Roman Catholicism in the United States: A Thematic History

By Margaret M. McGuinness; James T. Fisher | Go to book overview

TEN
American Catholic Social Thought in the Twentieth Century

Christopher Shannon

What is “social thought”? Modern secular intellectuals came to understand the “social” first in terms of economics: the social is the sum total of contractual exchanges made between free, autonomous individuals. Over the course of the twentieth century, this narrowly economic vision gave way to a more capacious understanding of the social proceeding from the anthropological conception of culture as a whole “way of life”: the social is a deep pattern of values that shapes and structures organic communal life prior to relations of consent and contract. What is Catholic social thought? It is both more and simply other than its secular equivalent. The European Catholic intellectual tradition never accepted the primacy of contractual economic relation posited by the Enlightenment tradition running from Hobbes through Rousseau. Catholics confronted modernity equipped with an organic vision that secular moderns would only begin to approximate with their turn to culture in the early twentieth century; the challenge for Catholics would be to incorporate the realities of modern capitalist economics into a social theory that would remain true to fundamental Catholic moral and spiritual principles.

How to do this? Throughout the twentieth century, liturgy provided a firewall, so to speak, separating engagement from assimilation. How one understood the relation between the natural and the supernatural profoundly shaped how one understood political action and social justice; to the degree that Catholic intellectuals placed liturgy and the supernatural at the heart of their understanding of the social, Catholic social thought remained distinctly Catholic. In America, this dialectic of engagement and assimilation has played itself out in three main stages: a liturgical period, covering most of the first half of the

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