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Faith and Politics in America

December 13, 2020 (7,751 words)

We just elected a Catholic as President for only the second time in our history, yet during the campaign hardly a mention was made of the candidate’s once-taboo religious affiliation. Some will say that’s because Mr. Biden hardly qualifies as a Catholic, having “evolved” his position on hot-button social issues like reproductive rights and marriage equality.

The real reason for the blasé attitude is a politician’s confessed religion doesn’t mean that much to voters anymore. A new secular consensus has taken hold in the last sixty years. It diffuses the role organized religion – Catholic or otherwise – once played in policing our nation’s political life.

Despite this obvious downgrade conservatives are still walking around, telling anyone who will listen, how the Founders saw religious belief and practice as indispensable to sustaining our free system of government. Maybe some of those towering figures harbored such tender thoughts way back in the beginning. But the principle of church-state separation that emerged by 1802 to guide our judiciary and legislatures put the kabash on all that. Very early on moral considerations were relegated to second-class status as a strictly private matter.

The theory of “religious freedom” conservatives like to invoke as a protection against secular prejudice has in practice been the very thing eating away at religion’s influence in American society, allowing the prejudice free rein – especially in recent years.

One might say the history of Christianity in the United States – the religion most citizens wish to be free of – has been one long struggle to remain relevant. The many Protestant denominations have tried to address this dilemma by adapting doctrine to align with the times. The Catholic Church, on the other hand, has taken a different tact, spending the years since 1776 sticking to its guns. It’s never been shy about calling out what it has always held to be the questionable thinking behind our Founding.

American Catholics may chose to ignore this, but the Church registered its disdain for modern political arrangements, especially ours, early and often. The complaint always centered on democracy’s sanctioning of liberties deemed destructive to Christendom’s social order. The first salvo may have been fired in 1832, when Gregory XVI rejected such core liberal democratic values as freedom of the press, religious liberty, and the separation of church and state. This analysis was packaged in the first encyclical of his papacy, “On Liberalism and Religious Indifferentism.”

The all-encompassing critique of these new liberties was repeated in 1864 by another pope, Pius IX, in a document titled “Syllabus of Errors.”

Then not to put too fine a point on it, in 1899 Leo XIII issued an encyclical with the English title “On Americanism,” addressed directly to our country’s then leading prelate (James Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore), in which he again reiterates the issues raised by his predecessors. Specifically lambasting “the assumed right to hold whatever opinions one pleases upon any subject and to set them forth in print.”

Naturally all this sounds terribly archaic and anachronistic to our 2020 ears. But it helps to consider the historical context of these flinty observations. The Catholic regimes of Europe were dying, and hereditary monarchy was giving way to new nation-states. The Church was told it must accept the rise of independent democracies, lose its headliner status, and adjust to a limited role of being a “free Church in a free state.”

Better society be allowed the freedom to wander into its fair share of “error,” the new line of reasoning went, so long as the Church was free to respond with the truth.

But the reality was not living up to the promise. The 19th century Popes surveyed the landscape of so-called “free states” and saw confiscated church property, nuns and priests driven from their religious orders, clergy shot, bishops arrested, the Church drummed out of any role in education or the public arena, virulent anti-Catholic rhetoric in newspapers and legislatures, and the confiscation of the Papal States by armed force.

These old-timey encyclicals were refuting a host of ideas then in vogue, which by the way remain equally worthy of condemnation today: indifferentism, atheism, rationalism. You may recognize these concepts more readily by their everyday expression as a denial of the existence of God and the truth of Scripture, the constrictive oversight by secular authority of the Church’s right to teach, placing human reason on a par with Divine Revelation, and granting all-inclusive authority to the state.

In the new paradigm of independent democracies, these Popes accurately noted, “All action of God upon man and the world was to be denied.” And: “The state, (considered) as being the origin and source of all rights, is (thereby) endowed with a certain (authority) not circumscribed by any limits.”

Against this backdrop one is perhaps more inclined to view the pontiffs’ concerns as justified, and understand their sounding the alarm as a simple case of holding up their end and doing their job. It also wouldn’t hurt to give these guys the benefit of the doubt until condescending to actually read their remarks in full. The writing is always detailed and nuanced.

Take the oft-cited rebuke of a “free press.” At the time, “the press” was not an objective means of keeping the public informed. It was nothing more than biased diatribes, often viciously anti-Catholic, lacking any sense of balance. In other words, the Church was taking a stand against the callous manipulation of an unsuspecting public by purveyors of propaganda.

Nevertheless, the hard line coming out of Rome regarding our revolutionary form of government was creating more than a little tension with the American hierarchy. Not that our home-grown bishops were going out of their way to foster heresy, mind you. It’s just that they found themselves witnessing first-hand the indisputable material benefits of pluralism.

Once we got past the Know Nothing anti-Catholics riots and church burnings in various cities, circa 1844 to 1858, things were definitely looking up for Catholics here. In the post-Civil War boom of the late 19th century, new parishes were being established left and right, cathedrals were going up all over the place, convents and seminaries were full to bursting with new candidates for religious life. What was not to like?

The upward trajectory continued unabated into the 20th century, with the lone exception being the Great Depression of the 1930s, which in retrospect amounted to an isolated blip on the radar screen. Meanwhile, the Church’s official criticism of the entire American Proposition continued apace, equally unabated.

The irony is that while the Vatican caste its jaundiced eye toward our shores, the gains Catholics were making in public life caused great concern within certain segments of the non-Catholic population. People like Paul Blanchard were issuing dire warnings about “American Freedom and Catholic Power” as recently as 1949 – even as the lingering slur of “Americanism” continued to dog the Church’s hierarchy in this country.

There was only one reason this drastic difference of opinion between Holy Mother Church and the United States was allowed to fester without becoming a knock-down, drag-out confrontation. Those two pesky World Wars, fought largely by European powers previously thought to be Christian at their core, which wreaked havoc on the social order across the continent and demanded Rome’s undivided attention.

The wonton destruction throughout “Christian” Europe is what also prompted certain theologians on the continent to begin considering that maybe the traditional Catholic approach to social organization finally needed to be re-thought in light of modern political realities. They went to work trying to reconcile the iron-clad notion that “error has no rights” with the new world order of religious pluralism and liberal democracy.

It was an uphill slog. Many serious scholars with big reputations leaned into this effort. Their names are only vaguely familiar to me, and their work has largely escaped my notice.

In the end it was a lone Jesuit priest from America with no special pedigree, teaching theology at a Maryland seminary of no particular renown, who would emerge in the 1950s to spearhead the cause. This one man would largely be responsible for a dramatic re-direction of Catholic teaching on the defining issue of church-state relations.

When in 1960 we elected a Catholic as President for the first time in our history, it was as if Paul Blanchard’s worst fears had been realized. Everywhere one looked, it seemed, Catholics were in the ascendancy, especially in the corridors of power and influence.

By now the specter of “Catholic Power” threatening “American Freedom” was front and center in many people’s minds. To get over that hump and gain access to the inner sanctum, JFK had to assure the electorate “I do not speak for my Church on public matters, and the Church does not speak for me.” A turn that came off as something of a modern-day re-enactment of Peter’s infamous denial of Christ three times before the cock crowed.

With great success comes great scrutiny. As members of the American hierarchy were administering an increasingly vibrant and materially-successful national congregation, they were also straining to defend against a rising chorus that claimed the Catholic Church was just plain un-American.

John F. Kennedy’s election in 1960 may have registered as a crowning achievement to some, but in another sense it was the last straw.

By now many of America’s leading bishops were anxious to square the circle, as it were. They wanted to reconcile, once and for all, the yawning disparity between the traditional Catholic approach to political life with the dictates of pluralism and liberal democracy that were offering such unprecedented material benefits to their flock.

In 1953 the Vatican offered the following summary of magisterial teaching on political organization, which it defined as the “confessional state”:

The state should publically profess the Catholic faith.
“If rulers of nations wish to preserve their authority, to promote and increase the prosperity of their countries, they will not neglect the public duty of reverence and obedience to the rule of Christ.”
Pius Xi, 1925

Legislation should be informed by Catholic moral teaching.
The fundamental law of state “should not oppose healthy religious moral principles” – that is, it shouldn’t reject the “cornerstone of Christianity,” but “take vigorious inspiration from it, and following it, proclaim and pursue lofty ends.”
Pius XII, 1945

The state should defend the people’s unity in the Catholic faith.
“All who rule, therefore, should hold in honor the holy name of God, and one of their chief duties must be to favor religion, to protect it, to shield it under the credit and sanction of the laws, and neither to organize nor enact any measure that may compromise its safety.”
Leo XIII, 1885

These three guidelines clearly imply a “Catholic state” is still the ideal. But the Church also understood that while a state so constructed may continue to be a desired objective, such an arrangement is not always practical. One key element to providing the ideal state is that the population in question be almost entirely Catholic. Such was never the case in the Unites States, and had ceased to be the case across much of Europe.

So the Magisterium was no longer teaching there should be no distinction whatsoever between church and state, only that there shouldn’t be an absolute separation between the two. The “unity-in-distinction” relationship between church and state should be like the soul-body union in man. (Leo XIII)

Neither did the Magisterium ever foresee using the coercive power of the state to force anyone to become Catholic. “No one shall be forced to embrace the Catholic faith against his will.” (Leo XIII)

This still left a lot of work to be done by way of explaining the present-day Catholic understanding of church-state relations to the non-Catholic population. And to everyday Catholics as well, who were pre-occupied with temporal affairs and therefore not inclined to ponder the fine points of doctrinal development.

In hopes of conjuring this miracle of a modern-day reconciliation into being, especially in light of recent political developments, a few key American bishops turned to that Jesuit priest with no special pedigree, who was teaching theology at a Maryland seminary of no particular renown.

John Courtney Murray (1904-1967) was born in New York City. He was educated at a Jesuit high school in Manhattan, and entered their novitiate in 1920. He took his M.A. at Boston College, and attended Woodstock College (later the Woodstock Theological Center of Georgetown University). He was ordained a Jesuit priest in 1933. After study in Rome he earned his doctorate in Theology from Georgetown, and joined the faculty of Woodstock College in 1936, becoming a Professor of Theology. In 1941 Father Murray was named editor of Theological Studies. He would retain the same teaching and editorial posts until his death by heart attack in 1967.

In the late 1940s he began his search for the Great White Whale: How to integrate the core beliefs of a liberal democracy based on pluralism with the teaching of the Catholic Church. Over time he turned himself into a defender of the U.S. Constitution, believing its tenets of limited government and separation of church and state were a good thing all the way around. The American iteration of classical liberalism gave citizens the opportunity to assume moral control over their own religious beliefs, instead of being told what to believe by a hereditary monarchy.

Murray argued this arrangement actually freed the Church from having to placate political rulers, thereby giving Catholicism and its practitioners what he viewed as a new-found dignity.

But the home office was unreceptive to his musings. By the mid-1950s the Jesuits told him not to publish on topics pertaining to religious freedom and church-state relations without first obtaining approval from the head of the order in Rome. Father Murray kept plugging away, but his efforts were consistently rejected by the boys upstairs.

Despite the ecclesiastical cold shoulder, the highly respected Catholic publishing house of Sheed and Ward brought out Murray’s magnum opus, We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Revolution on January 1, 1960. This book gathered together his unauthorized essays.

Father Murray’s work throughout the 1950s just happened to coincide with a rise in the political fortunes of one John F. Kennedy (1917-1963), a charismatic Catholic son of a wealthy Prohibition-era bootlegger, who in 1958 would win re-election to the U.S. Senate in a landslide victory, as a still wet-behind-the-ears 41 year-old.

The publication of We Hold These Truths couldn’t have come at a better time from JFK’s perspective. Remember, the official Catholic policy still leaned heavily toward the ideal of a “confessional state,” which meant all faithful Catholics were supposed to be working toward changing the constitution of any democratic country that did not recognize Catholicism as the one, true religion. After Kennedy gained the presidency in November 1960, that humble theologian operating out of a modest Woodstock, Maryland seminary made the cover of Time magazine on December 12, 1960, with the banner headline “U.S. Catholics & The State.”

(Anyone interested in a more detailed account of Murray’s meteoric rise should consult John Courtney Murray, Time/Life, and the American Proposition, by David A. Wemhoff. If you want to know where the bodies are buried, Mr. Wemhoff is your man.)

So Father Murray was now a household name, receiving plaudits from all corners of the American media and intellectual landscape. But to Church officials like Alfredo Cardinal Ottaviani (1890-1979), who served as Secretary of the Holy Office in the Roman Curia during Murray’s heyday, the renegade Jesuit was still persona non grata.

His outcaste status was evidenced by his not being invited to the first session of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). But Francis Cardinal Spellman (1889-1967) of New York (from 1939-1967) successfully argued for Murray’s appointment as a theological consultant before the second session started. He arrived in Rome and immediately went to work on an outline for a bold new statement on the subject of religious freedom, which then became a chapter in a larger presentation on ecumenism.

Today he is credited with being the primary author of the Vatican II document Declaration on Religious Liberty (Dignitatis Humanae), and a major contributor to its The Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes).

In 1966, after the close of the council, Father Murray was made director of the John La Forge Institute, affiliated with the Jesuit weekly magazine America. There he began holding seminars that included Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish theologians, aimed at stimulating ecumenical dialogue.

One might say the motto of the Catholic Church at the institutional level is “go big, or go home.” In that spirit, the Second Vatican Council was a typically huge gathering of the world’s Catholic leaders that produced sixteen highly-detailed documents during its three years of chewing the fat. Four of them are referred to as “Constitutions,” three are known as “Declarations,” and nine are labeled “Decrees.” Don’t ask me what the difference is between the three categories, because I have no idea.

Each was issued in thirteen different languages, you may be interested in knowing, from Arabic to Swahili. Byelorussian, Chinese, and Hebrew were also part of that linguistic mix.

The two John Courtney Murray-inspired documents that came out of Vatican II were a turning point. Some say he helped change Catholic teaching altogether, fixing centuries of backward thought. Others see his work as merely altering the emphasis of long-held doctrine, and developing it in a way the Church’s high-profile pow-wows – ecumenical councils that have taken place sporadically over the centuries – have always done.

Either way, with the subtly revised marching orders of “error has no rights, but people do,” the monkey was now off the back of America’s Catholic bishops. And the lay faithful in this country could continue their enthusiastic pursuit of upward mobility with a clear conscience. That’s what the hand-wringing over arcane ideological concepts was really about for the muckers and grinders at street level. Innate desire for material advancement needed spiritual affirmation.

Of course things were a bit more complicated – and less cynical – for those European theologians with the big reputations. And for the young upstart theologians, still in the process of making their reputations, but no less earnest in their intent.

For this group it was those two pesky World Wars that colored their deliberations in a big way. The devastation of homelands, twice within a twenty-five year period, was still a fresh memory. Of course one had no choice but to condemn and thoroughly repudiate the fascist and totalitarian regimes responsible. Having done that, it seemed to leave only one other political alternative available to the modern world: the American Experiment in pluralism and liberal democracy that had provided its people a certain peace and an unmistakable prosperity.

Out of necessity these seasoned theologians referred back to the church-state considerations first advanced over a hundred years before, by people like the French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859), and the prolific writer Orestes Brownson (1803-1876), who was born in Vermont and grew up poor on a farm.

In the 1830s de Tocqueville saw Americans as an individualistic bunch that tended to shun all religious authority in their search for equality and “a single social power that is both simple and the same for all.” Yet he surprisingly predicted Americans would eventually fall into one of two camps: those who abandon Christianity entirely, and those who decide to “go Catholic.”

He reasoned even if the practical and restless locals were put off by the dogma at first glance, they couldn’t help but admire the Church’s “great unity” and the efficiency with which it was governed. This was Catholicism’s strength, and the basis for de Tocqueville’s assertion the “Roman Church” was more suited to the American mind and the democratic age, than to the European mind still wedded to the union of throne and altar (aka the “confessional state”) that belonged to the quickly disappearing aristocratic age.

It’s been said no American living at the time better personified de Tocqueville’s prediction than Orestes Brownson. Mr. Brownson grew up in a Congregationalist community, before moving through the Presbyterian, Universalist, and Unitarian churches, becoming ordained in the latter two. In 1844 he surprised everyone by entering the Catholic Church, which he never left.

The core of his writing became the intersection between Catholic teaching on church-state relations and America’s commitment to the separation of church and state. The details of his philosophy continued to evolve over the years, and the tone of his writing would vary according to what he saw as the present needs of society. Along the way he seemed to make new enemies at every turn.

Brownson was attacked for approving of Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors (1864). He admitted the language sounded harsh to American ears, but he realized the document was only criticizing the “spirit” behind modern (classical) liberalism, not its forms. He understood its severe reaction to the disestablishment of state-sponsored religion was based on the Church’s experience with the bloody French Revolution and the upheavals of 1848, not on the American practice of religious freedom.

He was simultaneously accused of liberality and modernism by fellow Catholics, when he suggested a minor tweak on the traditional admonition against religious liberty: “Error has no rights,” he once said, “but the man who errs has equal (civil) rights with him who errs not.”

Brownson came to see Catholicism as a happy medium between two extremes – making the truth a function of crass majority rule, and rejecting tradition and authority in the name of the individual. He was convinced Americans would find the Catholic Church the highest expression of community, but only if it’s teaching could be presented clearly to them in a setting free of coercion and demagoguery.

He took it upon himself to be a worthy presenter, continuing to explore how Catholic dogma and America’s republican principles could actually compliment, rather than contradicted, each other.

Arriving at a satisfying synthesis was an uphill slog. No less for Orestes Brownson in the 1860s than it would prove to be for John Courtney Murray, S.J. in the 1960s.

In trying to forge a new Catholic consensus on the relationship between religion and the state, Brownson was not just reimaging Church teaching for a new age, he was also challenging the political reality of his day.

He condemned those who divorced “the spiritual and political orders” in an attempt to prevent the formation of a “confessional state.” Brownson never questioned the First Amendment ban on the union of religious and political institutions, but he did not take this to mean politics ought to be a completely autonomous sphere of human existence untouched by moral considerations.

He insisted the Church had a role to play in all worldly matters, and this placed him at odds with many Catholic politicians. In the face of widespread anti-Catholic sentiment, such men went out of their way to defend their loyalty to the United States by supporting a complete separation of religiously-based ethics from policy questions.

Brownson accused them of being “political atheists,” prone to act contrary to truth and their professed faith just to win elective office.

Though I am far from an expert on the subject, what seems to make Orestes Brownson unique in the history of American letters, and certainly unique in the world of mid-19th century political analysis and religious apologetics, is the strong affinity he developed for two diverse institutions: the American Republic and the Catholic Church.

Though other intellectuals have since followed in his footsteps and ruminated on the same ideas, Brownson is the first American (after de Tocqueville broached the subject) to look upon the Declaration of Independence and see a unique compromise: between John Locke’s Enlightenment worldview expressed by Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin in the beginning of the document, with the Puritan/Calvinist take provided by members of Congress in the latter part of the document.

This unprecedented alchemy produced what has since been dubbed by Catholic commentators as an “accidental American version of Thomism.” That is to say, even though our Founders did not set out to do so, they inadvertently applied the epistemology of Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), whose work had served for hundreds of years as the baseline for a Catholic understanding of the created world and man’s place in it. As if by osmosis, we are told, this understanding was magically infused into our brand-new system of political and social organization, in a way that rendered it “providentially dependent on the Catholic tradition of natural law.”

To sum up, then, according to this rather fanciful analysis our Founders made a better country than they realized – they “built better than they knew.” Moving forward, Orestes Bronson would advocate accordingly. He came to believe the American Proposition of limited government and personal autonomy was not only thoroughly compatible with Church teaching, but also the best recipe available for promoting human dignity, both materially and spiritually.

This is exactly the same theme John Courtney Murray, S.J. would sound in the 1960s, though he did not acknowledge any sort of debt to Brownson. As Father Murray wrote in 1966, after the close of the Second Vatican Council:

“From now on, the Church defines her mission in the temporal order in terms of the realization of human dignity, the promotion of the rights of man, the growth of the human family towards unity, and the sanctification of the secular activities of this world.”

This leaves us to ponder the legacy of these two great Catholic writers, both of whom are important touchstones when considering the interface between American political thought and Church doctrine. One might begin such an evaluation by pointing out just how much water has gone over the dam since each man put pen to paper, a century apart from each other.

Any objective observer would be forced to conclude the optimistic forecasts for the spiritual flourishing of Catholics under the American regime, and the positive influence Catholics would bring to bear on that regime, have simply not panned out.

Instead of a beatific vision in which Catholics could be counted on to provide a much-needed leaven to the secular world, the exact opposite has taken place. In the last sixty years that world has inhaled Catholics whole, chewed them up and spit them out, rendering them indistinguishable from their fellow countrymen.

Catholics are now the same as everybody else in their day-to-day machinations, regardless of where one might decide to spend a Sunday morning.

Though many of today’s church-goers will admit to being unhappy with the cultural deterioration experienced in just their lifetime, few Catholics are prompted by that deterioration to question the broad ecumenical theories first espoused by Orestes Brownson way back when, and repeated more recently by John Cortney Murry, S.J.

Brownson was an interesting cat who was largely ignored for the longest time. I’m guessing the banishment had something to do with his support of orthodox texts like the Syllabus of Errors. But he has been rediscovered in the last twenty years or so, and his writing now serves as the go-to explanation used by conservative Catholic intellectuals to defend the American Proposition.

Father Murray, on the other hand, continues to enjoy wide popular appeal, having reached almost cult-like status among liberals and conservative Catholics alike.

Anyone seeking a reasonable and realistic way to reverse the cultural nosedive of the last sixty years will have to look past the approval ratings of these two men, and dig a little deeper into the rosy assumptions that are so comforting to live with.

When conservatives, in particular, bask in Murray’s description of Catholics as “guardians of the American consensus based on natural law,” they are ignoring two key developments since his death in 1967: How far our nation has drifted from any public consideration of natural law, and how the divisions among Catholics have undermined their ability to be its guardian.

When, where, and how did American Catholics become divided? Conservative will answer that question without hesitation. It was the widespread rejection of Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical “Of Human Life: On the Regulation of Birth” (Humanae Vitae). That document merely re-stated the Church’s unchanging objection to artificial contraception, but it wasn’t received very well.

The fall-out came not just from common folk in the pews, but from rebellious clergy and theologians as well. With the sexual revolution in full swing, it was hard for many to see how the Church’s stance made sense any more. Even loyal priests assumed a vow of silence on the subject. As if it was just too complicated to try and explain things in the face of such noisy backlash.

This doctrinal uproar just happened to coincide with the judicial assault being waged by our Supreme Court on “the accidental American version of Thomism.” It began in the 1950s with a redefinition of pornography which allowed its distribution safe passage into our grocery stores. It continued in 1965 with an official sanction of the newly developed birth-control pill. And it found full flower with the nationwide legalization of abortion in 1973.

Many Catholics view the sudden about-face on sexual morality as most unfortunate. But few notice the other subversive trend in American life which has been just as damaging to the social fabric: the formal rejection of long-held Church teaching on “distributive justice.”

Also started in the early 1960s, it’s been as responsible as anything else for eroding the ability of Catholics to preserve America’s one-time consensus of natural law.

And so any hope for reconciling limited government and personal autonomy with Catholic teaching on the human person – the Quixotic quest of people like Orestes Brownson, John Courtney Murry, S.J., and the theologians of the Second Vatican Council – was dashed.

All the social ills that have found life in the last sixty years have been reinforced by this turning away on the economic question. The disintegration of sexual mores promoted by liberals would never have occurred so rapidly, or been accomplished so completely, if conservatives had not joined in by adopting a libertarian view of economic life that sets aside any semblance of morality in the pursuit of material gain.

This central fact has been lost in the wave of licentiousness that has energized liberal Catholics and caused conservative ones to despair. The economic heresy may be enjoyed equally by worldly, successful liberals, but it was fomented by conservatives who stubbornly championed a form of ”expression” running directly counter to the Church’s social teaching on economics.

The modern-day articulation of that teaching kicked off in 1891, with Leo XIII’s encyclical “Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor” (Rerum Novarum). It was enhanced and elaborated upon by Pius XI in 1931 with his encyclical “Ón the Reconstruction of the Social Order” (Quadragesimo Anno).

Some say these encyclicals influenced FDR’s New Deal legislation of the mid-1930s. They were at the same time encountering strong opposition in the form of the Austrian school of economics. Then the Cold War of the 1950s helped highlight Karl Marx and communist Russia in the popular imagination. And somehow the Church’s traditional teaching and defense of the working classes was being discredited as “socialist.”

Today’s conservative movement grew out of the Cold War on communism, and its Catholic adherents instinctively labeled any talk of workers’ rights as belonging to a failed ideology. Which left only one game in town: The Austrian school of libertarian economics, spearheaded by thinkers like Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek. For the American audience that soon morphed into the Chicago school of economics, led by the wunderkind Milton Freidman.

When Pope John XXIII used sections of his 1961 encyclical “Mother and Teacher” (Mater et Magistra) to discuss distributive justice, he thought he was simply underscoring the famous work of his predecessors. But he hit a brick wall in this country, when National Review – flagship magazine of the newly emergent conservative movement – described its economic component as “an exercise in triviality.” That phrase was uttered by William F. Buckley, Jr., among the most famous Catholics in the United States at the time. And it’s been all downhill for Catholic social teaching on economics ever since.

Just last week John XXIII was criticized for this 1961 effort, in which he “seemed to endorse statist economic policies at the expense of policies broadly known as capitalism.” The same review bemoaned what it described as “the spectacle of Pope Francis endorsing disgraced economic theories.” Of course neither man did anything such thing. These broad characterizations appeared in the Wall Street Journal, that bastion of conservative thought with an unerring tendency to extol the virtues of an unregulated economy.

Many people who read or write for publications like the WSJ consider themselves faithful Catholics. Yet they are embarrassed by the condemnations of greed and unchecked competition featured in the work of Leo XIII and Pius XI.

Catholics who identify as politically conservative don’t want to come right out and pick a fight, by declaring the pre-conciliar Popes to be sticks-in-the-mud. So they change the subject by enthusiastically referencing the work of the more recent Pope John Paul II, which they say represents a new-and-improved Catholic understanding. They cite JPII’s 1991 encyclical, “On the Hundredth Year” (Centesimus Annus), for its clear condemnation of socialism, and then claim he – “implicitly at least” – embraces liberal democracy, pluralism, and free markets.

Once again, the man made no such sweeping endorsement. In fact JPII used this 1991 encyclical to compare socialism (which Catholicism has always opposed) with consumerism (a flywheel of the free market), and identified a pernicious atheism at the root of both.

This obfuscation makes conservatives co-conspirators in the demise of Christian culture, and equally responsible for Catholics losing the ability to act as “guardians of the natural law.” Of course they immediately defend themselves against this charge, and put all the blame on liberals. They point to the “excess of personal autonomy” displayed by liberals when supporting sexual license and its by-products, like abortion rights and gay marriage.

But conservatives have so far been unable to acknowledge how their approval of an unregulated economy represents an equally excessive pursuit of personal autonomy. One may endlessly debate which came first, the chicken or the egg. But both heresies – liberal and conservative – have reinforced the other’s coarsening of the social fabric, and a flaunting of the natural law to everyone’s detriment.

In an attempt to tease out a reasonable and realistic path forward, let me continue to focus attention on the misguided conservatives, who think of themselves as defenders of the faith and protectors of the moral order. (The misguided liberals get a pass today, only because they are too far gone for me to do anything with at the moment.)

Here’s where thing turn a bit ugly. The conservative opinion-makers most invested in erasing the economic wisdom of a long line of Catholic Popes are often employed by wealthy foundations and think tanks. These guys and gals are earning big paychecks to defend the economic status quo, and insist it is thoroughly compatible with Catholic social teaching.

They accomplish this deception by cloaking themselves in an aura of moral authority. They present their opposition to reproductive rights and marriage equality up front, as their calling card. Then they make their case by cribbing select passages from JPII out of context. They are also quick to register disapproval of Pope Francis when he impertinently describes their beloved unfettered capitalism as “the dung of the devil.”

One has to hand it to this fancy-pants brigade, their strategy has worked remarkably well. Everyday Catholics who oppose abortion and believe in the sanctity of marriage have all tended to latch on to the shaky logic of “economic freedom.”

Not that rank-and-file conservative Catholics give the matter much thought. They acquiesce to the ”spirit” of Vatican II in a second-hand sort of way, with their allegiance based on a philosophical mash-up of what’s been trending for the last sixty-odd years.

They accept the concept of “limited government” as a reasonable facsimile of the nuanced Catholic teaching on “subsidiarity.” When confronting the reckless contours of economic freedom, they tell themselves in spite of the excesses it’s still the best way we know to respect human dignity and promote human flourishing.

For all practical purposes they have adopted core tenets of Americanism, like exalting the individual and transforming the pursuit of wealth into a virtue. In this they are victims of a bait-and-switch orchestrated by behind-the-scenes intellectuals and high-profile professional commentators. At this point it doesn’t much matter to what extent these influencers are willfully misdirecting the Catholic population away from the truth, or if they are simply confused about it themselves.

Catholic social teaching on economics has been hijacked, and replaced with a libertarian model that holds “the only social responsibility of business is to be profitable.”

The hostages who have been taken prisoner are the Catholic faithful. To their credit these die-hards have never doubted the veracity and applicability of the Church’s moral teaching. You may have noticed they are now walking around with a serious chip on their shoulder.

The problem is, their ire and moral indignation all seems to be directed at milquetoast bishops lacking the courage to deny Holy Communion to Democrat politicians who support a women’s right to choose. They occasionally get to revel in those few bishops who thunder “there can be no compromise on the right to life,” during a homily or some other public address. And in this present moment they are chomping at the bit, counting the days until the newly-appointed conservative majority on the Supreme Court finally overturns Roe v. Wade.

The curious thing about the legitimate sturm and drang these staunch souls exhibit is how it all seems to take place in a parallel universe. One that is disconnected from what they do in their everyday lives to earn a living and provide for their families. Nowhere on their list of grievances does one find a concern over the glaring lack of distributive justice. Their outrage stops short of any consideration of commerce.

Don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of politicians who could use a good swift kick in the pants. And the fact our country allows – even promotes – infanticide is an unspeakable horror. I pray for the day when the scourge of abortion has left us, and politicians no longer act contrary to the truth and their professed faith just to win elective office.

But in the meantime let us consider the numbers. In a nation of 330 million citizens few politician warrant such a sanction. And only a relative handful of women decide to abort a child. Yet economics touches all our lives, every single day. It forms the foundation of all our actions, including the decision to abort a child. So why do American Catholics fail to even consider Church teaching on this subject, in favor of latching onto a rising tide that will lift one’s boat?

These are the people now charged with carrying out the Church’s new mission in the temporal order, of realizing human dignity, and sanctifying the secular activities of this world. (Its previous mission of leading all souls to heaven was apparently deemed too controversial.)

The best among them feel powerless to act, trapped by the proliferation of paganism. They want the Catholic hierarchy, starting with the Pope, to stop being so damn accommodating of the liberal democratic order Some are even suggesting their prelates push for a return to the “confessional state.”

I, for one, am not sure Catholics would want to put all their eggs in that basket again, even if it were possible. History has already shown this arrangement was not fool-proof in guiding either the high and mighty or the common rabble to lives of virtue.

Though I do agree Catholicism as a whole should spend less time trying to be accommodating, and more time showing the courage of its convictions. But isn’t that as much an individual project as it is an institutional one? Here it might be worth noting much of the most dramatic reform in the Catholic Church over the last two thousand years has started at the grassroots level, and slowly worked its way to the top. Believers needn’t wait until a better, more orthodox priest or bishop or Pope comes along to lead the way.

After so much time spent in accommodation mode, many Catholics could probably use a refresher course on just what their convictions are supposed to be.

If you have the time and the inclination, by all means check out Orestes Brownson to get a feel for the early struggle between the America Proposition and Church teaching. Go ahead and dip into the work of John Courtney Murray, S.J. to learn about the optimism some mid-20th Catholics were feeling about that struggle.

Boning up on history is always a good thing to do. But the end of all one’s intellectual exploring will be a return to an inescapable truth: the life of a Catholic is littered with challenges. And it won’t be getting less littered any time soon – regardless of whether or not Vatican II changed Church teaching, specifically on religious freedom, or the role of Catholicism in a pluralist society.

While we’re on that subject, as much as I may respect those who have chosen to formally reject the “innovations” of the Second Vatican Council by calling for the widespread reinstatement of the Latin Mass, and as much as I agree forms of worship matter, and a return to reverence would help elevate our minds to Christ, that horse has already left the barn. Besides, trying to restore the culture by doing away with the vernacular Mass is the equivalent of taking a slow boat to China.

The quickest way to restore our culture to one based on virtue and the teaching of Christ is to pursue a long overdue re-think of our economic playbook.

We have to work with what we have, folks. And whether we like it or not, what we have is capitalism. It’s the religion of the modern world, a marvelous engine of economic progress that has enhanced the material circumstances of countless individuals in the last couple of centuries.

But the exuberance so many feel towards it must be tempered. Injustices and inadequacies abound and need to be addressed. Too many people have fallen through the cracks and been forgotten.

This admonition extends to America’s Catholic bishops, who uniformly condemn abortion while too often approving the economic status quo. These good men condone broad economic principles because it all started as a way for the down-trodden to improve their hard-scrabble existence. But since then things have spun out of control. Greed and conspicuous consumption are now rampant, and both have a corrosive effect on the body politic.

Of course these bishops are aware of the negative indicators, but they take a hands-off approach. They define economic behavior as a matter of prudential judgement only, which implies it’s not covered by Church teaching or the moral law. They act as if the financial fray is none of their business.

If they do deign to comment on economic matters, they do so in such vague terms, using such ephemeral language, the average wage-earner has no idea how to translate the information to plain English. Or put it to use in the hustle-and-bustle world of trying to make a buck while dodging the tax man.

Though most American Catholics are blissfully ignorant of it, there exists an easy-to-understand literature that explains and expounds upon the Church’s modern-day teaching on our economic life. More than anything people need to get their hands on this stuff, read it, and think about the implications.

It would surely help if conservatives could restrain themselves from taking snippets of this teaching out of context, to paint the Church’s position as “socialist”, or try and demonstrate a recent turn to an unambiguous embrace of free-market capitalism.

Don’t hold your breath, though, hoping to find a specific set of instructions to be followed, that will yield a more just and equitable society. Even the best theologians can only take us so far. It’s up to lay men and women to bring such a world to life. Average citizens might think themselves limited in what they can accomplish in this regard, since they are mere employees at the mercy of an employer.

It’s true, the task of implementing the principles of distributive justice falls first and foremost on the business community, and how it chooses to conduct its daily operations. For the last sixty years that community has followed the Gospel according to Milton Friedman, first promulgated in 1962: The only social responsibility of business is to be profitable.

This was updated slightly in 1997, when an organization known as the Business Roundtable altered its Principles of Corporate Governance to endorse “shareholder primacy” – corporations exists primarily to serve shareholders.

Then just last year, in August 2019, the world witnessed a remarkable development in the annals of American commerce. The Business Roundtable issued a new statement of purpose that moves away from shareholder primacy to include a commitment to all stakeholders. The updated statement redefines the purpose of a corporation as promoting “an economy that serves all Americans.”

This revised definition of corporate responsibility was signed by 181 CEOs who committed to lead their companies for the benefit of customers, employees, suppliers, and communities – in addition to shareholders. Now that’s what I’m talking about, people.

Granted, 181 corporations is a drop in the bucket. And so far the ultimate masters of the universe like Jeff Bezos have yet to read the memo. But if more companies take up this cause and follow this new creed – ripped from the pages of Catholic social teaching, I might add – we won’t have to fret over which flawed politician gets elected President.

Think of it. If empathy is allowed to seep back into our commerce at the highest levels, the carry-over effect could be considerable. The uptick in mutual respect would register through every strata of society, making each of us a little less selfish, and a little more cognizant of the common good. To those seeking cultural restoration, this strikes me as a pretty good place to start.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr
December 13, 2020

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