Individualism and community are the opposite halves of the American character. For every myth of the self-made man, there is the image of the closely knit New England small town. For every lone cowboy on the frontier, there are the social, political, and cultural groups that Americans have formed since the beginning of the Republic. Yet while individualism remains as ingrained as ever, the impulse toward community has weakened. As Robert Putnam has pointed out in his influential book Bowling Alone, participation in groups of all sorts has dropped dramatically. The informal social capital that develops from community life and that is critical to democracy is in danger of dissipating.
The Catholic principle of subsidiarity, first set forth in its modern form by Pope Leo XIII in his social encyclicals, provides a political template for reinterpreting the balance between community and individual. Subsidiarity proposes a series of nested communities, beginning with the family and extending up through the national state; it encompasses not just “public” or governmental institutions but also private institutions, such as churches, corporations, and civic groups, that make up society. Social problems should be addressed at the most local level able to solve them, which has the result of increasing community attachments. More generally, Catholic social thought is grounded in a conception of the human person that is relational rather than individualistic. That is to say, Catholicism emphasizes the bonds persons have with one another as created beings and asserts that these bonds create reciprocal duties and responsibilities.
In The Catholic Ethic and the Spirit of Community, John E. Tropman, a professor of social welfare and business at the University of Michigan, asks whether this Catholic ethic exists as more than an intellectual ideal. Taking his title, of course, from Max Weber’s famous book on the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism, Tropman’s thesis is that something called “the Catholic ethic” conditions attitudes on subjects ranging from community to forgiveness, and that this ethic differs from a “Protestant” ethic in significant ways.
The book is divided into five parts. The first introduces the concept of a Catholic ethic in contrast to a “Protestant” ethic. Part 2 lays out what Tropman calls the “Pillars of the Catholic Ethic.” These include assumptions about what the Catholic ethic teaches about work, money, family, forgiveness, and the otherworldly focus of life, which Tropman summarizes as a “helping ethic.” Part 3 supplies a “Cultural and Structural History of the Catholic Ethic and Community Helping,” in which Tropman examines both values and institutions that have shaped the Catholic ethic, from monasteries to Catholic Charities USA. Part 4 focuses on America. Here Tropman uses surveys and other sociological data to discover whether the principles described earlier have contemporary resonance. The final part, “The Long View,” offers concluding observations about possible applications of the Catholic ethic.
Tropman finds, generally, that Catholics are different. The available surveys of members of particular religious groups show that Catholics come to different conclusions about economics, the family, social life, and politics than their Protestant counterparts. In general, the Catholic ethic stresses family more than work, community more than the individual, other values rather than wealth, and takes a more favorable attitude toward the poor. Catholics also have a more favorable view of government, in general, than Protestants (with the exception of African-American Protestants, whose views on some issues are closely aligned with those of Catholics).
The “helping ethic” Tropman finds at the heart of Catholicism, however, is not without problems. He arbitrarily separates his Catholic ethic into “dominant” and “subdominant” strands. In most cases, Tropman simply equates a pro-welfare state attitude with the Catholic social ethic. Indeed, Tropman concludes that the “helping elements” of the Catholic ethic “were politically important…in establishing the social acceptance necessary for the New Deal and the Social Security Act to succeed” and that “the Catholic ethic directly supports welfare state activities.” Any approach that diverges from this pro-welfare position—such as that of Michael Novak, whom he mentions only in passing—is presented as a Protestant intrusion into “mainstream” Catholic social thought.
This dichotomy is too simplistic; it distorts important nuances of the Catholic ethic. While Catholics may not as a matter of principle oppose the concept of government aid to the needy, a secular welfare state that usurps rather than supports the role of family and local communities is not the same thing as a social welfare system animated by Christian charity and operated through local communities. And while Catholics may not stigmatize the poor because of their poverty—as Tropman finds characteristic of a Protestant ethic—that does not mean that Catholicism absolves individuals of responsibility as persons. It means only that Catholicism does not assign a theological status to anyone on the basis of his economic position.
The connections between the theological understanding of humanity and the duties flowing from that understanding are lost in Tropman’s interpretation of the data. Too often, Tropman simply assumes that the welfare state is derived from a watered-down Catholicism or that the Catholic ethic is a sacralized New Deal. (Tellingly, Tropman offers no sustained discussion of subsidiarity.) This conclusion makes the Catholic ethic merely the praeparatio evangelium of the liberal welfare state and does not further any discussion of Catholicism’s unique contribution to social thought.
These problems aside, Tropman is generally a fair-minded scholar, and The Catholic Ethic performs the valuable service of showing that Catholics do think differently. More work needs to be done on the question of what Catholics think the role of private welfare institutions should be and on their attitudes toward poverty. Nevertheless, Tropman sheds needed light on the present expression of some of the values that have shaped Catholics for two millennia.
This article originally appeared in the July 2002 editon of Crisis