Everything is political today, so political idealism has become a big part of religion. That doesn’t make much sense for Catholics, because our religion has no concrete social ideal. It recognizes the binding quality of natural law, and—in the words of Dignitatis Humanae—an overall “moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ,” but doesn’t specify how those obligations should be carried out.
For Saint John Paul II, the point was straightforward:
The Church does not propose economic and political systems or programs, nor does she show preference for one or the other, provided that human dignity is properly respected and promoted, and provided she herself is allowed the room she needs to exercise her ministry in the world. (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 41)
Even so, many have insisted that one ideal or another is specially suited to Catholicism, or perhaps even demanded by the Faith.
The favored ideal has changed with the times. At one time it was the ideal of the Empire, followed by that of Catholic monarchy. Both involved an organic, hierarchical, and religious understanding of society. These ideals didn’t suit democratic sentiments or urban industrial society, so by the late nineteenth century some alternative to throne-and-altar Catholicism seemed necessary.
Some stuck to neo-medievalism, but with an emphasis on local community rather than monarch and hierarchy: everything was to be very social, local, and small-scale, with an emphasis on parishes, guilds, ceremonies, processions, garden plots, and cooperatives. This has mostly been a literary ideal, since it’s hard to give up on industrial organization, but many continue to find it inspirational.
Others have gone for a Catholic corporatism, a sort of restored guild system for the factory age: trades and employers would organize themselves, and together they would govern industries in the joint interest of participants and the public. The approach captured some of the appeal of the previous proposal but seemed more realistic. Popes and politicians supported it for a time, but it waned in importance after the 1930s.
In the wake of the Second Vatican Council, with its opening to modernity and sympathy for secular initiatives, the neoconservatives abandoned the conception of an organic society that lay behind the previous ideals and tried to develop a Catholic liberalism. Government would be secular, democratic, and pluralist, but hospitable to religion; the economy capitalist, but would include welfare state features. The movement achieved considerable success in the United States through the end of the last century, but has fallen into disarray since the fall of communism, rise of globalism, and cultural radicalization of the liberal order. It appears that if there is no public standard of the good beyond freedom and pluralism religion loses its place in public life and eventually comes to seem a threat to the civic order.
Some have taken the secularizing process to its conclusion by identifying the Catholic ideal with the secular progressive one: a politically-correct welfare state in which environmental consciousness reigns, everyone gets a materially decent life, nobody gets too much (a point soft-pedaled in practice), and multidimensional inclusiveness is combined with open borders through multicultural sensitivity and generous resettlement programs. Catholic family values were initially layered onto the ideal, but demands for lifestyle freedoms have caused that effort increasingly to be abandoned as impractical. The result is simple identification of Catholic social teaching with aggressively secularist progressivism.
That doesn’t seem satisfactory, so today there are some—the expressively-named Tradinistas—who try to square all circles by combining medievalist, secular progressive, and social conservative ideals in a dimly-conceived unity.
None of the proposals seem practically workable, and their progression suggests that the effort to propose Catholic solutions to social problems has steadily lost seriousness. People who want politics to be Catholic look at our public life, notice how anti-Catholic it has become, and either redefine Catholicism out of recognition or take refuge in fantasy.
The social encyclicals have been influenced by all these currents, but for the most part have accepted the general tendency of events rather than pushing for anything radical. When government was smaller and classical liberalism widely favored, they stressed localism and limits on bureaucratic intervention. In the age of globalism, technocracy, and the welfare state they are more inclined toward world government and administrative solutions.
In each case they’ve signed on to strategies intended to make life better for most people. They’ve also tried to draw attention to the full dimensions of the social problem: it relates not just to economics, they say, but to man’s complete good, including his ultimate good. They’ve said very little though about how to achieve that broader goal. The result is that readers have attended less to the ultimate standard they propose than the approaches to subordinate secular matters with which they ally themselves.
In any case, the public significance of the encyclicals has diminished with the declining importance of the Church in public life. The dominant powers don’t like Catholicism, and would rather suppress the Church than see anything specifically Catholic affect social relations. And the people—including Catholics—don’t know or care much about Catholic social thought. So the world goes its way without regard to the Church and her teachings.
What to do? The world is unmanageable, and politics can neither be reformed nor ignored. For the hierarchy it seems business goes on as usual. Popes address ever-longer encyclicals to the whole world. Bishops’ conferences lobby and issue position papers. And lay Catholics go their own way, in this respect as many others.
Something better must be possible. But what? The nineteenth-century Anglican cleric Sydney Smith suggests one possibility: “Take short views, hope for the best, and trust God.” So give up grand political schemes, do what you can day to day, and put God first. The proposal isn’t crazy. It could recognize the Church’s lack of influence and give her a chance to regroup and find her soul again after all the worldly-mindedness. And our Lord sometimes seems to suggest just such an approach: “Consider the lilies of the field,” and “sufficient for the day is the evil thereof.”
On the other hand, He also says “seek ye first the Kingdom of God and his justice,” which suggests social as well as individual concern. And “love thy neighbor” seems to mean that charity begins close to home, but spreads progressively to others. Religion should connect the different levels and aspects of life, so political passivity and ignoring grand issues seem wrong. And in any event, we have responsibilities as citizens we should exercise somehow, if only in self-defense against other people’s political schemes.
Something like the much-discussed Benedict Option could provide a more social, active, and balanced approach that carries forward the benefits of the Sydney Smith approach. At the immediate level we would stay close to the Church and build what we can in our own lives and among the people we live with, and be “ready always to satisfy everyone that asketh a reason of that hope that is in you.” Without those things we have nothing. If what they lead to is good it is likely to grow and spread, and at any rate it will benefit some people.
At the larger scale we can defend ourselves, put forward our views as best we can, and work on particular projects with others when we can do so in good conscience. Social engagement and doctrine would then be treated as necessary, but with the emphasis more on integrity of principle than immediate influence. Magna est veritas et praevalebit—truth is great and will prevail—so you won’t go wrong preaching the word in and out of season, but joining the projects of worldly powers who reject the Faith on principle is likely to end in boarding a train they’re driving in a direction we don’t want to go.