Catholic Social Thought And American Civilization

by Joseph A. Varacalli, Ph.D.


This article supports the thesis that the major reason Catholic social thought has not made an impact on American civilization is to be found in the "failed community" of Catholic America.

Larger Work

Homiletic & Pastoral Review


11 - 19

Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, San Francisco, CA, October 2002

One of the truisms in the predominately relativistic sub-discipline of sociology termed the "sociology of knowledge" is that ideas do not triumph or fail any society due to their intrinsic truthfulness, beauty, or even utility. As one of the few social scientists attempting to integrate his craft with both a natural law tradition and Catholic social thought positing the existence of an objective moral order which is only violated consistently at the peril of societal and individual welfare, I would like to add the important qualifier: "at least in the short run."

My thesis is threefold. First, American civilization is much more "on the ropes" than most suspect, or, in order to protect short-term vested interests, would be willing to admit. Second, the only significant hope of American civilization moving closer to, and maintaining over the long run, its ideal of "liberty and justice for all" lies in the institutionalization of the constantly developing corpus of Catholic social thought. Third, the major reason that the "bright promise" of Catholic social thought hasn't registered a noticeable impact on American civilization and the American public square is to be found within the "failed community" of Catholic America. By this is meant an application of what Peter L. Berger (The Sacred Canopy) terms a "secularization from within" — the widespread internal dissent that has overtaken those social institutions of the Catholic Church that were originally consciously designed to carry the message of Catholic social teaching and has rendered them ineffective as agents of Catholic socialization (parishes; seminaries; colleges; schools; mass media outlets; hospitals; social service agencies; and scholarly, professional and voluntary associations, etc.). This argument is developed in considerable detail in my recently published book, Bright Promise, Failed Community: Catholics and the American Public Order.

An American Culture Of Death

Given the joint and intertwined movement of secularization — which inevitably leads to the Nietzsche-like idea that power equals truth — and the monopolization of key public square institutions — which confirms the adage of Lord Action that "power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely" — American civilization is progressively descending into what John Paul II has referred to as a "culture of death." The indications of such a descent range from the obvious to the more subtle. The widespread practice and acceptance of abortion is the most obvious example of a now institutionalized evil whose resulting guilt is publicly denied only by the most hardened feminist ideologue. One is here reminded of John Courtney Murray's caustic observation in his We Hold These Truths that, in the modern context, one should be alert for the "barbarians in Brooks Brothers suits" (or Hollywood attire). Only slightly less obvious would be the dysfunctional consequences of — recently admitted by liberals with both a modicum of common sense and courage — fatherless families for a latest generation of children, the movement toward acceptance of homosexuality as "normal," the increased legitimacy afforded to the legalization of assisted suicide, and the failure of the public educational establishment, especially grotesque regarding the needs of minority students in the inner city. More subtly, but perhaps more corrosive to society in the long run, is the generalized legitimacy of a materialistic lifestyle; moral relativism as the reigning public philosophy; the inevitability and desirability of the "therapeutic State"; the unquestioned understanding of the human as primordially, instinctually, and centrally sexual beings whose needs are not in any qualitative way different from the average dog-in-heat; and the taken-for-granted acceptance of human life to be utilized as "things," whether in the workplace, corporate or otherwise, or in human embryonic stem cell research.

Intellectual defenders of the American system who are, to varying degrees, uncomfortable with such developments range from the neo-liberal to neo-conservative. The wag who defined as neo-conservative as a "liberal mugged by reality" missed an all-important qualifier, to wit, that the neo-conservative is insufficiently mugged by reality. Worse things must be said of the neo-conservative cousin, the neo-liberal. Like a deer paralyzed by a flashing light in the night, the neo-liberal is even more hapless; oftentimes he is dimly aware that something is awry but seemingly with a constitutional inability to pull the plug on anything that challenges the liberal foundation of American civilization, i.e., the utopian idea of an "autonomous individualism." As James D. Hunter argues in his near instant classic, Culture Wars, progressives tend not to be able to draw consistently any moral line whatsoever, as in the case of not sanctioning extreme sexual abuse and perversity. Opaque to the transcendent, transfixed by procedure over substance, and indifferent to the issue of truth, some neo-liberals instead offer flaccid generalizations, Habermas-like, about consensus building, ignoring the crucial question of the nature of what is being built. Others, even more helpless in the face of the imperatives at hand, argue for an incrementalism indicative of a belief that, after all, things aren't really that bad, much like the proverbial steward on the Titanic spending his precious remaining time rearranging the deck chairs.

The rejoinder that the cultural indicators of decay — as chronicled by someone like the neo-conservative William Bennett — have leveled off in recent years just doesn't cut it, either morally or intellectually. First of all, institutionalizing rot is not a satisfactory response. Secondly, and more importantly in a theoretical sense, the cultural-moral and structural reasons for the rot are still constitutive of the American scene with pathologies, as such, chronically prone to erupt.

The incomplete analysis and tepid social policy recommendations that emanate from both the neo-conservative and neo-liberal camps that so dominate the news media and the academy is consistent with the argument of Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky to the effect that any deeply structural criticism of American civilization is obstructed by the powers that be, the reception of the traditionally conservative ideas of a Patrick Buchanan a case in point.

Culturally and morally, America's elite leaders have progressively abandoned a common Judeo-Christian religious heritage in favor of some secular alternative. As A. James Reichley, in his Religion in American Public Life (1985), has persuasively argued, even high-minded secular civil humanistic ideologies will eventually succumb to hypocrisy, self-contradiction, and corruption. If God is perceived as dead, following Nietzsche again, then anything is — or will eventually be seen as — possible. The capitalism (including the "soft" capitalism of many neo-conservatives) and the socialism of the Left (including the "soft" socialism of many neo-liberals) find their sources in forms of civil humanism spawned by Enlightenment thinking. The first draws from the libertarian side descended from Locke by way of the British utilitarians, and the second descends from Rousseau by way of Hegel and Marx. Reichley understands well the weaknesses of these traditions; after acknowledging that both bodies of social thought have influenced and shaped social institutions and political activity, he reasons that neither "has fully escaped the bias toward destructive tendencies that tainted it at the start. Among the libertarians, tendencies toward atomistic selfishness, obsessive materialism, and personal alienation and, among communitarians, towards social indoctrination, state control, and group aggression" (pp. 344-5). For Reichley, only what he terms "theist-humanism" can be the foundation for the Good Society, "by balancing individual rights against social authority by rooting both in God's transcendent purpose which is concerned for the welfare of each human soul" (p. 52). Catholic social thought best fits the bill set forth by Professor Reichley.

Structurally, these dysfunctional cultural-moral systems have become enmeshed into the fabric of American life, given the movement toward bureaucratization and a concentration of power in its public sphere institutions. This movement toward bigness, impersonality, and abstraction progressively "frees" the leaders of these institutions from the direct and even indirect accountability to a concerned citizenry, making a farce out of the ideal of representative democracy. Put simply, in a movement that would not surprise Roberto Michels and his analysis of the "iron law of oligarchy," even more "autonomous" institutions and institutional leaders act, more and more, out of self-centered interest and, eventually, out of simple corruption that is also partly the result of cultural-moral systems of thought that lack a transcendent frame of reference.

The Mission Of Catholic Social Thought

Like, for instance, the Amish, the primary mission of the Catholic Church is otherworldly and involves the salvation of souls. Unlike the Amish, however, Catholicism does view the goal of the social reconstruction of society along lines consistent with the natural law and Catholic social thought as a good in and by itself; however, it is seen as a lesser good both secondary to, and derivative of, the quest for otherworldly salvation.

The Catholic commitment to social reconstruction involves both the public square (those highly bureaucratized public sphere institutions of government, the corporations, mass education, and mass media that tend to give articulation to the broader society and which shape public policy) as well as civil society (those more private sphere institutions of the family, religion, and other voluntary associations capable, in principle but not necessarily empirically, of politically mediating the vision of individuals and particular communities of meaning to the public square). To say that the Catholic Church is interested in actively socially reconstructing society admits that it both is critical of current cultural developments in politics, economics, and other social arrangements and has set out for itself the role of critic or, as religionists like myself are wont to say, sets for itself the task of serving as a "leaven" for society. Translated into the terminology of H.R. Niebuhr's classic Christ and Culture, Catholicism rejects both the "Christ against culture" option accepted by some contemporary world-rejecting Christian groups and the "Christ of culture" option, typified by liberal Christian thinkers like Harvey Cox (The Secular City) who sanguinely proclaim that the contemporary culture is "out in front" of the churches and that everything would be satisfactory if the churches would merely marry the current Zeitgeist.

Serious Catholic thinkers influenced by John Paul II and two thousand years of organically evolving Magisterial thinking view contemporary American society, and especially the American public sphere, as being inordinately influenced by two powerful formations, oftentimes in competition (e.g., in the case of taxation policy) and sometimes in collaboration with each other (e.g., in the case of promoting, for equally selfish but differing reasons, uninterruptedly open immigration policies) that are incompatible, as they presently exist, with the Catholic understanding of what is needed for the creation of the Good Society. American capitalist elites — what Peter and Brigitte Berger in their The War Over the Family term the "old business class" — tend to be driven by what John Paul II in his 1987 encyclical, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, calls an "all consuming desire for profit" and has generated, especially among the middle classes, a "civilization of consumerism." American socialist elites — what the Bergers term the "new knowledge class" — are primarily driven by what John Paul II's encyclical described as an "absolutist held thirst for power that has often produced among the lower socio-economic classes (especially but not exclusively) a debilitating dependency on both government and its gnostic-like leaders as well as numerous social pathologies such as fatherless families, abortion, divorce, drug addiction, teenage pregnancy, and violent crime. Both capitalist and socialist programs are self-serving and unconcerned with the health and welfare of the non-elite sectors of society and are legitimated by ideologies (e.g., "the invisible hand" and "the Horatio Alger myth" for capitalists and "a benevolent, caring welfare state" and "equality for all" for socialists) that mask their vested interests and indifference to any conception of the common good. Indeed, the stinging indictment of Roberto Michels, enunciated in his Political Parties, that "socialism may fail but the socialist will triumph" holds equally well for "rising tide raises all boats" capitalism. Furthermore and relatedly, both capitalist and socialist conceptions of human development are deficient because, as Fr. Andrew Greeley has noted in his The Catholic Myth, they tend to identify it with economic factors, ignoring or downplaying necessary social, cultural, moral, or transcendent religious dimensions. From a serious Catholic perspective, neither the socialism of the cultural or economic Left or the capitalism of the economic Right contain the necessary kit of useful and right ordered principles. Put another way, such Catholic principles as "subsidiarity," "solidarity," and "personalism" are not isomorphic with either the totalism of socialism or the autonomous individualism of capitalism.

Catholicism can enrich American culture primarily in two ways: first, as the standard-bearer and ultimate interpreter of the natural law and, secondly and relatedly, through the constant presentation, development, and prudential application of Catholic social doctrine. Regarding the first, through the natural law, the Catholic Church defends the existence of purpose in nature, an objective moral order, and the integrity of a holistically understood reason to lead humans to comprehend truth, exemplify holiness, appreciate beauty, and exercise discernment and prudence in the utilization of the various goods of the earth. The natural law tradition is both the primary vehicle for legitimate ecumenical relations and the primary antidote to the prevailing subjectivist therapeutic philosophies reigning today that bring in their wake so much social pathology in American society.

Overlapping with the natural law, the social doctrine of the Catholic Church also can mightily contribute to American culture, although its comprehensiveness and scope can only be hinted at here. John Paul's II's Veritatis Splendor (1993) affirms that the only valid understanding of freedom involves fidelity to truth. Relatedly, in his Fides et Ratio (1998), he analyzes the complementary and non-contradictory relationship between faith and reason. The fundamental importance of the family as the basic unit of society is analyzed in beautiful detail in encyclicals that range from Pius XI's Casti Connubii (1930) to Paul VI's Humanae Vitae (1968) to John Paul's Familiaris Consortio (1981). In Pius XI's Divini Redemptoris (1937), the false and pernicious nature of atheistic communism is exposed, with Non Abiamo Bisogno (1931) and Mit Brennender Sorge (1937) doing the same for, respectively, Italian fascism and German national socialism. In Pacem in Terris (1963), John XXIII restates the Catholic principle that the purpose of government is to promote the common good, which itself involves furthering the total person, both body and soul. John Paul II's Centesimus Annus (1991) provides yet another Catholic critique of both capitalism and socialism, defending, in a qualified manner, private property, profit, and the free market but cautioning against the consumerism and superficial gratifications found especially in the West. In Evangelium Vitae (1994), John Paul II calls the laity to support and further the central Catholic teachings on the promotion of life from the moment of conception throughout the life course. That creative, dignified work is a constitutive element in the anthropology of mankind and a prerequisite for a just social order is the key message in John Paul II's Laborem Exercens (1981). The fundamental rights of workers to organize and fight for a decent material and spiritual existence, through the application of just and universal principles, is laid out by Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum (1891). Quadragesimo Anno (1931), written by Pope Pius XI, focuses on the Catholic principle of "subsidiarity" and the requirement of the Good Society to have vital mediating structures and intermediate social institutions to actively incorporate the citizenry into the dealings of civil society and to protect against both the abuse and ineffectiveness of Statism and other forms of societal monopolization. That the recent emergence of an international order requires the assistance of modern societies to those more traditional in nature and that true "development" entails the recognition of more than just economic considerations is analyzed by Paul VI in his Populorum Progressio (1967).

Some mid-twentieth century advocates saw the vision and principles contained within the corpus of Catholic social thought as representing a "third way" between capitalism and socialism. The more current view is that it can serve as a set of ideas that can correct, structurally reform, and humanize capitalism, socialism or some other alternative. Viewed either way, one paramount sociological reality must be confronted, i.e., that ideas (Catholic or otherwise) are not likely to make an effective impact on society without the concrete support of interest groups or classes of individuals. Put crudely, given the current social geography of American civilization in which it is implausible to expect that Catholic social thought will resonate within the inner sanctums of powerful organizations like the liberal Democratic Party, the Rockefeller Republican club, or the National Organization of Women, the question becomes "who or what could carry the ball for the Catholic world-view in the American social context?" The primary, although not sole, answer is the Catholic Church's own (potentially) impressive set of organizational arrangements that, in principle, represents the single greatest carrier of moral authority outside of the government and the corporations.

Catholic Social Thought In The American Context

Why has Catholic social thought failed to significantly impact on American civilization? Some of the answer lies in historical considerations out of the control, and hence culpability, of Catholic leadership. Other parts of the answer cannot ignore the issue of responsibility and involve a lack of vision and courage on the part of that same leadership. For one thing and with the possible exception of the post World War II period up to the mid-1960s, what the classical sociologist Emile Durkheim would term the "collective conscience" of America was never supportive of the Catholic faith and, by implication, of Catholic social teaching. Whatever intramural debates and disagreements existed between the various wings of the Reformation, during the early years of the American Republic, a hegemonic Protestantism represented massive cultural opposition to the Catholic world-view. Additionally, during this period, Catholicism — both institutionally and in terms of the economic, political, and status coordinates of individual Catholics — were mired in what Edward Shils would classify as the "societal periphery." Discriminated against, poor, and powerless, the early American Church was preoccupied with issues of survival and meeting the bottom-line needs of its immigrant base.

Today the situation is vastly different. Institutionally, the Catholic Church is no longer viewed as a despised sect but as a quite mainstream (and, as sociologists Rodney Stark and Roger Finke view it, as a socially domesticated) institution. Individually, Catholic income, education, and status attainments, at least for its older ethnic groups and viewed from the frame of reference of the dominant cultural elites, are quite impressive and indicative of a worldly "success." The Catholic community is perched at the top of American society trailing only the American Jewish community. Simply put, American Catholicism is well advanced in its assimilation into a now quite secular American mainstream society. As a consequence, the natural law and Catholic social doctrine are more and more viewed as obsolete and anachronistic, if indeed, they are thought about at all by most contemporary Catholics.

The question remains as to whether this assimilation into a secular Utopian worldview is inexorable and irreversible. Theoretically and historically, sociologists reared in the tradition of Charles Horten Cooley would answer "no" to the first and "not necessarily" to the latter. From Cooley's perspective, theoretically, individuals need not merely be socialized by the messages of the mainstream "mass" culture, whether Protestant or secular; rather they are capable of being shaped also by primary groups, whether the primary group formations crystallize into either what sociologists term subcultures or counter-cultures. Historically, the relevant point here is that at the mid-point of the twentieth century, the Catholic Church had established a coherent and impressive set of organizational arrangements or what Peter L. Berger calls a "plausibility structure" that afforded its members an effective break and alternative to the dominant societal message. Emanating from the vision of the Baltimore plenary and provincial sessions that started in 1829 and ended in 1884, an organically developing Catholic plausibility structure was the organizational response of the Catholic bishops to the sociological and historical reality that the Catholic faith was embedded in a then Protestant and unsympathetic civilization. This structure grew and strengthened itself, gelling after World War I. Catholicism was starting also to make some modest, initial inroads regarding the institutionalization of Catholic social teachings in the public square. In his Church and the American Poor (1976), Msgr. George A. Kelly states ". . . [b]ishops well in advance of the New Deal led the nation against the hazards of unemployment, accidents and old age; the construction of public housing and better methods of conciliating labor strife" (p. 19). The Catholic plausibility structure reached its maximum effectiveness (historically, not theoretically) during post World War II America. For instance, and speaking in the year 1957 in his volume Protestant, Catholic, Jew, the orthodox Jewish sociologist and sympathetic observer, Will Herberg, declared that "the Catholic Church in America operates a vast network of institutions of almost every type and variety . . . (that) . . . constitutes at one and the same time a self-contained Catholic world . . . and American Catholicism's resources for participation in the larger community" (pp. 153-4). This was also the time when some secularizing Protestant elites like Paul Blanshard in his American Freedom and Catholic Power (1949) were evincing nervousness that Catholics were not only crashing through the gates but actually might soon define what the promise of America was all about. It was also a time in which upward economic, political, and status mobility went hand in hand with a, relatively speaking, deepening acceptance of Catholic orthodox belief on the part of the Catholic citizenry as discussed by, among others, Gerhard Lenski in his 1961 volume, The Religious Factor and by Nathan Glazer and Daniel P. Moynihan in their 1963 analysis, Beyond The Melting Pot.

However, the bubble — at least from an orthodox Catholic perspective — was soon to burst. The opportunity to grasp what Fr. Richard John Neuhas has since termed a "Catholic moment" in American civilization was lost, at least temporarily, during the post-Vatican II period (1965+) as the result of a confluence of factors, standing in what the classical sociologist Max Weber would call an "elective affinity;" one internal to the Catholic community, the other external to it. Internally, the assimilationist or "Americanist" wing of the institution, successfully articulating a quite selective, progressive (and heterodox) understanding of the vision of the theology of Vatican II, rose to power. Externally, the social change and antinomian movements of the era profoundly challenged the status quo throughout American society, the Catholic Church included. The goal of "aggiomamento" was taken on with a vengeance leading — in many cases, quite intentionally — to a severe case of the decomposition and defilement of the Church's once impressive plausibility structure, thus weakening considerably its ability to socialize its members into an authentic Catholic worldview. Major components of the infrastructure of the Catholic Church underwent an internal secularization, became hallowed out and provided a thin veneer for what was actually and practically the promotion of non-religious belief and activity. Like a wolf in sheep's clothing, what I've termed a "new Catholic knowledge class" lead the assimilation of the once faithful to such secular commitments as socialism/ Marxism, feminism, bourgeois materialism, new age, sexual liberation including homosexuality, the therapeutic mentality, and radical individualism all proceeding merrily along under the guise of authentic religious development or, failing that, required religious innovation. With the defilement of the Catholic plausibility during the immediate post-Vatican II period, the Catholic Church, qua institution, has lost whatever power and status it had gained during the previous decades-witness a string of defeats from Roe v. Wade (1972) to human embryonic stem cell research (2001).

With the ascendency of John Paul II to the throne of Peter in 1978, a determined Catholic restorationist movement, of which I am a member, has been slowly gaining strength, gallantly trying to reverse both ends of the unhappy dialectic taking place between the secularist monopoly in the public square and the advanced state of corruption existing within Catholic institutional life. Catholic restorationists have been both creative and busy in their assorted intellectual and organizational activities. However, as of yet, their matrix of activities has only slightly strengthened the Catholic plausibility structure and has not registered any serious recognition and attention on the part of the gatekeepers of American life nor has it put any discernible dent into the secular monopoly, including the monopoly in the generation of social policy, existing within the American public sphere. Whether the combined effects of the recent presidential election of George Bush — relatively speaking, more "Catholic-friendly" than a would-be Gore administration — and the societal results of the September 11th, 2001 World Trade Center tragedy will make any real difference regarding the plausibility and receptivity in American civilization toward the Catholic restorationist movement and authentic Catholic social thought remains to be seen.

JosephA. Varacalli, Ph.D., is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Center for Catholic Studies at Nassau Community College — S.U.N.Y., [email protected], 1-516-572-7454. He is the author, most recently, of Bright Promise, Failed Community: Catholics and the American Public Order, Lexington Books, 2001,, 1-800-462-6420.

© Ignatius Press 2002.

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