American Catholics and the Social Encyclicals

In an unusually outrageous essay in the August, 1983, issue of this journal, Michael Novak informs us that “the American social system is morally superior to any historical Catholic social system, whether of the Vatican or of any Catholic state.” This is the kind of statement one finds all too commonly on freshman exams, written by those innocent of the definition of terms and the difficulties of even simple comparisons. But Novak has more to say: “In the world of theory, American social teaching, in all its rich pluralism and radical depth, is both morally superior and far more highly developed than Catholic social teaching.” What can this possibly mean? Catholic social teaching can be identified, because it comes from ultimately a single source, conscious of its own historical continuity. But what is “American social teaching, in all its rich pluralism?” How can we compare a relatively unified Catholic tradition with an American tradition, richly pluralistic, i.e. full of schools holding views contradictory of each other? In what sense can we speak of American social teaching at all, as if in spite of the impossibility of reconciling the natural law tradition, utilitarianism, legal positivism, and other radically opposed positions which make up this teaching, it had its own identity? Novak does allow: “This is not to say that Catholic social teaching has nothing to teach our culture; but it is to say that it has even more to learn from it.” Without responding directly to Novak (I partially agree with his identification of particularly American virtues, such as self-reliance), I wish to argue roughly the opposite of this last statement of his. In showing how much the American experience has to learn from the tradition of the social encyclicals, I hope to give some sense of how many mistaken notions could have been avoided, or at least ameliorated, by a conscious acknowledgement by the Catholic community of the degree to which the encyclical tradition is a judgment on some of the most widespread of the “American” ideas.

A preliminary historical comment is in order. Although the social encyclicals are not now much studied in Catholic high schools and colleges, it was not always so. I have before me my wife’s copy, issued in 1963, of Seven Great Encyclicals, which she was required to read as a part of her college studies just twenty years ago. The inside cover informs me that 548,000 copies of the book had then been published. This itself is presumably evidence of a rather widespread dissemination of the encyclicals. But how were they read? It seems to me that the answer must be “selectively,” with an eye to stressing that which was of interest to a largely immigrant community desperately desiring to be assimilated to the larger American context. Stress was laid on those teachings, such as the rights to unions and private property, directly of interest to immigrants, trying to raise their place in the world. As with the Gospels, the hard teachings, such as the condemnation of the notions that authority comes from the people, of the equality of man, and of a free press, were largely ignored. That is, that which stood in judgment of the American Constitution and the Bill of Rights was glossed over. American Catholics, who wanted to be accepted as good Americans, could hardly bear the notion that they belonged to a Church which clearly stood in opposition to some of the leading ideas on which the Republic to which they belonged was founded.

My argument is that, precisely by ignoring these hard teachings, American Catholics were not able to develop a sophisticated attitude toward the larger political and social experience to which they were assimilating. Let me begin with the basic question of Church and state. I think it is a fair comment to say that most American Catholics have held that the separation of Church and state is a good thing. Certainly not many protests were raised when the ultimate assimilationist, John F. Kennedy, suggested that being a Catholic was of the order of being born with brown eyes, and that he would never go against the Constitution on the basis of the dictates of his religion. Presumably this latter meant at the least that he saw no intrinsic conflicts between the two. Here religion was seen as part of one’s heritage, but of a heritage that had to give way before the constitutional framework of the particular society in which one lived. And this selection of what in one’s religion was compatible with one’s society was not defended so much on the grounds of expedience, but of the greater wisdom of the American experience. That is, the American Catholic did not have to accept the separation of Church and state on the grounds — quite defensible — that the origins of America did not allow a more perfect constitutional order, but rather on the grounds that in principle the American separation of Church and state was intrinsically superior to the arrangements of those societies in which religion was established.

I would argue that by taking this position, American Catholics missed the opportunity of forming a clear notion of the limitations of their particular political experience: like most Americans, they believed themselves to live in “the best country there ever was.” They have so long held to this position that they can now hardly comprehend the alter-natives, and have virtually no sense of how this idea has diminished them as a people. Since the encyclical pronouncements on this question are now so foreign to us, I must elaborate. Probably most Catholics, although they do not necessarily accept the rigid separation of Church and state found in Jefferson’s thought, nevertheless agree that no particular religion should be established. They view the first amendment as religiously neutral, as not favoring any particular form of religion. My argument is that, if the papal encyclicals had been understood, American Catholics would have seen that the first amendment is not at all religiously neutral, but clearly advocates a Protestant notion of society. Some historical perspective is necessary here.


It is clear that in Catholic thought man is made for two ends, one political and one supernatural. Man is made to take hold of the truth, whether natural or supernatural: more correctly, man is made to be taken hold of by the truth. As the baroque experience so clearly saw, Christianity is intended to fill a man’s whole being, and to find expression in all his activities, technical, artistic, and public, as well as private. The more a man or mankind advances in being permeated by the truth, the more this truth expresses itself in all his or its activities. The desire — this is the point of the Gregorian reformation of the eleventh century — not simply to reorder one’s personal life by the teachings of the faith, but also to reorder public life to a more full expression of Christian truth, is an inevitable result of understanding the superiority of the truths of revelation to those of reason.

This point has been stated with great eloquence by Jean Danielou in his Prayer as a Political Problem. Danielou, the advocate of a mature Christianity which is yet open to the poor, that is to those without full consciousness of their own dignity and destiny, noted the great possibility for superiority of a society in which Catholicism is established. We might call his insight Ignatian or baroque. Danielou stated that it is a plain fact that, although the instinct to be religious is as natural to man as his reason, and not something added to human nature only by revelation, most men are not heroic. That is, most men only follow their religious and rational instincts toward the truth by fits and starts. They are generally no better than the society around them encourages them to be. They cannot for long stand against the customs of the larger society. Thus the commitments of the larger society must evermore have impact on the many, the poor, who will almost inevitably conform to these commitments. As far as possible, therefore, that is for man’s very maturation, the first commitment of society must be to the truth, not to liberty in the modern sense, to material prosperity, nor to any other lesser but real value. The truth-seeking society at the least fosters all that is a natural good to man, including religion. It is therefore not, indeed in principle cannot be, neutral to religion. Like every other good, it will either advance or hinder this good. Government can take no neutral action: everything done advances or discourages the good, and embodies some particular form of good or evil. Where it is historically possible, the political order must favor the highest forms of truth, and if the historical experience of a people allow them to affirm the truth of Catholicism, their maturity is perfected by the establishment of this religion. Only in such a situation can the full dimension of being publically a people of God be realized. An attenuated form of Christianity, one in which Christian community is not fully realized, may be necessary in a given historical situation, but this then is to be realized for what it is, a life in which the poor will have less direction, will receive many conflicting and destructive signals from the larger society, and thus perhaps lose their way.

We are talking here of course of principles, and I am quite aware of the wide variety of actual “results” achieved by Catholic states. I think the historical record of Catholic societies is in fact much better than Novak appears to think, but I know of no methodology going beyond impression to decide this issue. What I am arguing, rather, is that if a people’s ideas of what is in principle more and less desirable is clear, its historical experience at least has the chance of maturity. If in principle, by some such rule as the separation of Church and state, a people in advance rules out the most mature forms of being permeated by the truth, then from the first it opts for a lesser beginning of the eschaton in history. There is no way, by establishment of religion or anything else, to assure a profound historical experience, but to separate Church from state at the beginning is to choose a form of life which excludes human creativity from its public mission to found a more satisfactory life on the Gospel. Those who are faithful to revelation on a wholly voluntary basis, probably in the long run the few, will lack both the enforcement of law and common opinion, and the opportunity to cooperate in the social advancement of the eschaton. Certainly a heroic private Christianity of the few may persist indefinitely, but this will be one in which the social instinct to the good must in part be frustrated, the perfection of the political by the theological attenuated.

By ignoring the passages in such encyclicals as Leo XIII’s Immortale Dei which advances ideas like those just advocated, American Catholicism has lost half its heritage. To expand Santayana’s comment that in America there are no Catholics, only Protestants, some of whom pray the rosary, most American Catholics have so accepted a Protestant — a post-Enlightenment Protestant — view of politics, that they do not even see the first amendment to be discriminatory. What the amendment in fact does is to rule out the possibility of a Catholic form of public life, one in which feast days publically celebrated order life. The amendment holds that only a Protestant conception of the relation of religion to government is legal in America. Public life may be Christian only in the sense that private religion influences intermediary social forms within the body politic, but government itself, the fullest expression of what on the political level is human, is beyond the things which may be restored in Christ. Now as a matter of fact I, too, hold that an established religion is not a possibility now or in any future I can foresee for America, but it seems to me that the correct conclusion to draw from this is a sense of how far short our experience is of a fully human life. It seems to me that the proper response of the Catholic should not at all be to praise this country as “the best there ever was,” but to form a more realistic assessment of what the true strengths — some of which indeed are economic — and weaknesses of this particular political experience are.

Many other mistaken or unsophisticated notions follow from this lack of a sense of the limitations of our own historical experience. Let us take up the question of the praise of liberty. I doubt if one could find any significant difference between the Catholic and non-Catholic citizenry of America, whether of right or left, in the praise of liberty, in the belief that the end of government is liberty. The encyclical tradition teaches, on the contrary, that the end of government is the good, that is, the education of man to the good. Liberty, indeed, is also one of the supreme Catholic values, but liberty defined as the use of free will to cling to the good. In the Catholic tradition man is to become free in the sense of maturing to wanting voluntarily to do the good.

This maturity is to be encouraged and developed by family and law, as the vehicles by which man progresses from a less to a more steady will to do the good. In American life, in any pluralistic society (pluralistic, that is, as to basic values), a public good in anything beyond a constitutional sense is ruled out by definition. Thus inevitably liberty, now understood as the enlargement of individual option, must replace the good. For, the good having become private, all society can do is allow each man to pursue what — within the bonds of law — seems to him good. Generally Americans have not been very self-conscious about this internal logic of the American experience, and have affirmed contradictory propositions. Few actually want a pure liberty of private option, and so most commonly an “ordered” liberty or a “properly used” liberty are spoken of, with some attempt thus made to connect liberty to the good. Yet it seems to me that the actual logic of our premises rules this out.

Take pornography as an example. Especially our recent history is bedeviled with the problem of ensuring some public standard, some control on liberty in the name of “decency.” There is certainly historical ground for this in the earlier American experience, in which there was present something like a natural law idea. Until perhaps a generation ago there was considerable de facto agreement, used as the basis for legislation, on certain basic values and on the need for a certain disposition for the conduct of public affairs — what John Courtney Murray called civility. Yet I would point out that logically, the good can no more be established in our experience than the Church. If society is conceived, in the manner of Locke, as it most commonly is in the American experience, as composed of autonomous individuals who contract to limit their freedom by setting above themselves government, authority is seen to come from the will of the people. For a long time the remnants of the natural law belief obscured the fact that in America the good tends to be what the people say it is: hence the radical revolution in moral values in our generation, which has finally almost universally shed the vestiges of the natural law belief to reveal the logic of a politics which does not hold that authority comes from God, as the encyclicals have repeatedly insisted. What is revealed now is that “Pornography is as American as Apple Pie.” That is, without the authority of a good outside and above the people, there is no basis for the definition of the good. The good is what we want it to be. The appeal to community standards is not an appeal to a universal good, but to history, to the historical situation of the moment. Many Catholics, perhaps out of a natural piety, continue to hold the nostalgic idea that somehow if you give people liberty they will use it “properly,” but here they simply, in a rather befuddled manner, want somehow the virtues that come from a natural law system to be the outcome of a logic that is radically opposed to that position. If we had listened to the papal attack on the logic of Locke and Rousseau — again Immortale Dei is a good text — we would have seen that the idea, sometimes called democratic, that authority comes from the people, is incompatible with anything but accidental public goods. Freedom of expression must break more universal values. Thus one of my home-town papers, widely identified in the community as “Gentile” (non-Mormon), and owned by an old Catholic family, justifies the acceptance of ads for x-rated movies on the grounds that the theatre owners have a right to advertisement, and anyone who does not approve of the movies may refuse to attend them.

Here we have a number of mistaken notions. First — the idea is explicitly rejected by Leo XIII — the right to disseminate harmful information is put above the right of a society to do what it can to protect Danielou’s poor: and here not even self-policing occurs. More importantly, the logic of an atomistic society is accepted, with the touching belief that what each individual does not have an effect on others. If you yourself do not go to the movies, the argument runs, you are in no way adversely affected by others’ exercise of their freedom. But even the most minimal sense of the organic nature of society, the constant teaching of the encyclical tradition, should tell us that others’ actions in all manner of ways impact on us. Leaving aside the fact that we have obligations toward others, for instance to do what we can to protect them from evil when those more immediately responsible, like their parents, fail, such a position suggests that what we see on the public stage of civic life has no influence on our private lives. Again, it is hard in a scientific manner to prove the case either way, but since I am personally degraded, for instance, by the materialism and exploitation I see on television, it does not seem unreasonable to conclude that my children experience a like effect. But most Catholics, because they think by the logic of liberty rather than truth, will oppose anything beyond voluntary censorship. The encyclicals speak of censorship as a good found in any society that lives for the truth; or at least they used to (that is another story). We have been so thoroughly Americanized (secularized? liberalized?) that the logic of the good offends our deepest instinct indiscriminately to protect our “liberty.”

Again, varying according to time and place, I think there is something of value in the logic of a free press, and in a variety of personal expression. Yet it seems that these are goods which must be ordered to, and limited by, values more primordial to society. We have taken the easy way out, the way that necessitates no further thinking, no ordering of values, by giving the rights of the first amendment a primacy of position they have not had in the encyclical tradition. If we were to pursue a sophisticated discourse — in some ways the neo-conservatives are feeling for this, but are too taken with the rhetoric of freedom to find their way — we would have directly to consider whether man, as an imitative creature, is not highly influenced by what he sees around him, and that therefore the good of society as a whole requires that some limit be placed on individual expression. Again, I am not suggesting that in fact there is any solution to this problem, granted the premises on which our national experience in at least large measure has come to be based. Who, indeed, is to be the policeman if there are no commonly shared values? But I am suggesting, as in the earlier instances, that a knowledge of the encyclical tradition would greatly temper our enthusiasm for the wisdom of the American political experience.


Glenn W. Olsen a Professor of History at the University of Utah, with a Ph.D. in the history of the Middle Ages. He has contributed numerous articles to many historical journals, including Communio and Logos, and is also the author of the book Christian Marriage: A Historical Study (2001).

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