Catholic Social Thought and Modern Liberal Democracy

By Smith, Thomas W. | Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

Catholic Social Thought and Modern Liberal Democracy


Smith, Thomas W., Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture


Introduction

How might proponents of Catholic social thought persuade citizens of the United States to take the Church's social teaching seriously? Several problems intrude. The United States does not have a tradition of Christian Democratic parties. These parties, whose platforms were marked by a concern for personal dignity, subsidiarity, and a lively sense of human frailty, often suffused the political life of nations such as Holland, Germany, France, and Austria with principles congenial to those of the Church's social teaching. (1) By contrast, as Louis Hartz argued, the liberal tradition is the tradition in American political life, and this may lead to a certain myopia regarding alternative ways of approaching public policy questions. (2)

Complicating the problem is the fact that it is not clear where either side stands in relation to the other. This is partly a result of a long history of mutual suspicion. The anti-Catholic tradition in American public life runs deeper than we like to think. (3) Even more important, however, is the long history of antagonism between the Church and proponents of modern democracy. While this history has been redressed somewhat by the Church's recent promotion of democratic regimes throughout the world, advocates of democracy may still think of the Church as a relatively recent friend who sometimes backslides. (4) Then again, citizens of liberal democracy--including many Catholics--are often suspicious of the Church's claim to authority on social issues. Why should any American think of this body of teaching as authoritative in the current marketplace of ideas? This attitude is partly a function of the separation of church and state, with its sense that the Church is a voluntary social organization among many others. Recent scandals do not help in this regard. For many, the Church appears to be just another interest group advocating yet one more political agenda. If so, there is no compelling reason to give its social teachings any more weight than we would give to a pundit's or lobbyist's proposals.

Finally, part of the difficulty is that it is not clear where the Church stands in relation to liberal democracy. (5) Sometimes she praises, and other times criticizes, aspects of it. How can we expect our fellow citizens to take the Church's teachings about liberal democracy seriously when she seems muddled about what she thinks? Do we have to resolve this ambivalence before we start a conversation? One cannot explain this ambivalence away by arguing that the Church's social teaching has evolved, for we find that ambivalence persists in more recent encyclicals. (6) If the notion of an evolving social teaching will not do, can we resolve the ambivalence by seeking some underlying consistency in the Church's teachings about liberal democracy? Perhaps, but both these strategies assume that ambivalence should be avoided. Yet, isn't ambivalence a proper response to an ambiguous situation? What if Catholic social teaching's ambivalence toward western liberal democracies reflects ambiguities within them? If so, we should try to understand how modern democracies like the United States contain ambiguities that invite ambivalent judgments. In fact, perhaps this goes a long way toward answering our question about how to get Americans to take Catholic social thought seriously. Perhaps beginning a profitable conversation entails understanding better the ambiguities within American political practices and showing how Catholic social thought can move beyond them in a way our conventional practices cannot.

Such a rhetorical strategy need not be interpreted as sectarian partisanship. Many thoughtful supporters of liberal democracy agree that it is in an ambiguous situation. On the one hand, liberal democracies are enormously successful. This is evident in the waves of democratization that have swept the globe for the last two centuries. …

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