The Catholic Thing
The Adventure of Catholic Social Doctrine Print E-mail
By Michael Novak   
Tuesday, 03 June 2008

When I was young and liberal, the popes of the preceding eighty years – from Leo XIII (pope 1878-1903), to Pius XII (1939-1958) – were regarded as “liberal popes,” and they were often quoted by liberal Catholics against their local bishops. One professor I know used to read a quotation from one or another of these popes, then ask the class who was the author. Most guessed Marx, Engels, or some socialist.

Generally speaking, these popes were defending an alternative to socialism and Marxism. They defended private property rights against the socialists, but also against a too-narrow libertarianism. Since a regime of private property is justified by its service to the common good (in Locke and Mill, for example), sometimes the common good imposes moral burdens on those who own property, to protect the weak.

These popes also defended the natural inequality of temperaments, skills, habits, and orders of preferences among men – both against the socialists, who preached utopian equality, and against the partisans of “laissez-faire,” who thought the law of competition fair, without noting that there are many too weak to compete on even terms (See especially Leo XIII).

I still remember the glow that blushed over the whole Christian left (and the secular left, too) upon hearing the words of the new pope, John XXIII (1958-1963).

The popes from 1930 on were crucial to the discrediting of many socialist ideas – in both forms, National Socialism and International Socialism.

They were particularly important in encouraging the build-up of Christian Democratic parties to block the rise of Socialist and Communist Parties in most of the nations of Western Europe. (It was their unexpected success that so infuriated the East Germans, who launched a propaganda assault against the then-much-loved Pius XII.) These parties held the line until the surrender of Communism in 1989 and the spontaneous tearing down of the Berlin wall. (What rapturous days those were!)

The great difficulty in the inner development of Catholic Social Doctrine, from one historical phase into another, lies not primarily in the field of theological or moral principles, which are relevant to all ages and places. These are principles for all seasons: “The wise steward brings out from his treasure both old things and new, as suits the season.”

The wise steward must adjust when mild centuries give way to centuries of icy storms, and when new institutions sweep over all before them. One such turn occurred, for example, when Europe ceased to be primarily agricultural and became chiefly urban. At that point, Leo XIII was obliged to write of New Things, Rerum Novarum.

Catholic Social Doctrine depends crucially on the adjustment of “middle axioms,” which gear unchanging first principles to changing times. It also depends crucially on an instinct for the particular and the concrete, the accurate formulation of the new facts in play, and the shifting self-interests of all the players.

On sin and self-interest, in my experience, the great Protestant theologian of my youth, Reinhold Niebuhr, had more to say, and said it better, than any Catholic theologian I have read. Except for St. Augustine, of whom Niebuhr was a close reader.

For such reasons, Catholic Social Doctrine experiences “development” in two especially acute areas. Middle axioms need to be constantly reformulated to mesh with new sorts of institutions and regimes. Further, the shifting grounds of historical change need to be noted sharply, so as to reflect reality as it is, not as it was, nor as utopians wish it were.

Catholics know in their bones that history is strewn with ironies and tragedies, strange twists, monstrous actions by deranged individuals, the lassitude of the good, the collapse of the center, the rapidly spreading infection of destructive ideas. Even saintly leaders acting with good intentions have sometimes brought about ugly consequences they did not intend.

In other words, Catholic Social Doctrine is anything but cut and dried. It is a great field for young talent, full of energy and originality. It is also a hugely demanding discipline, because any practitioner (either on the theoretical or on the practical side) must learn an immense amount in the very short period of a human life.

Down in the public arena, no one has the luxury of hindsight. Those who fear making mistakes thereby disqualify themselves from taking action.

During my lifetime, Catholic Social Doctrine has been far too much distorted by being formulated through the lens of European experience, especially feudal, class-bound experience on the one hand, and social democratic experience on the other. That lens is a bit more pink than natural color. We in America are indebted to Europe; but we also have the experience of a New World. It is our task to contribute new things to the universal patrimony of the Catholic people.

Michael Novak’s website is

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written by Earl Bohn, February 28, 2012
If my fellow one-time resident of McKeesport, Pennsylvania, is correct in his history, and I accept that he is, then what is a Constitution-loving Catholic to do?

I'll start by recalling Dwight Eisenhower's observation that "at the bottom of every stack of government paperwork lies a gun."

Catholic bishops in the United States seem to have delegated to the federal government -- which is thoroughly secular, aspiring to Godlessness -- the Church's duty of performing acts of Christian charity.

The bishops have sought this from the same legal system that in 1973 peered into the shadows of the U.S. Constitution and discerned in the dim light a God-given right -- the only kind recognized by the Constitution -- for a woman to kill the human life that began growing inside her womb when she voluntarily participated in the one and only act designed exclusively for the purpose of creating human life in her womb.

In this, have the bishops not brought the Holy Roman Catholic Church into the service of politicians and government administrators who cheered that Supreme Court decision in 1973? Have the bishops not brought the Church into the service of politicians and administrators who, according to authoritative Constitutional scholars, have violated the Founders' intentions and unleashed the federal government from the confines of the Constitution's enumerated powers in order to feed the hungry, house the homeless, and pay doctor bills for the sick and injured at public expense.

Now the bishops squeal and fume because Leviathan, the Godless administrative state that they persuaded to enact the 2,700-page Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and the 10,000 pages of administrative regulations expected to follow, reaches to the bottom of that stack of paperwork and orders the Catholic Church and Catholic agencies to dutifully take their place among all the other employers who must obey this law and these incoming waves of regulations.

We laymen who want to abide by both the U.S. Constitution and Catechism of the Catholic Church want to get Leviathan back in its impoundment and the Catholic Church out of that bed.

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