Editorial: Catholic Social Thought And Ideology

It is undeniably dangerous to employ religious categories in economic matters, because of the tendency of all human beings to claim divine warrant for their own opinions. It is pernicious to use “the gospels” as a screen for ideology.

Persons on the Catholic left say that right-wing Catholics employ “ideology” in discussing economic realities, whereas the Catholic left, in its own humble opinion, appeals only to “the gospels.” And many on the Catholic right dismiss the complacent utterances of the Catholic left as no more than “left-wing ideology.”

Each person thinks his (or her) own thinking is realistic; why else hold it? Each clearly enough espies “ideology” in the thinking of others. It is easier to see the ideology in the eyes of others than to cast it out from one’s own.

Can it be said that the statements of U.S. Catholic bishops on economic policy during the past fifteen years have been affected by ideology? There is a sense in which this must be true. For all thinking in the light of the good to be attained, of the common good, of principles, and of ideals both evangelical and from natural law carries with it at least three ideological elements.

First, there is theory independent of any particular set of facts. Insofar as Catholic social thought appeals to universal Catholic teaching, the gospels inherited from the first century A.D., and papal documents emanating from Europe, theory plays a preponderant role. Second, there is factual description, an effort to assemble materials illustrating a particular concrete situation, whether to identify it as an “injustice” or to commend it as a happy development. Each time Catholic social thought touches, say, American particulars it incorporates this element. Third, there is the element of middle axioms and institutional analysis. This third level depends heavily upon theories of political economy and institutional relations, upon political philosophy and social theory. The presence of ideology is most obviously inherent in this third level. But it is also plainly inherent in the other two.

We seem to be required to say, therefore, that ideology has three distinct senses, appropriate to each of these levels of discourse. Consider the first. In a pluralistic society, persons and communities often exhibit quite different visions of the common good, of principles, and of ideals. There are many American citizens who not only are not Catholic but who also believe that the Catholic vision is flawed, inferior to their own, or even dangerous; and, of course, Catholics entertain similar doubts about some of the views of some others. These differences illustrate the powerful reality of diverse foundational ideologies. It is inherent in the particular narrative views of the human project, about which persons and communities in free societies maintain substantial disagreement.

In addition, persons of diverse experiences, interests and analytical skills often see factual situations quite differently. Such differences may appear even among persons who share the same foundational ideology. Conversely, persons who share different foundational ideologies may nonetheless perceive some situations in substantially the same way. Thus, differences in perceptual ideology do not always imply differences in foundational ideology.

Finally, in addition to foundational and perceptual ideology, there is also institutional ideology. Institutional ideology arises from the importance one attaches to one set of institutions as opposed to another, and from how one conceives of institutions. This is the level at which “Marxist analysis,” for example, comes into play. Here, too, “Scriptural analysis” is quite different from a “natural law” analysis. Again, some thinkers exhibit a clear tendency to rely upon statist solutions to particular problems, whereas others exhibit a tendency to envisage non-statist, private-sector solutions. Some reformers favor political activism; others favor economic activism; others favor activism in the domain of morals, ideas, and spiritual life. It is clearly illegitimate to screen one’s own analytic habits concerning institutions — one’s own institutional ideology — by making foundational or perceptual claims which disguise them.

This last type of ideology is the one on which the USCC letters on the economy (in 1975, 1977 and 1979, e.g.) have shown themselves to be surprisingly narrow. These documents turn again and again to the federal government as the basic instrument of justice. They are excessively political, and deal hardly at all with economics; they are virtually silent on workmanship, savings, investment, invention, or other acts of economic activism. It seems as if government is the sole economic agent in sight. It is true that some other persons in our society share such an institutional analysis. But it is not true that this institutional analysis is shared by, or mandatory upon, other Catholics. In their foundational ideology, the Catholic story, Catholics are united. This is not the case, nor should it be, in their perceptual or institutional ideology. In essential things unity, in contingent things diversity, in all things charity.

Any student of the statements of the USCC on economic questions in recent years will notice sudden jumps of logic, which serve a narrow institutional ideology. Two jumps of logic are most common. First, the argument will be made that X is a social problem; next — and far too speedily — the conclusion will be drawn that “social justice” requires a state solution to that problem and, furthermore, that the proper agency of the solution is not the individual fifty states but the federal government. This solution may be valid. But it is most often merely asserted, not argued for. Above all, arguments to the contrary are typically not considered. Such a jump in logic is not admirable. It occurs because those who use it are thinking uncritically; i.e., ideologically in the pejorative sense. What is missing in their argument is mentally supplied from a store of unexamined hidden premises. Such argument does not induce admiration.

The second logical jump has an analogous form. It is to assert that Catholic social thought holds that X is a human right. Next — and again far too speedily — the conclusion is advanced that X must be supplied by the federal government. The argument sometimes further alleges that, since X is a human right, X must be supplied by the federal government as a matter not of charity but of justice.

It would be easy to adduce several examples of this form of argumentation. The point here, however, is not to convict the USCC of fault, if faults there are, but to elucidate a fault into which in the future the USCC ought not to fall. Suppose, for example, the issue is food stamps. Should the USCC testify that human beings have a “right” to sufficient food, and that, therefore, food stamps should be administered by the federal government? Such an argument would jump from a social problem to a statist solution. It seems also to assert that sufficient food is a human right. The responsibility for fulfilling this human right is then assigned to the federal government. The federal government is then instructed to administer the food stamp program in a specific way. Included here are many jumps in logic.

Examine simply the claim that every human being has a human right to sufficient food. If taken literally as it stands, such a claim asserts that no one has a responsibility to work by the sweat of his or her brow in order to have food. This seems to mean that every human being can rely upon others to provide him sufficient food. Obviously, the USCC does not mean to absolve human beings of their responsibilities. “If a man will not work,” St. Paul said, “let him not eat.” But why, then, did the USCC not examine more closely the gap between responsibilities which individuals have for themselves (and for the families they undertake to form) and their right, if any such exists, to dependency upon the federal government?

Reluctantly, any careful observer would have to admit that the USCC often and frequently proclaims rights, while being rather careless in its formulations as to who pays for them. Moreover, such logical jumps in USCC testimony are not random but patterned. They persistently posit the federal government as the Great Provider. This suggests Alexis de Tocqueville’s image of the new “soft tyranny” to which modern democracies are susceptible. Gone are references to personal responsibility. Gone is appeal to the fundamental Catholic ideal of self-reliance. Gone is the classic Catholic distinction between state and society. Typically, these omissions are disguised by reference to “social justice,” as if the institutional ideology of social justice were statist, as it emphatically is not.

Such jumps of logic bring social justice into disrepute. Why this is so becomes clear if we sketch an alternative conception. Classic Catholic social thought holds that persons are and ought to be independent from the state, self-reliant, and capable of meeting their own basic needs. Of course, in all societies and at all times, some citizens will be too young, too old, too ill, handicapped, or temporarily down on their luck; in such cases, classic Catholic social thought imposes a social responsibility upon others to meet the needs which such persons cannot meet for themselves. In institutionally undeveloped societies, such needs cannot be routinely met by institutions (that is what underdevelopment means), and so new institutions of charity must be (and have been) invented. In more affluent and better organized societies, institutions (public and private) which meet such needs may more easily be made a matter of routine. The weak and the vulnerable, through no fault of their own incapable of caring for their own basic needs, ought to be cared for both as a matter of charity and of justice: charity because the deepest human bond is love; justice because every human being deserves care and respect as an image of God.

One does not have to be a Christian to hold that the sick and the handicapped, uncared for children and the elderly, should be cared for by the social body. An entire tradition of sometimes atheist and even anti-Christian liberals, such as John Stuart Mill and T. H. Green, has affirmed such principles. From such principles, however, it does not follow that a food-stamp program (or housing program, or anti-poverty program, or jobs program, etc.) administered by the federal government is the most effective social solution. Neither the defense of human rights nor social justice nor the gospels nor common sense requires a federal government conceived of as the ordinary provider of basic human needs. Such a conception leads inherently to state controls; furthermore, it is highly likely to be expensive, to be inefficient, and to encourage practices which breed dependency. Turning to government carries high costs in social justice.

In our day, bitter experience has taught even many socialists that the welfare state is far from representing the highest ideal for service to the common good. An institutional ideology which unquestioningly turns to the federal government as the vessel of all human responsibility for meeting the endlessly multiplying “human rights” of individuals is seriously flawed. Unfettered reason, not to mention a lively Christian imagination, discerns quickly enough the need for rational alternatives.

In summary, in its approach to public policy, belonging to the Catholic Church (or to any other foundational ideology) bears with it two spiritual dangers. First, the very claim to be speaking with divine mandate may cause one to be less than scrupulous about humdrum matters such as consequences and practicalities. Second, no one can deny that religious sincerity is sometimes used as a mask for sentimental thinking. The first of these dangers arises from a sense of authority unchastened by humility. It has been called triumphalism. The second arises from the contrast between religious thinking and practical thinking. It has been called moralism. Sound religion, rooted in humility and in reverence for reality, avoids both these dangers. Such avoidance does not come easily.

The problem in the contemporary Catholic Church in the United States is that the main powers of its establishments are so securely in the grip of a form of institutional ideology which is not even recognized as ideology. USCC documents do not fairly and thoroughly understand, and seldom even confront, the many rational alternatives to their own opinions. Therefore, opinion is often robed in the language of the gospels. This is an abuse.

From which a lesson may be drawn. Those truly moved by the gospels will pray to discern the hidden shape of their own opinions, and learn to see in the contrary opinions of others some gospel truths unseen within their own. The best protection against perceptual ideology and institutional ideology is a frankly recognized and happily accepted civil argument. The foundational ideology of Catholic social thought is quite large enough to embrace left-wing Democrats and conservative Democrats, libertarian Republicans and social-issue Republicans, and most of the other variants of perceptual and institutional ideology active within American pluralism today. Each of these traditions owes much to the slow workings of the yeast of the Jewish and Christian Testaments in human history. Each has something to teach the others. Each checks the excesses of the others.

Ecumenism is as necessary within a religion, as between religions; that is to say, as necessary between institutional ideologies, as between foundational ideologies.


  • 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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