“Built Wiser Than They Knew” The Constitution and the Wealth of Nations

By a stroke of genius, the film The Name of the Rose (like the book itself) casts that fourteenth-century Sherlock Holmes and early Whig, the English monk Baskerville (Sean Connery), as a Dominican friar in the order of St. Thomas Aquinas. From the very first moments, Baskerville is committed to being attentive, to being engaged with the evidence of his senses, to seeking insight, and to forming prudent judgments based upon evidence. It is as if Umberto Eco had wished to show a connection between Thomas Aquinas and the Anglo-Saxon tradition. There is such a connection. It is very important for understanding the U.S. Constitution.

In politics, St. Thomas might best be described as a Whig (Lord Acton called him “the first Whig”); he was a proponent of practical wisdom, not absolutism, not utopia. In epistemology, he was a proponent of attention to singulars, through sense knowledge, insight, and judgment. When John Jay writes in the second Federalist that all the Americans of his generation were united; when Thomas Jefferson wrote that, with respect to their rights, “all American Whigs thought alike” and “there was but one opinion on this side of the water”; and when Jay, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin and the others speak of common sense, practical wisdom, and respect for stubborn fact, they take themselves to be standing in the tradition of Aristotle and Cicero — the tradition known to Catholics as the philosophia perennis, described by Walter Lippmann as “the public philosophy.”

It is not so widely known in Rome that Americans regard their own Revolution of 1776 as different, both in kind and in intellectual roots, from the French Revolution of 1789 and other Continental Revolutions. Moreover, those of us who are Catholic (with the testimony of the Framers to support us) regard the American Revolution as continuous with the thought of classical antiquity and the Jewish-Christian inheritance, and not solely with post-Cartesian philosophy. (Not for nothing are there so many early American cities named Athens, Ithaca, Homer, Cicero, Tully, Syracuse, Rome, Antioch, Alexandria, Bethlehem and the like.) Roman Catholic social thought has never yet, we believe, perceived the intellectual lineage and historical originality of the American Constitution.

Nonetheless, in the long centuries of the history of liberty, not many landmarks loom larger than the document whose two-hundredth anniversary we are privileged to celebrate this year, the Constitution of the United States. Three themes in that Constitution deserve, especially, to be singled out: its intellectual originality and historical importance, as seen by American Catholics down the centuries; its original institutionalization of “the cause of the wealth of nations”; and, third, its original method of securing rights to religious liberty, in new conceptions of economy, invention, and discovery. By way of introduction, a few words on each of these three points may be helpful.

The Constitution of the United States is laden with meaning for Catholic social thought. Among other things, it has defended in an historically unprecedented way the dignity of the human person; the limited powers of the state; the transcendence of God; and the material preconditions of liberty of conscience. “Liberation theology” from Latin America, however great its merits, is neither the first liberation in this hemisphere nor, so far, the richest for theological reflection.

Second, the Framers of the Constitution discovered an original way to institutionalize an idea crucial in overcoming the immemorial poverty of the human race; viz., the humble principle of patents and copyrights. Behind this seemingly trivial institution, whose impact upon the creation of new wealth has already been immense, lies the American belief that human beings are made in the image of the Creator, and that they in part fulfill that image through invention, discovery, and creativity. To put this another way, humans are made to be creators, and one of the institutional incentives for increasing the frequency of acts of creation among them is to conceive of ideas as property, and of property not solely as material but also as spiritual. Rights themselves, as James Madison wrote, are property — inalienable property, as the Declaration of Independence had put it. Rights belong to persons, and may not be taken from them by any other power whatsoever. Among these rights, oddly and unaccountably often overlooked, are humble rights never before so protected, the rights of inventors and authors. This seemingly modest point, I wish to argue, is of extreme importance to the poor of the world still today.

My third point is more complex. It concerns the material foundations of religious liberty. The basic insight is that in a world of sinners economic growth is crucial to the preservation of liberty. Sinners are prone to envy. But envy is the most anti-social of the passions, more so than hatred — more insidious, more easily rationalized, more widespread. It is a passion so destructive of society that, under the name of covetousness, it was forbidden twice in Yahweh’s Ten Commandments. If republican government is to succeed, envy must be defeated. Otherwise, as Madison saw, the American Republic would fall prey to the same internal strife that had left in ruins hundreds of failed republics since history began. Economic growth defeats envy by allowing citizens to compare their present lot, not with that of others, but with what they themselves can achieve in the future.

In a human world, a world of embodied spirits, a world of sinners, liberty can mean nothing unless it can be expressed through material means. Human liberty necessarily implies the right to own property, the right to acquire property, and civic tolerance for the degree of constantly shifting inequalities that necessarily result. The liberty of the church, for example, would always be a fictitious and dependent liberty, if the church could not acquire, own, and dispose of property in fulfilling its mission in the world. Pure spirits do not need property in order to express their will; embodied persons do. In the world of incarnate history, in time, the right to liberty depends upon the right to property: No property, no effective liberty.

The ancient world and the medieval world, of course, had long since recognized this link between incarnate liberty and private property. What the American tradition added was a new insight, learned from Adam Smith and Montesquieu, that because of envy, private property is not enough; there must be economic growth, there must be liberty of commerce, there must be a rising ability to fulfill what the ancients would have thought of as “vulgar material wants.” The basic divide between the modern and the pre-modern world lies in a new valuation of the practical — and, in particular, of economics and of progress in the useful arts. Thomas Babington Macaulay once put this point quite brilliantly, contrasting the utopian tradition of Plato (shown in Raphael’s famous painting pointing to heaven) with the modern willingness after Bacon (foreshadowed in Aristotle pointing to earth) to settle for something more humble: “The aim of the Platonic philosophy [Macaulay wrote] was to raise us above vulgar wants. The aim of the Baconian philosophy was to supply our vulgar wants. The former aim was noble; but the latter was attainable.” In order to preserve liberty of conscience in a sinful world, the Americans in particular realized, it is necessary to attend to humble improvements, to lowly needs, and to matters the ancients and medievals had disdained as “merely useful.”

Our first task, though, is to establish the extraordinary historical importance of those fewer than 6,000 words we are gathered here to honor.


The Constitution’s “Theology of Liberation”

As Forrest McDonald tells it, on November 11, 1786, the Providence Gazette and Country Journal repeated the following item from a London newspaper:

There are 775,300,000 people in the world. Of these, arbitrary governments command 741,800,000, and the free ones (including 10 million Indians) only 33 1/2 million. Of these, 12 1/2 million are subjects or descendants of the British Empire — 1/3 of the freemen of the world. On the whole, slaves are three and twenty times more numerous than men enjoying, in any tolerable degree, the rights of human nature.

According to demographers, that newspaper’s estimate of the number of persons on earth in 1786 — some 775 million — was about right. We need not accept its other numbers (or its definition of liberty) literally, in order to accept its central cogent point: Liberty in 1786 was in very short supply, as still it is. To have extended the domain of liberty on earth as the U.S. Constitution did was, therefore, of immense historical importance.

But the importance of the deed lay not only in its expansion of liberty’s geography. Of much greater importance was the practical genius with which the deed was done, its deepening of human understanding concerning the material conditions necessary for the survival of liberty. The infant U.S. seemed to its Founders a “doubtful” project on November 19, 1776; it was conceived as a sort of scientific experiment, whose outcome Abraham Lincoln regarded at Gettysburg on July 4, 1863, four score and seven years later, as still being tested. The Science to which this experiment belonged was also regarded by the Framers as new, the “new science of politics.” They believed it was their destiny, under Providence, to change forever the way humans think about liberty. The Framers, both of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, often invoked the guiding hand of Providence. At a critical moment at the constitutional convention in Philadelphia on June 28, 1787, Benjamin Franklin urged the small assembly of delegates to pray for guidance; and, in the event, the impending impasse was broken in the most favorable way. The Framers themselves were quick to thank a guiding Providence. They placed a fascinating inscription over the seal of the United States: “God smiles on its beginnings.” This was not a boast. It was a nod of gratitude.

To gauge the practical genius of the Framers one must examine the fate of hundreds of written constitutions before and since. France has gone through several in this century; El Salvador 33 since 1931; Nigeria’s recent hopeful document was overthrown by revolution within one year. Not a single written constitution in the world today is older than that of the United States.

To write a constitution, one must conclude, is relatively easy. But to design one so in accord with a people’s habits, customs, and institutions that it can endure through turbulent generations, and to do so at a humble length which an Almanac may reproduce on four pages — these are proof either of unusual penetration of mind or of extraordinary blessing or of both.

A century ago, such reflections led the Catholic bishops of the United States at the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore (1884) to urge American Catholics to study closely the founding principles of the United States, about which the bishops solemnly wrote: “We consider the establishment of our country’s independence, the shaping of its liberties and laws, as a work of special Providence, its framers ‘building wiser than they knew,’ the Almighty’s hand guiding them.”

Virtually at the same time (November 16, 1884), confining his remarks to the political and economic order only, Bishop John Lancaster Spalding described “this great republic” as “God’s best gift to his children.” A bold claim, indeed, but not arrogant; the Bishop intended it as a reminder of fundamental moral obligations.

Not only Catholic bishops have made such judgments. The layman and convert to Catholicism, Orestes Brownson, devoted a whole book, The American Republic, to a study of the U.S. Constitution, a study he summarized in an essay in 1873: “I cannot conceive of a more profoundly philosophic, or more admirable devised constitution, than that of our own government.” Brownson emphasized this judgment, precisely because he was in the midst of bitingly attacking the American people for living in a way unworthy of that Constitution, and for nourishing ways of thinking that might undermine it.

Nearly a century later, another layman — philosopher and longtime visitor in our midst, the eminent Jacques Maritain, one of the architects of the United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights, wrote of the Framers of the Constitution as follows:

The Founding Fathers were neither metaphysicians nor theologians, but their philosophy of life, and their political philosophy, their notion of natural law and of human rights, were permeated with concepts worked out by Christian reason and backed up by an unshakeable religious feeling.

The Framers did this long before the Catholic Church had officially approved of such experiments in political philosophy, as democracy, religious liberty, and human rights. For the Catholic Church, too, America was for very long a “doubtful” experiment.

There is profound theological and human meaning in these passages. The Constitution of the United States is not merely a useful document, of utility to the small fraction of people on this planet who are Americans. It is of great moment to all the world. It is of special moment to the Catholic Church — not only because it has put in ink on parchment several great or principles, but above all because it has done so by inventive institutional arrangements for realizing them in history.

This last point is important. Catholic theology is by its nature incarnational. It cannot be happy with mere principles, so long as these have not been realized in actual institutions — made, as it were, incarnate. And precisely this has been the genius of the U.S. Constitution, to set forth principles in institutionalized form. It embodies principles in institutions.

In his monumental History of Liberty, the great Catholic historian Lord Acton picked out a passage crucial to the history of liberty, which he called “the earliest exposition of the Whig theory of revolution.” It was, he said, “written in the thirteenth century by St. Thomas Aquinas, at the very moment when Simon de Montfort summoned the [English House of] Commons.” It was written centuries in advance of the later Whig thinkers with whom Acton so closely identified himself. One hears in these words of Aquinas that so moved Acton lines that were to echo later in the U.S. Declaration of Independence and its Constitution:

A king who is unfaithful to his duty forfeits his claim to obedience. It is not rebellion to depose him, for he is himself a rebel whom the nation has a right to put down. But it is better to abridge his power, that he may be unable to abuse it. For this purpose, the whole nation ought to have a share in governing itself; the constitution ought to combine a limited and elective monarchy, with an aristocracy of merit, and such an admixture of democracy as shall admit all classes to office, by popular election. No government has a right to levy taxes beyond the limit determined by the people. All political authority is derived from popular suffrage, and all laws must be made by the people or their representatives. There is no security for us as long as we depend on the will of another man.

What the Dutch contributed to the world in religious liberty; what the English contributed in constitutional liberty; and what the French contributed in political liberty, Acton suggests in his Lectures on Modern History, the Americans contributed in the liberty of checks and balances, or subsidiarity, inherent in federalism. The American contribution was institutional; it lay in an awareness of human sin and the need to check it; and it lay in its discovery of the crucial role to be played in the preservation of liberty by a unique way of institutionalizing property, economic growth, and prosperity. In treating directly of the American Revolution, Acton describes that contribution:

The powers of the states were limited. The powers of the federal government were actually enumerated, and thus the states and the union were a check on each other. That principle of division was the most efficacious restraint on democracy that has been devised; for the temper of the Constitutional Convention was as conservative as the Declaration of Independence was revolutionary…. And yet, by the development of the principle of Federalism, it has produced a community more powerful, more prosperous, more intelligent, and more free than any other which the world has seen.

In 1893, at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, the apostolic delegate of the Vatican to the United States instructed his American audience: “Go forward, in one hand bearing the book of Christian truth and in the other the constitution of the United States. Christian truth and American liberty will make you free, happy and prosperous.” No doubt the delegate here waxed a little enthusiastic since, by itself, Christian truth promises to make us free and happy, but certainly not prosperous; the American Constitution was required to supply the last. Yet, like Acton, the delegate was merely describing what the American experiment had already achieved.

As an experiment, the United States Constitution was, as James Madison saw, a “novelty in the political world, without a model . . . emphatically sui generis.” But the two novel realities it did promise the people of 1787 — as again the apostolic delegate did in 1893 — were prosperity and the preservation of liberty, both intertwined. The historian Michael Kammen thinks that Abraham Lincoln had even provided the delegate his text, for Lincoln had written in 1861:

Without the Constitution and the Union, we could not have attained the result; but even these, are not the primary cause of our great prosperity. There is something back of these, entwining itself more closely about the human heart. That something is the principle of “Liberty to all” — the principle that clears the path for all, gives hope to all, and by consequence, enterprise and industry to all.

Let us weigh this American experiment in the scales of history. From the time the Constitution was adopted until today, 200 years later, the population of the world has swollen from about 775 million to nearly 5 billion. The population of the U.S. has been multiplied almost sixty times over, growing from 4 million to 237 million. In the world at large, billions (of the poor especially) are still seeking that path Lincoln mentioned, that hope; and seeking even more ardently the one thing that provides both, “entwining itself more closely around the human heart,” liberty. Liberty leads to prosperity — to raising up the poor — by way of two of its proper virtues: enterprise and industry. The roots of both lie in liberty. How the Constitution grasped one institutional embodiment of that principle is our second subject.


Enterprise and Industry to All

It is sometimes overlooked that the only time the word rights occurs in the body of the Constitution proper, as written in 1787, and before the appendage of the Bill of Rights in 1791, lies in Article I, section 8, number 8, where the following seemingly minor words are found among precise enumerations of the powers of the Congress: “To promote the progress of Science and Useful Arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.” Why are these words so powerful? It is well-established today that no leader of any country in the world can come, say, before the United Nations, and announce: “My country is poor and we choose to stay that way.” Although in 1787, as before and since, the great mass of humankind has lived in dire poverty, in ignorance, and under tyranny, such conditions in 1987 are no longer looked upon as natural, inevitable, or just. On the contrary, today such conditions are cause for scandal. An immense transformation in consciousness, therefore, has taken place during these brief two hundred years. To seize Lincoln’s words: “Liberty has cleared a path for all, given hope to all, and by consequence enterprise and industry to all.” Poverty is no longer inevitable. Prosperity is possible. But how is prosperity to be attained? How are the poor to free themselves from poverty?

I expect that there will be no argument that most of what today counts as wealth in the world comes from a source that was only beginning to come in evidence in 1787 — from human wit, from invention, from discovery. See the electric lights above our heads; touch the materials of which our chairs are made; tap the materials on the floor beneath us and the walls around us; look up at the acoustical tiles; hear the speaker system when I tap it — none of these things existed in 1787. The aircraft that brought me here, the auto that met me at the airport, the word processor on which these words were typed (otherwise, however, the school paper on which they were first written, in longhand) — such things had not been discovered by the sciences and useful arts of 1787.

How, in 1787, from an institutional point of view, was the process that would lead to such discoveries to be begun? The question for the Framers was a systemic one. Their task was to find an institution that would promote such a process, get it launched, keep it going. Thomas Jefferson proposed having a government commission to award prizes for useful inventions that would serve the common good. But that would have entailed handing over to the Congress guardianship over American originality. James Madison better grasped not only the architecture of American originality in governance—that a free people should seek to limit the powers of its legislature — but also the source of human creativity. That source lies not in government. As with other human rights, so with the rights of authors and inventors. Their source lies in properties endowed in every human person by the Creator. The right to create is an inalienable property of the human being. If an invention is truly useful for the common good, it will come soon enough to benefit all. The decisive point is to encourage individual citizens to venture their own savings in producing new inventions. How, then, to encourage them? Allow them to own the rights — for a limited time — to their discoveries.

Allow benefits from the fruits of acts of creation to accrue (for a limited time) to the creator, and you give him incentive to expend the labor, drudgery, and frustration inherent in creativity. By that method — so went the hypothesis behind Article I, section 8, number 8 — you will “promote the progress of Science and Useful Arts” in a novel and uniquely fruitful way. American economic history bears ample testimony to the merit of that hypothesis.

Let me pause to unpack several implications of this argument. First, one important social gain from conceiving of rights of discovery as personal property is to separate government from science and the useful arts, as government was earlier separated from power over conscience, ideas, and information. Professors Rosenberg and Birdzell explain in their useful book, How the West Grew Rich: The Economic Transformation of the Industrial World, “This use of a competitive spur to stimulate change was a marked departure from tradition, for societies and their rulers have almost always strongly resisted change unless it enhanced the ruler’s own power and well-being.” By taking innovation out of the hands of government, the Constitution recognized the principle Lincoln called “liberty to all,” and liberty is to creativity as air to flame.

Second, by separating government from primary and direct responsibilities for economic inventions — and for economic vitalities more generally — the Framers freed government for the many political innovations that have also characterized subsequent history.

Third, those private persons or associations whose innovations failed to win a market were thereby, in the words of Rosenberg and Birdzell, “required to bear their own losses, which were often substantial.” Individuals bore the costs; society reaped the benefits. Government escaped burdens and gained affection, both from inventors and from those who enjoyed their inventions. In short, this device spared government the cost of financing innovations (except in special areas such as public health, food supply, and military hardware).

The fourth effect was to keep the frontiers of human innovation open, to preserve the vast domain of possibilities for human liberty to play in, both for fun and to recoup expenditures and even (if fortunate) to win gains. By allowing inventors a limited time in which to reap gains for their discoveries, the people who assented to this Constitution assured themselves and their posterity an unprecedented flood of inventions and discoveries. To do so, they had to show that they were not a people of envy.

This fifth effect was the most important of all. A political economy founded upon institutions of invention and discovery (the Homestead Act, the land-grant college acts, the National Science Act, and others were to follow later) is designed to uproot envy from the garden of the Republic. Since every innovator gains a temporary monopoly, his gains from even simple devices (a bottle cap, a matchbook, a spray mechanism) may sometimes be immense. A people of envy would have insisted upon strict egalitarianism, even if that policy damaged the common good. The American people did no such thing. They were willing to allow uncommon wealth, as a reward for those who succeeded in serving their common needs. This was the path they chose to insure “the general welfare.” Those who serve the common good through invention and creativity are entitled to enjoy uncommon reward. One of the side benefits of this policy is that the people could thenceforth and forevermore enjoy the sport of satirizing millionaires, as a thousand best-selling artists and cartoonists are likely to do. Another is that, as a new invention renders an earlier obsolete, there is a rapid circulation of good fortune, elites, and wealth.

Behind this brief passage in the Constitution, then, lies a special vision of the person, the common good, rights, property, and creativity. Indeed, implicit in it is a vision of the Jewish and Christian God, who is conceived of as truth, enlightener, and creator. For many peoples of the world, to analyze or to tamper with nature is to violate a taboo, and innovation is regarded with fear and trembling. Not so for peoples tutored by Judaism and Christianity, whose God is the Lord of History. The American people and the Framers felt charged by the God of Israel to imitate their Creator and to “make all things new,” to journey into a wilderness and to build there a shining city. One should not underestimate the decisive importance to American history of the Jewish and Christian God, the God Who acts in history, Who empowers peoples to act, and Who holds individuals under judgment regarding the responsibilities inherent in their liberties.


No Property, No Liberty

Finally, it is important to reflect on the concepts of “property” and “rights” expressed in the Constitution. The Constitution derives mainly from English intellectual, institutional, and legal history. This includes roots in medieval sources such as that “first Whig,” Thomas Aquinas. But these English roots are as distinctive from other Continental roots as the English monk Baskerville in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose is different from Joachim of Flora. Alas, twentieth-century Catholic social thought, by and large, still owes much more to French, German, and Italian history than to American history. It has not yet meditated upon the meaning of the American experiment for the history of liberty. Thus, a scholar must be quite clear in distinguishing among the many different intellectual traditions which lie behind the use of such ordinary words as property and rights, individual and community. The French, Germans, and Italians have had quite different institutional, legal, and intellectual experiences. Few of them understand such terms in the way the U.S. Constitution does.

In the political order, the Framers of the Declaration, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights grounded human rights in a direct divine endowment in individual persons. Psychologically, human beings probably become owners of these rights in fear — fear, not least of self-destruction, of torture, of the cruelty of tyrants, and of the unreliability of human character. Fear is, for a people tutored by the Bible, the beginning of wisdom.

Rights belong to human persons. They are a sort of spiritual property. They cannot be taken away from persons — alienated from them — by any mortal force. Such rights are limited in number; that number is not infinitely expansible. Their integrity must be defended with clarity, without compromise. Their precise intellectual content must be discerned exactly. Since many Catholic writers tend to apply the concept “property” solely to material things, and to overlook the philosophic depths of the American Framers, permit me to cite Madison upon the proper meaning of “property”:

This term in its particular applications means “that dominion which one man claims and exercises over the external things of the world, in exclusion of every other individual.”

In its larger and juster meaning, it embraces every thing to which a man may attach a value and have a right; and which leaves to every one else the like advantage.

In the former sense, a man’s land, or merchandize, or money is called his property.

In the latter sense, a man has a property in his opinions and the free communication of them.

He has a property of peculiar value in his religious opinions, and in the profession and practice dictated by them.

He has a property very dear to him in the safety and liberty of his person.

He has an equal property in the free use of his faculties and free choice of the objects on which to employ them.

In a word, as a man is said to have a right to his property, he may be equally said to have a property in his rights.

In the moral order, the grounding of rights in a divine endowment has two important implications. First, it legitimates the language of natural law and (rather different from it) the language of natural rights. These languages are of immense practical significance. Catholic teachers in recent years have been much too delinquent in articulating their own tradition of natural law and in assimilating it to the great secular tradition of natural rights. Second, the grounding of rights in a divine endowment legitimates, even makes necessary, a language of moral law, a human law rooted in a divine law, beyond the tampering of judges, legislative majorities, or public opinion. Not all contemporary Americans share this vision of law. But Catholic social thought does share it with the Framers. While reverencing philosophic pluralism, Catholic thinkers are in a strong position to show the intellectual power of the tradition of which they are the stewards. Since John Courtney Murray, S.J. did so years ago in We Hold These Truths, it is embarrassing how little has been done (and that little often badly) to relate Catholic social thought to the convictions of the U.S. Framers.

Catholic social thought was until recently particularly weak in its theory about how new wealth is created. It has been especially weak in exploring the relations between science and commerce, which Rosenberg and Birdzell, among others, find so decisive in explaining how the developed world came to be developed. More to the point, it has failed to see how crucial to the creation of wealth is “progress in Science and Practical Arts”; specifically, in the institution of copyrights and patents. No society can overcome poverty without invention, discovery, and the sustained application of practical intelligence to finding new, more powerful and better ways of doing things. Yet there is more to economic growth than invention. To make inventions socially accessible to all, enterprise must begin where invention leaves off. At the heart of the virtue of enterprise also lies discernment, still another gift of the practical intellect. A person who discovers how to manufacture a humble part — let us say, a door latch for an automobile — for $4.95 rather than for $16.95 saves society $12.00. To discern such possibilities requires the sustained application of high skills of practical intellect.

Behind all such advances — in the political order, the moral order, and the economic order — lies practical intellect: the use of the wit that the Creator endowed in every man and woman, in the poor more often actually than in the rich. This universal endowment is the key to lifting the scourge of poverty from the human race. A society that has as one of its central priorities the upward mobility of the poor must put itself to school in the practical arts.

To have enrolled the entire United States in the school of science and practical arts — and to have devised in outline the institutions most suited to attain that aim — was one of the great blessings, under Providence, bestowed upon posterity by the document we celebrate this year, particularly in Article I, section 8, number 8.

Nor is that, theologically, surprising. Among the names of God, Providence has a special place. God the Creator may possibly be conceived of as the God of the static world of nonhistorical orthodoxy. Providence is the name of the Lord of History. The name “Providence” focuses upon the practical intelligence of God — the providentia or prudentia through which He orders all things to their fruition in Himself. Providence reveals God as storyteller, the source and origin of all practical wisdom in His universe. His human beings are free; they imitate Him by making their own inquiries, telling their own stories. His human beings share in Providence through their own discoveries and inventions, and through their own practice of practical wisdom, including the virtue of enterprise. Invention adds to practical wisdom the note of creativity. Enterprise adds to invention the realism of bringing ideas swiftly to social use. Both together consist in imagining new things and new methods, and then bringing them to realization in incarnate form.

Behind all of this lies Lincoln’s principle: “liberty to all — to open the path to all — to give hope to all.” Practical liberty is the decisive American contribution to the universal patrimony, including the patrimony of the Catholic Church.

If I had one wish, one recommendation, to offer Catholic social thought from the originality of the American constitutional experiment, it would be to add to the current Roman phrase, “justice and peace,” the original and powerful American contribution: “freedom, justice, and peace.”Only with such a triad can Catholic social thought move to its decisive fruition. Without freedom, neither justice nor peace is of much use to the peoples of the world, including the poor. Not to have freedom, even of conscience, is the profoundest poverty human beings suffer, more degrading and oppressive even than material poverty. Nonetheless, for those who wish to defeat material poverty as well, no path to prosperity is more sure than “liberty to all . . . and by consequence, enterprise and industry to all.”


  • Michael Novak

    Michael Novak (1933-2017) founded Crisis Magazine with Ralph McInerny in 1982. He held the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and was a trustee and visiting professor at Ave Maria University. In 1994, he received the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He was also an emissary to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

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