The Free and Virtuous Society

Published May 19, 2004

[On May 19, EPPC Senior Fellow George Weigel delivered the fourth annual Tyburn Lecture at Tyburn Convent, Marble Arch, London. Previous lecturers have included Charles Moore, then editor of the Daily Telegraph; and Cherie Booth Blair, Q.C., wife of Prime Minister Tony Blair.]

Christians have been thinking through their relationship to the tangled worlds-within-worlds of politics, economics, and culture for nearly two millennia. The essential nature of that unavoidable entanglement, and the distinctive character of the Christian’s presence in “the world,” came into focus early. As the Letter to Diognetus, most likely written in the second century, reminds us, Christians are always “resident aliens” in the world, for while Christians honor just rulers, obey just laws, and contribute to the common good of whatever society in which they find themselves, a Christian’s ultimate loyalty is given to a Kingdom that is elsewhere. Christians believe that history can only be read in its fullness in the light of faith in the Risen Christ, the Lord of history. And in that perspective, history is both the arena of God’s action and the antechamber to our true home, the “city of the living God” [Hebrews 12.22]. Those who know that about history live in history in a distinctive way.1

One might think that this two-edged conviction about the present and the future absolves Christians from responsibility for politics, economics, and culture, and some Christians have in fact regarded a quietistic withdrawal from the world and its affairs as a demand of discipleship. Catholic faith takes a different stance, however. The Catholic Church believes that it is precisely because Christians live their lives “in the world” by reference to transcendent Truth and Love that Christians can offer their neighbors a word of genuine hope amidst the flux of history. Because Christians live both in time and ahead of time – because Christians are the people who know how the human story turns out, viz., in the final vindication of God’s salvific purposes – Christians are in a unique position vis-a-vis history, politics, economics, and culture. As Hans Urs von Balthasar has put it, amidst the world’s accelerating development Christians are the people who “can confront [that development] with a divine plan of salvation that is co-extensive with it, that indeed always runs ahead of it because it is eschatological.”2

Over the centuries, there have been numerous Christian proposals for understanding the Church’s relationship to the world of politics, economics, and culture; H. Richard Niebuhr’s classic, Christ and Culture, still offers a useful typology of the five principal approaches.3 Surely one of the most intellectually important Christian efforts to shed the light of the Gospel on public life has been the tradition of Catholic social doctrine. Reaching back to the classical and medieval masters for its inspiration while putting their insights into conversation with the realities of the contemporary world, modern Catholic social doctrine has always had a distinctive public quality to it, beginning with Leo XIII’s pioneering 1891 encyclical, Rerum Novarum. Unlike certain other Christian explications of the Church’s position in the world, which speak essentially to the believing community, Catholic social doctrine has been thoroughly ecumenical in the full sense of the oikumene: Catholic social doctrine has understood itself as being “not for Catholics only.” Although the phrase does not appear until John XXIII, the social doctrine of the Church has always been addressed to “all men and women of good will.” It is a genuinely public proposal, using analyses and arguments about public goods and the means to achieve them that can be engaged by any intelligent person.

From the years prior to Pope Leo’s writing Rerum Novarum to the present, Catholic social doctrine has evolved in a collaborative dialogue between the successors of Peter and theologians. I would like to suggest where that dialogue and that papal teaching have led us in this first decade of a new century and a new millennium, so that we can better understand the areas where Catholic social doctrine requires development in the years immediately ahead.


The Contribution of John Paul II


The social magisterium of John Paul II assumes, even as it develops, the three great principles that have shaped the Church’s social doctrine since Leo XIII; John Paul has also cemented a fourth principle into the foundations of Catholic social doctrine.

The first classic principle is the principle of personalism, which can also be called the human rights principle. According to this foundation stone of the Church’s social doctrine, all right thinking about society — in its cultural, political, and economic aspects — begins with the inalienable dignity and value of the human person. Right thinking about society does not begin, in other words, with the state, the party, the tribe, the ethnic group, or the gender group. It begins with the individual human person. Society and its legal expression, the state, must always be understood to be in service to the integral development of the human person. The state, in particular, has an obligation to defend the basic human rights of persons, which are “built into” us by reason of our very humanity. “Rights,” in the Catholic understanding of the term, are not benefices distributed by the state at its whim or pleasure; they are goods to be protected and/or advanced by any just state.

The second classic principle is the principle of the common good, or what we can call the communitarian principle; it complements and completes the personalist principle. Because men and women grow into the fullness of their humanity through relationships, each of us should exercise his rights in such a way that that exercise contributes to the general welfare of society, and not simply to our individual aggrandizement. Living in service to the common good is essential for the integral development of persons as well as for the good of society.

The third classic principle is the principle of subsidiarity, which we can call the free-associational principle or principle of civil society. It was first given magisterial form in Pius XI’s 1931 encyclical, Quadragesimo Anno, although its vision of a richly-textured and multi-layered human society reaches back to medieval Christian experience. The principle of subsidiarity teaches us that decision-making in society should be left at the lowest possible level (i.e., the level closest to those most effected by the decision), commensurate with the common good. American “federalism” is one empirical example of the principle of subsidiarity at work. Articulated under the lengthening shadow of the totalitarian project in the first third of the twentieth century, the principle of subsidiarity remains today as a counter-statist principle in Catholic social thinking. It directs us to look first to private sector solutions, or to a private sector/public sector mix of solutions, rather than to the state, in dealing with urgent social issues such as education, health care, and social welfare.4

These were the foundational principles inherited by John Paul II, principles he taught in his pre-episcopal days as a seminary lecturer on social ethics. As pope, John Paul has added a fourth principle to the foundations of the Church’s social doctrine: the principle of solidarity, or what we can call the principle of civic friendship. A society fit for human beings, a society capable of fostering integral human development, cannot be merely contractual and legal, John Paul teaches; it needs a more richly-textured set of relationships. It requires what Jacques Maritain used to describe as “civic friendship:” an experience of fellow-feeling, of brotherhood, of mutual participation in a great common enterprise. A genuinely human society flourishes when individuals dedicate the exercise of their freedom to the defense of others’ rights and the pursuit of the common good, and when the community supports individuals as they grow into a truly mature humanity – that is what living “in solidarity” means.5 Here, we note, is one important way in which the social doctrine of the Church is clearly distinguished from that prominent current of modern political thought that reduces all social relationships to the contractual. (Americans instinctively understood the false picture of democratic society proposed by a merely contractual understanding of society on September 11, 2001, when great acts of heroism and compassion were done by people who clearly knew that their relationship to their fellow-Americans, and to America, was not reducible to the terms of a contract.)

On this four-principled foundation, John Paul II has developed the social doctrine of the Church in five of his encyclicals. Three of these are “social encyclicals” stricte dictu; two other encyclicals address grave questions at the heart of today’s “social question.” Let me highlight here the original contributions of John Paul II to Catholic social doctrine.

In his first social encyclical, Laborem Exercens (1981), John Paul offered the Church and the world a rich phenomenology of work. Challenging the view that work is a “punishment” for original sin, the Pope taught that work is both an expression of human creativity and a participation in the sustaining creative power of God.5 Work is less to be understood as constraint, and more to be understood as an expression of our freedom. Through our work, John Paul urges, we do not simply make more; we become more.6 Thus work has a spiritual dimension, and when we identify our work and its hardships with the work, the passion, and the death of Christ, our work participates in the development of the Kingdom of God.7

In his second social encyclical, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (1988), John Paul defined, for the first time in Catholic social doctrine, a “right of economic initiative,” which he described as an expression of the creativity of the human person.8 At a macro level, the Pope insisted that civil society and its network of free and voluntary associations is essential to economic and political development; the Pope also taught that development economics and economic development strategies cannot be abstracted from questions of culture and politics. Nor can the problems of underdevelopment be understood, in Catholic perspective, as a question of victimization only; integral human development, John Paul wrote, requires Third World countries to undertake rigorous legal and political reforms. Participatory government, the Pope suggested, is crucial to integral development.9

In what seems, in retrospect, a prophetic anticipation of the communist crack-up, John Paul II warned in Sollicitudo Rei Socialis against the dangers to integral human development (at both the individual and societal levels) of a “blind submission to pure consumerism,” a theme to which he would return frequently in the next decade.10 In another anticipation of the post-Cold war debate, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis also urged the developed world not to fall into “selfish isolation;” “interdependence” (a phenomenon that would subsequently evolve into “globalization”) has a moral, not merely material, character, the Pope taught. No country or region can ever be read out of history or simply abandoned.11

John Paul II’s most developed social encyclical, Centesimus Annus, was published in 1991 to mark the centenary of Rerum Novarum and to launch the Church’s social doctrine into a new century and millennium. Among its principal themes were the following:

1) What the Church proposes to the world of the twenty-first century is the free and virtuous society. The two are inseparable. The contemporary human quest for freedom is undeniable. But it will be frustrated, and new forms of tyranny will emerge, unless the free society is also a virtuous society.12

2) The free and virtuous society is composed of three interlocking parts — a democratic political community, a free economy, and a robust public moral culture. The key to the entire edifice is the cultural sector. Because free politics and free economics let loose tremendous human energies, a vibrant public moral culture is necessary to discipline and direct those energies so that they serve the ends of genuine human flourishing.13

3) Democracy and the free economy are not machines that can run by themselves. It takes a certain kind of people, possessed of certain virtues, to run self-governing polities and free economies so that they do not self-destruct. The task of the moral-cultural sector is to form these habits of heart and mind in people, and the primary public task of the Church is to form that moral-cultural sector. Thus the Church is not in the business of proposing technical solutions to questions of governance or economic activity; the Church is in the business of forming the culture that can form the kind of people who can develop those solutions against a transcendent moral horizon.14

4) Freedom must be tethered to moral truth and ordered to human goodness if freedom is not to become self-cannibalizing.15

5) Voluntary associations — the family, business associations, labor unions, social and cultural groups — are essential to the free and virtuous society. They embody what John Paul calls the “subjectivity of society,” and they are crucial schools of freedom.16

6) Wealth in the contemporary world is not simply to be found in resources, but rather in ideas, entrepreneurial instincts, skills. The wealth of nations is no longer stuff in the ground; the wealth of nations resides in the human mind, in human creativity.17

7) Poverty in today’s circumstances is primarily a matter of exclusion from networks of productivity and exchange; it is not to be understood simply or simplistically as a matter of having an unequal and inadequate portion of what are imagined to be a fixed number of economic goods. Thus we should think of the poor, not as a problem to be solved (as modern social welfare states tend to do), but as people with potential to be unleashed. Welfare programs should aim at developing the habits and skills that allow the poor to participate in networks of productivity and exchange.18

In his 1993 encyclical on moral theology, Veritatis Splendor, John Paul II also had important things to say about the free and virtuous society. To take but one example: the Pope’s teaching that the equality of citizens before the law is most securely grounded in our common human responsibility to avoid intrinsically evil acts is an intriguing proposal for democratic theory to consider.19

Finally, in his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae, John Paul made his most developed statement on the relationship of constitutional and statutory law to the moral law, and on the relationship of the moral law to the free and virtuous society. Democracies risk self-destruction, the Pope warned, if moral wrongs are defended and promoted as “rights.” A law-governed democracy is impossible over the long haul when a certain class of citizens claims the right to dispose of other classes of citizens through the private use of lethal violence. Reducing human beings to useful (or useless, or troublesome) objects for manipulation erodes the moral culture that makes democracy possible. Abortion and euthanasia are two examples of this deadly syndrome; the production of so-called “research embryos” destined from conception for experimentation and death is another. A “culture of life” is thus essential for democracy and for human flourishing. Unless the state has no other means to defend itself against predatory individuals, the use of capital punishment erodes the culture of life and should thus be avoided.20

John Paul’s social doctrine has taken the Catholic Church into new territory. There is no sense in these encyclicals of a nostalgia for the world of the ancien régime; there is not the slightest hint of a longing for the way-things-were before the emergence of the modern state and the modern economy. Centesimus Annus, in particular, brought a new empirical sensitivity to the papal social magisterium, which has at times been characterized by a certain abstractness about political and economic life. A Church widely perceived as a foe of democracy in the 19th century has become, through the Second Vatican Council and the social magisterium of John Paul II, perhaps the world’s foremost institutional defender of human rights, and a sophisticated participant in the worldwide debate over the nature and functioning of democracy.21

Indeed, one can widen the lens ever farther and say that, at the turn of the millennium, the social doctrine of the Church had a comprehensive quality and a salience in public life that would have amazed Leo XIII, “prisoner of the Vatican.” As the century and the millennium turned, there were three proposals for organizing the human future that had global reach and were supported by the necessary institutional infrastructure to have a worldwide impact. One proposal was the pragmatic utilitarianism that defined much of moral discourse in western Europe and North America, even as it was carried worldwide through American popular culture and certain aspects of economic globalization. The second was the proposal of radical Islam. And the third was the proposal of Catholic social doctrine: a way of living freedom that ties freedom to truth and truth to goodness, and a way of thinking about the human prospect that can be engaged by every person of good will. One does not risk a charge of special pleading by suggesting that the course of the twenty-first century and beyond will be determined in no small part by the answer to the question, how will each of these proposals shape the emerging global culture?


The Development of Catholic Social Doctrine


What, then is the work that John Paul II has left the rest of us to do as we consider the Church’s social doctrine in the first years of a new century and millennium? Let me suggest here a pastoral/catechetical issue, a methodological issue, and a set of specific policy issues where the wisdom of Catholic social doctrine is urgently needed, but the social doctrine itself remains, at present, insufficiently developed.


The Pastoral/Catechetical Issue: The Reception of Social Doctrine


The first thing to be done about Catholic social doctrine in the 21st century is to ensure that it is far more thoroughly received throughout the world Church.

In the United States, it is often said that Catholic social doctrine is Catholicism’s “best-kept secret.” There is an unfortunate amount of truth in that. The social doctrine of the Church is rarely preached and poorly catechized. It is possible to complete a pre-ordination theology program without having taken a semester-long course on the Church’s social doctrine. Courses in the social doctrine of the Church are rarely a staple of secondary or college-level Catholic education. The social doctrine of the Church is barely mentioned in most programs that prepare adults for baptism or for reception into full communion with the Church. In all of this, I fear that the Church in the United States is not alone.

The compendium of social doctrine that has been in preparation at the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace for several years is itself a testimony to the world Church’s failure to draw deeply enough from the wells of its own wisdom in the related fields of culture, economics, and politics — if the Church had truly received the social doctrine of the twentieth century Popes, would such a compendium be necessary? The pastoral leaders of the Church, including the world episcopate, are simply not as conversant with the Church’s social doctrine as they must be, if the Catholic proposal is to have the impact it should on shaping the emerging global culture.

This question of reception is both general and specific. In addition to a generalized failure to make the social doctrine “live” in the local Churches, intellectually and pastorally, there has been a specific failure to reckon with the distinctive contributions of John Paul II to Catholic social teaching. In more than a few Catholic intellectual and activist circles in western Europe, North America, and Latin America, it often seems as if Centesimus Annus had never been written. In these quarters, the quixotic search for a “Catholic third way” somewhere “beyond” capitalism and socialism continues apace, and the teaching of Centesimus Annus on the free economy is virtually ignored. Several interventions at the 2001 Synod of Bishops also suggested a striking unfamiliarity with John Paul II’s social doctrine and its emphasis on the poor as people with potential who are to be empowered to enter local, national, and international networks of productivity and exchange. “Globalization” was often discussed in the Synod absent the empirical sensitivity evident in Centesimus Annus. Indeed, insofar as one purpose of Centesimus Annus was to challenge dependency theory and other forms of Marxist-influenced economic analysis in Latin American Catholicism, it must be said that the encyclical has, to date, not been altogether successfully received in the new demographic center of the world Church.

Thus a more thorough reception of the twentieth century papal social magisterium, with specific reference to the social magisterium of John Paul II, is an imperative for twenty-first century Catholicism.


The Methodological Issue: Refining Principles Through Rigorously Empirical Analysis


The world Church owes the Church of western Europe a great debt of gratitude for taking the lead from the mid-19th to the mid-20th centuries in developing Catholic social theory in its modern form. That influence continues today, as a glance at the Annuario Pontificio and the demographics of the relevant organs of the Holy See devoted to social doctrine demonstrates. No serious student of Catholic social doctrine can doubt that those steeped in the intellectual traditions that produced von Ketteler and von Nell-Breuning, Maritain and Simon, and other such giant figures will have much to contribute to the development of Catholic social thought in the twenty-first century.22

That continental European legacy must be complemented in the twenty-first century, however, by an intensified dialogue with Catholic social thinking as it has evolved in the United States. I have done no scientific survey of the matter, but I think it not unlikely that the social doctrine of this pontificate has had its greatest public impact in America. Several of the encyclicals cited just above were debated in the secular American press with an interest and rigor that was not always evident in other parts of the world Church; indeed, I think it is fair to say that no great world newspaper has taken this pontificate with such intellectual seriousness as the Wall Street Journal, arguably the world’s most important business newspaper. A journal that regularly explores the implications of John Paul II’s social doctrine, First Things, is the most widely-read religious-intellectual journal in America, and indeed one of the most widely read intellectual journals, period. In the United States, book-length analyses of Catholic social doctrine are debated in intellectual and public policy circles far beyond the formal boundaries of the Catholic Church. All this suggests a dynamic ferment of reflection that, in dialogue with its European antecedents, will be important in developing the social doctrine of the Church in the new century.

American Catholic social ethicists and theologians and their colleagues from throughout the Anglosphere will bring to the development of Catholic social doctrine in the twenty-first century an inductive, empirical approach to social analysis that will complement the more deductive, abstract analysis that has characterized continental European approaches to Catholic social thought. Differing Anglo-Saxon and continental European concepts of human rights and of the nature of law, and differing American and European experiences of the social welfare state and the management of the free economy, will be put into conversation in ways that should produce a more intellectually rich result.23

In discussing briefly this North American-European axis of dialogue, I do not in any way intend to demean the crucial contributions to Catholic social thought that must come from Latin America and from the new Churches of Africa and Asia. I do mean to emphasize what seems to me the more thorough discussion of the social doctrine of John Paul II that has taken place among American Catholic intellectuals, and the importance of that for the world Church of the next decades, in common intellectual work and in the relevant offices in Rome.


Five Specific Issues


1. Catholic International Relations Theory


The events of 9/11 and the response to them throughout the world Church have reminded us that Catholic international relations theory must be refined and developed if the Church is to bring the moral wisdom of its tradition to the pursuit of the peace of order, justice, and freedom in world affairs. John XXIII’s Pacem in Terris is not usually considered a “social encyclical” or an integral part of the Church’s social doctrine. But here, too, a development of thinking is in order. If the social doctrine of the Church is prepared to address issues of globalization in the economic sphere, it must be prepared to help statesmen and citizens think through the transition from world dis-order to a measure of world order in the sphere of international politics. The “social question” now includes the question of world order.

The first requirement in this area of intellectual development is, I suggest, to retrieve the classic Catholic notion of peace as tranquillitas ordinis: the tranquillity of that “order” within and among nations that is composed of justice and freedom.24 In this context, it is also essential to renew our understanding of the just war tradition as a tradition of statecraft in which all the instruments of legitimate public authority, including the instruments of proportionate and discriminate armed force, are analyzed for their ability to contribute to the building of tranquillitas ordinis on a global scale. Among many other things, this renewal of understanding will mean recovering the classic structure of the Catholic just war tradition, which does not begin with a series of means-tests but with a demonstration of legitimate public authority’s obligation to defend the innocent and pursue justice. The just war tradition must, in other words, be renewed as a reflection on obligatory political ends, rather than be further reduced (as it has been in recent decades) to a thin casuistry of means. Ad bellum questions must once again take their proper theological priority in moral analysis over in bello issues, if the latter are going to be understood properly.

This, in turn, will require a development of the just war tradition itself. How are we to understand the classic components of “just cause?” Does the first use of military force to prevent the use of a weapon of mass destruction satisfy the classic concept of a “just cause” as “repelling aggression”? In order to think through the full implications of the Holy Father’s teaching that “humanitarian intervention” is a moral obligation in the face of impending or actual genocide or mass starvation, is it necessary to recover the older “just cause” notion of “punishment for evil” as a legitimate causus belli? Questions of “legitimate authority” are also in need of urgent investigation. Where is the locus of moral legitimacy in world politics today? Are there occasions when military action absent the sanction of the U.N. Security Council can serve the ends of tranquillitas ordinis? What does the ad bellum criterion of “last resort” mean in a world where unstable, aggressive regimes may possess weapons of mass destruction, the means to deliver them over long distances, and the capacity to transfer them to terrorist organizations? Are there circumstances in which “last resort” can mean “only” resort, given the nature of the regimes involved? Indeed, does the just war tradition challenge the Westphalian notion of the sovereign immunity of the nation-state, in itself and in light of the emergence of states which are innately threats to world order because of their ideology and their weapons capabilities?25

These are all questions in need of urgent attention. Catholic international relations theory has lain fallow for the better part of four decades. It is time to revive it and develop it as an important component of the social doctrine of the Church.


2. Interreligious Dialogue and the Global “Social Question”


As I noted a moment ago, activist Islam is one of the other proposals for the human future with global “reach” in the early part of this new millennium. This suggests that the social doctrine of the Church must take its place in interreligious dialogue, if that dialogue is to be anything more than an ineffectual exercise in political correctness. This, in turn, suggests that the Catholic-Islamic dialogue in the immediate future must be framed, from the Catholic point of view, in frankly strategic terms.

Can the Catholic Church, in other words, be of some modest assistance to those Islamic scholars, lawyers, and religious leaders who are working – often at great risk – to develop a genuinely Islamic case for religious toleration in something approximating what we in the West would call “civil society”? If a world safe for diversity and pluralism requires a billion Muslims to become good Rawlsian secular liberals, then we really do face the grim prospect of a global “clash of civilizations.” Thus the crucial question for the Islamic future, from the vantage point of Catholic social doctrine, is whether Islam can find within its sacred texts and legal traditions the internal resources to ground an Islamic case for crucial aspects of the free and virtuous society, including religious toleration and a commitment to the method of persuasion in politics.

Some may wonder whether the Catholic Church has anything of particular interest to bring to this discussion. What it has to offer, I suggest, is its own recent history – for it took the Catholic Church until 1965 to develop and articulate a thoroughly Catholic concept of religious freedom and its implications for the organization of public life. Indeed, one can draw a rough analogy between pro-civil society Islamic scholars and religious leaders today and those Catholic intellectuals and bishops who were probing toward some sort of rapprochement with religious freedom and democracy as the old order was crumbling in Europe throughout the nineteenth century. Surely there are lessons to be learned from this experience – which eventually led to a dramatic development of social doctrine in Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Freedom [Dignitatis Humanae] – that could and should be brought into the Catholic Church’s global dialogue with the multi-faceted worlds of Islam.

3. The Emerging Global Economy and the Environment


Centesimus Annus has raised a host of important questions for further exploration. Its phenomenology of economic life suggests the possibility that there are economic “laws” written into the human condition in a way analogous to the moral law. Teasing out what those “laws” might be should be one issue on the agenda of exploration in the years immediately ahead. Important experiments in welfare reform are now underway in various countries; monitoring those experiments in light of Centesimus Annus’s critique of the “Social Assistance State,” its teaching on poverty-as-exclusion, and its endorsement of empowerment strategies for including the poor in networks of productivity and exchange will help develop the social doctrine in the early decades of the century.

The condition of the world’s poor is a moral scandal, not least because today, for perhaps the first time in human history, poverty is not necessary, not something fixed in the order of things. The Church thus has an obligation to lift up before the world the moral imperative of eradicating poverty. In doing so, however, Catholic social doctrine and its exponents should focus primary attention on questions of wealth creation rather than wealth distribution. Billions of human beings today are not poor, which is a tremendous moral as well as economic achievement. Rigorous empirical analysis of how poverty has been conquered, wealth created, and the formerly-poor empowered to unleash the economic creativity that is theirs must inform the development of Catholic social doctrine in the twenty-first century. This does not mean exchanging Catholic Social Doctrine for Adam Smith and The Wealth of Nations. The Church must always remind the free economy that there are economic things that can be done but should not be done; it must always remind the free economy that it, too, is under moral scrutiny and that calculations of efficiency are not the only measure of integral human development. But to note, as the social doctrine must, that the tremendous energies unleashed by the free economy must be directed by a vibrant public moral culture and by law does not mean a Church opting for socialism; it means a Church teaching the moral principles essential for the ongoing reform of the free economy.26

The emerging social doctrine of the twenty-first century must also address much more directly the problem of corruption as an obstacle to development. A decade ago, Latin America seemed poised on the edge of a genuine breakthrough, politically and economically; now we see the Catholic countries of the Andean region and Argentina in crisis. Both local pastors and knowledgeable observers have said that one major cause of these crises is corruption: corruption in the legal and political systems, and a culture of corruption that distorts individual consciences. Here is perhaps the clearest example of the failure of the Church to “receive” its own social doctrine. That failure must be reversed if the bright promise of Latin America is to be realized in the century ahead.

Catholic social thinking must also shed some bad intellectual habits if it is to play its essential role in creating a global moral culture capable of disciplining and directing the globalization process. We must stop thinking of the so-called “gap” between the developed and the underdeveloped as the chief defining characteristic of the world economic situation, and ask again, with Centesimus Annus, how to unleash the potential of the poor so that they can participate in networks of productivity and exchange. We must stop describing failed mercantilist and oligarchic systems in Latin America as failures of “capitalism.” We must stop thinking of the state as the first (and, to some minds, only) instrument of recourse in resolving problems of poverty, education, and health care, and we must encourage individual and corporate philanthropies that support a thick network of voluntary organizations capable of empowering the poor, educating the illiterate, and healing the sick; Catholic social doctrine must also encourage the formation of legal and tax systems that encourage philanthropy and support independent-sector initiatives in the fields of health, education, and welfare. We must resolve not to make intellectual common cause with the demographic, economic, and environmental prophets of doom who see nothing but decay and ruin in the present and the future. Employing the new empirical rigor exemplified by the social magisterium of John Paul II, Catholic social ethicists of the twenty-first century would recognize that life expectancy is increasing on a global basis, including the Third World; that water and air in the developed world are cleaner than in five hundred years; that fears of chemicals poisoning the earth are wildly exaggerated; that both energy and food are cheaper and more plentiful throughout the world than ever before; that “over-population” is a myth; that the global picture is, in truth, one of unprecedented human prosperity – and, recognizing these facts, Catholic social ethicists would ask, as I have suggested above, why? What creates wealth and distributes it broadly? What are the systemic political, economic, and cultural factors that have created this unprecedented prosperity, which is not (contrary to the shibboleths) limited to a shrinking, privileged elite? What can be done to make this prosperity even more broadly available?27

Finally, in this regard, Catholic social doctrine must follow through on the suggestion of Centesimus Annus that the spiritual challenge of a time of rising abundance will be to understand and live the truth that, while there is nothing inherently wrong with wanting to have more material goods, there is something morally wrong (and, ultimately, economically destructive) about imagining that having more is being more. The Church must, in other words, develop and inculcate a spirituality for abundance, in which the solipsism and selfishness too often characteristic of certain developed societies (and manifest, for example, in their demographic suicide) is challenged by the call to a rich generosity.


4. The Life Issues as Social Doctrine Issues


The new genetic knowledge and the biotechnologies to which it has given rise offer immense possibilities for healing and enriching human life; they also open the prospect of humanity sliding into a brave new world of manufactured and stunted human beings. Because the biotechnology challenge is, in no small part, a matter of public policy, the life issues must be seen in the twenty-first century as a crucial set of questions for Catholic social doctrine as well as for bio-ethics stricte dictu.

Here, perhaps the most urgent need at the moment is for a development and elaboration of the Catholic theory of democracy. In Centesimus Annus, John Paul II alerted the world to the dangers inherent in a purely instrumental view of democratic governance. In Veritatis Splendor, he suggested that a robust public moral culture, recognizing the moral truths inscribed in the human condition, is essential in defending such bedrock democratic principles as equality-before-the-law, as well as in managing passions and interests, fighting corruption, and maintaining democratic “inclusiveness.” In Evangelium Vitae, the Pope illustrated precisely how abortion and euthanasia, by placing certain classes of human beings outside the protection of the law, threaten the very moral structure of the democratic project. Now is the time to develop these insights into a public moral vocabulary capable of challenging the rampant utilitarianism that dominates debates on these questions today.

To take one important example: Catholic social doctrine proposes a “dignitarian” view of the human person, and challenges certain biotechological procedures, including cloning, on the moral ground that they violate the innate “human dignity” of persons. What, precisely, is the content of that “human dignity?” What are its component parts? How is it violated by certain practices? What are the consequences for democracy of these violations? John Paul II has given us a supple, rigorous framework for reflection on these questions. It is imperative that we begin to fill in that framework in order to shift the terms of the public moral debate.

For more than two decades now, the Church in the United States, the United Kingdom, and indeed throughout the world has argued that abortion is not a question of sexual morality but of public justice: a question of the fifth commandment, not the sixth. In the decades ahead, and with the biotechnology challenge compounding the challenge of the abortion license and euthanasia, Catholic social doctrine must demonstrate ever more specifically and persuasively how the protection of innocent life is a first principle of justice without which democracy will self-destruct. We must, in other words, demonstrate ever more persuasively that the life issues are public issues with immense public consequences, and not simply matters of individual “choice.” Doing that will require a richer, thicker Catholic theory of democracy.


5. The “Priority of Culture” and the Deepening of Civil Society


In one respect, Centesimus Annus marked an official recognition by the papal magisterium that the two great structural questions that had agitated the world since the industrial and French revolutions had been settled — by history. If, under the conditions of modernity (urbanization, mass literacy, industrialization and post-industrialization) one wants a society that protects human rights while advancing the common good and permitting participation in government, one chooses democracy over the ancien régime, or its fascist or communist alternatives. If one wants a growing economy that enables the exercise of economic initiative, fosters participation, increases wealth and spreads it widely, one chooses a market-centered economy over a state-centered economy. These mega-questions of political and economic structure have been settled. But while much of the world may have thought that those were the only real questions at issue, John Paul II and the social doctrine of the Church read the present and the future more insightfully. What remains, the Pope proposed in Centesimus Annus, are the truly urgent questions: the questions of public moral culture and civil society, which will determine whether those well-functioning machines, democracy and the market, continue to function well.

The formation of men and women capable of leading free political communities and managing free economies so that freedom serves human flourishing is thus another urgent question for the social doctrine of the Church in the decades immediately ahead. Catholic democratic theory has, in the main, focused on structural questions of participation, representation, voting rights, the rights of association, and so forth. With these questions largely resolved, the focus must now be on “the priority of culture:” on the institutions of civil society and their capacity to form genuine democrats. As already indicated just above, this will require urgent attention in the immediate future to the problem of corruption and the essentials of integrity in public life. John Paul II’s suggestive phrase, the “subjectivity of society,” must be filled in with a more thorough analysis of the institutions of civil society and their relationship to the structures of the democratic state and the free economy.

This discussion should include a re-examination of the way in which many trade unions currently function. There is no question that the right of worker-association is well-established in Catholic social doctrine and will remain so. It is also indisputable that in certain advanced societies, unions are now a reactionary economic and political force, impeding necessary economic change and functioning as narrow interest groups rather than as elements of the “subjectivity of society” with a profound concern for the common good. The fierce resistance of American teachers’ unions to any notion of empowering poor children through the provision of vouchers or tax credits, enabling them to escape failing public (and union-dominated) government-run schools in order to attend independent (often Catholic) schools, is a case in point. Examples of similar union-based resistance to economic change in Europe could be multiplied exponentially. That a union must defend its own goes without saying; when a union defends only its own, to the manifest detriment of the rest of society (and especially the poor), something is seriously awry. Catholic social doctrine needs to rethink the nature and role of unions in the post-industrial economy and in modern democracy.

Francis Fukuyama discerned a paradox at the heart of modern society that touches directly on the challenge of “the priority of culture” to Catholic social doctrine:

“If the institutions of democracy and capitalism are to work properly, they must co-exist with certain premodern cultural habits that ensure their proper functioning. Law, contract, and economic rationality provide a necessary but not sufficient basis for both the stability and prosperity of postindustrial societies; they must as well be leavened with reciprocity, moral obligation, duty toward community, and trust, which are based in habit rather than rational calculation. The latter are not anachronisms in a modern society but rather the sine qua non of the latter’s success.”28

A Church that recognizes the “priority of culture” in the post-modern circumstances of the twenty-first century, and whose social doctrine addresses post-modern society at this depth level of its self-understanding, is positioned squarely on the leading edge of the debate over the future of freedom. Far from being left on the margins, such a Church may find itself, at times, disturbingly “relevant.” But that, too, is one of the challenges facing Catholic social doctrine in the decades ahead.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.


1 The text of the Letter to Diognetus may be found in The Apostolic Fathers, 2nd ed., trans. J.B. Lightfoot and J.R. Hammer, ed. and rev. by Michael W. Holmes (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989), pp. 296-306. Lumen Gentium cited Diognetus in describing the Christian’s place in “the world” (cf. Lumen Gentium 38), while the Catechism of the Catholic Church (at 2240) cites Diognetus on the duties of Christian citizens.

2 Hans Urs von Balthasar, Truth Is Symphonic: Aspects of Christian Pluralism (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1987), p. 87. For a fuller discussion of the Diognetian perspective on being “the Church in the world,” see my essay, “What the Church Asks of the World, or, Diognetus Revisited,” in Soul of the World: Notes on the Future of Public Catholicism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), pp. 31-46.

3 H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (New York: Harper & Row, 1956).

4 For a fuller analysis of the principle of subsidiarity, see my essay, “Catholicism and Democracy: The Other Twentieth Century Revolution,”in Soul of the World, pp. 107-110.

5 This experience of a nascent civil society was critically important in the collapse of European communism; the emergence of a resistance community as an alternative form of civil society to communist fakery was brilliantly analyzed by several key figures in the resistance. See, for example, Václav Havel, “The Power of the Powerless,” and Václav Benda, “Catholicism and Politics,” in Havel et alia, The Power of the Powerless (Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe, Inc. 1990), and Józef Tischner, The Spirit of Solidarity (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1982). See also Jacques Maritain, Christianity and Democracy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986).

5 John Paul II, Laborem Exercens, 4, 25.

6 Ibid., 6.

7 Ibid., 25-27.

8 John Paul II, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 15.

9 Ibid., 15-16, 45.

10 Ibid., 28.

11 Ibid., 16-17.

12 John Paul II, Centesimus Annus, 42, 51.

13 Ibid., 46.

14 Ibid., 44-52.

15 Ibid., 42.

16 Ibid., 13, 46, 49.

17 Ibid., 32.

18 Ibid., 58, 52. For further discussion, see Richard John Neuhaus, Doing Well and Doing Good: The Challenge to the Christian Capitalist (New York: Doubleday, 1992), especially chapter eight, “The Potential of the Poor.”

19 John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, 96.

20 John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, 20, 18, 56.

21 For a fuller account of this evolution, see my essay, “Catholicism and Democracy: The Other Twentieth Century Revolution.”

22 For a brilliantly concise survey of the European intellectual foundations of Catholic social doctrine, see Franz H. Mueller, The Church and the Social Question (Washington: American Enterprise Institute, 1984).

23 For one example of this process at work, see Mary Ann Glendon, Rights Talk (New York: Free Press, 1993).

24 St. Augustine provides this definition of “peace” in The City of God, xix, 13. For discussion of the evolution of this idea, its abandonment in recent years, and intellectuals steps toward its resuscitation, see my Tranquillitas Ordinis: The Present Failure and Future Promise of American Catholic Thought on War and Peace (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987).

25 For an initial probe into these questions, see my essay, “The Just War Tradition and the World After September 11,” Catholic University Law Review (forthcoming).

26 On these points, see William McGurn, “Pulpit Economics,” First Things 122 (April 2002), pp. 21-25.

27 A remarkable book by a Danish statistician, Bjrrn Lomborg, should be required reading for all those interested in developing Catholic social thought in the decades ahead. Not only does Lomborg (a lifelong Green and man of the Left) provide an ocean of data refuting the environmental and economic prophets of gloom; he does so in a way that does not ignore, but rather engages with great moral earnestness, the genuine questions of choice that have to be made in concretizing our commitments to empowering the poor and preserving and enhancing the environment. See Lomborg, The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).

28 Francis Fukuyama, Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity (New York: The Free Press, 1995), p. 11. See also my essay, “Capitalism for Humans,” Commentary, October 1995, pp. 34-38.

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