Reading in the New Year

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 B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.