The Adventure of Catholic Social Doctrine

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 (1933-2017) was George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy from the American Enterprise Institute, is an author, philosopher, and theologian. He was also a trustee and a visiting professor at Ave Maria University.