion

A Brief History:  Part Four


As my little amateur history draws to a close, I will be offering two concrete suggestions for improving the economic status quo.  As a preface to making those suggestions allow me to state for the record I do not disagree with the libertarian premise about regulation stifling innovation and undermining incentives that drive capitalism.  Or that capitalism is the best economic system for “freeing” large masses of human beings from lives of misery and poverty.

I am also in lockstep with libertarians who lament government’s frequent blunders when it tries to referee the economic free-for-all.

But when complaining about regulation infringing on individual liberty, and pointing out government workers are often either incompetent or corrupt, libertarians never get around to acknowledging their own shortcomings.  With the most glaring being how their pursuit of self-interest frequently runs counter to the common good.  It never seems to occur to them if they would simply do a better job of chasing their economic dreams with more compassion and empathy, the social fabric would not be so tattered, and there would be no need for government to take such an outsized role in the economic affairs of the nation.

Then there is the libertarian shibboleth about taxes amounting to thievery committed against the most talented and productive citizens, by those who are not.  An egocentric refrain that found a ready audience in the 20th century via the likes of Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973), and the novelist Ayn Rand (1905-1982), among many others. 

The celebration of rugged individualism reminds us capitalism is a system of economic exchange that favors the clever and advantaged, while failing to take into account many people are neither.  Yes, welfare and other programs meant to lift up the poor often inadvertently trap them in a kind of permanent dependency and poverty.  Yet all we ever seem to get out of libertarians on this topic is an unlimited supply of cockeyed optimism that more “trickle down” will eventually solve our social ills.  

Shouldn’t the most talented and productive among us be expected to look out for those who are less-talented?  And figure out organizational systems and employment opportunities that can help them be more productive?  Isn’t that the definition of a humane society?


The best and brightest obviously thrive under James Madison’s legendary “absence of obstacles” approach to economic life.  But in many cases the average citizen is prevented from experiencing all that life has to offer by dire economic circumstances that define his or her existence, and over which he or she has no control.  You may not notice this unpleasant reality where you live or work, but drive a mile or two in the right direction and chances are you can’t miss it.  The closest many of our fellow citizens ever get to the American Dream is an unmanageable portfolio of soul-crushing consumer debt.

If no longer physically exploited as in the past, the average employee has certainly been marginalized by all the mergers and acquisitions, and by the excessive financialization (for lack of a better word) of today’s economy.  They have no way of entering the sophisticated networks of knowledge and communication that have come to dominate, so they are unable to participate in either an effective or dignified way.  They have, for all intents and purposes, been excluded from “the circle of exchange.”  The dazzling economic development we are witnessing is taking place over the heads.

These are not my words or my analysis.  It’s the insight of Pope John Paul II, writing in Centessimus Annus (no. 33 and 34) to describe the employment situation of the average worker.

There is a simple, straightforward way to improve the plight of non-managerial employees, and its effectiveness has already been established.  But we decided sometime during the Reagan administration this particular employment policy was getting in the way of maximizing investor return.  I am referring here to the concept known as collective bargaining.


Much has been written about the loss of manufacturing jobs that once enabled simple production line workers to buy a house, send their kids to college, and enjoy modest vacations.  But there was nothing magical about those jobs that yielded such positive results.  Rather it was the introduction of collective bargaining into the financial equation that created what became the dramatic post-WWII rise of the American middle class.

This golden age of employment was an anomaly in our nation’s history, by the way, the only period when those without an ownership stake in a business were treated as something more than replacement parts, and were allowed to share in the financial windfall their labor helped generate.

The very same concept could be applied to today’s service industry jobs and the entire gig economy, along with all those new fulfillment center jobs.  Taken together these represent the lion’s share of employment opportunities for regular folks.  We could achieve the same results we got after the Roosevelt administration passed the National Labor Relations Act in 1935.  Namely, widespread prosperity up and down the economic food chain.

The one thing standing in the way of re-introducing collective bargaining into the economic equation is the imperative to prioritize investor return.  Our country’s long-standing bias against unions was revived in the early 1960s, when Milton Friedman announced the only social responsibility of a corporation is to be profitable.  The final nail in the coffin came in the 1980s during Ronald Reagan’s second term as President.  That’s when hard-won anti-trust (anti-monopoly) legislation enacted during the first half of the 20th century was rendered null and void in the name of “lower consumer pricing.”

This turned out to be a ruse, a clever marketing ploy.  It gave corporations a new rationale to corner markets, keep a lid on wages, and increase profits.

Not that any of this is breaking news, mind you.  There has always been a tug of war between the interests of capital (return on investment), and those of labor (securing food and shelter).  The only difference these days is how the interests of capital have been granted an overlay of social responsibility for its role in “creating jobs.”   The rank-and-file are supposed to be eternally grateful, despite the fact many of the jobs being created are downright crummy and aren’t worth having.  

Sadly, the rise of the conservative/libertarian mindset in our time has made any discussion of organized labor verboten.


My second and last concrete suggestion to improve the economic status quo is much broader in scope and more philosophical in nature.  It involves movers and shakers being more compassionate and empathetic in chasing their economic dreams.  When it comes to tweaking the tone of our commerce to be more considerate of others, especially those others who toil for their daily bread, this is one reform that will have to start with the kingpins, rather than progressing through a more traditional from-the-ground-up grassroots movement.    

It is the swash-buckling entrepreneurs and daring disrupters, the senior executives and upper management at our corporate behemoths, the ivory tower money managers who decide which ideas will live and which ones will die, who must embrace an operating principle other than the limited distribution of short-term profit.

And believe it or not, there is already some positive development in this direction, so the proposition is not as hopelessly farfetched as it sounds.  In August 2019 an influential think tank known as the Business Roundtable (BRT) announced its new “Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation.”  It boldly redefines that purpose as “promoting an economy that serves all Americans.”

While you may not have heard of this group, since 1978 the BRT has periodically issued Principles of Corporate Governance.  Each version since 1997 has endorsed shareholder primacy, echoing Milton Freidman from 1962 in stating corporations exist primarily to serve investors.

Which makes their August 2019 Statement a real game-changer.  It was signed by 181 CEOs who are now committed to lead their organizations for the benefit of ALL stakeholders: customers, employees, suppliers, communities, and investors.  What a beautiful concept. 

Of course, 181 CEOs is a drop in the bucket and does not represent any sort of critical mass.  Many of our most powerful corporate masters of the universe have not yet gotten this particular memo.  But the BRT has made a good start, and the leaders of big-time operations like the Ford Foundation, Johnson & Johnson, JP Morgan Chase, Progressive Corporation, and Vanguard Investments have signed on.

The full list of signatories is available at


Needless to say, attempting to transform our economic model into one based on what Catholic social teaching refers to as “an economy of justice and charity” will be a long and arduous process.  No doubt the effort will find itself beset with well-intentioned missteps and outright mistakes.  If human beings are involved, you know it’s going to be messy.  

The drive toward avarice is hard-wired into our fallen nature and is not easily overcome.  Just as the road to hell has always been paved with good intentions.  This is where outside oversight can help keep things on track.  But so many of our regulatory agencies have been gutted, and legislation designed to rein in the worst excesses has either been repealed or shrewdly worked around.

Today’s battle in the courts to break up the tech giants and other monopoly enterprises, and Congress’ attempt to close tax loopholes and clamp down on widespread tax avoidance, are things that can help bring into being the Business Roundtable’s vision of an economy that serves all Americans.

If only the devout intellectuals at First Things magazine and the current crop of conservative/libertarian Catholics would consider the viability of such judicial and legislative activity.  If only they could envision a different sort of political paradigm than what they are wedded to now.

Infusing free-market capitalism with an ethos that prioritizes the common good is the key to restoring a sense of moral clarity among the general populace.  If our conservative Catholic brothers and sisters are to help with this restoration, the first step will be extricating themselves from the libertarian pipe dream they’ve been living in since the glory days of the 1980s.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr

September 27, 2022

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Why Libertarian Catholics are Wrong on Economics Part 3

Why Libertarian Catholics are Wrong on Economics Part 3

September 23, 2022  | 1,151 words | Economics, Politics, Philosophy, Religion   

A Brief History:  Part Three



My goal in assembling this very amateur and oh-so-brief history is three-fold.  To disabuse everyday conservative Catholics (my friends and neighbors) of the notion economics has nothing to do with morality.  To challenge the contention of intellectual conservative Catholics (the scholars I have been reading for the last thirty years) that free market capitalism is inherently moral.  And lastly to assure both groups (and any other readers who may wander in) that I am not suggesting any form of socialism as an alternative.


Let me also add that while I greatly admire the work of G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc from the first half of the 20th century, I am not recommending their pet economic project “Distributism” as an alternative to capitalism.  Mainly because I haven’t the faintest idea how that sort of do-it-yourself program would be applied in today’s world of multi-national conglomerates.


I hope this modest critique does not paint me as an anti-capitalist, since that would be biting the hand that feeds me.  Capitalism, my friends, has been very, very good to me.  But on those rare occasions when I do manage to lift my face out of the bowl of spaghetti, I can’t help but notice it hasn’t been especially good to many of the people around me who are not quite as clever or advantaged as I am.


The fatal flaw in our communal thought process seems to be the widely-held belief that economics is a “science,” with its inner workings guided by “immutable laws.”  Economics is therefore thought to be empirical, like any other science, operating outside the bounds of moral consideration.  But this is a bit of a misnomer when applied to economic behavior.  Any human action that is more than a simple reflex, such as combing one’s hair or shaving one’s beard, is an expression or function of will.  And any act of the will is naturally going to be subject to an evaluation of its impact on others, which constitutes its moral import.  That’s a rudimentary explanation of Thomas Aquinas’ (1225-1274) view of economic behavior.   


Adam Smith (1723-1790), a Scottish moral philosopher by trade, surely had the best of intentions in writing The Wealth of Nations (1776).  But his contention that pursuing self-interest always and everywhere results in societal benefit has proven to be overly optimistic.


It’s not that Smitty’s three basic laws of economics (supply and demand, self-interest, and competition) have been found wanting.  Far from it.  In the two hundred plus years since they’ve been unleased on the world these laws have succeeded in generating an avalanche of economic activity, and been responsible for an unprecedented improvement in the material circumstances of many.  But they don’t tell the whole story.  And libertarians have sort of hid behind these laws to cover their sometimes less-than-stellar behavior.  As Mort Zukerman, the billionaire real estate investor and editor of U.S. News and World Report, stated so blithely on a Sunday morning television panel show a few years back: “We don’t call it greed anymore, we call it self-interest.”


Well, Mort, some of us are still calling it greed.



From my perspective the challenge we face as a society is finding a way to infuse our late-stage version of free-market capitalism with a healthy dose of Christianity.  Or a healthy dose of whatever intellectual tradition you may wish to invoke, provided it has a comparably long history of concern for human dignity and social justice, as expressed in the realm of commerce.  And an equivalent track record of sticking its nose into economic affairs, where most of our movers-and-shakers think it doesn’t belong.


This is exactly what the Catholic popes have been doing non-stop, since 1891.  It’s worth noting their passionate advocacy and running commentary have never risen to the level of an outright condemnation of capitalism.  Instead, they’ve been patiently exploring how capitalism might be made to function more equitably for all concerned.  And they’ve been doing it in what might almost be called a bi-partisan fashion.


Of course, it’s not just popes who have been mining this particular vein. A wide range of thinkers from across the philosophical spectrum have been pondering this very subject for quite some time.   I suppose I am inclined to talk up the work of recent popes in this area for two reasons:  It is now the essence of my faith, the reason I became a Catholic again, at age forty.  And because so few Catholics are aware this extensive body of knowledge even exists.  It’s what might be called the final frontier.


Since it first emerged in 1891 as a response to the rise of capitalism, socialism, and industrialization, modern-day Catholic social teaching on economic justice has always had a broad application.  And it continues to develop as a rich body of doctrine that sets forth a truly Catholic response to modern conditions.  But before we can expect the secular world to pay any attention to what recent popes have written on the subject, Catholics themselves should be expected to tune in. 


Starting with my target audience for this essay:  conservative/libertarian Catholics.  Both the everyday 

parishioner and the ivory tower scholar.  Each are enamored of – or at least far too willing to accept at face value 

– the economic status quo.  These folks are in need of a serious conversion experience when it comes to how the 

economy should operate.


The thoughtful First Things people must cease and desist pretending our economic system is already living up to the demands of papal teaching.  The earnest souls who swear by The Wall Street Journal must get around to finally reading Centesimus Annus (1991) for themselves.  There they will find Pope John Paul II does not give unfettered free-market capitalism his unequivocal blessing, as they have been led to believe.


The humble Benedict Option folks, too, must open themselves up to this important component of papal teaching, and integrate economic behavior into their understanding of what constitutes the moral order.


There are any number of detailed academic accounts from across the philosophical spectrum that can introduce an interested reader to an alternative way of doing economics, while still operating within a capitalist framework.  If you happen to be Catholic, or curious about the Catholic take on the matter, you might want to check out An Economics of Justice & Charity: Catholic Social Teaching, It’s Development and Contemporary Relevance.  Written by Thomas Stork, it was published in 2017 by Angelico Press.  


This very useful book is intended to give readers who have little or no acquaintance with modern-day Catholic social teaching a general overview of its basic documents.  Those include the chief papal social encyclicals and other related works, as well as the social teaching of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).



It’s the kind of comprehensive reference work that can help educate our conservative/libertarian brothers and sisters about authentic Catholic thought as it relates to economic behavior.  



Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr

September 23, 2022

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Why Libertarian Catholics are Wrong on Economics Part 2

Why Libertarian Catholics are Wrong on Economics Part 2

September 16, 2022  |  1,925 words | Economics, Politics, Philosophy, Religion   

A Brief History:  Part Two


In analyzing the ideological schism that plagues present-day Catholicism, we tend to focus on the fall-out from the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) and the sexual revolution of the 1960s that surrounded it.  With good reason, since both did indeed play a large role in splintering Catholics into the current opposing camps of “liberal” and “conservative.”


But our pre-occupation with sexual liberation and what some think of as the new theology of Vatican II has obscured what I consider to be the other revolution that was taking place in American Catholicism at the very same time.   


Just to recap the sexual aspect of this discussion as it pertains to my designated audience, the conservatives, it goes something like this:  These folks have ear-marked Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) as a pernicious piece of social engineering.  That’s the Supreme Court decision based on a case brought by the wife of the President of Yale University that made the sale of artificial contraception legal.  And they swell with pride at the mention of Humanae Vitae, the famous 1968 encyclical promulgated by Pope Paul VI that is subtitled “On the Regulation of Birth.”  It reiterates what liberals consider to be outdated Church teaching on family planning and other reproductive issues.  Paul did this in the face of heavy pressure from a blue-ribbon committee headed by John D. Rockefeller that recommended the Catholic Church bring its policy on birth control in line with what the Anglican Church decreed at its Lambeth Conference of 1930.


I offer this background only to point out how these self-styled cultural warriors overlook the conservative intelligentsia’s negative reaction to an important encyclical from a few years earlier.  Mater et Magistra (1961) is Pope John XXIII’s take on social and economic justice.  I find the oversight odd, since this is what greased the skids in the first place, if you ask me.  That negative reaction to Church teaching on economics gave Catholics in the pew a mixed message, and opened the door to what some might call our present-day schism.


The subtitle of this 1961 papal encyclical is “Christianity and Social Progress.”  It was intentionally promulgated on the anniversary of Quadragesimo Anno (1931) and Rerum Novarum (1891), the two big papal encyclicals that heralded modern-era Catholic teaching on the economic question.  In it, John XXIII has the audacity to re-iterate how the state must sometimes intervene in matters of health care, education, and housing, in order to promote human dignity and achieve authentic community.


This did not sit well with the conservative Catholic establishment at the time.  William F. Buckley, Jr. (1925– 2008), another likable soul, directed his flagship publication, National Review, to announce how the Catholic Magisterium was no longer the boss when it comes to economic behavior.  The phrase employed to describe this cavalier dismissal was “Mater si, Magistra, no”, penned by a young Gary Wills (1934- ).  Mr. Wills has since gone on to enjoy a long and illustrious career as, among other things, a reliably staunch critic of papal teaching. 


I believe the rejection of what I refer to as economic morality on the part of conservative/libertarian Catholics is the very thing that paved the way for what those conservatives see as the revolution in sexual standards on the part of liberal Catholics.  At the very least, both developments unfolded simultaneously, and were mutually supportive.



The 1960s may have been when all this erupted into public view, but of course each movement had much deeper roots.  Staying with the apparently less-well-known economic revolution for a moment, we find that Mr. Buckley’s outburst in the early 1960s was proceeded by two decades’ worth of behind-the-scenes agitating on the part of policy wonks and political operatives.  In the late 1930s a conservative contingent was expressing frustration with the comprehensive legislative package known as the “New Deal,” on the grounds that allowing the federal government to play such an outsized role in economic affairs was un-American.


Prior to that, as a presidential candidate on the campaign trail in 1932, the politician who was to bring us that ground-breaking legislation was already going public with his admiration for Quadragesimo Anno (1931).  Franklin Delano Roosevelt described the author of that encyclical, Pope Pius XI, as being “just as radical as I am.”  FDR’s conservative Catholic critics were not amused, and by the middle of his second term those critics were positively climbing the walls.


Which is not to suggest every piece of legislation enacted by FDR during his three plus terms in office was worthy of the Pius XI seal of approval.  Only that his Catholic critics should have based their complaints on something other than a libertarian appeal to limited government and economic freedom.


This tendency to compromise Church teaching when it comes to economics – sacrificing the common good in favor of a rugged pursuit of individual advancement – is nothing new.  It’s the very same battle noted American intellectual, activist, one-time Universalist preacher, labor organizer, and Catholic covert Orestes Brownson (1803-1876) was waging in the 1860s and 1870s with the Catholic politicians of his day, who cleverly justified not allowing religious beliefs to inform their actions while in public office.


The genesis of this compromise can probably be traced all the way back to 1802, when the idea of separation of church and state first entered the American lexicon.  Though not formally established by either the Declaration of Independence (1776) or the Constitution (1787), Thomas Jefferson was able to insert it after the fact, and it has since become an accepted principle of our pluralist nation.


Rome, for its part, has been consistently trying to clarify things for its upstart American followers.  The Syllabus of Errors (1864), though not directed specifically at us, still spoke to the American version of the popular modernist trend sweeping over the West in the wake of the Enlightenment.   On Americanism (1899), a papal encyclical penned by Pope Leo XIII, was indeed aimed directly at us, and at our leading prelate at the time, James Cardinal Gibbons.  Cardinal Gibbons, you may recall, became a major proponent of the American Experiment.  By the time he appeared on the scene in the 1880s the Church in the United States was flourishing.  New parishes were being established left and right, beautiful cathedrals were getting built, convents and seminaries were full to bursting.  


Gibbons concluded America’s new form of government – a pluralist, liberal democracy – was good for the propagation of Catholicism.  But his rosy assessment didn’t account for the exploitation of the working class being perpetrated at the time by the Robber Barons of the Gilded Age.  Good thing Leo XIII was on hand to address the problem in his formidable 1891 encyclical, Rerum Novarum, sub-titled “On Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor.”


This special encyclical kicked off Catholic social teaching as it pertains to modern-day economic behavior. And this aspect of the Church’s Magisterium has been going strong ever since.  Every pope since Leo, in every single papal encyclical, has made reference to this economic teaching, to one degree or another.  And the conservative/libertarian Catholic brain trust in this country has been ignoring that teaching for just as long.



Well-meaning people on both sides of the aisle can disagree as to the underlying source of our present cultural stalemate.  Though I would think we can all agree the contentious nature of our politics has indeed brought us to a bit of a stalemate, since fights are likely to break out among friends and neighbors at the drop of a hat, over the average day’s headlines.  What can be done to improve the cultural climate, moving forward?


Well, most successful conservative Catholics I know think “righting the ship” will be as simple as reversing Roe v. Wade, and electing another Republican to the White House.  Then we can all sit back as the culture magically heals itself, and the familiar trickle-down economic policy prescriptions are once again put in play to solve all our economic woes.  


Whereas the more thoughtful (and typically less successful) conservative Catholics I know are given to a sense of despair.  They see the dissolution of Western civilization as being so pronounced, conventional political alternatives offer them little hope for improvement.  Such folks are busy implementing their own version of what’s been dubbed “The Benedict Option.”  The only reasonable way to address their overwhelming sense of spiritual ennui is to pull back from mainstream culture altogether.  These stout souls are out to build a new sense of community that strikes them as being more authentic than the consumer-oriented one we have now.  They are usually happy to live far from the madding crowd.


This latter approach certainly has a lot to recommend it, since good things usually happen when birds of a feather flock together.


The romantic appeal of the Benedict Option, as put forth by author Rod Dreher in his best-selling 2017 book of the same name, is undeniable to a solitary soul like me.  But romance aside, there is another strategy available to faithful believers in this secular world of ours.  To access it, though, we must hedge a bit on that ancient admonition to be in the world, but not of it.  If we seek a cultural restoration, we should not be so quick to exile ourselves from the mainstream.

My suggestion on how to alter the course of Western civilization for the better will not be easy for either brand of conservative Catholic to swallow.  Not for the Wall Street Journal crowd, who has the world by the tail and is enamored of Republican fiscal policy.  And not for the more modest Benedict Option types who distrust all political machinations, and harbor a special disdain for what they see as the openly immoral nature of certain aspects of Democrat social policy.

But my plan has an upside:  Achieving cultural restoration will not require any sort of dramatic about-face, or anything as drastic as a re-invention of the wheel.  We do not need to come up with an entirely new system of economic exchange, nor must we foment a political revolution that will result in a return to what some fondly remember as the confessional state of bygone days.  

Yes, it’s true, all of modernity has been fraught with problems.  But there is a reason the smart set sought the overthrow of the Christian ethos at the beginning of the modern era, all those hundreds of years ago.  Everyone was ready to try something new for a simple reason:  Christians were not doing Christianity very well.  So here we Christians now find ourselves, in the land of pluralism and liberal democracy based on majority rule.  And it’s our job as people of faith to make it work.

Contrary to conventional conservative wisdom on the subject, the fastest way to restore a semblance of moral clarity to contemporary secular culture is not to try and re-legislate morality back into the system by repealing Roe v. Wade, or rescinding the legalization of gay marriage.  Because in a nation dedicated to the proposition of individual liberty in the pursuit of one’s own definition of happiness, taking away choice in any area of personal behavior is not a winning strategy.


Instead of taking something away from people, better to provide something they currently lack.  In this case that something is dignity and a sense of authentic community.  Recasting our existing capitalist model from one based solely on supply and demand, to one that can work justice and charity into the picture, could provide both.  


Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr

September 16, 2022

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