Sunday, November 30, 2003

John Allen Jr. interviews David Schindler

Rome's Lateran University hosted a conference last week on "Walking in the Light: Perspectives for Moral Theology Ten Years after Veritatis Splendor." Dr. Schindler was invited to speak on the difference between liberal and organic-creational models of culture. Following the conference Dr. Schindler was interviewed by John Allen Jr., the full text published in this week's The National Catholic Reporter (Nov. 22, 2003).

Saturday, November 01, 2003

Challenging the "Democratic Faith" of Jacques Maritain

I read a rather provocative article today by Thaddeus J. Kozinski on "Jacques Maritain's "Democratic Faith": Heretical or Orthodox?" -- in which he criticizes Maritain's philosophy of "personalist democracy," reflecting an idealistic faith which has been rendered passe in light of America's moral degeneration. Kozinski argues that the proper attitude one should adopt in this day and age would be that of the ultramontane English Catholic, William George Ward ("Towards the prevailing national spirit ., . . our only reasonable attitude is one of deep jealously and suspicion; because it is charged with principles which, for the corruption of human nature, are sure to be more false than true, and from which we should keep ourselves entirely free, until we have measured them by their only true standard, the Church's voice").

According to Kozinski, Maritain's believed that in spite of our diverse cultural and religious backgrounds mankind, in reaction to the horrible experience of Facism and Nazism, could come together in agreement on the existence of the protection of certain goods ("truth and intelligence, human dignity, freedom, brotherly love, and the absolute value of moral good.") 1 According to the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, "What Maritain wished to affirm a modern version of Aquinas' thesis that every human being has within him or herself a natural knowledge of divine law and hence of what every human being owes to every other human being." But MacIntyre disagrees, contending that while those engaged in such discussion employ the same terminology ("freedom", "justice", "human rights", et al.) the intended meaning would be contingent upon one's philosophical background and worldview.

As MacIntyre has shown, rationality itself is a "practice" that takes its shape in a particular, lived-tradition of rationality, informed by religious, philosophical, anthropological, epistemological commitments that in turn inform the precise manner in which that rationality is practiced by the individuals habituated into a particular tradition. For MacIntyre, then, the post-World-War II consensus on the goods constituting the democratic charter was not really a consensus at all, even though the consenters evinced a common lexicon of "human rights" and "democratic values"; for, it was built on sand, on entirely disparate understandings of that lexicon in virtue of their disparate traditions of rationality: Thomist, Humean, Kantian, Rousseauian, Nietzchean, Deweyean, etc.. But even if all the consenters had indeed been rooted in the same tradition (perhaps as the children of a dysfunctional Enlightenment family!), it was not rooted in that one tradition of rationality without which, Maritain insisted, the particular goods of the democratic order would have never even been recognized, let alone become attainable, the scholastic tradition of Christian rationality. 2

Kozinski argues that in this day and age it is no longer possible to maintain any kind of democratic concensus on such matters as envisioned by Maritain. A prevalent example is the way our society (and our courts) have redefined human persons in a similar manner as the Nazis, so as to justify murder of the unborn, "all under the banner of the "freedom" and "rights" afforded by the democratic charter." He also argues, along with Dr. David Schindler, that the practical, secular consensus of liberal democracy and "neutrality" towards religion displays a tendency "to undermine the priority, in first public and then private life, of supernatural or spiritual reality, and even to invert the proper subordination of the mundane to the spiritual."

As it is impossible for one to serve both God and mammon, what would happen to a religious believer who attempts to serve a democratic faith that requires the sacrifice of the public, temporal significance of his religious faith? It would be perfectly natural for him to interpret his obligatory devotion to the publicly celebrated, legally enforced, and socially respectable democratic faith as less important than his voluntary devotion to his publicly neglected, legally ignored, and socially eschewed religious faith. The consequence of prolonged habituation in such a regime is obvious. It is not possible, without a heroic amount of grace, effort and vigilance, to hold both the "theologically-neutral" theological premise of the democratic charter and the theologically charged premises of a Christian political theology. For this reason we should be very hesitant to accept the purported neutrality of even Maritain's Christ-inspired democratic charter. Maritain, of course, would never had wanted any part of such a trivialization of Christian belief -- on the contrary, he explicitly called for a new Christendom! But one mustn't ignore the possibility that he may have promoted this very obsoletion when he denied the need for truth as a basis for social order in the modern world.

I have not read enough of Maritain's political philosophy to sufficiently respond to Kozinski's indictement at this point in time, although I question whether Maritain was truly dismissive of the need for truth as a basis for social order. (In fact, Kozinski himself admits towards the end that he may be off-base in his reading of Maritain, simplifying his thought to make his critique easier). In any case, I may address his points later after I have read some more of Maritain's work.

One more thing that I would like to touch on is the matter of Kozinski's proposed remedy to the "imminent dangers of pluralism":

The American spirit, in spite of its original goodness, has now been taken over by evil forces, forces that can not be exorcised by anything other than an unadulterated, vigorous, politically-relevant faith in Jesus Christ and the Church that He founded, a Church that must be, for the sake of both the Church's honor and the temporal common good, the publicly recognized guide for men in both individual and social life. And for the latter to occur, we need to work for a nationwide conversion to the Catholic faith.

Kozinski's proposal for the establishment of a visible "Kingdom of Christ" and the physical subordination of all mankind to the Church is widely held and advocated by "traditionalist Catholics". However, it is also one that many Catholics would disagree with. Being the first article I'd ever read by Mr. Kozinski, I decided to research him further and came across this brief correspondence with Fr. Neuhaus in First Things. 3 Fr. Neuhaus's responds to Kozinski on "the distinction between the ideal and what is prudentially judged to be possible or desirable" and directs him to his article on The Liberalism of John Paul II (First Things May 1997) for further explication. 4

  1. See Christianity and Democracy, an address at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association in New York on Dec. 29, 1949.

  2. See Macintyre's Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (Dec. 1989). Also, Edward T. Oakes' introduction: The Achievement of Alasdair MacIntyre First Things August/September 1996.

  3. Responding to Neuhaus' three part column "Proposing Democracy Anew," October-December 1999, which I have added to our archive.

  4. Cardinal Dulles' article Religious Freedom: Innovation and Development (First Things Dec. 2001) is also of relevance.

Sunday, October 26, 2003

Fr. Williams' primer on Catholic Social Doctrine

In its recent 'Weekly News Analysis', offers an interview with Father Thomas Williams, Theology Dean at Regina Apostolorum, on the essentials of the Church's social doctrine, as well as a glance at three key documents of the Church (Rerum Novarum, Quadragesimo Anno, and Mater et Magistra).

According to Fr. Williams, it is easier to clarify the church's teaching by undertaking a process of via negativa: eliminating false conceptions and understanding what it is not:

  • not a "third way" between capitalism & socialism, that is to say a specific economic or political agenda, but rather a moral doctrine understood in the context of Catholic theology and especially moral theology;
  • not a utopian ideal calling for the establishment of earthly paradise by which man can attain perfection, but rather a moral standard which contronts existing realities and structures where they fail to cultivate the dignity of man, "thereby creating a healthy degree of tension between temporal realities as they stand and the Gospel's ideal."
  • notstatic or fixed, but rather "a dynamic application of Christ's teaching to the changing realities and circumstances of human societies and cultures."

Fr. Williams presents the content of Catholic social teaching, expressed in three levels ("principles and fundamental values"; "criteria for judgement"; "guidelines for action"), followed by an explication of the foundations of Catholic social teaching, first and foremost being Christ's dual commandment to love God above all things, and our neighbor as ourself:

How should I love God and my neighbor within my political, economic and social context? . . . This is a very important principle for overcoming the tendency to see the economy or politics as something totally separate from morals, when in fact it is precisely there that a Christian makes his faith influence temporal matters.

Christ's commandment to love is followed by four specific foundations summarized in the four basic principles of the Church's social doctrine:

  1. The dignity of the human person - "To think correctly about society, politics, economy and culture one must first understand properly who a human being is and what his real good is. Each person, created in the image and likeness of God, has an inalienable dignity and must therefore always be treated as an end and not only as a means. "
  2. The common good - defined by the Second Vatican Council as "the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily." ("Gaudium et Spes," 26; see GS, 74; and Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1906).
  3. Subsidiarity - First expressed by Pope Pius XI in his 1931 encyclical letter Quadragesimo Anno, according to which society's decisions must be left at the lowest possible level, therefore at the level closest to those affected by the decision. Thus says Fr. Williams, we are invited to "search for solutions to social problems in the private sector before asking the state to interfere."
  4. Solidarity - which was actually only recently formulated by John Paul II in his encyclical letter Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (1987). Solidarity prompts us to acknowledge the increasing interdependence of people and populations in the age of globalization, and according to whom "[solidarity] is not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far. On the contrary, it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all" (SRS, 38).

Finally, Fr. Williams concludes with some practical advice for the study and teaching of Catholic social doctrine. Though intended for priests, his advice is definitely appreciated by us laymen as well, and has been posted permanently to this website as a guide for future investigation.

Read and have good, precise knowledge of the Church's social teachings, to be able to expound them with assurance and clarity, and make sure that what we teach in the name of the Church is effectively what the Church teaches, and not our own personal opinions.

-- Humility, so as not to have to jump from general principles to definitive concrete judgments, especially when expressed in a categorical and absolute manner. We should not go beyond the limitations of our own knowledge and specific competence.

-- Realism in assessing the human condition, acknowledging sin but leaving room for the action of God's grace. In the midst of our commitment to human development, never lose sight that man's vocation is above all to be a saint and enjoy God for eternity.

-- Avoid the temptation of using the Church's social doctrine as a weapon for judging "others" (entrepreneurs, politicians, multinational companies, etc.). We should instead concentrate first on our own lives and our personal, social, economic and political responsibilities.

-- Know how to closely cooperate with lay people, forming them and sending them out as evangelizers of the world. They are the true experts in their fields of competence and have the specific vocation of transforming temporal realities according to the Gospel.

Wednesday, October 08, 2003

Neuhaus and the "reappropriation of the liberal tradition."

With respect to theology the neoconservatives and the 'Communio' school are largely in agreement with each other. Both are strong supporters of Pope John Paul II and steadfast in their commitment to the orthodox Catholic faith. As Neuhaus says, the debate between them boils down to the neoconservatives' support of 'The Murray Project' -- square Catholic teaching with the American democratic experiment [and free market capitalism] -- and the conservative critics like David Schindler who "accuse Murray and those like him of selling out authentic Catholic teaching to a desiccated and desiccating liberalism."

Neuhaus clarifies some points in his dispute with David Schindler in his article The Liberalism of John Paul II (First Things 73, May 1997). The article is a response to Schindler's book Heart of the World, Center of the Church, in which Schindler summarizes his argument in three points: 1) to "challenge the regnant liberalism which would claim that it (alone) is empty of religious theory in its interpretation of the First Amendment and indeed of Western constitutionalism more generally"; 2) to "seek a truly 'Catholic Moment' in America" -- after the teachings of John Paul II against John Courtney Murray; and 3) to "expose the con game of liberalism which enables it, precisely without argument, to privilege its place in the public order." Of course, Schindler and others believe Neuhaus & Novak to be implicit in this "con game of liberalism."

In an interview with David Schindler blogged earlier, he had said of self-interest: "Of course we can't suppress that impulse forcibly; if we try, we end up in totalitarianism. But that doesn't mean we should bless it as a virtue of necessity. The call to sanctity requires a transformation of self-interest and its replacement, insofar as possible, with love." One reader of this blog (Hank_F_M) challenged Schindler's conflation of self-interest with selfishness and greed:

Thomas Sowell (not a Catholic, but an influential neocon economist) in his book Knowledge and Decisions approaches [self interest] as each individual choosing the interest he serves and thus makes decisions on it. While the decision may be greed, it is often to do what is necessary to fulfil ones proper duties to family and society, and perhaps in some cases to altruistically serve the community beyond ones duties. (That is my summery of a key idea in the book)

This reduces the dichotomy that Schindler points out. If we are making decisions to respond to the call of sanctity and love in imitation of Christ then the economic and social systems should operate in a manner much more in a much more human manner. It also allows for intelligent decisions in the face of the fact others will not act accordingly and without imposing a totalitarian an unacceptable regime on them.

Neuhaus criticizes Schindler for having engaged in a similar reduction of "liberalism", putting

the worst possible construction upon the liberal tradition, and on the American cultural, legal, and political expression of that tradition. In doing so, . . . [handing] an undeserved victory to those who interpret the liberal tradition in ways that we all deplore. With John Courtney Murray, I suggest that our task is to contend for an interpretation of liberalism that is compatible with the fullness of Catholic truth. 1

Liberalism, says Neuhaus, is "a very pliable term." Of the varieties that exists he notes the laissez-faire economic liberalism condemned by Pope Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum & John Paul II, the libertarianism of a political minority in American culture ("a thought experiment for college sophomores of all ages"), the "republican liberalism of virtue" and the "communitarian liberalism of Tocquevillian civil society".

Clarification of what one means by "liberalism" is imperative in this discussion, if not only because Neuhaus & his colleagues would actually agree with Dr. Schindler's critique of a certain kind of liberalism, or even that "Christian thinkers have been too ready to trim the Christian message in order to accommodate the ruling cultural paradigm of liberalism." Of the many criticisms of liberalism raised by Schindler and others -- that it is 'purely procedural', excluding a consideration of ends (and thus its claim to 'neutrality' inherently anti-religious); that it is premised entirely on self-interest, excluding consideration of transcendent truth or divine law; that it is "inextricably tied to the dynamics of capitalism" and condusive to a culture of rampant material consumerism -- Neuhaus maintains that these are not no much an indictment of liberalism per se but distortions of liberalism, and that he, Novak, Weigel and others are "contending for the soul of liberalism." This struggle is absolutely crucial, because

There is no going back to reconstitute the American order on a foundation other than the liberal tradition. A great chasm has opened between the liberal tradition and what today is called liberalism. That is why some of us are called conservatives. Conservatism that is authentically and constructively American conservatism is conservatism in the cause of reappropriating and revitalizing the liberal tradition.

Neuhaus devotes the latter part of his article to a proper understanding and appreciation of individualism in light of Pope John Paul II's teaching in Centesimus Annus (recommended as an "invaluable guide" to the revitalization of the liberal tradition). 2 Noting that individualism developed in frequent tension and even conflict with the Catholic Church (perceiving it as radically anti-clerical and anti-Christian), Neuhaus credits John Paul II with having "replanted the idea of the individual and of freedom in the rich soil of Christian truth."

Concerning the human person, John Paul II cites an earlier encyclical Redemptor Hominis: "[the] human person is the primary route that the Church must travel in fulfilling her mission . . . the way traced out by Christ himself, the way that leads invariably through the mystery of the Incarnation and Redemption", to which is appended: "This, and this alone, is the principle which inspires the Church's social doctrine." (53) For Neuhaus, CA's recognition that man recovers and attains his dignity in responding to the call of God ("to transcendent truth"), can lead Catholics in America to appreciate individualism, properly understood and articulated in 'The American Experiment':

This is not individualism in the pejorative sense, but it is commensurable with the modern achievement of the idea of the individual. It is commensurable with the constituting ideas of the American experiment, in which the state is understood to be in the service of freedom, and freedom is understood as what the Founders called "ordered liberty"—liberty ordered to the truth. And there are, as the Declaration of Independence declares, "self-evident truths" that ground such freedom and direct it to the transcendent ends of "Nature and Nature's God."

Theistic references in the Declaration are not merely superficial allusions to appease the public; they are essential to the Founder's argument "that this constitutional order is premised upon moral truths secured by religion." As we can see in the numerous writings by Michael Novak, George Weigel and Fr. Neuhaus, re-discovering the religious vision of the Declaration and other writings of our founding fathers is a critical element of the Catholic re-appropriation of the liberal tradition. 3

Neuhaus' article is worth reading in full, as there are too many points to cover here. Altogether it is an excellent explication of Centesimus Annus and the specific goals of those 'neoconservatives' engaged in 'The Murray Project.'

  1. Referring to our very first blog, Fr. Zieba contended that "there is liberalism and there is liberalism", the former distinguished by relativism and a radical autonomy free of moral constraints, the latter distinguished by an appreciation of freedom's relation to and dependance upon absolute truth. "The Liberalism That We Need", First Things 40 (Feb. 1994).

  2. Those interested in Fr. Neuhaus' reading of Centesimus Annus might appreciate his Doing Well & Doing Good: The Challenge to the Christian Capitalist (Oct. 1992), or Michael Novak's The Catholic Ethic & The Spirit of Capitalism, both of which focus on the Pope's encyclical.

  3. See, for example, Michael Novak's The Faith of the Founding (First Things April 2003), or his recent book: On Two Wings: Humble Faith and Common Sense at the American Founding (Encounter Books April 2003). See also "Christianity and Democracy", a formal statement written by Fr. Neuhaus in 981for the Institute on Religion & Democracy, "to set forth the Christian case for, and stake in, the liberal democratic order."

Sunday, September 28, 2003

Orthopraxis [vs.] Orthodoxy?

"Orthopraxis" is a word that I've encountered a lot when reading texts on Catholic social thought. As to what the word really means, depends on who you ask. Many of those advocating what is called "liberation theology" conceive of orthopraxis in opposition to orthodoxy, prioritizing the former over the latter as the starting point of orthodoxy. In an article on "theocentric Christology", Paul Ritter explains his understanding of 'orthopraxis' from the perspective of liberation theology:

For liberation Christology, as for liberation theology in general, praxis is the foundation and touchstone of theory. This means, according to these theologians, that one can really know who Jesus is, one can know the meaning of his titles, only in the concrete following of Jesus, only in the practice of the Gospel. Furthermore, liberation theologians hold that it is not necessary to have crystal clarity and certainty in one's theory or doctrine about Jesus before one commits oneself to living his message. Orthodoxy, in other words, will flow from, and constantly have to be reexamined in, orthopraxis. 1

From Ritter's perspective, one could say that we arrive at orthodoxy ("right knowledge") by way of orthopraxis. Or as one Catholic blogger has put it:

"The position of the liberation theologians is that in order to encounter the God of the Bible, we cannot simply do theology in the academy. Rather, we must live the gospel in a rather literal and radical way with and for the poorest and the most marginalized in society. The emphasis is on orthopraxis rather than orthodoxy" 2

Granted that we are called to live the gospel, and not just merely study it in the context of the classroom or the pulpit, this understanding of "orthopraxis" begs the question: what would Jesus do? What does it mean, exactly, to live the gospel in various circumstances in everyday life? As Cardinal Ratzinger points out, it would be incorrect to prioritize right action over knowledge, as the former presupposes the latter. He raises this question in his address to the Latin American bishops in 1996:

Where do I find a just action if I cannot know what is just in an absolute way? The failure of the communist regimes is due precisely to the fact that they tried to change the world without knowing what is good and what is not good for the world, without knowing in what direction the world must be changed in order to make it better. Mere praxis is not light. 3

Later on in the address, Ratzinger notes that orthopraxis was identified as a key component in Indian religions, the character of which is not proclaim a system of knowledge but rather a precise system of salvific ritual acts embracing the whole of life. Modern understandings of orthopraxis, on the other hand, tend to exclude from their understanding the authentic Indian concept of religious ritual, reducing it to a matter of ethics or political criticism. According to Ratzinger the traditional conception of orthopraxis in Indian religions had something in common with the early Christian church:

In the suffix doxia, doxa was not understood in the sense of "opinion" (real opinion). From the Greek viewpoint, opinions are always relative; doxa was understood rather in its meaning of "glory, glorification." To be orthodox thus meant to know and practice the right way in which God wants to be glorified. It refers to the cult and, based on the cult, to life. In this sense here there would be a solid point for a fruitful dialogue between East and West.

In his address to the Eucharistic Congress of the Archdiocese of Benevento, Italy in June of last year, Ratzinger returned to the alleged opposition between orthopraxis and orthodoxy:

For the early Christians, there was no difference between what today is often distinguished as orthodoxy and orthopraxis, as right doctrine and right action. Indeed, when this distinction is made, there generally is a suggestion that the word orthodoxy is to be disdained: those who hold fast to right doctrine are seen as people of narrow sympathy, rigid, potentially intolerant. In the final analysis, for those holding this rather critical view of orthodoxy everything depends on "right action", with doctrine regarded as something always open to further discussion. For those holding this view, the chief thing is the fruit doctrine produces, while the way that leads to our just action is a matter of indifference. Such a comparison would have been incomprehensible and unacceptable for those in the ancient Church, for they rightly understood the word "orthodoxy" not to mean "right doctrine" but to mean the authentic adoration and glorification of God.

They were convinced that everything depended on being in the right relationship with God, on knowing what pleases him and what one can do to respond to him in the right way. For this reason, Israel loved the law: from it, they knew God's will, they knew how to live justly and how to honour God in the right way: by acting in accord with his will, bringing order into the world, opening it to the transcendent. 4

Not all of those occupied with Catholic social thought and justice embrace the prioritization of orthopraxy over orthodoxy criticized by Cardinal Ratzinger. Robert Waldrop, who maintains the Catholic social justice website JustPeace.Org, defines orthopraxis as: "rooted in the belief that Christian orthodoxy will yield, as its fruit, a Christian "orthopraxy", a way of being and living that is consistent with the social justice imperatives of the Catholic faith."

However, just because Mr. Waldrop and Mark & Louise Zwick of the Catholic Workers share the orthodox Catholic faith of Fr. Neuhaus and Michael Novak doesn't necessarily mean that they agree on how that faith is manifested in concrete practice in everyday life, especially in the world of business and economics.

  1. "Theocentric Christology" Theology Today July 1983 Vol. 40, No. 2.
  2. "Liberation Theology", posted by 'jcecil' on Thursday, May 22, 2003. Part of 'J. Cecil's Progressive Catholic Reflections', making unconventional use of the blogging medium to "advance progressive Catholic views."
  3. "Current Situation in Faith & Theology". Given during the meeting with the presidents of the Doctrinal Commissions of the Bishops' Conferences of Latin America, held in Guadalajara, Mexico, in May 1996.
  4. Eucharist, Communion & Solidarity. Lecture by H. Em. Card. Joseph Ratzinger at the Bishops Conference of the Region of Campania in Benevuto, Italy. June 2, 2002.

Wednesday, September 24, 2003

Michael Novak and the theology of Caritas

While not one of the original 'neoconservatives', Michael Novak follows in their footsteps, having experienced a transition from the radical left in early years to a gradual appreciation and support of capitalism and 'The American Experiment.' In the First Things article 'Controversial Engagements', he identifies several underlying elements of continuity in the stages of his thought -- probably the most important of which is his experience of caritas:

According to Novak, caritas is the metaphysical ground of reality, the dwelling place of God -- "a dark and terrible form of realism best symbolized by the Cross on which He willed his Son to die.":

The greatest continuity in my work is this affirmation that the basic energy, power, and force in creation is caritas. In this otherwise vast and possibly empty series of silent galaxies, the Creator made humans in order to have at least one creature able freely to respond to Him -- either with love or not. Caritas is the one energy that matters. In it, we are first related, before we are solitary. We first receive, before we act on our own. We are first empowered, before we take responsibility for our own acts. We are first endowed, before we have rights. In all these things, all humans are linked together. Creatures depend. That is the great "intuition of being" that Jacques Maritain talked about. 1

In a recent interview with, Novak elaborated on this concept: "Caritas is to will the good of the other . . . it is love aimed at the real, not the apparent, good of the other." It is also marked by a realistic understanding of human nature, of human sinfulness, calling for "realistic judgments rather than illusions, appearances and sentimentality." It should play an active role in shaping the institutions of society "to liberate the poor of the earth from the prison of poverty." This must be accomplished by an economic system which "rests upon, and nourish, voluntary cooperation", and is marked by a respect for "the human person as the originating source of human action -- the chief cause of the wealth of nations." Most importantly, it must:

"be based upon the presupposition that humans often fail in love, and only rare ones among them base all their actions thoroughly upon realistic love. Caritas must guide institutions in a realistic, not utopian, aim of establishing a free society." 2

It is this recognition of caritas which influenced his transition from a left-wing socialist to a Catholic seeking to integrate his faith with an appreciation for "democratic capitalism" and the American tradition. In 1979 Novak was asked to give a lecture at Notre Dame at a conference for Chicago Laypersons, on the topic of "the continuing neglect of the laity in the Church" in the years after Vatican II. He began by calling attention to this presence of caritas:

"Through the work of our minds and hands," I said, "the life of the triune God expresses its own love and truth and healing power, not all at once, imperfectly and in the darkness, but yet effectively. We build up the social institutions by which human history is slowly, very slowly, transformed into God's own image. As our God is triune -- a communal God -- so is our vocation communal."

Whereas many of Novak's contemporaries insisted that such a reconstruction of the social order in God's image would entail a rejection of capitalism, Novak devoted the final part of his address to the need to understand capitalism's religious possibilities: "The capitalist system, after all, was the system in which most Notre Dame graduates would work. There could not be a realistic theology of the laity, or theology of work, without a theology of capitalism." Novak recalls this occasion as his very first public defense of capitalism. Predictably, he did not find a very receptive audience ("No one would speak to me. I had violanted an important Catholic taboo . . . I had excommunicated myself from the Catholic left.") 3

Unfortunately, there were obstacles which prevented the development of such a "theology of capitalism." For Novak, the problem was twofold: On one hand, economic theorists had abandoned religious & philosophical considerations in their attempt to model their profession after the physical sciences. On the other, many theologians had aken an adverserial stance toward economic activity, as something "vulgar and crass, if not evil." Novak acknowledges that "whatever the present model of political economy, it will not measure up to the height and depth of the Kingdom of God. It will always be inadequate." Nevertheless, those commited to an incarnational witness must not refrain from "[going] out into this city, whatever its stage of moral and religious development, and try to incarnate the Gospels in it as Jesus incarnated God in history."

Novak spends the much of the article detailing this transition in his thought and those who have influenced him along the way, including the eschatological witness of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Workers, his years at Holy Cross Seminary (1949-56), the philosophy of Jacques Maritain, and the life and work of St. Thèrése of Lisieux:

St. Thèrése (1873 - 1897) is the teacher of the Church about the everyday exercise of caritas, in ways so humble that they mostly cannot be seen, even though their effects may be subjected to the tests of the gospel. She taught me the importance of thinking small and honoring the humble things that I at first tended to despise. For the theology of the laity and the theology of work and the theology of daily institutional life, her work has been described -- by no less an authority than Hans Urs von Balthasar -- as revolutionary.

Quoting from one of his early books (A New Generation: American and Catholic), Novak writes that "in solving the crucial problems of Americans and Catholics in America, one needs 'a consistent point of view, [one that is] empirical, pragmatic, realistic, and Christian.'" He believes he has been faithful to this vision. Whether he has accomplished this is part of the present discussion. For those who are just beginng to read his works, "Controversial Engagments" is a very helpful introduction and overview of the many tangents of his thought.

  1. "Controversial Engagements". First Things 92 (April 1999): 21-29.
  2. Michael Novak's Recipe for a Civilization of Love. Interview with Zenit.Org. July 17, 2003.
  3. Novak's 1979 lecture at Notre Dame would be better described as his "first public religious defense of capitalism." Novak ahad written a book in 1978 called The American Vision -- "my first neoconservative book" -- in which he introduced his conception of democratic capitalism and the aims and visions of the American tradition, laying the groundwork for his subsequent writings.

Sunday, September 21, 2003

A brief clarification of the term "neoconservative"

"Neoconservative" was originally a pejorative term applied to the original band of New York Jewish intellectuals, liberals critical of communism who believed themselves to be increasingly alienated from the anti-American counterculture of the 60's. As Michael Novak recalls:

Virtually all [of the "neoconservatives"] had a history as men and women of the left, indeed to the left of the Democratic party . . . Then at some point their more and more frequently expressed critique of left-wing excesses, especially in domestic policy, involved a direct rejection of socialist categories of thought. Since the left had few counterarguments to wheel into the battle, the Left turned to name-calling. It was the Socialist Michael Harrington, indeed, who coined the term "neoconservative" for this small band and their friends, intending it as an insult.

In those days (the mid-1970s), it was thought that there was really no genuinely conservative movement in the United States as there always had been in Europe. In America, it was said, there is only one variant or another of liberalism — the old fuddy-duddy liberalism of the 18th and 19th centuries, or some blend of European socialism/social democracy.

Thus, to call a foe who had long been identified with the Left a "conservative" was thought to be a lonely literary ostracism. To prefix that with "neo" was to suggest something like "pseudo" or "not even genuine." No historical tradition or cultural movement called by that name could be decried anywhere in sight. Just a tiny band, cast out into the darkness of intellectual isolation.

The neoconservatives rose to a position of influence during the Cold War and the Reagan Administration. Their role in determining policy diminished during the Bush (Sr.) and Clinton administrations and has been resurrected with the election of George Bush Jr. As Joe Hagan notes, "After the Cold War ended, neoconservatism came to be associated with an aggressive foreign policy. . . 'neoconservatism' has since become the fast-and-loose, catch-all term for hawks," defending the current Bush Administration's "war on terrorism" and campaign in Iraq.

The intent of this website is not to examine the meaning of neoconservatisim per se, but rather the question of the Church's reconciliation with classic notion of liberalism (democracy, human rights, and free markets). Those making the argument in support of this proposition are sometimes referred to as "neoconservatives." The Houston Catholic Worker, for example, commonly refers to Richard J. Neuhaus, Michael Novak, and George Weigel as neoconservatives in their editorials -- and tend to group Avery Dulles under this category as well. I am not sure whether these authors would define themselves as such, but for those who are curious I am making use of the term simply for lack of a better one.

Relevant links:

Monday, September 15, 2003

Clarification & Request to those interested in participating.

Thanks to Peter Sean Bradley of Lex Communis for mentioning this website!

First I just wanted to clarify that, although I've read some of the authors discussed herein, I'm by no means knowledgeable. When it comes to these issues I'm very much the novice. Please do jump in and share your thoughts, comments, and corrections, etc.

Secondly, in the interest of making this a genuine discussion and less of a one-sided monoblog by yours truly, I would be more than happy to add additional 'members' to this blog. If you're interested in collaberating in this project and participate beyond the confines of the comment box, please contact me at "blostopher @"

THREADS Interview with Dr. David Schindler

In this post I'd like to look at interview with Dr. David Schindler, editor of the North American edition of the Catholic journal Communio and representative of the school of theologians and philosophers who are critical of the neoconservative proposition that classical liberalism can be reconciled with Catholicism.

According to Dr. Schindler, democratic capitalist societies are dominated by a pervasive spirit of autonomy; we have "a self-centered, constructivist view of the self. We emphasize doing, making and the creativity of the self." We have a "highly instrumentalist and utiliatarian [culture]; where we value things and even people for the pleasure they can bring and how they can be used for profit."

We have to order our economy within this call to love. The fact that Marxism-Leninism has been eliminated doesn't mean that the only alternative is a capitalism to which the Church must provide a moral correction. The Church proposes something different from both -- namely, communio. That should provide our basic context. In other words, the call to sanctity should form what we do in our economy. So, with a notion like self-interest: Of course we can't suppress that impulse forcibly; if we try, we end up in totalitarianism. But that doesn't mean we should bless it as a virtue of necessity. The call to sanctity requires a transformation of self-interest and its replacement, insofar as possible, with love.

Schindler concedes that Centesimus Annus blesses the free market "as an essential element in any adequate understanding of the human person", but with the qualification that the Pope has done so only in the context of a call for integral, authentic human liberation.

Liberation comes first -- liberation from sin. It involves forgiveness by the Holy Spirit and conversion, and the paradigm is Mary. So yes, there's an approval of a market economy, but precisely in the context of this radical conversion, the call to love.

The problem with utilitarianism, with "doing what works", is that it "tends to create a lowest common denominator mentality." Food, shelter, and the satisfaction of material comforts and appetites take priority over the great questions of morality and spirituality. (At this point Schindler discusses the ways in which modern society's use and fascination with technology can perpetuate an instrumentalist mentality.

Schindler explains that he wrote Heart of the World, Center of the Church to address the issues discussed in the interview, chief among which is a "practical atheism" which characterizes life in America today. Catholics are called to "reinstate a sense of God so that we can regain an adequate sense of our own creatureliness -- in other words, 'I'm not the source of my own being, my own moral norms. I'm not the author of my life and therefore not the one who decides about my death.'" He places blame on Fr. John Courtney Murray for ingraining in U.S. Catholics the assumption "we can't bring God into the heart of this discussion because, there are a lot of non-believers out there . . . Americans are privately very religious, but then in public we all agree to subscribe to the virtues that make us good democrats and good free marketeers, so that faith becomes essentially a fragmented, private reality. In effect, we're private theists and public atheists." It is precisely because religious questions are excluded from the public arena that our culture is where it is today.

According to Schindler, the Western world is implicitly guided by the post-Enlightenment liberal notion of radical individualism ("a logic or 'ontologic' of selfishness"). Despite the religious sincerity and good will of many American citizens, America "lacks the requisite [Christian] worldview" that would help us address abortion and other moral issues which constitute threats to the family. The goal of Dr. Schindler, Alisdair MacIntyre and others is to assist in reveal the underlying philosophical assumptions of liberal democracy and help us to "[understand] the logic of self-centeredness in a post-Enlightenment liberal culture."

Dr. Schindler and Fr. Zieba (who we examined in our previous post) would certainly agree on the destructive nature of Enlightenment liberalism. However, whereas Fr. Zieba would appear to side with Neuhaus, Novak and others in affirming the possibilty of another kind of liberalism, "one that is rooted in the Anglo-Saxon and, more particularly, in the American tradition", Dr. Schindler is skeptical that liberalism of any kind can be reconciled with Catholicism. Schindler quotes Alisdair MacIntyre: "all debates in America are finally among radical liberals, liberal liberals and conservative liberals", and dismisses the neoconservative premise:

["Neoconservatives" are] the conservative wing of liberalism. And in a sense, they wouldn't even deny that, insofar as their project is to show that a benign reading of American liberal tradition is harmonious with Catholicism. That's what I'm challenging. Their approach doesn't go to the roots of our [cultural and spiritual] problem, as identified in this pontificate and in the work of theologians like De Lubac and Balthasar.

[Contemporary U.S. culture is rooted in] self-centeredness. A false sense of autonomy centered in the self; an incomplete conception of rights. So we need to reinstate a right relation to God on all levels -- not only at the level of intention, but at the level of the logic of our culture. Our relation to God has to inform not only our will, but how we think and how we construct our institutions.

In future posts I'm going to look at other published interviews with the leading voices in this debate (Fr. Neuhaus, MIchael Novak, George Weigel). I find that interviews and biographical articles are the best introductions to their thought -- prior to examining the more substantial essays.

Friday, September 12, 2003

Fr. Maciej Zieba: "The liberalism that we need"

This post is a summary and thoughts on the essay "The Liberalism We Need" [First Things 40, Feb. 1994: 23-27], by Maciej Zieba, a Polish priest who, like many others residing in post-Communist nations, are "attempting to sort out the different meanings of liberalism."

He begins with a critique of Milton Friedman, "a classical liberal of the libertarian persuasion", who is wary of Pope John Paul II's insistence on the relationship between freedom and truth (as articulated in Centesimus Annus). Like many liberals, Milton perceives the Church's claim on absolute truth as an infringement upon liberal democracy, smacking of the Spanish Inquisition. Fr. Zieba questions whether liberal democracy is contingent upon such a denial of absolute truth, asking whether free society (such that he and his fellow Poles are striving to attain) can be sustained without it.

This kind of liberalism goes hand in hand with the affirmation of pluralism, which asserts that claims on truth is "culturally relative" or "socially constructed" and consequently nobody can really know what is objectively true. Fr. Zieba points out the inherent contradition in such a claim:

Radical pluralism-intellectual and moral pluralism-seems to be the only truth. Pluralism is thus presented as the fundamental principle of reality, the Absolute. Absolute truth is denied in the name of an absolute truth claim that eludes rational challenge and assumes the character of a religious faith. It is not too much to say that pluralism is the operative religion of at least one stream of liberal theory and practice.

While many proponents of radical pluralism are reticient with respect to the Absolute, they do not hesitate to expound on human nature. Fr. Zieba lists the basic tenets of this 'anthropology of pluralism':

. . . that all people are equal, that all people are good (or at least that evil is nonexistent), and that the human condition is fundamentally solitary. Since people and cultures are equal, it is the individual who must decide for himself. This becomes the chief, sometimes the only, meaning of freedom. And it is, of course, a "negative freedom," that is to say, it is delineated by minimal interference by anyone or anything that might restrict my right to choose.

Such a philosophy of radical autonomy offers little in the way of sustaining civil society. This is because liberalism of this nature "has no principled criteria by which to draw that line. It moves only in one direction: it can effectively eliminate abuses of oppressive community, but it cannot create or protect the communities required to make and keep life human." Fr. Zieba cites Karl Popper's observation that the vehement insistence on the non-existence of truth is in itself but a thinly-veiled authoritarianism, "the right of the clenched fist".

Pope John Paul II points out the very the same in Centesimus Annus:

"IIf there is no transcendent truth, in obedience to which man achieves his full identity, then there is no sure principle for guaranteeing just relations between people. Their self-interest as a class, group or nation would inevitably set them in opposition to one another. . . . the force of power takes over, and each person tends to make full use of the means at his disposal in order to impose his own interests or his own opinion, with no regard for the rights of others. People are then respected only to the extent that they can be exploited for selfish ends." [p. 44]

This, of course, does not bode well for those who wish to reside in a civil society. "In the absence of communal bonds and shared meanings related to truth," says Fr. Zieba, "society simply atrophies. Liberal theory and practice cannot explain or sustain a liberal society."

* * *

According to Fr. Zieba, liberalism was a rational reaction to the social circumstances of the eighteenth century. The Church played no small part in the terrible wars of religion which, in turn, provoked the "aggressive anticlericalism of the Enlightenment", and which also turned its hostility toward the state, "insofar as the state had absolutist aspirations that monarchs sought to realize by an alliance of throne and altar." However, says Fr. Zieba, we should also understand that the Church's general condemnation of modern liberalism (as expressed in Pope Pius IX' Syllabus of Errors) was, under the circumstances, also justified: "If in 1864 Pius IX felt besieged, it was because he was besieged."

Fr. Zieba contends that liberalism's opposition to religion was in fact misplaced -- that the real opponent is ideology:

By ideology I mean an all-comprehending explanation of social reality that is premised upon an uncritical notion of the true and the good and is in the service of creating or preserving a particular social order. Not truth, but the ideological deployment of truth, is the threat to freedom. Religious faith necessarily involves a commitment to absolute truth, and indeed to the Absolute, who is God. But the religious person should know that this truth cannot be deployed for our own purposes; the truth is not something that we "possess" in the sense of having it at our disposal. When truth is viewed as something that is in our service, rather than our being in the service of truth, it is very easy for religious faith to degenerate into ideology. This can happen despite the best of intentions, and there is no need to deny that Christians have at times attempted to advance their faith in the form of ideology.

We have already mentioned the dangers that a principle of radical autonomy poses to the health of civil society. But is the liberalism that Zieba has examined the only kind that is available to us?

There is available to us another liberalism, however, one that is rooted in the Anglo-Saxon and, more particularly, in the American tradition. In this liberalism, freedom is not separated from the existence of absolute truth; freedom can be oriented to truth. In this tradition, there is no need to pretend to have the only correct solution to all social problems. Freedom is like the magnetic needle of a compass, never immobile, always pointing to something beyond itself.

The "liberal package" (economic, political, cultural) has been regarded with suspicion by the Church, chiefly on account of the dangers posed by a liberalism marked by radical individualism and moral relativism. However, Zieba believes that "a liberalism that is respectful of community and open to absolute truth is becoming an exceedingly important part of Catholic social thought". Zieba sees the Church's appreciation of a new kind of liberalism both in the documents of Vatican II (particularly the treatment of freedom in Dignitatis Humanae and Gaudium Et Spes) and the encyclicals of Pope John Paul II. It is in the Pope's encyclical Centesimus Annus that Fr. Zieba sees "the Church challenging liberalism to reconstitute itself on a more adequate conception of human freedom", which he describes as nothing less than a Catholic version of liberalism.

I selected this article because I think it contains a good starting point to the discussion -- I find especially valuable Fr. Zieba's contention that "there is liberalism and there is liberalism", the liberalism distinguished by relativism and radical autonomy and the 'Catholic liberalism' of Pope John Paul II, distinguished by an appreciation of freedom's relation to and dependance upon absolute truth. It is a point I find often unrecognized by secular critics of the Church and "anti-liberal" Catholics within the Church, and something to keep in mind as we begin this investigation.

Wednesday, September 10, 2003


Welcome! -- I created this website after reading John Allen's column in The National Catholic Reporter on the current debate over liberalism -- that is to say, the classical notion of liberalism, as in "democracy, human rights, and free markets", which is defended by some (Michael Novak, Fr. R.J. Neuhaus, George Weigel among others) as consistent with the Catholic tradition, and by others as being incompatible and at odds with the mission of the Church. Needless to say it's a fascinating subject.

Over the course of the next several months I hope to investigate the articles on this website more closely, and blog my thoughts as we go along. I invite you to comment and post your thoughts as well. Whether you're sympathetic to the 'neoconservatives' or 'the Communio school' or even if you think "the jury's still out", I'm hoping you can join me in some fruitful discussion.

(Oh, yes -- and feel free to recommend additional articles and books on this topic as well).

testing . . .