Contemporary Tyranny and Catholic Social Doctrine

The current situation of growing soft totalitarianism is too recent and too disturbing for its implications for Catholic social action to have been adequately understood and articulated.

Vatican website for "Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church" (www.vatican.va); right: Pope John Paul II kneels at the Holy Door before shutting the large bronze door to close the Holy Year in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican in this Jan. 6, 2001, file photo. (CNS photo/Maurizio Brambatti, Reuters)

The usual view among Catholics is that public authority should look after all aspects of the common good. As a result, the social encyclicals have proposed a variety of responsibilities for government. The variety has grown with the range of problems under consideration, from the condition of industrial workers in Rerum Novarum to the comprehensive good of all humanity and even the natural world in more recent encyclicals.

The popes have therefore presented classical liberalism and libertarianism as positions to avoid. They have, of course, also rejected socialism. People, families, and associations need to lead their own lives, make their own decisions, and own the consequences. Otherwise they will be deprived of the agency necessary for human dignity. Saint John Paul II noted that rejection of such considerations by Communist governments led to passivity, alienation, inhumanity, and gross inefficiency, and eventually to collapse of the system.

The popes have been less inclined to discuss limitations on public authority based on the corruptions to which political power may lead. John Paul’s comments on democracy and the division of powers in Centesimus Annus showed his awareness of the problem, as did some of Benedict’s comments in Caritas in Veritate, but such concerns have been a minor feature of the social encyclicals. Concern with extremes of economic power, along with the position of the Church hierarchy as a government, seem to have inclined the popes to think of government as a neutral arbiter that stands above the clash of interests that pervades everyday social and economic life.

That tendency has perhaps been strengthened by memories of Catholic monarchy, by hopes for a better world after the sacrifices of two world wars, and by the post-Vatican II sympathy for secular aspirations and movements that led many to idealize what a universalized secular authority could achieve. It may also reflect the status of Catholic social doctrine as part of moral theology, which leads it to speak more of what should happen than what actually happens.

Idealization of worldwide secular movements and authorities seems to have reached its peak in Populorum Progressio, in which Blessed Paul VI asserted that “[development] agreements would be free of all suspicion [of self-interest] if they were integrated into an overall policy of worldwide collaboration,” and contended that

some would regard these hopes [regarding world government] as vain flights of fancy. It may be that these people are not realistic enough, and that they have not noticed that the world is moving rapidly in a certain direction. Men are growing more anxious to establish closer ties of brotherhood … they are slowly making their way to the Creator, even without adverting to it.

But political power is often more corrupting than economic power. Nor are the corruptions likely to be remedied by making power global, thereby emancipating it from answerability to anyone but those who are globally strongest.

The corruptions come from every direction: ordinary people find ways to game the system for various benefits; pressure groups use government programs as a vehicle for rent seeking; the well-connected profit through cronyism and special deals; and private powers and their public counterparts otherwise find ways to work together for mutual benefit that take little account of the public interest.

Beyond such economic corruptions, there are ideological temptations. Those with power habitually exaggerate their wisdom and virtue and the importance of what they do, so that the greater their power the more likely they are to feel themselves called upon to remake the world in the image of their own perhaps radically defective ideal. Our present global elites, for example, lead extraordinarily privileged lives, and they base the legitimacy of their position on claims of economic efficiency and neutral expertise. So why wouldn’t they try to put their legitimacy beyond question by claiming that such qualifications are the key to all good things, and attempt to establish a global technocracy that overrides all other sources of authority, including local community, cultural tradition, natural law, and the Church?

The most basic point leading the popes to reject both socialism and classical liberalism is the need for societies to be oriented toward something beyond economic concerns, and ultimately toward God. Pope Benedict noted that denial of objective values can lead even democracies into a new form of tyranny notwithstanding forms of popular election, separation of powers, and legal recognition of human rights.

Such concerns are becoming ever more pressing. Even so, recent popes haven’t said much about their practical implications. Suppose, for example, that the “true world political authority” Benedict called for in Caritas in Veritate became a possibility, but there was no prospect whatever it would “observe consistently the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity, … seek to establish the common good, [or] make a commitment to securing authentic integral human development inspired by the values of charity in truth” in the sense he required. What then? He didn’t say.

The Catechism sheds some light on the matter when it tells us that

Regimes whose nature is contrary to the natural law, to the public order, and to the fundamental rights of persons cannot achieve the common good of the nations on which they have been imposed… Authority is exercised legitimately only when it seeks the common good of the group concerned.

Current Western governments and international organizations, as a matter of the defining principles they believe give them moral authority, reject natural law and public order based on anything other than technology and human will. They also reject rights as basic as religious freedom, the right to life, and the right of a man and a woman to form a family as a publicly-recognized institution with a natural function and the rights corresponding to that function, such as the right to educate their children in accordance with normal standards of right living.

The ability of such governments and organizations to achieve the common good and exercise legitimate authority is consequently limited. Their faith in their own righteousness is not. They are therefore unlikely to be suitable partners for the Church in advancing her social goals.

Churchmen have sometimes been caught flatfooted dealing with totalitarian movements, and the current situation of growing soft totalitarianism is too recent and too disturbing for its implications for Catholic social action to have been adequately understood and articulated. For that reason it is not surprising if some churchmen fumble things.

Many have therefore fallen into serious errors, some of which are strikingly illustrated by the recent article by Antonio Spadaro, S.J., and Marcelo Figueroa in La Civiltà Cattolica. From that and the subsequent America interview with Fr. Spadaro it is clear that for the authors any religiously-motivated political opposition to secular progressivism—for example, support for abortion restrictions, denial of recognition to same-sex marriage, and conscientious objector rights for culture war losers—is an attempt to impose “religious morals” that falls outside legitimate political discourse. Cooperation among Christians in support of such projects is therefore an “ecumenism of conflict” or even an “ecumenism of hate” that should be resolutely opposed.

That view, of course, rejects not only traditional doctrine on the relation between Church and society but the applicability of natural law to secular states. It reduces the social activity of the Church to that of a secular progressive NGO. Some such result seems inevitable when the post-Vatican II anthropocentric turn and the will to cooperate with secular movements and authorities become absolute.

That must change, and Catholics must regain their critical sense of what secular movements and authorities really are. The obvious remedy—which is necessary in any case, for reasons apart from politics—is a restored emphasis within the Church on natural law and on the transcendent dimension of the Faith. Only those dimensions can give us a correct perspective on worldly affairs, and make possible effective efforts for true justice. Divorced from them the social doctrine of the Church is no longer itself.

About James Kalb 72 Articles

James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism(ISI Books, 2008) and, most recently, Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It (Angelico Press, 2013).

11 Comments

  1. Well it was a good try here. The baseline problem(s) can be boiled down to power. Power over others, power to get what one wants, power to make change that benefits those in power. Our problem(s) is about the human desire for power.

    With power comes influence, with power comes money, with power comes respect, and all other benefits one wants or needs. Why did Jesus come into this world powerless? Why did Jesus’ ministry not desire power, but lifted up humility, poverty, everything one associates with powerlessness? Humanity identifies powerlessness as weakness, being subjugated to the whim of others, waiting on others to allow the powerless to receive what they need.

    We can all talk about catholic social justice, we can all talk about the benevolence of others who graciously throw crumbs to the powerless, even those who champion causes for the powerless do so to obtain power. We all know the unrelenting cruelty of humanity, we know what happens to the powerless when left to human dictates that are based on power. Man has forgotten or rebuked the plain simple wisdom that those of this world who hold the power are not accountable to anyone let alone God. They answer to no one, and we are living in the wake of this god complex and witnessing it’s vengeance on the world.

    • B-bee:

      You shoot yourself in the foot by opening with a dismissive comment on a man whose essays distinguish him as a profound observer of the zeitgeist.

      Sometimes bad ideas must be dismissed.

      This is not one of those times.

    • It is really simple. REFOM our.current corrupt Economic
      System
      End the Fed as Ron Paul says. End their evil USUARY
      high interest – totally unconstitutional practices.
      Have Govt print it’s money at NO interest

  2. Good post. But ultimately Mr. Kalb, your post highlights how St John XXII, Paul VI and Pope Benedict let us down by ideologically adopting the left of center politics popular in Western Europe since World War II. As you point out, clear caveats against abuse of power were not given to the agents of change acting in international organizations like the E.U. and U.N. Instead it was pretended that things were different now, and the human evils repeatedly displayed throughout the past would not trouble our post WWII order. Humanitarian leftism (in the guise of Western Europe’s Christian Democrat parties) would guide us around the sinful dispositions of the past’s politics!

    Psychiatrists refer to this type of denial as “magical thinking”, i.e., holding for something to happen when all sense and experience testify otherwise. It used to be called self-deception.

    St John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus was the only document that treated of this seriously, but it didn’t do so at the length the subject needs.

    So alas now we can indeed see Yeat’s “Second Coming” poem moving from the realm of literature to the realm of our world’s politics.

    • PDamian, I am glad you said this, because it gives words to the general critique I have of Catholic social teaching in general. Unlike Catholic morality, which at least in theory presents good and evil modes of action which can be concretely chosen by the faithful, I just don’t see how Catholic social teaching gives more than general guidelines. What is left when classical liberalism, socialism, communism, and capitalism are all critiqued (rightly, I might add)? Certainly not an economic or political system that is suggested as an alternative.

      And when it is suggested that there needs to be some supernational body that enforces justice, I understand the reason why; I just don’t see how this is even possible in practice. If we could erect a supernational entity which could pursue the common good and which didn’t have the standard tendency towards corruption, one which actually was capable of doing the job of pursuing justice in international affairs, it seems likely that we’d be able to come up with something that could perform the same job locally; yet a government which pursues the common good has remained illusory even at the local level. So why do we think we can create one at the global level?

      Aristotle distinguishes between several questions that need to be asked of a city, two of which are: 1) what is best for the city absolutely speaking? and 2) what is best in this city, given these circumstances. I think the social compendium does a great job of outlining what a just society would look like; and while that offers some guidance on answering the second question, it is very far from giving us an answer. Sometimes, the world is just too messed up e.g., for a supernational quasi-governing body to be really possible. Which always makes me question what good the social compendium is in the first place…then I remember that it provides a vision for the best state of affairs, and the endless cycle of my internal confusion continues without an end in sight.

  3. thank you mr. kalb for giving me much food for thought.

    please keep thinking and writing. i agree in part with the above post that spoke about the will to power so strong in human beings. the founders of america also recognized this aspect of the human condition and tried to control it with our constitution. it was fairly successful for many decades, but now its weaknesses have been identified and are being exploited by the unscrupulous.

    ultimately, alleviation of the misery in the world will come only through a conversion of the heart in a majority of us human beings. that is the only real and effective answer to the world’s problems. it may be that our Father in heaven has something planned to bring about that mass conversion. we can pray He does.

  4. While it is understandable that most pontifical thought on social and governmental matters is informed by a European social view, regardless of the native home of the Pope, much valuable experience is ignored in this process. The classical liberals, and to a large extent, modern libertarians have much to offer in the area of personal liberty. minimal governmental interference and opposition to totalitarianism in all areas. It is unfortunate but most organizations, be they church, government or even the local school board have a tendency to demand conformity and control over their members.
    The populace as a whole is not totally without blame as many are only too willing to trade principle for a little material security and as Franklin said wind up with neither.

  5. Catholic thinking that emphasizes membership in the organization of the Catholic Church as a requirement for salvation, instead of direct faith in Christ, is the reason why the Church emphasizes social doctrine as a means of bettering the world. In Scripture, the emphasis is in transforming the individual first; and then the transformed individual can be a good influence on the society. Social structures, of themselves, are not equipped for the job. This is why the world keeps getting worse in spite of the best humanist efforts.

  6. I get the feeling that Kalb wavers between forced optimism and overwhelming cynicism. But perhaps I’m just projecting.

    I think the heart of modern “social action” issues lies in our lack of a shared conception of Good. We all agree that murder is wrong, but is abortion murder? There society disagrees. We all agree that theft is wrong, but are forcible government redistributions theft? There society disagrees. Etc.

    I don’t know anything about the pre-industrial world, but it does at least seem like people knew what was a virtue and what was a vice.

    Our confusion about the nature of the good is the heart of the issue. And this confusion can only stem from lack of personal knowledge of God, who is the source of all Good, who is Goodness Itself.

    • Quite right about the “common good”, a point I focus on when I give talks on Catholic social doctrine. A key paragraph from the Compendium of the Social Doctrine is #170:

      “The common good of society is not an end in itself; it has value only in reference to attaining the ultimate ends of the person and the universal common good of the whole of creation. God is the ultimate end of his creatures and for no reason may the common good be deprived of its transcendent dimension, which moves beyond the historical dimension while at the same time fulfilling it. This perspective reaches its fullness by virtue of faith in Jesus’ Passover, which sheds clear light on the attainment of humanity’s true common good. Our history — the personal and collective effort to elevate the human condition — begins and ends in Jesus: thanks to him, by means of him and in light of him every reality, including human society, can be brought to its Supreme Good, to its fulfilment. A purely historical and materialistic vision would end up transforming the common good into a simple socio-economic well-being, without any transcendental goal, that is, without its most intimate reason for existing.”

      But try to get most people, even many Catholics, to see this truth, and they will do nearly everything in their power to run from it.

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