Why do so many American Catholic thinkers openly dissent from magisterial teaching on social and economic issues? Is it because the Americanist heresy will not die?


There is an intriguing irony in the contrast between the way certain teachings contained in the earlier social encyclicals by Leo XIII and Pius XI were accepted in the United States, and the reception accorded the encyclicals of more recent Catholic pontiffs. The former works appeared at a time when the anti-Catholic bias in this country was still such that a Catholic could not be elected president of the United States. That was demonstrated in 1928 when Herbert Hoover defeated Alfred Smith in the presidential election. Yet, after the 1932 defeat of Hoover by Franklin D. Roosevelt, many of the New Deal measures under President Roosevelt clearly reflected papal teachings in Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno. For example, there was the defense of the workers’ right to unionize, to a just wage, to reasonable hours of work, and to pensions in old age. Also, the short-lived National Industrial Recovery Act (N.I.R.A) in 1933 bore some marked similarity to the proposal for self-regulation of economic life at the occupational level by what were variously called “functional groups” and “vocational groups” in Quadragesimo Anno (82-86). Much of that New Deal program was promoted by Senator Robert Wagner of New York. The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 which protected the right of workers to organize is still often referred to as the Wagner Act. Wagner was a Protestant immigrant from Germany; but his intense study of the papal social encyclicals as addressed to the restoration of social order helped lead toward his conversion to Catholicism.

The twin virtues, social justice and social charity, were presented by Pope Pius XI in Quadragesimo Anno (88) in 1931 as principles for establishing social order. Unfortunately, and for whatever reason, social charity received scant attention until Blessed John Paul II defined it many years later in Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (1987), and then redesignated it as the principle of solidarity in Centesimus Annus in 1991. Meanwhile, social justice before long became a common expression in the discussion of economic reform during the first two terms of the Roosevelt presidency. Again ironically, that happened especially through the charism and dynamism of two Catholic priests who gained the confidence of President Roosevelt, an Episcopalian.

Father Charles E. Coughlin, the pastor of a large and thriving parish in Royal Oak, Michigan, became famous during the 1930s because of his eloquent nationwide broadcasts. Sunday after Sunday he presented what he considered essential steps for restoring social justice in our nation’s economy, then suffocating from the Great Depression. He also began publishing his views in a weekly paper, Social Justice. In all of this, the gifted priest relied heavily on the papal social encyclicals then available. At the outset, Father Coughlin campaigned for Franklin D. Roosevelt and earned his trust, becoming his confidant and a frequent guest at the White House during the president’s first term. After the two split for various reasons, Coughlin continued on the radio and also with his weekly paper where terms like the living wage and social justice became watchwords nationwide.

Monsignor John A. Ryan from Minnesota, a professor at the Catholic University of America from 1915 to 1939, also gained Roosevelt’s confidence; and unlike Father Coughlin, he remained loyal to him until the end. Cut from a different cloth, Ryan was more a scholar than an orator and tribune. He taught moral theology and sociology into which he incorporated the social teachings of his Church, and he also published several books promoting them. He attracted the attention of President Roosevelt and became his trusted advisor throughout the New Deal Years, to the extent that he came to be known as a “White House insider.” (Father Coughlin referred to him as “the Right Reverend New Dealer”). Ryan was largely responsible for making the living wage a current concept. That was the equivalent of the encyclical term, just wage, which appeared in Quadragesimo Anno in 1931. (The concept, but not yet the actual term, was presented in Rerum Novarum in 1891.)

Many other Catholic clergy countrywide got involved in promoting their Church’s social teachings during the Depression years and afterwards. Not all became as influential as Father, later Bishop, Francis Haas from Grand Rapids, Michigan. He earned his doctorate at Catholic University while Msgr. Ryan was teaching there; and later he too taught and published. Haas soon became a trusted advisor of President Roosevelt who appointed him to various New Deal organs, including the WPA and the NRA, where he proved especially effective as a mediator in labor disputes. Roosevelt personally assigned him to avert the emerging split between the American Federation of Labor (AF of L) and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), an en­deavor in which even the great mediator was unsuccessful.

At the more provincial level, several dioceses established labor schools to inform workers about their rights under the new legislation, to train mediators, etc.

All in all, it was a good time for Catholic social teachings which were surprisingly well received in a predominantly non-Catholic ambience. That was perhaps indicative of the desperate straits in which our country found itself at the time. Then, in the post-World War II years, the ideological winds gradually shifted amid the relative prosperity that followed.

The election in 1958 of Pope John XXIII, soon beloved by most and hailed widely as “good Pope John,” was followed two years later by the election of “the other John.” John F. Kennedy became the first Catholic president in the history of the United States. As if setting sail in calm seas, the saintly Pope who, like the other much younger John, would live only a short time — both died in 1963 —convoked an ecumenical council. Known as the Second Vatican Council, it opened on October 11, 1962, closing on December 8, 1965, with Pope Paul VI at the helm of Peter’s bark. The great (and now Blessed) Pope John XXIII intended for the Council to better adapt the Church, with its perennial mission, to the modern world. Satan apparently had his own plans about who would adapt and how!

Pope John XXIII also issued two encyclicals designated as social: Mater et Magistra in May 1961, and Pacem in Terris in April 1963. The first is addressed to the economic order, and it commemorates Rerum Novarum (1891). The second addresses the political order in the world grown smaller, with two nuclear-armed super-powers deeply involved in the so-called Cold War. Both of these encyclicals may be set apart from social encyclicals by the earlier Popes in that they extend the application of the virtues of social justice and social charity (solidarity) beyond the national to the worldwide level. Heinrich Pesch, the Jesuit economist who crafted the solidaristic system, had already placed the “universal solidarity of the entire human race” at the top level of his schema for that system in the first edition of his Lehrbuch der Nationalökonomie in 1913. That schema went on to include “the solidarity of the family, solidarity among citizens of the same State, and solidarity among colleagues at the occupational level…” (Lehrbuch/Teaching Guide to Economics, I, 2, 221-222). The immense advances in technology over the recent century, and that included advances induced by the needs of World War II, had reduced the time and distance factors, effectively bringing countries the world-over into continuing close contact with each other. Thus, it was in Mater et Magistra that the term solidarity in the relevant sense was used for the first time in a social encyclical. Since then it appears with increasing frequency in such encyclicals by Venerable Paul VI, Blessed John Paul II, and by the present Pope, Benedict XVI.

Unfortunately, an altogether different at­mosphere of questioning and criticizing emerged even among Catholics during the postwar period also with regard to their Church’s social teachings. The hard times and disorder during the Great Depression caused many to lose sight of the problems and their causes as addressed prior to World War II. Some of the economic power-brokers in banking and industry realigned and reasserted themselves. Pressure was brought to bear to roll back measures that had been imposed to restore order in the broken economies. The movement was packaged as a revival of the free market ideology whose flaws had been identified in social encyclicals dating back to Rerum Novarum. The revival was orchestrated adroitly to a significant extent by two atheistic/agnostic-Jewish figures at the University of Vienna — Friedrich von Hayek ( d. 1992), a former Marxist, and Ludwig von Mises (d. 1973), born in what is now the Ukraine. They are presented as the Austrian School. A prominent proponent in the United States was Milton Friedman ( d. 2006), an economist at the University of Chicago who gained the confidence of, among others, Ronald Reagan.

It is a disconcerting fact that there were, and are now, enthusiastic promoters of free market economics also at Catholic universities and colleges, including some which pride themselves on their doctrinal orthodoxy.

Free marketeers are basically positivists. For example, Hayek wrote in an article, “The Mirage of Social Justice” (1976): “…that in a society of free men… the term social justice is wholly devoid of meaning or content.” He added: “Attempts to enforce it in a free society must make that society unworkable.”

Now the virtue of social justice lies at the heart of Catholic social teachings ever since it was placed there by Pope Pius XI in 1931. The attempt to reinstate the free market philosophy in American economic life is therefore irreconcilable with the social teachings of the Catholic Church. Nevertheless, that is precisely what has been going on during the post-World War II era as both Pope Paul VI and Blessed John Paul II have warned.

A primordial instance of dissent from Catholic social teachings in the United States came from a then young Yale graduate, William F. Buckley, the son of an oil magnate. Buckley deftly spearheaded the so-called conservative movement with his provocative magazine National Review, along with a popular weekly television program. That included portraying as socialistic the New Deal economic program, and passionate admonitions about Communist infiltration in American politics during the extended Cold War period following World War II. Unfortunately, his apprehension about pinkish and red infiltration into America blurred Bill Buckley’s Roman Catholicism so that he lashed out also at papal social teachings. Pope John Paul II made it clear in Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (41) that the Church’s social doctrine “…belongs to the field, not of ideology, but of theology, and particularly of moral theology.” Buckley’s years at Yale did not make him a theologian, least of all a Catholic one. Yet he did not hesitate to oppose his Church’s position on the application of the cardinal virtue, justice, and the theological virtue, charity, which are proper to the province of moral theology. No sooner had good Pope John’s encyclical Mater et Magistra — a sequel to Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno — been released, when the National Review protested editorially with the lament, “Mater si; Magistra no!” A more explicit rejection of the Church’s magisterium is scarcely imaginable! The editorial staff went on to downgrade the entire encyclical disdainfully as “a venture in trivialities.” Unfortunately, that appeared to establish the correct posture for the future among proper “conservatives” with regard to what the Catholic Church might have to say about the social order. And that included certain Catholic theologians who should have known better; but some among them were apparently enchanted by the atmosphere of dissent which lingered from the Second Vatican Council well into the post-Conciliar era.

Michael Novak, a theologian who came out on the wrong side of the birth control issue (the pill!) following the prophetic encyclical Humanae Vitae of Pope Paul VI in 1968, struck out again more recently on the “preventive-war-as-just-war” issue during the Middle East wars which have since bankrupted our economy. Turned “economist,” Novak concocted a fanciful economic system in his book The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism (1982) in which he amalgamated his perception of American democracy and capitalism. (Actually the American economy developed from a part slave-driven/part capitalist one to a full capitalistic plutocracy.) In the process, traditional Catholic social teaching did not fare at all well. For example, the chapter A Theology for Economics included descriptive terms for it like “…suspended in air,” “uncharacteristically abstract,” “otherworldly,” “deracinated,” “empty.” Pope John Paul II is given some points over his predecessors; but then finally, “as history”… his material “appears to be as deficient as the views of his predecessors have been.” Elsewhere, however, Novak patronizingly intimated that certain reflections by the Polish Pope “show promise.” Aside from serving for many years as a professor of moral theology and social ethics at the Catholic University of Lublin, Karol Wojtyla lived successively under the Polish market economy, then under national socialism (the Nazis), and Soviet socialism! His qualifications included two doctorates: one in philosophy and one in theology.

George Weigel, like Novak a theologian and Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, also has problems with his Church’s social teachings. Pope Benedict’s social encyclical Caritas in Veritate had scarcely appeared when he went public, designating it as a “Duck-billed Platypus.” Because of the obscurity of the term, perhaps there were some who considered it flattering. The Vatican did not share this view when it took note of it in L’Osservatore Romano.

Elsewhere, Father Robert Sirico, president of the Acton Institute based in Grand Rapids, Michigan, is passionately dedicated to the free market concept, as his latest book, Defending the Free Market, testifies. Being a Catholic priest he should be well-versed in moral theology of which Catholic social teaching is a part — as Blessed John Paul II stated in Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (41).

So what’s the problem? I personally suspect it’s related to the Americanist heresy with which the brilliant Pope Leo XIII took issue late in the 19th century. It involves a lingering pretension that vibrant young America often knows better than backward old Rome even about matters of faith and morals; and it dies hard! At the present time, it appears as though Catholic social teaching, for which Leo XIII, that prophetic pontiff, wrote the Magna Carta, is among its intended victims. At present, its reception here is, to say the least, lukewarm.

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