Ethics & Public Policy Center

Our Only Option

Published in Ethika Politika on March 18, 2014



The Church in her social teaching has consistently condemned socialism. From Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum in 1891 (“the main tenet of socialism, community of goods, must be utterly rejected”) and continuing through Bl. John Paul II’s 1991 post-mortem of the collapse of European communism, Centesimus Annus, (“the fundamental error of socialism is anthropological in nature”) this rejection of socialism was founded in her equally consistent defense of human freedom, which is rooted in the very nature of the human person.

The Church’s defense of freedom, of course, was always fought on two fronts: On one side, totalitarian ideologies threatened human freedom in a dramatically new way by totally subjugating the individual person to the modern state, which was itself a radically new thing. On the other side, the social upheaval and dislocation brought about by the “new things” of the modern age threatened to sever human freedom from its traditional moorings. As John Paul II wrote in Centesimus Annus: “Indeed, what is the origin of all the evils to which Rerum Novarum wished to respond, if not a kind of freedom which, in the area of economic and social activity, cuts itself off from the truth about man?”

The rejection of socialism was always accompanied by a critique—at times, very sharp—of “liberalism” and the various political institutions attending democratic capitalism. While the ideologies responsible for the savage totalitarianisms of the twentieth century were unequivocally condemned, when it came to democratic-capitalist societies, the Church’s judgment remained, according to Pope John Paul II, ambiguous. In Centesimus Annus, he posed the following question: With the failure of the “Marxist solution,” ought capitalism to be seen as the way toward true economic and civic progress, particularly in the case of developing nations?

“The answer,” he wrote, “is obviously complex”:

If by “capitalism” is meant an economic system which recognizes the fundamental and positive role of business, the market, private property and the resulting responsibility for the means of production, as well as free human creativity in the economic sector, then the answer is certainly in the affirmative, even though it would perhaps be more appropriate to speak of a “business economy”, “market economy” or simply “free economy”. But if by “capitalism” is meant a system in which freedom in the economic sector is not circumscribed within a strong juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality, and which sees it as a particular aspect of that freedom, the core of which is ethical and religious, then the reply is certainly negative.

Here we arrive at a crucial juncture. As grateful as we ought to be to those who defended freedom—embodied, however imperfectly, in Western liberal democracies—over and against totalitarian barbarism, we cannot avoid the inconvenient fact that, 25 years after the Fall of the Berlin Wall, we are still lacking a practical, political remedy to the ongoing disintegration of society with which we are all too familiar and which seems to be accelerating. The question that must occupy us here is whether such a remedy can be found and actualized—insofar as the City of Man is ever susceptible to such solutions, and given the deep problems inherent in the Enlightenment liberal project—within the framework of liberal democracy. I would argue that this latter question finds an affirmative answer, albeit qualified, in the pontificates of Benedict XVI and Francis.

Before moving on to Benedict and Francis, it is worth pointing out that I take Catholicism to be utterly destructive of socialism while being merely corrective of liberalism (or democratic capitalism, or liberal democracy, etc.). Is this a double standard? I don’t think so. Socialism, both at the level of theory and practice, maintains a comparatively high degree of ideological consistency, tolerating little or no dissent, the result of which is a rather unified and (at least according to its own internal logic) coherent political arrangement. Meanwhile, “liberalism”—not unlike “capitalism,” as we saw above, though the two are not identical—is so often poorly defined that, as my colleague John Mueller once said of the latter, discussions about it often turn into little more than pillow fights in the dark.

This is not to say that liberalism can’t be defined, but rather that when it is defined, the definition is either so broad as to constitute a straw man or so narrow as to be unrecognizable as an essential part of our actual political reality. Even the most coherent liberal theories often produce rather incoherent politics, which, of course, is part of the MacIntyrian critique of Enlightenment liberalism. The weakness of this critique is that it treats liberalism as both a coherent intellectual project and tradition and as a decidedly indeterminate muddle of contradictory—or at the very least, inadequate—claims about human nature and society. “Liberalism” can be more or less adequately defined as either; I do not see how it can be both at the same time.

To illustrate what I mean, take the definition of liberalism proposed by Patrick Deneen in his important essay in First Things, “Unsustainable Liberalism“:

[L]liberalism is constituted by a pair of deeper anthropological assumptions that give liberal institutions a particular orientation and cast: 1) anthropological individualism and the voluntarist conception of choice, and 2) human separation from and opposition to nature. These two revolutions in the understanding of human nature and society constitute “liberalism” inasmuch as they introduce a radically new definition of “liberty.”

The problem with Deneen’s definition of liberalism is not that such deep anthropological assumptions do not exist—indeed they are widespread, to terrible effect—it’s that there is a great deal more to liberal societies and institutions as they actually exist than these two errors suggest. This is evidenced by the political realities of our own day. That is not to say that the “right side” has the upper hand in our contemporary political and cultural battles, but it is surely not negligible that one or both assumptions proposed by Deneen as constitutive—essential, if you will—to liberalism are explicitly denied and refuted by significant constituencies on both sides of our political partisan divides.

The upshot is this: arguing against the anthropology of, say, John Locke is one thing; arguing with a concrete body politic replete with internal tensions and contradictions—to say nothing of culture and history—is something else entirely. MacIntyre is much more successful at the former than the latter.

The challenge of “liberalism”—by which I mean the general modus vivendi of Western liberal democracies, with all their inherent contradictions and flaws—arises not from its internal coherence, but from its mutability and indeterminacy. Here again, the MacIntyrian critique is insightful: the indeterminacy of liberalism leaves it vulnerable to relativism. As Pope Benedict XVI famously observed, such relativism easily becomes decidedly illiberal, even dictatorial. In the absence of any agreed-upon truth, reconciliation of competing claims becomes impossible except by force and politics devolves into a zero sum game wherein varying parties and interests seek alternately to impose their wills each upon the other. In such an environment, solidarity withers.

One of the inadequacies of contemporary American politics is that the competing factions have come to see virtually every major dispute through two categories—the market and the state—with one party arguing for more state, less market while the other argues for more market, less state. InCaritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict XVI described the inadequacies, even dangers, of this binary view:

The exclusively binary model of market-plus-State is corrosive of society, while economic forms based on solidarity, which find their natural home in civil society without being restricted to it, build up society. The market of gratuitousness does not exist, and attitudes of gratuitousness cannot be established by law. Yet both the market and politics need individuals who are open to reciprocal gift.

If the “natural home” of solidarity is found within civil society, then the renewal of human solidarity against the corrosive effects of modern popular culture must begin there, as distinct from, but not cut off or detached from, politics and economics. As Pope John Paul II writes in Centesimus Annus:

According to Rerum Novarum and the whole social doctrine of the Church, the social nature of man is not completely fulfilled in the State, but is realized in various intermediary groups, beginning with the family and including economic, social, political and cultural groups which stem from human nature itself and have their own autonomy, always with a view to the common good. This is what I have called the “subjectivity” of society.

A just political order will recognize social subjects—not just individuals—for what they are, and treat them accordingly. The very idea of “social justice”—that most maligned and misunderstood of Catholic social terms—presupposes certain entities which are properly subjects of justice in their own right—the family, the Church, the trade union, the university, and so on. (For those interested, there is no better theorist of social ontology today than Russell Hittinger.) The principle that guides the relationships between and among these subjects of social justice is subsidiarity, which is not simply a principle of decentralization, but of proper order. Insofar as subsidiarity makes possible the right ordering of those social subjects from which solidarity springs, solidarity can be said to presuppose subsidiarity, and depend upon it. Attempts to increase social solidarity while neglecting or trampling subsidiarity invariably produce the opposite effect: social disintegration.

That our existing economic and political arrangements do not accord terribly well with the principles above is, I think, obvious. Nor are arguments for the utility of establishing such an arrangement likely to rectify the situation in the long term, since a utilitarian account of social arrangements is itself part of the problem, as we well know. Appeals to the natural law gain disturbingly little traction precisely because, as MacIntyre and others have rightly pointed out, our culture’s understanding of nature has been stripped of every vestige of teleology. So where does that leave us? Naked and exposed. Have I not just made the case that MacIntyre was essentially right and that liberalism—or whatever one wants to call this increasingly hostile sandbox in which we find ourselves—is hopelessly flawed and that the new Dark Ages are already upon us? Is it time to exercise the “Benedict Option?”

Well, yes and no.

We were made for God and our hearts are restless until they rest in him. If this is true, then no matter how assiduously our fellow man denies the truth of his own nature, he must cut against the grain of his very being to do so. “Not only is it wrong from the ethical point of view to disregard human nature, which is made for freedom,” wrote John Paul II, “but in practice it is impossible to do so.” Impossible, at least, in a sustained way. The natural law is written on more hearts than just those who are convinced it exists.

The deep dissatisfaction and alienation of our modern age is at once a painful reminder of human sin and brokenness, as well as a sign of hope. When the longing of men’s hearts is sated by something less than God, then, and only then, can hope fade to despair. “Where sin increased, grace overflowed all the more.”

This is not to suggest that we’re all coasting toward redemption, still less that our particular circumstances do not represent unique challenges and perils of both the material and spiritual sort. What I have in mind is more along the lines described by Fr. Richard John Neuhaus in 2009:

If the Catholic Church is what she claims to be “and about that I have no doubt” then every moment from Pentecost to Our Lord’s return in glory is the Catholic Moment. But the degree to which that Moment is realized in the little span of time that is ours depends on whether contemporary Catholicism has the nerve to be fully and distinctively Catholic.

At the risk of causing anyone’s head to explode, let me suggest that, at a very basic level, the “Benedict Option” of MacIntyre and the “Catholic Moment” described by Richard John Neuhaus are much the same thing. That is to say, both approach the intractable brokenness of the City of Man and realize, each in its own way, that the key that fits this lock is nothing less than the truth about our humanity: as the Second Vatican Council has it, “only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light.”

In Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict XVI placed this epiphany—in the most appropriate sense: the revelation of Christ to the nations—at the very center of Christian identity: “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”

So we come at last to Pope Francis and his exhortation to build a “culture of encounter.” This invitation to authentic encounter with the people around us—not in spite of their sickness and brokenness, but precisely because of these—is an invitation to renew and restore the sources of human solidarity. Solidarity is always a two-way street. We must not delude ourselves by thinking that the poor need us only—that they have nothing to offer, nothing we need. Our failure or refusal to share the fullness of what we have been given makes us guilty, not only of ingratitude, but of a profound failure with respect to charity.

As Christian citizens, what we can offer to our fellow man, to our communities, to our nation, and to the world is love. In charity, we cannot abandon or neglect our duty to the political community.

The more we strive to secure a common good corresponding to the real needs of our neighbors, the more effectively we love them. Every Christian is called to practice this charity, in a manner corresponding to his vocation and according to the degree of influence he wields in the pólis. This is the institutional path—we might also call it the political path—of charity, no less excellent and effective than the kind of charity which encounters the neighbor directly, outside the institutional mediation of the pólis (Caritas in Veritate, 7).

Love is the language that the Church, through her saints, never ceases to speak. Love speaks a Word which no cacophony of man can drown out. The world doesn’t deserve love, but then, neither did we: “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” There is nothing more compelling, nothing more true, than this love. An encounter with such love “gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”

So that is our task, our one and only “option”—the Jesus Option.

Is the liberal project doomed to fail? If we fail to exercise the Jesus Option, it undoubtedly will. And if we are faithful, and choose the Jesus Option—though we be “bruised, hurting, and dirty”—it will matter comparatively little if it does.

For, the happy results we all long for must be chiefly brought about by the plenteous outpouring of charity; of that true Christian charity which is the fulfilling of the whole Gospel law, which is always ready to sacrifice itself for others’ sake, and is man’s surest antidote against worldly pride and immoderate love of self; that charity whose office is described and whose Godlike features are outlined by the Apostle St. Paul in these words: “Charity is patient, is kind, . . . seeketh not her own, . . . suffereth all things, . . . endureth all things”  (Rerum Novarum, 63).

  Stephen P. White is a fellow in the Catholic Studies Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and coordinator of the Tertio Millennio Seminar on the Free Society.

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