The Catholic Thing
Reading in the New Year Print E-mail
By Randall Smith   
Monday, 07 January 2013

Several weeks ago, I suggested that if Catholics want to help the nation, then they must help the nation think about itself and the common good in ways deeper and more substantial than the nation (and especially the nation’s dominant media) seem willing to allow. Indeed, we’ll need to give some serious thought to issues a lot more substantive than what sort of coalition might win the next election.  Moreover, if as Catholics we want to think well about politics in the United States, we’ll have to think seriously about many things other than politics. 

One commentator suggested that I had engaged in a “rant” and all I had succeeded in doing was depressing people. It’s hard to imagine a short article adding substantially to the sum total of depression in the nation. But there is at least this to be said for the comment: It’s easier to be critical than constructive. And although I meant to be constructive, it would be fair to say that I made fewer positive suggestions than negative critiques.

With all that in mind, I have a suggestion: a reading project for the New Year. We’re all busy, but in the New Year there’s probably no better way for Catholics to “begin anew” in terms of thinking about our current problems and our responsibilities toward the common good than serious reading and study – with friends and neighbors, if possible – of Pope John Paul II’s great encyclical Centesimus Annus

With regard to the kinds of conversations we’re increasingly going to need to have in the coming years – conversations about budgets, economic priorities, care for the poor, the nature of free markets, and the responsibilities for a just social order – Centesimus Annus is the best single thing on offer, bar none. There, readers will find a principled defense of the value of private property and free markets in the context of a broader discussion of the ends those institutions are meant to serve and the limits that must be observed in their use. 

One will also find an absolutely essential discussion about “the state and culture,” setting forth what the pope calls “a sound theory of the State” – something we’ll need more and more as the federal government continues to consolidate authority over all aspects of society.

It’s worth recalling that in 1891, when Pope Leo XIII published Rerum Novarum, dozens of other books on political theory were being read in the best universities. A hundred years later, only Rerum Novarum continues to inspire generations of readers. There are plenty of books on political theory today, but in 120 years, how many of them will still be inspiring readers? Only one: Centesimus Annus.

John Paul II signing Centesimus Annus

Centesimus Annus does not bring debate to an end. What it does, rather, is help us begin the discussion we need, one for which we would be better served if we had: (A) a common set of first principles; (B) a common language with which to address the fundamental issues at stake; and (C) a basic rule of thumb that says others with whom we disagree are to be treated as men and women of good will, trying as are we, to come up with workable solutions.

A comment on my earlier piece mentioned Paul Ryan’s “disingenuous” attempt to “co-opt” Catholic social teaching. That is unfair.  Paul Ryan may be wrong; his judgments may be imprudent (or not). But let’s take him on good faith (the good faith we would wish to be shown) that he is trying to work out prudentially, in practice, what those broad principles ought to mean in a country such as ours. On matters of the prudent application of general principles, there will be honest disagreements. Still, having the right foundational principles is a good start.

Above all, though, Catholics should be ready to lead the way as citizens who can increasingly engage in the sort of serious conversations that we have persisted in avoiding. That conversation would best be carried on by minds and consciences formed by the Catholic intellectual tradition rather than by the current modernist cultural paradigms or the latest media hype.

As we enter this dialogue, however, we’ll need to be honest with others and ourselves about the need for sacrifice. The only way to show our good faith is to make clear that we ourselves are willing to be first in line to sacrifice – not our principles or our faith, obviously, but our sweat and treasure.

I tell my students – and they understand this instinctively – that it will be their task to make selfless sacrifices for future generations the way the Depression Era and World War II generations did for us, given that the Boomer Generation is leaving the country to them in such bad shape, with debts they will be working to pay for decades to come.

Some suggest that we should just stop talking and start praying. I say no to the first and yes to the second. There is certainly nothing better and more effective than prayer. But as Thomas Aquinas demonstrated, prayer and thinking seriously are not mutually exclusive tasks.  God gave us hearts with which to pray and minds with which to think. He also gave us a saintly pope whose writings can help guide our nation into an uncertain future. We’ll need to make good use of every available resource in the coming years.

If we do, perhaps “the Catholic vote” will mean something important again, and not merely mirror the demographic self-interests of an increasingly self-interested nation. 

Randall Smith
is associate professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas, Houston.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (8)Add Comment
written by Sue, January 06, 2013
Excuse me but the WWII generation left us with FDR social (in)security and big government, and the post WWII generation left us with 60s era entitlement programs including Medicare. These are the addicting obligations which are ballooning our debt. The boomers also were shipped off to more ambiguous wars to fight. Please inform your students that the boomers were victims of earlier generations, as well as problems in their own right.

On prudence: Paul Ryan imprudently hitched his wagon to an Obama lookalike and compromised his Catholic principles to implicitly support rape-incest abortions. Thus normalizing rape-incest abortions in the minds of the many Catholics who felt forced to vote for Romney. His credibility is shot.
written by Ib, January 07, 2013
This is a superb suggestion to re-read "Centisimus Annus". I haven't read it through in many years, although I have referred to passages in it often.

I thought your previous post ("what matters now") was good, but would have been much better if written before the Republican Primaries. It might've had a chance to impact which Republican ran in the general election. By coming after the election it had a nostalgic sense of woulda-shoulda-coulda that I'm sure seemed depressive to some readers.

The one small quibble I had with it was that you presented the problems we face now as emerging solely from the pole of "hyper-individualism." I agree that many of our problems do stem from this source, but I think there is another pole at work as well: social pressures toward collectivism ("the spirit of the bee-hive" to steal Victor Erice's title). Perhaps you see these as related in some paradoxical way, but it was not clear from your post if you even countenance this second pole.
written by Dennis, January 07, 2013
What the Church needs, before it can convert others, is to convert itself. Fifty years of bishops and clergy and religious promoting dissent has left its mark. Before there was Paul Ryan, there were the Kennedys, Ted Hesburgh, Nancy Pelosi, Joe Biden, Tom Harkin. Now the cardinal archbishop of New York hyucks it up with a politician who works to bring the Church to its knees. Reading encyclicals is always in order. Acting as if the Church matters is also in order. We need serious leadership, as in 'serious.'
written by Hart Ponder , January 07, 2013
As I read it, the principles of The Our Father Prayer, The Gospel and the Beatitudes seems to be the Message from our Holy Father.

"The struggle between good and evil will continue as long as time lasts. The kingdom of God, being "in" the world, without being "of" the world, throws a critical light on society, calling everyone, especially the laity, to infuse human reality with the spirit of the Gospel. (#25)"

I appreciate the "world view" Catholics must take in light of our mission, knowing where all nations are truly headed (Daniel 2:44, Psalm 146:3, 1 John 5:19).

How do Catholic's talk? We pray for God's Kingdom to come and point to the true lasting hope for not only the US (like we are all going to be Americans in heaven..) but the world... May our actions as well as our words stand in solidarity with the Church as we are "in" the World, but not "of" the world.
written by Laura, January 07, 2013
I do take umbrage at the comment that the Baby Boomer Generation has left the country in such bad shape! I am a baby boomer, and *I* had nothing to do with this mess: The people I voted for have continuously failed to do what they said they would do. What can I do to change that??? I started working in high school. I put MYSELF through college, and paid off my student loans in three years of hard work. When I could find nothing in my field, I put MYSELF through court reporting school, passed the State Boards, and worked for 32 years as a court reporter - including over 20 years as an independent contractor, where I paid FIFTEEN PERCENT of my income to Social Security (not the 7.5% one pays, where the employer pays the other 7.5%). NOW I am threatened with reduced benefits!!! HOW did *I* fail? I think not. Yet now you, and everyone else, want to blame ME and my hardworking generation. It is the LIBERALS and whack jobs, the "hippies," that did this to us. I sacrificed and sacrificed: I worked 60-80 hours a week and commuted 2-4 hours (a DAY), for over 32 years. Please, be careful whom you blame! There is an agenda going on here, and most people do not see the larger picture. This has been planned for generations and is part of the one-world order crowd's plans to decimate the middle class, destroy religion, and enrich themselves!
written by gtb, January 07, 2013
Excuse me, Sue, but the boomers are not 'victims.' Basically, all of the fiscal problems the Western world faces boils down to one thing: The Pill. The millions, probably billions, of people who have been contracepted/aborted out of existence is what has led to the mess we're in now. The boomers are directly responsible for this bc of the 'choice' to plan their own families/lives/destiny etc. The Boomers Anthem, "It's all about me", is now bearing fruit of fruitless self-love.
written by William, January 08, 2013
The fiscal problem the world faces is due to usury. Banks that lone money using fractional lending create inflated money and are guilty of usury. Not enough people know what money is to be able to make smart decisions. We have all been brain washed into accepting usury and now the banks own us. To make money understandable we must first remember that money is merely an exchange medium. Instead of using barter of animals, skins or metals etc. we use a common unit of exchange called the dollar in the USA. In simple terms money is the value of what you have to barter towards what you want to purchase. Many of us work for wages so our money is simply the value of our time. When banks practice usury they steal from the value of our time to profit themselves. What is the solution? One thing would be to make banks stop using fractional lending. That would end a potent inflationary practice and would return the stolen value of our time to us. If you want to help this great nation and the world the banking system must be changed.
written by Louise, January 12, 2013
Randall, thank you for this. This is a great suggestion.

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