Peter Kwasniewski, a professor at Wyoming Catholic College and a frequent commentator, has recently published A Reader in Catholic Social Teaching. The Reader includes encyclicals from Pius IX’s Quanta Cura to Benedict XVI’s Deus Caritas Est. In many ways, it upends the traditional narrative of Catholic Social Teaching, proposing through its selections a vision beyond unions and fair wages. This vision addresses political life more generally and more thoroughly than the narrow economic scope usually claimed for Catholic Social Teaching.
In this interview, Kwasniewski explains the vision behind the book, which recovers key sources of the Church’s anti-liberal tradition, at a time when more people are questioning the foundations and value of liberalism. He also discusses the process of selecting, editing, and correcting the papal documents, as well as the new translation of the controversial Declaration on Religious Liberty, Dignitatis Humanae.
Patrick J. Smith: My first question is, Why now? Is there any particular reason you have brought out the Reader at this moment?
Peter Kwasniewski: This book, you could say, has been in the works for over twenty years. It began in an extracurricular seminar at Thomas Aquinas College, then morphed into a reading packet at the International Theological Institute, and reached its final form as the main textbook for Wyoming Catholic College’s required senior-level course in moral theology. After all this R&D, I felt I had a book that would be valuable to others. That being said, this moment happens to be a very good time to bring out a book that contains such documents as Leo XIII’s Libertas Praestantissimum, Pius XI’s Casti Connubii, and John Paul II’s Veritatis Splendor, since the doctrine of these and other classic encyclicals is being contradicted regularly nowadays, even by those in high places in the Church.
PJS: Before talking about the contents of the Reader, I have to say that I was struck by something you mentioned in the introduction: how terrible the readily accessible translations of many of these documents are. Even for those of us with rusty Latin, it is often obvious that the translations are shoddy. It seems as though you went to great pains to correct many, many errors. Could you describe how you went about correcting these documents?
PAK: Yes, it can be an embarrassment to look at Vatican documents online. There are two kinds of problems. In the old days, let’s say prior to the Second Vatican Council, we find generally reliable translations—but the electronic transcription of the texts was obviously done in haste, resulting in many typographical errors. The other kind of problem is more insidious: bad translations from the original Latin (or, as I guess we have to say nowadays, from the “normative” Latin version, which is itself usually a translation from Italian or French). I have found a few dozen places where translations either omit material, introduce phrases, or go off in idiosyncratic directions. All such things, naturally, had to be corrected whenever I spotted them. But a line-by-line comparison of all the translations with their sources would be the task of a lifetime. Maybe someday we will get fresh translations of all of these encyclicals.
PJS: Turning to the content of the Reader, it is common to hear—even from some well-informed Catholics—that the social magisterium began in 1891 with Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum. It proceeded by way of some occasional interventions until 1991, when John Paul II issued Centesimus Annus. Your Reader begins somewhat earlier, with Pius IX’s Quanta Cura and Syllabus of Errors of 1864. Why begin, as it were, before the beginning?
PAK: I have to admit it is quite frustrating when people reduce Catholic Social Teaching to economics: labor-capital relations, workers’ unions, minimum wage laws, the problems of socialism and libertarianism, that sort of thing. All this is no doubt important, as I discuss in a foreword to Thomas Storck’s new book An Economics of Justice and Charity. But even Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum makes reference to a panoply of earlier encyclicals that furnish the larger social, political, cultural, and religious context for tackling any of these economic matters.
Basically, what has happened with CST is comparable to what has happened with marriage and family: We spend a lot of time talking about contraception and abortion and bioethical dilemmas, and unfortunately we must do so, given the gravity of these evils and the obsessions of our day—but as a result we can fail to see, or at least fail to communicate to others, the profound truth of the sacrament of matrimony, which is the foundation of all the rules and prohibitions. In CST, too, we find an inspiring theological vision that precipitates or necessitates certain economic elements. But those elements are decisively secondary. And until we recover the ancient and deeply Catholic axiom of the primacy of the common good, which is also the primacy of supernaturalized politics and Christianized culture, we cannot make much sense out of the narrower Rerum Novarum tradition.
This new Reader is an attempt, you might say, at ressourcement: I want the reader to start with—and spend a lot of time on—fundamental principles. Obviously, one could easily make a book twice the length, or a whole series of books, so one has to begin somewhere. Pius IX, “Pio Nono,” is arguably the first of the modern popes who fully grasped the inherent tendencies of liberalism. He diagnosed the ideological ills of modern Europe, as a pathologist identifies diseases. The Syllabus, then, is a perennially valid frame of reference for coming to grips with the revolt of modern thinkers and statesmen against the Church, from the Reformation through the Enlightenment and into the buzzing swarm of
-isms of the past century and a half. Indeed, as time passes, the Syllabus grows rather than wanes in relevance.
PJS: I’m paraphrasing badly, but Aristotle and Thomas talk of politics as, ultimately, ordered to producing virtuous citizens. However, there is a modern—very liberal—sense that political life and ethical life are separate. The liberal may be a believer or a political animal, but never both at the same time. We see an example of this today when we hear about Catholic politicians who try to find elaborate justifications for pro-abortion positions. Do you think reclaiming a broader, more political understanding of Catholic social teaching is part of the cure for this disease?
PAK: There is a terrible temptation nowadays to tunnel vision. We have become habituated to compartmentalization. “Autonomous” is thought to be one of the best things you can say about something—in spite of the fact that Satan is the most autonomous, and he’s not enjoying it at all. Traditional CST, on the other hand, is radically opposed to such fragmentation and atomization. It proceeds from a unified vision of the hierarchical harmony of the goods for which we strive and, as a result, it is capable of making a penetrating analysis of real-world situations and of inspiring holistic, effective responses to them.
What I think has happened in the past sixty years or so is that too many Catholics have lost their confidence in both the truths of faith and the truths of reason; we’ve lost our confidence in the analytic and synthetic power of our own tradition. We chose to accommodate ourselves to the secularism around us, rather than challenging it from top to bottom, confronting it with an alternative. The melancholy refrain of the Old Testament—“And the children of Israel forsook the Lord, the God of their fathers, and followed other gods, the gods of the peoples who were round about them . . . they played the whore after other gods and bowed themselves down to them”—applies perfectly to the dominant trends in the Catholic Church, at least in the Western world. Among other things, we have consented to the violent annexation of politics by liberalism and resigned ourselves to endless partisan quarrels over policy issues and economics. This has meant, in practice, the loss of almost all of the impact that CST was meant to have and could have if it were fully, seriously embraced. Our sights are set far too low. We are content with mediocrity when we should be animated by noble ideals. The Reader is meant to be at cross purposes with the prevailing postconciliar accommodationist paradigm.
PJS: Despite beginning with Quanta Cura and Syllabus, you do not ignore Leo XIII. In fact, Leo XIII is represented extremely well. (A quick look at the table of contents confirms that the Reader includes more documents from Leo than from anyone else.) Why the emphasis on Leo XIII?
PAK: One sees in the magisterium of Leo XIII a careful working out of the necessary connections between metaphysics (what man is—a rational, social animal), ethics (the achievement of happiness through a life of virtue), politics (the ordering of the city, in its authority and in its laws, to the common good), and religion (God as the first beginning and last end of all reality, including society and regime). After decades of study, I have come to see Leo as the “Aristotle of CST.” Aristotle couldn’t have done what he did without the Presocratics and Plato, nor would his ideas have reached fruition without Albert, Aquinas, and other scholastics, but he still stands in a class by himself, as the one who first created the sciences. Leo, too, taking up the best in his predecessors, creates a “science” of CST, and most of what follows has the nature of a commentary on his work. You see this again and again in the actual documents. Nearly everything Pius XI wrote on social ethics, be it on marriage, communism, fascism, capitalism, begins with a homage to and a detailed engagement with Leo. The writings of John Paul II evince a similar deference to Leo.
Just in terms of page numbers, however, John Paul II is represented in this collection more than Leo XIII (220 pages for the one, 131 pages for the other; this partly has to do with the fact that papal documents become significantly longer as time goes on). Drawing on his experiences in Poland, and with his formidable philosophical training and poetic sensibility, Wojtyła was uniquely positioned to analyze the intersection of culture, society, politics, and religion. He cannot vie with Leo XIII at the level of articulating principles, but he adds a certain fullness and nuance to the body of teaching he inherited, especially in the realm of marriage and family.
PJS: Do you think that recovering—though for many Catholics with integralist sympathies, perhaps “recovering” is the wrong word—the fullness of Leo’s magisterium will change how we read Rerum Novarum?
PAK: Yes. The economic reforms Leo proposes in Rerum Novarum can never succeed within the confines of Enlightenment philosophy—within, say, a social contract understanding of society, authority, and law, where the common good is the sum total of private goods determined by a calculus of self-interest. Leo critiques all of this with devastating perspicacity, showing where it comes from and where it will lead. The economic piece fits into a larger picture.
PJS: In any book like this, choices have to be made. You did not include John XXIII’s two encyclicals often cited in this context, Mater et Magistra and Pacem in Terris, the Second Vatican Council’s attempt at a social document, Gaudium et Spes, or Paul VI’s Populorum Progressio. For example, Pacem in Terris is often cited in support of rights much in dispute today, such as a right to healthcare. Why not include any of these documents?
PAK: The reasons are largely pragmatic. There is a lot of repetition in the social documents of the magisterium, partly because there seems to be an unwritten assumption on the part of later popes, a slightly odd one if you ask me, that none of their readers has bothered or will bother to read the earlier stuff, so each pope needs to spend a lot of time summarizing everything that came before. Of course, this has some hermeneutical value in itself, as a doctrine repeated is a doctrine more firmly taught and established; but it makes it easier for a professor to say “Okay, let’s skip that, since we’ve just read something similar.” I have found, after many years of teaching CST, that “less is more”: If we do a close reading of, e.g., Rerum Novarum, Quadragesimo Anno, and passages from Centesimus Annus, it’s enough for an introduction.
Then there are some reasons particular to certain popes or texts. John XXIII may have had many fine qualities, but his social documents are rather weak. They tend to be page after page of sheer assertion, in grandiose United Nations style, with little argumentation to back it up. It is nearly the opposite of Leo XIII, who argues to every conclusion with ironclad syllogisms and a battery of Scripture citations. A proclamation of noble-sounding human rights was no doubt all the rage in the post-war era, but it rings a bit hollow to the jaded ear of post-modern man. Jacques Maritain was well and good back then; today, his political works are positively painful to read in their voluminous naiveté. The Reader privileges documents that argue from principles to conclusions rather than documents that optimistically appeal to everyone’s goodwill and progressive growth in consciousness.
The other thing I have noticed is that each person who spends time with magisterial documents will inevitably end up with a set of personal favorites. Perhaps we found in them certain striking phrases or passages that became for us a lens through which we now see the world, or a key that we bring to other documents. As a result, we will be surprised when looking at any collection put together by someone else: “How could they not have included [insert title]? That’s essential!” But as I’ve hinted already, a complete CST collection would probably comprise ten volumes of the size of this one. My final selection has been the result of experimenting with documents for almost twenty years in classes with undergraduate and graduate students, trying to find the best way to expose the foundations—the “principles, elements, and causes,” as Aristotle would have it—of this area of moral theology. As a Great Books advocate, I wanted to find the closest thing to the “Great Books of CST.” In reading this selection, one is drinking copiously from the most limpid and refreshing streams. It is relatively easy then to branch out to other popes and other documents, if one has been gripped and inspired by what one finds here.
PJS: One does not want to dwell too much on documents that did not make the cut, but some of your choices from the recent popes are surprising. For example, though you include Benedict’s Deus Caritas Est, you do not include Caritas in Veritate. And you include nothing from Francis. Why not include more from Benedict or Francis’s Laudato Si’?
PAK: Earlier I was speaking about the need to question and overturn the secularist ideology that finds its perfect expression in the axiomatic dogma of the separation of Church and State—the sort of critique Alasdair MacIntyre has pursued in the field of ethics for a long time now, but that the rest of the Church has been surprisingly slow to pick up on. Most of our bishops are still dancing to the tunes of the sixties and seventies, as if it’s the Summer of Love. As R. R. Reno argued in the December issue of First Things, the most pressing danger to the integrity and even the existence of Catholicism in the modern West is bourgeois accommodationism. Sadly, Pope Francis and his global enforcers seem to be the principal agents for that project—I mean the project of yoking and subordinating the Catholic Church to the secularist version of human rights, environmentalism, the sexual and gender revolutions, and so forth. It seems like the farther back you go, the pithier, wiser, and more consistently principled are the documents of the magisterium. These older documents pack more of a punch, tell us more important things, and, paradoxically, offer us more of the help we actually need today, rather than hitting us over the head with fashionable ideas we are already stewing in.
This reminds me of a fictional exchange I saw. One person asks: “What are youth looking for today in the Church?” A youth responds: “Orthodoxy, reverence, beauty.” The other replies: “So, then, you want more guitar Masses?” This is how it is with CST. What are we looking for? A compelling vision of a genuinely Christian society we can hold up as a model, aspire to, and work for. The hunger and thirst for such a society—the inescapable need of it for human flourishing—explains the enormous popularity of the “Benedict Option,” which I have argued is too weak a term. We should speak of the “Benedict Imperative.”
This is why, for instance, I have included Veritatis Splendor in full. The problem that towers over us is not the morality of recycling plastic or making better immigration policies, although I do wish we could reduce our dependence on non-biodegradable packaging, and I do hope we continue to search for reasonable solutions to immigration that respect both the dignity of persons and the rights and duties of sovereign nations. The problem is much more radical: the modern West’s rejection of objective morality, grounded in divine wisdom and intrinsic to human nature, the knowing and following of which is the only path to individual happiness and a just social order. The condition for the possibility of any serious Christian evangelization and social commitment is an unequivocal acceptance of the primacy of God the Creator, the radical demands of the law of Christ (“love one another as I have loved you”), and the power of the Holy Spirit to equip us to follow it. Put it this way: Without the bedrock foundation defended in Veritatis Splendor, there is nothing left of individual or social ethics. CST goes right out the window.
The same thing is true of our understanding of love and charity. Modern people are thoroughly confused about what love is—and if one gets this wrong, one will not have a clue about what a “civilization of love” is supposed to be or look like. “Love and do what you will” becomes a motto for Woodstock. It was precisely to address this chaotic situation that Benedict XVI wrote Deus Caritas Est, which I would maintain is almost as basic to the enterprise of CST as Veritatis Splendor is. By comparison, Caritas in Veritate is like jazz riffs on a familiar tune.
PJS: Turning back to what you do include, I noted with some excitement that you present a new, more accurate translation of Dignitatis humanae. Why?
PAK: As we were saying before, official Vatican translations succeed to varying degrees. The two English translations of Dignitatis Humanae that were made decades ago are inadequate. And given that this is one of the most controversial documents of all times, a fresh, precise, word-for-word translation is an enormous boon.
PJS: Do you think a better translation will settle some of the debates about Dignitatis humanae?
PAK: I wouldn’t necessarily go that far. The experts who are debating the document are already intimately familiar with what it says and doesn’t say (see this marvelous collection of papers, which I highly recommend). However, Michael Pakaluk’s translation brings out much more clearly than before how the authors who drafted the document are drawing upon magisterial and scholastic ways of thinking and speaking, a fact blurred by the woollier translations of the immediate post-Council.
PJS: Also, I see you have quite a bit of material on marriage and family.
PAK: If marriage is the God-given structure in which the family is rooted, and if families are the basic cells of society, then our social and political woes are traceable to cancer in these cells. That cancer spreads to every other organ and eventually brings down the body politic. And this is all the more reason to resist tendencies in the Church to compromise or water down in any way whatsoever the truth about indissoluble, faithful, fruitful marriage.
PJS: I was surprised to see Pius XII’s Ci Riesce instead of, for example, his fiftieth anniversary radio address on Rerum novarum, delivered on Pentecost 1941. Why Ci Riesce? Does it have anything to do with the increasingly acrimonious political situation, not only in the United States, but also in other countries? For example, France and Germany just had bruising elections.
PAK: It’s there for the sake of putting Dignitatis Humanae into a larger philosophical-theological context—something the Declaration itself sorely lacks. Basically, Ci Riesce is the “missing link” between Leo XIII’s Immortale Dei and Vatican II. I’m not saying that it solves every difficulty, but only that it is pretty much impossible to make heads or tails of the Declaration without a close look at Pius XII’s address. I do recognize, as you say, that Pius XII delivered many fine speeches and radio addresses on social ethics. What I said earlier about Maritain is true to a lesser extent of Pacelli: Some of these speeches read like period pieces, more so than the work of earlier and later popes. It is interesting to me that Pius XII never wrote a social encyclical (with the possible exception of Summi Pontificatus of 1939, depending on how one classifies it). He does not seem to have wanted to elevate his own contribution to social doctrine to a more central place in his magisterium; it was enough for him to adapt Leo XIII and Pius XI to the specific needs of a world ravaged by ideology and warfare.
PJS: In the introduction to the Reader, you mention that it can be used for a one- or two-semester course in Catholic social teaching. You’ve already mentioned that the Reader developed out of your own experiences at the International Theological Institute and Wyoming Catholic College. Would the Reader also be suitable for the kind of “extracurricular seminars” you recall so fondly, or informal reading groups?
PAK: Yes, absolutely. I could imagine productive and animated reading group discussions based on this collection. Obviously the members would have to be seriously committed to the project, as this isn’t light reading. Right after the Preface I provide a suggested syllabus that divides up the book’s content into 24 manageable assignments, taking a thematic approach (the book itself is laid out chronologically). It was reading almost exactly the same set of documents back in college that opened my mind to the possibility and desirability of a Catholic social order, so I do hope this book will help others to have that liberating experience, too.
P.J. Smith writes from southern Indiana.