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Reinhard Marx, the Cardinal Archbishop of Munich and Freising, is a genial man with a sense of humor, as I’ve learned in conversations with him. Given his last name, it was a clever stroke to title his 2008 book on Catholic social thought Das Kapital: A Plea for Man . As head of the German bishops’ committee on social questions, he has been a strong advocate for curbs on what Europeans often refer to as “savage capitalism.”

Cardinal Marx spoke recently at a luncheon sponsored by Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. Unfortunately, his counterparts in dialogue were mostly Catholics of the social justice variety, which meant that the cardinal largely heard from people who already agreed with him“albeit without his degree of sophistication.

Participants queried him about what steps Europeans should take to solve their several crises. Cardinal Marx strongly favors sweeping measures. He thinks that Europeans need to “do something” for Spain, for example, where unemployment among the young is an astonishing 50 percent.

It would be wrong to simply dismiss an entire nation as being ‘outside’ the realm of solidarity, he rightly argued. But it was on this precise point that, had he heard some American voices about the actual practice of institutions“and about not being deluded by bromides about international solidarity“the Cardinal might have come away enriched himself.

After all, it wasn’t a lack of European transfer payments that sent Greece and Spain into crisis. Rather, the crises were largely of these nations’ own making, involving the endless inflation of social initiatives, health care programs, pensions, and unemployment insurance, until this ill-advised form of solidarity began to founder.

Such measures attract support from believers because people, despite a dominant American meme, aren’t exclusively committed to freedom. As we can see from recent history, they’re willing“in many different nations and cultures“to trade some liberty for security. The problem arises when temperate steps towards increasing security turn into a network of roads, back alleys, and superhighways to serfdom“which is what Europe now has.

It’s worthwhile for Americans to hear European voices like Cardinal Marx, of course. But it is also important that Europeans who come here are challenged, as well“particularly by our American cautiousness about the tendencies of states, institutions, and power structures in general. But as the audience tried to egg him on at Georgetown, it was clear that Marx had no concrete proposals, at least none that he wanted to state publicly, other than unspecified “action.”

Partly, this was a proper caution on his part, since the Church is not a school of economics or transnational politics and can only speak in general terms about the need for solidarity and subsidiarity in pursuing justice. Yet Marx’s assertion that the “experts” could work out all the details shows a fundamental asymmetry in Catholic social thought.

When less statist thinkers examine CST, they find its minimalism just fine because it allows flexibility in pursuit of the common good. More liberal interpreters, by contrast, grow frustrated with the limits of the theory because they’re invested in believing that CST offers concrete“almost obvious“policy solutions.

It doesn’t. It has principles that have to be turned into policies and tested, in various circumstances, in the real world.

In addition to this weakness, there is a danger that the broad language of CST will simply provoke yawns from the secular world. Cardinal Marx, for instance, made much of the fact that Catholics believe in the infinite worth of every human being. He probably intended this to cover human life everywhere from the womb to the nursing home and the various places in between where human life is threatened today. Pope Benedict XVI, too, said recently that every human person is a gift from God, with similar overtones implied.

Nevertheless, the Church and other Christian groups should use this line sparingly and only for specific purposes. Our culture already does a pretty fair job in producing large numbers of people who think they’re God’s gift to the world. Appearing to tell them what they already think about themselves neither attracts them to Christianity nor helps overcome narcissism. Indeed, at Georgetown, some in the audience took precisely this line to as implying that we ought to get away from Catholic moralism, which actually asks something of individuals, and simply show people what a wonderfully rich “alternative”“which is to say an activist, leftist political position“Catholic social teaching supposedly represents.

These are among the several reasons Christian humanism has been so weak in the competition with other current forms of humanism. ‘Dignity and worth’ rhetoric worked well in Cold War politics, but even the great John Paul II was more successful in helping to bring down the explicit Communist insult to the human person than he was in turning the self-indulgent West away from its own idolatry of individual choices and whims.

It’s a hard slog in this culture to say to people that they have to bow down to the will of another, even if the other is God. But without carefully working out the implications of Christian thought about both personal and social morality, the Church’s witness will melt, as it already often does, into a vague, sentimental, and impractical do-goodism.

Robert Royal is president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C., and author of, among other books, The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West.

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