From the Editor: The Civilization of Love, Yes, but Not a Utopia

Over the years, I have learned a good many things from my friend, David Schindler, who has been going public with some strong opinions concerning how I could improve my work. Often I find them helpful. In particular, Schindler has recently ventured — in Catholic World Report — some very strong opinions about: (1) fatal flaws in the U.S. founding; (2) the inadequate theology of the U.S. founders; and (3) the political, economic, and cultural vision of John Paul II.

As far as I can tell, Schindler holds that there is nothing in the U.S. Constitution that would have to be changed in order to bring it into conformity with Catholic social thought. Am I wrong about that? He has been careful to point out, for instance, that his disagreement with John Courtney Murray does not involve mandated changes in the U.S. juridical or constitutional system. Schindler seems to be as much in favor of “democracy” (meaning the rule of law, limited government, the separation of powers, and the protection of the rights of minorities and individuals) as Pope John Paul II is.

In his more recent writings, although not always earlier, Schindler has been careful to point out that in the “civilization of love,” his utopia (he does not claim that there is now or ever has been a political exemplar of it in any earthly civilization), no coercion will ever be applied. This implies at least the operational equivalent of the First Amendment. If he is not happy with it as written, how would Schindler word such an amendment? Whether he could get any population on earth, or even simply the people of the United States, to consent to live under his amendment as part of their Constitution is another question.

Indeed, it would be interesting to see an entire sample constitution of the Civilization of Love. It is one thing to wax eloquent about a “civilization,” which is after all a phrase belonging rather to the moral-cultural order of reality. It is quite another to speak with the practiced and weighty substance proper to the intellectual habit necessary for political philosophy, namely, practical wisdom, “prudence.”

On several other occasions, Schindler has also publicly professed his enthusiasm for the habit of enterprise and the practice of entrepreneurship (as these were evidenced by his own father). On these points he says, he has no disagreement with me.

Moreover, the “logic” of a civilization of love, requiring as it does an absence of coercion, would necessarily seem to express itself in the political sphere by methods of political freedom rather than force. In the sense in which such economies as Germany and the United States are “capitalist” in different ways, the civilization of love would also seem to need to express itself in the economic sphere by methods of freedom, personal initia tive, mutual consent, and free exchange — that is, in “capitalist” ways (See Centesimus annus, #42). Of course, Schindler would insist that the moral intentions within which capitalist acts are conducted should be different (more christological, trinitarian, marian) for Catholics than for other followers of Adam Smith. But his economic system would not coerce others to think or act like Catholics.

Therefore, I can’t see the huge institutional gap between the rather fleshed-out picture of political economy that I have drawn in some seven books, and the spare outline of institutions to which Schindler has so far publicly committed himself. It looks to me as though Schindler is a proponent of democratic and capitalist institutions. To repeat, he would infuse these institutions with a specifically Catholic intentionality, and he would not coerce others. I applaud him.

Like many other Catholics of my age and training, I am ashamed to say, my education was essentially European. My teachers did not think much of Locke; I learned refutations of him before I learned him. The same was true of much else about the intellectual foundations of the American Republic. My assumption, I suppose, was rather like Schindler’s today: The American founding was intellectually inferior. Not until I had a class with Monsignor John Tracy Ellis at Catholic University in 1958 did I begin to read seriously in American Catholic history. Anti-American prejudices and culpable ignorance about America in certain of my teachers of church history in Rome during the two preceding years had whetted my appetite.

As I began to prepare myself for writing about economics in the 1970s, it was plain to me that economic systems are, in fact, embedded in different sorts of regimes — different understandings of the rule of law, different forms of government. Further, it seemed plain to me that Japanese culture is not like American, and neither is the Italian, French, or German. In other words, intellectually I had to learn to bring three dimensions into play: politics, economics, and culture. What I like about “capitalism,” I discovered belatedly, is a whole “system,” of which the economic system is only a part.

It seemed to me, further, that political scientists of that time didn’t present a picture of the whole American system; most seemed lamentably weak on economics, and often were outright New Dealophiles. The economists seemed to me too abstemious by far, ignoring far too much about both politics and culture.

Where could one go to get a good book on the system as a whole, seen as a whole, albeit with distinct parts? One couldn’t go to the humanists. As I had learned in trying to spend four million dollars a year to help humanists as the new director of the humanities program at the Rockefeller Foundation, humanists weren’t about to write such a book. They were a fairly discouraged lot. At that time (197374), most didn’t have much to say about politics and economics. If I wanted a book on the politics, economics, and culture of systems like the American system, I was going to have to write one myself, no matter how poor it might be.

The American way of life, in this profound sense (its whole Gestalt of institutions, interlocking and plural systems, symbols, diverse ethnicities and religions, etc.), is a system, I concluded, which lacks serious self-understanding — a point Maritain made 30 years ago. As an American I was also, during the years 1977-1982, in search of self-understanding. Nowhere in the world was socialism, or even social democracy, working out as I had hoped it would. No other country seemed to me to be doing better than America. In any case, the democratic socialist idea, and the social democratic idea, both seemed dead to me. They were certainly dead for me. As one whose vocation has been from the beginning to be un homme engage, to the maximum extent Providence makes possible, I wanted, and needed, to fix before my eyes what Jacques Maritain in Integral Humanism had called a “proximate ideal.” That means something well beyond the

present, yet reachable from the present, during the next generation or so. Not so far ahead as to be utopian. Not so close as to feed complacence or laziness. A practical ideal.

I built The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism as stoutly as I could, knowing that like an aircraft carrier it would have to withstand many waves of incoming attack. And in fact, the first wave of critics mocked the book for being idealistic. Yet wasn’t that its point? Its ideals were close enough to home to infuriate them, or at least those of them who, in those days, always blamed America first.

I self-consciously took two large chances in Spirit, writing elliptically and briefly about two complex themes. The first was when I wrote a warning against trying to “Christianize” the system; the second was when I asserted that a noncoercive regime may properly maintain “an empty shrine” at its center. There are obvious ways to misunderstand each of these points. But if you are willing to expend the effort, you will find a winding but well-blazed trail toward grasping my point exactly. You may even come to agree that it is an important point, even an exciting point, from the most profoundly orthodox point of view.

Nearly as much as Pope John Paul II (unlike him, I never wrote a book on this subject), I am deeply indebted to St. John of the Cross. His works got me through some very dark depths. It is a good thing when a political regime recognizes that it is simply incompetent in the realm of conscience, when it restrains itself from acting where better authorities are charged with acting. That the state allows the state shrine to be empty is a sign of its own proper self-restraint, of the hidden transcendence of the divine, and of the supremacy of conscience over the state. Anyone who knows the uses of the metaphors “emptiness” and “desert” for the darkness in which God cannot be seen, precisely as a sign of where God is to be found, grasps my meaning. “One nation under God,” indeed. The state is simply incompetent to identify God. The corollary follows that what the state does not do, the public must do. The public square — civil society, not the state — must be alive with argument, with religious conviction, and with moral vision. I have contributed my bit to that, in every sort of forum open to me. And in a few that I have crashed.

In our Republic, there are a great many Jews. There are many more Protestants of many kinds than there are Catholics. And there is a fairly significant number — about 17 million — of atheists and agnostics, not to mention Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and many others. As you get to know these people, you would not wish to injure their consciences; not at all, and on the contrary. For this reason, you would not wish to “Christianize” the system juridically, legally, or constitutionally. David Schindler, it seems, has come around to holding that.

His “civilization of love” is like the City of God. Its realization will arrive at the End of Time. It even draws us on eagerly in this vale of tears, this slough of despond, amid looming sinful structures. It is what awaits us. But here we do not have sinless structures. That’s why we need biblical realism, institutional checks and balances, prudence, and providentially provided political wisdom. It is as wrong to allow the perfect to become the enemy of the good, as it would be to confuse the good with the perfect. Pope John Paul II is no utopian.

Michael Novak


Michael Novak held for many years the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and is now a trustee and visiting professor at Ave Maria University. He is a philosopher, theologian, and author, as well as the 1994 recipient of the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He has been an emissary to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. He has written over twenty-seven books on the philosophy and theology of culture, especially the essential elements of a free society. He also founded Crisis Magazine with Ralph McInerny in 1982.