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The year 1991 marked the centenary of modern Catholic social teaching—the issuing of the encyclical Rerum Novarum by Pope Leo XIII—and the bicentenary of the Bill of Rights to the United States Constitution. It might have come as something of a shock to the (very Protestant) Framers of the Constitution to be told that the future of their work at the Philadelphia Convention might someday be assessed against criteria established by a succession of nineteenth and twentieth-century Catholic popes—as it might have come as a surprise to several of those popes to have been told that their work would be taken more seriously by some of the heirs of the Puritan than by some of the children of Rome. Yet that is precisely what happened at this juxtaposition of anniversaries. Catholic social teaching was very much “in play” in the ecumenical conversation about the future of the United States at the end of the twentieth century. And a papal encyclical celebrating the centenary of that tradition seemed to look to the United States as a kind of laboratory testing the future prospects of human freedom and solidarity. As the metaphysician Yogi Berra said on being told that a Jew had been elected mayor of Dublin, “Only in America.” Yogi would not mind if a Catholic theologian were to add, “Or in Rome.”

The America in which this has happened is the America that is, was, and will ever be an experiment, a never-to-be-completed exercise in determining whether a nation “so conceived and so dedicated” can long endure: can endure in liberty and remain dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. That, as John Courtney Murray liked to put it, is the “American proposition.” The testing of that proposition is the country’s story line. So the unfinished quality of the American experiment is not an accident. It is of the essence of this “nation with the soul of a church,” as Chesterton famously described us.

The test inherent in the American proposition can never be passed once-for-all. For the continuity of America is not the continuity of race, tribe, or ethnic group—the continuity of blood, if you will. Rather it inheres in the continuous process of testing our society against those defining public norms whose acceptance as defining norms constitutes one as an “American.” In other words, American continuity is the continuity of conviction: the conviction that we can, in fact, through this novus ordo seclorum called American constitutional democracy, “form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”

The concept of America-as-experiment has a long, distinguished, and ecumenical pedigree. In contemporary usage it is most frequently drawn from the works of Father Murray; but Murray himself happily acknowledged that he had taken the concept from Lincoln, who in turn drew on a stream of national self-understanding that reached an early rhetorical apogee in John Winthrop’s sermon (“A Modell of Christian Charity”) aboard the Arbella in 1630. Thus, America is intrinsically a nation locked into an ongoing, public moral argument about the right-ordering of our lives, loves, and loyalties. And, perhaps to the surprise of some, modern Catholic social teaching now occupies an important role in that debate.

Ours is, at best, the second generation in which one could make that assertion without causing a (decidedly unecumenical) donnybrook. Arthur Schlesinger, Sr. was not exaggerating by much when he told the doyen of American Catholic historical studies, John Tracy Ellis, that “the prejudice against your Church [is] the deepest bias in the history of the American people.” And if American anti-Catholicism or, to be more precise, American anti-public-Catholicism now wears a predominantly secular, rather than Protestant, mask, it is nonetheless real, and nonetheless a factor in the continuing argument about the right-ordering of our society.

Still, Christian social ethics in these United States has become a thoroughly ecumenical affair into which many streams of reflection—Calvinist, Lutheran, Wesleyan, Anabaptist, and Roman Catholic—now flow. This vindicates not only one dimension of the modern ecumenical movement but the claims of the Founders and Framers, James Madison prominent among them, who believed that religious liberty would be (and should be) good for religion and good for the American polity. It also vindicates the hopes of such giants of American Catholic history as Archbishop John Carroll and Cardinal James Gibbons: proto-ecumenists, social reformers, and American patriots who looked forward with calm confidence to the day when American Christians would deliberate in common, and as a matter of course, on their responsibilities as believers and as citizens.

In his commencement address at Yale in 1962 (a speech best remembered today for his quip that he now had “the best of both worlds, a Harvard education and a Yale [honorary] degree”), President John F. Kennedy honed the ethos of the “best and the brightest” to a particularly sharp edge by arguing that the real problems of the age were not philosophical or ideological (and thus laden with questions of meaning and value) but rather technical and managerial.

It seems, in retrospect, an extraordinary claim. For since that spring day in New Haven, civil rights, the Vietnam war, Watergate, the place of human rights concerns in U.S. foreign policy, nuclear deterrence, the roles of men and women in society, biomedical technology, the nature of the market economy, abortion, and the war in the Persian Gulf have all been debated throughout our society, passionately if not always wisely, in explicitly moral categories. (Nor has Kennedy’s positivist projection been any more borne out in world affairs. The Islamic revolution of the late 1970s, the democratic revolution in Latin America, and the Revolution of 1989 in Central and Eastern Europe were all massive eruptions on the world-historical scene that had little or nothing to do with the technical-managerial ethos, and a great deal to do with questions of meaning and value.)

Indeed, in contemporary America, the phrase in the Pledge of Allegiance, “one nation, under God” (which means, first of all, “under judgment”), continues to have impressive, and in some instances even determinative, culture-shaping force. Theoretically, one could construct a moral Weltanschauung capable of sustaining a democratic experiment without reference to the biblical God. But that abstract possibility (which has yet to prove itself in any concrete historical circumstance) is almost completely irrelevant to American culture and society, where 85 to 95 percent of our people profess to believe that morality is derived from religion. Which means, for the overwhelming majority of the overwhelming majority, biblical religion.

In other words, Americans will for the foreseeable future continue to deploy religiously derived moral warrants in the debate over America. That is who we are.

This openness to religiously grounded moral argument is one reason why modern Catholic social teaching, which is arguably the “thickest” body of Christian social-ethical reflection available today, will be “in play” in the American argument. There are, in addition, three other characteristics of modern Catholic social teaching that make it a particularly apt resource for our ongoing debate.

First, modern Catholic social teaching is a self-consciously public tradition in terms of its audience and in terms of the warrants it deploys in defense of its moral arguments and its proposals for the right-ordering of society.

As a matter of chronological fact, it was only with Pacem in Terris (1963) that the tradition explicitly made the moral reflection of “all men of good will” its concern. But the very range of the social, political, and economic questions analyzed by modern Catholic social teaching, and the fact that those issues are addressed in the context of a modernity (and postmodernity) that is self-evidently pluralistic in its philosophical and theological convictions, makes it clear that the tradition has always been interested in engaging interlocutors beyond the formal boundaries of the Roman Catholic Church.

The public character of the tradition’s audience is complemented by the public and inclusive character of the warrants the tradition has tended to use in support of its moral vision and its proposals for social, economic, and political reform, within and among nations. Catholic social teaching, while under Pope John Paul II more richly biblical in its language and imagery, has in the main been an exercise in a natural law style of moral discourse, one in which appeals to the reason of “all men of good will” are more frequently deployed than are scriptural texts.

That may seem, on the surface, a problem in the American context, given what was just said about the biblically derived moral warrants that the majority of Americans use in thinking about our life together. Yet what appears a problem may in fact be an opportunity. For there is no agreement in the American public square, and even among Christians resident therein, on an appropriate exegesis of scriptural texts relative to questions of public policy. Nor is there agreement among Christians and Jews (or within the Jewish community) on the appropriate contemporary application of the Noahide laws. And then, of course, there is the question of the secularists, who have a constitutionally protected place in the public moral argument about the meaning of the American experiment.

In this luxuriantly various cultural-linguistic jungle, the natural law approach exemplified in modern Catholic social teaching provides a useful grammar for the debate, a way of bringing some order into the pluralism of American public life such that real argument can replace cacophony. Its specific policy implications aside, therefore, the style of modern Catholic social teaching has a particular kind of value to a country in which public moral argument is at once both dominantly religious and determinedly pluralistic.

Second, modern Catholic social teaching is a self-consciously transcultural and transhistorical tradition. America may well be, as Ben Wattenberg suggests, the “first universal nation.” But there are also tendencies toward provincialism and antinomianism in American culture that militate against the public moral debate being as wisely engaged as it might otherwise be. “Provincialism” and “antinomianism” are not terms intended as a putdown of the “average American.” On the contrary: they are characteristics of the nation’s intellectual and cultural elite, which often identifies its (libertine) life-style frettings and causes with the concerns of the entire world, and which has worked assiduously for some two generations now to deconstruct (or, at the very least, to marginalize) the notion that public moral argument ought to be conducted against the horizon of a set of moral norms that are taken to be authoritative for the debate. Indeed, the very notion of “authoritative norms” is regarded as impossibly déclassé and hopelessly “premodern” by many of the nation’s intellectual and cultural tastemakers.

Confronting this elite orthodoxy, modern Catholic social thought is resolutely countercultural. It deliberately attempts to address a multiplicity of contemporary concerns, across the full range of social, economic, and political life, out of the same classic font of moral wisdom. And it continues to insist that the basic truths about the human person, human society, and human destiny that shape its social analysis are not historically contingent but, on the contrary, radically transhistorical. Indeed, insofar as this teaching operates against, and toward, an eschatological horizon of human transformation and redemption—a horizon that it nonetheless insists has a transformative power in the here-and-now—one might say that in it the elite relativizers are themselves properly relativized.

And finally, modern Catholic social thought is an important partner in the American debate about America because of the two thematic poles between which its intellectual current flows: the themes frequently identified by John Paul II as “freedom” and “solidarity.”

These themes have an abiding importance for a democratic experiment in which school children pledge themselves, daily, to the pursuit of “liberty and justice for all.” But they also have a special contemporary edge. Think, for example, of the great issues that now occupy such a considerable place on the domestic policy agenda: abortion; the urban underclass; the drug crisis; the availability and cost of medical care; the failures of our educational institutions; the politicizing of the academy. In each of these cases, what is being debated is the means by which, in the right-ordering of our common life, we link the liberty that is the birthright of each individual to the “justice for all” that is the promise of the American experiment. Modern Catholic social thought, in its reflection on the intrinsic (that is, not merely accidental) relationship between human freedom and human solidarity, might just have a role to play in shaping our democratic deliberation on these urgent issues.

The same is true in international affairs. In the aftermath of the Gulf War and with the collapse of the Yalta imperial system, we shall soon be engaged in the most serious debate between internationalists and isolationists (or, as they would prefer, “new nationalists”) that the country has experienced since the late 1930s. It is by no means a settled question that the American republic will accept the burdens of international leadership in a unipolar world. (Nor is there agreement, even among the committed internationalists, on what the nature, extent, costs, and means of exercising that leadership might be.) Might not modern Catholic social teaching, in its reflection on freedom and solidarity, help us sort through the questions engaged at the intersection of America’s domestic responsibilities and America’s duties beyond borders—especially given the propensity of the American people (most recently demonstrated in the debate over U.S. policy in the Persian Gulf) to conduct the argument over America’s role in world affairs in explicitly moral terms?

Without running the risk of denominational special pleading, then, one can say that modern Catholic social thought brings a number of impressive strengths to the debate over America. Unlike those traditions that require explicitly confessional entry tickets to the debate. Catholic social teaching in the modern world asks only (only!) that its interlocutors be reasonable men and women of good will. One can thus engage on the terrain sketched by modern Catholic social thought without being a Catholic or, for the most part, even a believer. At the same time, the “grammar” of Catholic social teaching inevitably drives issues of policy, and the fundamental questions about the human person that do in fact structure those issues, toward transcendent reference points. Given both the abiding religiosity of our people and the constitutional doctrine of ecclesiastical nonestablishment, this is a great advantage.

Moreover, the universal character of the Catholic magisterium is also an advantage, for it provides a barrier precisely against the various forms of provincialism—cultural, ideological, ethnic, and so forth—that can hinder the debate. Because the tradition of modern Catholic social teaching understands itself to be both coherent and authoritative, it is able to offer stable points of reference for ordering public moral argument in the face of the tremendous pace of modern technological, social, and political change. One need not accept the authority of those points of reference to be grateful for the kind of terrain-mapping that the tradition’s coherence provides.

But what about the often-heard charge that modern Catholic social teaching “doesn’t take America seriously enough”?

In approaching this question, we must begin with a caution: “Taking America seriously” should not be taken to require that American democracy become, in virtually all respects, a model for the internal life of the Church. The proposal that it should comes from what might be termed the “party of dissent” in American Catholicism. It is a party uncomfortable, in what it imagines to be a distinctively American way, with the hierarchical character of the Church. It is a party that tends to identify “authority” with authoritarianism: behind Joseph Ratzinger it espies the spectre of Alfredo Ottaviani, and behind John Paul II, the ghost of Pius IX (or Pius X). It lays claim to the tradition of American populism (although it is a party dominated by elites), and identifies that populism with the sensus fidelium as defended by, say, John Henry Newman. It is a party that has taken modern Catholic social teaching seriously, although it tends to give that tradition a decidedly gauchiste interpretation: among other things, it highlights those dimensions of modern Catholic social teaching that it believes to be most critical of American capitalism.

It is, in short, the party of what I have elsewhere termed “Catholic Congregationalism.” It has a distinctive interpretation of the history of Catholicism in America. But in the present context its most salient claim is that the teaching of John Paul II’s Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (1987) on the right ordering of nations should be applied to the life of the Church itself: “dictatorial and authoritarian” forms of governance should be replaced by “democratic and participatory” ones.

There are a number of difficulties with this position. At the very least, it has a certain rhetorical implausibility about it, what one might even term self-referential inconsistency: those who urge the “Americanization” of Catholicism are often those who have the least good to say about America—as a society, a culture, or a polity.

At a more substantive level, the “Americanization” of Catholicism, were it to follow the path of liberal Protestantism—as the party of dissent seems to wish—would quite likely result in a further dissipation of Christian social witness in the United States. For there seems to be an iron law of ecclesiastical bureaucracy in American Christianity which dictates that the quest for public policy “relevance” inevitably involves the radical marginalization of the Church as a moral mentor to the wider society. No thoughtful observer can have watched the bizarre performance of the National Council of Churches on the matter of the quincentenary of the European discovery of the Americas and on the issue of the Gulf War without being at least minimally concerned that the “Americanization” of Roman Catholicism in the United States on the NCC social-action model might someday drive the Catholic Church down the sorry path described by a former NCC general secretary as the road from the mainline to the oldline to the sideline.

There is also a kind of provincialism, bordering at times on hubris, in the party of dissent’s understanding of those elements of the American experience that ought to be normative for the contemporary evolution of both the Church and the world. One thinks here, in particular, of American feminism, a key plank in the platform of Catholic Congregationalism. To be sure, there are many feminisms. And on this question of women and men, there is certainly an ongoing debate to be engaged: one might even speculate that it is likely to be far more complex, in its argumentation and its outcomes, than is assumed by either Elizabeth Schussler-Fiorenza or Phyllis Schlafly. Be that as it may, however, it is cultural imperialism of the worst sort to suggest that the relations between women and men in the United States, or between some women and some men, are somehow a normative model for everybody else in the world (or, less grandly, for the Church throughout the world). And yet that would seem to be precisely the kind of claim being pressed by many feminists in the Catholic Congregationalist camp.

At bottom, though, the chief difficulty posed by Catholic Congregationalism and its concept of “taking America seriously” is not to be construed in standard left/right political terms. Rather, the principal difficulties here are theological, and specifically ecclesiological.

Calls for “taking America seriously” that confuse the deliberative processes and structures of governance appropriate to a political community with the deliberative processes and structures of governance appropriate to the community of faith involve a category error of considerable proportions. The Church is the Church. It is, in Avery Dulles’ image, a community of disciples gathered together by Word and sacrament. It is a community whose service to the human family is, in the words of the Hartford Appeal, “against the world for the world.” It is a community whose fundamental raison d’être is the proclamation of the Truth that makes men free (John 8:32)—a Truth whose contemporary meaning is not determined by the votes of “50 percent plus one,” but through a complex process of discernment, reflection, debate, and prayer within boundaries established by ancient and authoritative texts and monitored by an authoritative magisterium. It is a community whose membership transcends the boundaries of human mortality, a community in which Chesterton’s mot about tradition as the “democracy of the dead” is a crucial determinant of self-understanding.

Viewed through the lens of American voluntarism, or through the preoccupations of Catholic Congregationalism, this “thick” ecclesiology can often seem to be little more than a matter of institutional prickliness. No doubt there have been times when the boundary-setting function of the magisterium has prematurely foreclosed needed discussion. No doubt there are, in some Catholic quarters, problems of “creeping infallibilism.” But at bottom, the ecclesiological “thickness” of Roman Catholicism is not a matter of institutional self-interest; it is a matter of communal self-understanding, as has been authoritatively determined for the contemporary discussion by the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church.

Moreover, the “thick” ecclesiology of Roman Catholicism should be of interest far beyond the formal boundaries of the Catholic Church. For it is precisely by being the Church—by being the bearer of an authoritative set of reference points for the public argument about the right-ordering of society—that the Church makes its most distinctive contribution to the ongoing democratic deliberation about how it is that we shall live together in these United States. Absent that sense of obligation to the authoritative self-understanding of the community—absent that sense of Church as Church—“Catholic social teaching” would quickly dissolve, as other forms of Christian social teaching have dissolved, into an ecclesiastically tinged manifestation of the changing enthusiasms of what the British, with malicious wit, refer to as the “chattering classes.” Catholic Congregationalism, in short, is most unlikely to provide persuasive answers to the question of how it is that we are to be Christian in America today—precisely because of its ecclesiological thinness.

On the other hand, ecclesiological orthodoxy does not require us to think that the future development of Catholic social teaching could not be significantly enhanced by “taking America more seriously” than Church tradition has heretofore done, and taking it more seriously precisely as a morally grounded social, cultural, and political experiment in democratic pluralism.

When the seminal 1986 Vatican “Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation” teaches that “the call to freedom rang out with full force” only in 1789 with the coming of the French Revolution, and laments the further oppression that often accompanied man’s subsequent efforts at worldly liberation, the American Catholic wants to ask, with respect but also with, candor, what about the Revolution of 1776? What about American constitutionalism, which for all its manifold failings has yet managed to channel the revolutionary energies of our people into nonviolent forms of social change? What about a revolutionary tradition whose inheritors continue to declare, publicly, and at the end of the twentieth century, “In God we trust”?

The “gap” that some have perceived between the American experience and the evolution of modern Catholic social teaching is explained in part by the European or Continental character of the theological evolution that undergirded that teaching from the days of von Ketteler and Leo XIII until recent years. That Continental debate continues to shape the magisterium’s development of social teaching, as do themes drawn from the contemporary Latin American experiences of Catholicism. But it is surely long past time for the responsible authorities in the Church to see in the American Catholic debate—and particularly as that debate reflects on the distinctive experience of modernity in the United States—as formidable a body of thought on these matters as may be found in any part of world Catholicism.

Indeed, I will make so bold as to suggest that the cutting edge of contemporary Catholic social theory—on matters of political structures, economics, and international affairs—is here in the United States. Much of this work is being done by theologians, philosophers, political theorists, and economists who self-consciously wish to hold themselves accountable to the boundary-setting function of the magisterium—which should only make the possibility of a greater American contribution to the future of Catholic social teaching more attractive.

The United States is, for better and for worse, and usually for both, the world’s great laboratory for the future—and has been so since the mid-nineteenth century. The radical character of America’s ethnic, religious, and racial pluralism (itself a microcosm of the human family as it struggles to make the transition from anarchy to political community), and America’s indisputable position as the communications center of the world, should suggest the importance for modern Catholic social thought of “taking America more seriously.” A particular subject about which the American experience should be of interest to Catholic thought and teaching is the worldwide struggle for religious freedom and human rights.

That religious freedom is the first of human rights, and an essential guarantor of right-order within nations, is a persistent theme in the social teaching of John Paul II that resonates deeply with the Catholic experience of America. Indeed, it is on this question of religious freedom, in both its personal and public aspects, that the tradition of modern Catholic social thought has been most directly influenced by the American experiment. That the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom (Dignitatis Humanae) was decisively shaped by John Courtney Murray’s creative extension of Catholic church/state theory—a development of social doctrine that was generated at least in part by the novus ordo of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution—is a well-known story. What is perhaps less well-recognized is the extraordinary impact that the Council’s teaching on religious freedom has had on the affairs of men and nations.

Permit me here to make a simple, flat assertion: the transformation of the Catholic Church from a traditional defender of the ancien régime into perhaps the world’s foremost institutional defender of basic human rights—a transformation whose real-world impacts have been felt throughout Central and Eastern Europe, and from Seoul to Tierra del Fuego—was inconceivable without the Declaration on Religious Freedom, the American-influenced magna charta of the Catholic human rights revolution.

The future direction of the Catholic human rights revolution is not altogether clear. That is due, at least in part, to confusions that entered the Catholic human rights debate with Pacem in Terris: specifically, the listing of a vast range of human and societal goods under the rubric of “human rights.” The economic, social, and political failures of those societies that proclaimed their fidelity to the priority of “economic and social rights” has become evident to all but the most hardened ideologues, as has the superior performance of societies that have stressed the priority of civil liberties and political freedoms in the ordering of societies. Now, in the wake of the Revolution of 1989 in Central and Eastern Europe, and under the pressure of yet-unresolved questions being persistently pushed by some influential sectors of Western opinion, the topic has shifted to the question of the location of human rights, and specifically to the issue of whether there are such things as “minority rights” or “group rights” within pluralistic societies. This may still seem a bit esoteric in the United States, though, alas, less and less so. In any case, it is a positively burning question in Central and Eastern Europe, and indeed in Canada. And as if that were not enough trouble for one season, it has become painfully clear that there is much work to be done in the new democracies in terms of implementing the full promise of religious freedom and in defining the relationship between governmental and ecclesiastical institutions, as the recent debate over religious instruction in Polish schools has demonstrated.

No claims should be made about American omniscience on either of these two points: the locus of “rights” in persons or groups, and the constitutional jurisprudence of religious freedom. On the other hand, in no other modern setting has religious freedom been so supportive of a vibrant religious practice, which has in turn secured the very cultural foundations of democracy, as in these United States. Moreover, the vigorous debate on the dimensions of a Catholic theory of human rights conducted by American Catholic theologians of various philosophical and political persuasions—the names Michael Novak, Mary Ann Glendon, and David Hollenbach come immediately to mind—has often been of a very high caliber, and ought surely to have a role in shaping the future reflection of the Church’s formal teaching authority on these matters. Here, then, on this matter of religious freedom and the Catholic human rights revolution, is a natural candidate for inclusion under the rubric of “taking America more seriously.”

There are other candidates for inclusion that come readily to mind—for example, the American experience of democratic capitalism as a moral-cultural model for economic development, or the leadership responsibilities of the West in general and America in particular in pursuit of a new world order—but their adequate elaboration would require more space than is here available.

But it is clear in any case that the future development of modern Catholic social teaching will be strengthened if, in addition to its many other conversation partners on this vastly diverse planet, the magisterium of the Church continues to take the American experiment seriously as one paradigm for discerning the problems and possibilities of human freedom. Conversely, the future of the American experiment will be more secure if John Paul II’s teaching on the inherently moral nature of human freedom is more regularly reflected in our public discourse.

In 1884, the Catholic bishops of the United States were bold enough to claim that “our country’s heroes were the instruments of the God of nations in establishing this home of freedom.” We may prefer a more modest reading of the workings of Providence in history. But not too modest, I hope. In the renewal of the American experiment, and in the further development of modern Catholic social teaching, it is not to be regarded as merely an accident of chronology that the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter and Washington’s (real) Birthday both fall on February 22.

George Weigel is President of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. An expanded version of this essay will appear in Being Christian Today: An American Conversation, edited by Mr. Weigel and Richard John Neuhaus, and available in June from the EPPC.