Patrick Deneen’s article from earlier this year, “A Catholic Showdown Worth Watching,” put front and center among American Catholics a controversy the origins of which date back at least to the Americanist heresy of the 1890s, a controversy that now and again flares up, but that some want to pretend does not exist.
What exactly is that controversy? In a nutshell, it is over whether the liberal capitalist socio-political order is really compatible with a Catholic view of the state, of society, and even of the human person; whether the condemnations of liberalism made by so many popes and Catholic writers are suddenly out-of-date, passé, made obsolete by the triumph of the new world order represented by the Lockean polity that was fully realized in the United States; and whether, in fact, Catholics can perceive that just as communism posed a deadly threat to a Christian social order and to the very life of the Church, so the bourgeois liberalism of the capitalist world represents a threat of another sort, but in the end one that is just as dangerous.
Ryan Shinkel’s article, “The Two Catholic Camps Worth Debating,” seeks to reduce this controversy to a friendly discussion between two groups in general agreement—”culturally conservative Catholics who apply natural law principles in different ways”—but who in the end can learn much from each other and work together “to preserve the moral life and the fight against our countercultural Judeo-Christian morality becoming more excluded and our institutions less autonomous.”
But not so. The controversy is very much deeper than that and concerns our understanding of how the Church should influence the social order. The debate can be characterized on several levels. On one level it is between those who seek to shape their socio-political views according to Catholic social teaching, and those who essentially use that teaching, or selected parts of it, in favor of a worldview the origins, first principles, and standards of which lie elsewhere. On another level it can be characterized as between those who see that the way of life and the institutions build up by Christendom as an historic social order are fundamentally at-odds with the way of life and the institutions created by the modern West, and those who for whatever reason obscure these facts. And lastly, it can be characterized as a controversy between those who somehow manage to ignore the incredibly destructive effects that capitalism has had on all traditional cultures and ways of thinking, and instead focus their attention almost exclusively on overreach on the part of governments, overreach that in many instances was a well-intentioned but misguided or confused attempt to reign in those same capitalist forces of destruction.
A full justification of these statements would exceed the limits of this article, so I will only mention a few things below, more as illustrations than as arguments. But I note that these themes have been fully explored by numerous Catholic writers for decades, by such figures as Hilaire Belloc, Christopher Dawson, Richard Tawney, Bede Jarrett, and others, including myself.
To mention a few things: First Shinkel says that my criticism earlier this year of George Weigel “is due to the fact that each believes he is correctly applying CST and natural law. Both camps want to articulate better our philosophical and theological traditions …” But that is not what I said in my article, and I’m afraid that it is not what was at issue there. I pointed out then that while recently Weigel has promoted the (correct) notion that “popes are not like presidents … [and] a change of papal ‘administration’ does not—indeed cannot—mean a change of Catholic ‘views,'” in the not-so-distant past Weigel promoted the very opposite notion with regard to Catholic social doctrine, namely that the basic thrust of social doctrine had been altered by the allegedly new views of John Paul II expressed in Centesimus Annus. Weigel trumpeted Centesimus as “a decisive break with the curious materialism that has characterized aspects of modern Catholic social teaching since Leo XIII” and as a “new departure in Catholic social thought.” But since with Pope Francis it is no longer tenable to pretend that Catholic social doctrine has made a neo-liberal turn, Weigel now seeks to ignore most of the actual contents of Catholic social doctrine and claims that “social doctrine leaves open to debate the specific, practical means by which people of good will, and governments, exercise … solidarity and charity.”
Of course to some extent this is correct, for the popes never tried to devise a detailed plan for an ideal social order. Yet consistent throughout all their teaching, including Centesimus, is a rejection of the notion that fundamentally all that is needed are market forces plus a legal framework that helps make these market forces function efficiently. Intermediate groups such as guilds, worker participation in management, coordination between unions and owners, proper regulation on the part of the government—the popes have offered all these suggestions, and a Catholic is free to debate many of the details of how they might be applied. But he is not free to suggest that market forces are fundamentally productive of justice or sufficient to regulate the economy.
Shinkel refers more than once to his two camps as both consisting of “culturally conservative Catholics.” But does that term have any real meaning? Does it bring clarity to our public policy debates? What exactly are those who call themselves cultural conservatives seeking to conserve? The chief difficulty here is that while cultural conservatives correctly oppose many of the manifestations of liberalism as applied to marriage and the family or to the human person, they embrace or at least accept liberalism in politics and the economy. The “Neuhaus camp”—as it has been called—consists of those who think that “American liberal democracy and a competitive market economy” are consistent with Catholic teaching. This, as Daniel Saudek says, is “strange,” indeed it is passing strange. A “competitive market economy” has been one of the most destructive and destabilizing forces in the entire history of the world, and the Catholic instinct has always been to fear and resist it. Those who champion a competitive market economy and a commercial civilization and at the same time oppose the latest manifestations of decadent liberalism, such as legalized abortion or same-sex “marriages,” are fooling themselves—or trying to fool the rest of us—for liberalism is responsible for both. We cannot at the same time encourage the gratification of greed and restrain the gratification of lust. We cannot have economic liberalism and at the same time a “culturally conservative” social order.
A Catholic will look elsewhere than at a society that glorifies personal freedom and compulsive consumption. I could multiply quotations almost without end, but this one from Hilaire Belloc’s The Crisis of Civilization, which describes the fundamental outlook that obtained in Christendom, must suffice:
… the spiritual force and motive underlying the whole business was an appetite for security: for making life tolerable on its material side so that there should be room and opportunity for men to lead the good life, as the Greeks put it, or, as the Catholic Church puts it, to save their souls.
This is what human life is about, the salvation of our souls. Obviously this does not exclude reasonable efforts to achieve such measure of happiness as is possible in this world. But that happiness does not consist in the maximization of personal freedom, in the purposeless accumulation of goods, or in the mindless way of life created by our commercial civilization—a way of life that serves primarily to preserve and increase the profits of those who are our economic (and increasingly our political) masters, while keeping the rest of the population in a kind of materialist and hedonist semi-stupor.
This is what the Catholic “showdown” is about. It is not a mere in-house squabble over the fine points of Catholic social doctrine or the exact limits of government. It is over the fundamental orientation of our life, social and personal; over the place of Christ’s one Catholic Church in the social order; over whether the Catholic Church, or modernity and the American republic, is the new order of the ages. This is indeed a showdown worth watching, and, yes, a debate worth having too, but only if the real terms of the debate are understood from the outset. If they are obscured, if the debate hides what is actually at stake, then it is to no purpose. But if they are understood, then there will be opportunity to look at the real issues, to see their consequences and to choose sides accordingly.