On Being Catholic Modern

One of the distinctly modern blessings for the young Catholic intellectual is having one’s moral imagination formed by what Russell Hittinger once called the papal “paper war.”  From the 1864 Syllabus of Errors onward, our popes have assumed an ever more assertive and “counter-cultural” role in their teaching office, especially as regards social doctrine.  This gives to the young Catholic intellectual that unusual thrill of uniting revolution with authority; as he reads through recent papal encyclicals, he may have the sense of simultaneously rebelling against the conventions of the hour while standing on the side of tradition and permanent truth.

This was certainly my experience as a student, finding my way into Catholic teaching through John Paul II’s Fides et Ratio (1998), and I was hardly alone.  It was Jacques Maritain’s experience, for instance, as he proclaimed in his defense of St. Thomas Aquinas in Antimoderne (1922):

By her true universality [Thomas’s philosophy] overflows infinitely, whether in the past or in the future, those narrow straits of present opinion; she does not stand in opposition to modern ideas as the past opposes the present, but as the sempiternal stands beyond the momentary.  Antimodernagainst the errors of the hour, she is Ultramodern in regard to all those truths to be enveloped in times to come.

As the temporal powers of the Church receded in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the magisterium increasingly stood apart from political action, but only to offer with clearer independence and authority a program for an alternative modernity, an alternative to the secularism, liberalism, and nationalism that shaped modern Europe and America.

Hilaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton, and priests such as Fr. Vincent McNabb, O.P. must have gotten a thrill marshaling the encyclicals of Leo XIII in support of a rebellion against the modern world.  Belloc’s pugnacious medievalism in The Servile State (1912) seemed to argue that the Catholic Church alone had discovered a desirable and sustainable social order, a politics at once very ancient and very new that would revive a dying civil society.

James Chappel’s ambitious history of Catholic social thought in twentieth-century Europe, Catholic Modern (2018), offers an only slightly more modest picture. The rebellious medievalism of Belloc and others soon gave way to an accommodation of the modern secular state, but this was no mere surrender.  Two traditions sprang up, Chappel argues, voicing alternatives to the liberal capitalism that, in the Depression Era, seemed about to collapse.

Paternal Catholic Modernism accepted the strong, non-confessional state as a necessary reality. The state would govern the public realm, the Church the private.  The two would meet chiefly in the state’s role in managing class conflict in the economic realm in the service of sustaining the life of the family in the domestic realm.

Paternal Catholic Modernism was fundamentally anticommunist: the modern state must protect private property and the integrity of the family against Marxist doctrine. The social theory of “corporatism” arose as a modern secular analog to the thick medieval network of guilds and civil institutions.


An alternative social doctrine, what Chappel calls Fraternal Catholic Modernism, retained the resistance to an all-powerful, centralizing state that had been part of Leo XIII’s teaching, but did so out of sympathy with trade unionism and the leftist desire to foster “fraternal” cooperation among religious and non-religious political organizations.

Antifascist from its inception, Fraternal Catholic Modernism was sympathetic to Marx’s critique of liberalism and capitalism. Maritain would become the most prominent advocate of this theory, in his call for a cooperative “pluralism” in the service of a new Christendom.

As Chappel tells the story, the Church and faithful intellectuals were at once reconciled to the increasing secularization of the state and dogged in their conviction that social life could be more just and harmonious only if that state heeded the Church’s guidance on fundamental principles.

There’s something heady and exhilarating about the various figures Chappel depicts, even as one sees that, first, medievalism, and, then, Paternal and Fraternal Catholic modernism discarded their most ambitious elements as they gained in influence and, eventually, gave shape to the Christian Democratic movements that came to dominate Europe in the aftermath of the Second World War.

Corporatism proved an abject failure in its original forms, prior to the War, but emerged afterward as the foundation for the family-centered welfare state.  The pluralist spirit of Fraternal Catholic modernism was bound to fail as well, because Communism, in the form of the Soviet Union, would continue to threaten the West during the decades of the Cold War. And yet, the traditional Catholic defense of trade unions and freedom of association also became an important element of the post-War order.

Although it must have seemed a fearful defeat for the Church to have to retreat to a “paper” war on the most egregious aspects of the modern age, the Church proved an inventive and influential force in shaping political and social life in the last century.

The late theologian Michael Novak and, later, the Acton Institute’s defense of free-market liberalism is a reasonable descendant of the earlier Paternal tradition.  The banal welfare-statism associated with Paul VI’s Populorum Progressio (1968), and given new voice by Pope Francis, obviously takes its bearings from the earlier Fraternal modernists.

Alas, both lack the provocative ambitiousness of those earlier generations, which could be so inspiring to a young man looking for the first time at the world around him and believing there must be a better way.

On the other hand, such “political Catholicisms” ran the risk of tempting us to think that social revolution could stand apart from, or even substitute for, what Maritain believed the world needed most, heroic sanctity and devotion.

“A renewal of the social order on Christian lines will be a work of sanctity or it will not occur at all,” he wrote nearly a century ago.  He was right then, and he is more right than ever now.  That is the one genuine revolution.


*Image: St. Lawrence Distributing the Riches of the Church by Bernardo Strozzi, c. 1625 [St. Louis Art Museum, St. Louis, Missouri]

James Matthew Wilson has published ten books, including, most recently, The Strangeness of the Good (Angelico) and The Vision of the Soul: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty in the Western Tradition (CUA). Professor of Humanities and Director of the MFA program in Creative Writing at the University of Saint Thomas (Houston), he also serves as poet-in-residence for the Benedict XVI Institute, poetry editor for Modern Age magazine, and as series editor for Colosseum Books, from the Franciscan University at Steubenville Press. His Amazon page is here.