Reviving the Church's Social Doctrine for the 21st Century

IHS Press Reprints Old Texts for New Audiences

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NORFOLK, Virginia, SEPT. 11, 2003 ( There’s nothing new under the sun, says the Book of Ecclesiastes. John Sharpe thinks that adage is particularly applicable to social ills.

That’s why Sharpe started IHS Press, a publishing company aimed at making old books on Catholic social teaching available to a contemporary audience.

Sharpe, a free-lance writer and lecturer who founded IHS two years ago, shared with ZENIT why books written decades ago can be so important to understanding and healing society today.

Q: What inspired the creation of IHS Press?

Sharpe: The Press was created to fill a gap. There are books on all kinds of Catholic subjects readily available, except for serious works on politics and economics from a Catholic standpoint. Much of the Catholic social justice writings from the 1960s and 1970s have a Marxist or materialist bent.

The clear, substantial works on what a Catholic society should look like come from the 1930s, the last decade to witness a serious movement for Catholic social principles. IHS was formed to help people rediscover those works, and to form a movement of people concerned about where society is headed. People can base their sense of what’s wrong with the world on the clear thinking of Catholic social teaching.

Q: What is Catholic social teaching, and how is it an alternative to the political ideologies of today?

Sharpe: Catholic social teaching is that part of Catholic moral teaching that deals with man’s social life — it suggests what society should look like in its social, political and economic aspects, based upon the ultimate purpose of temporal life in society.

The social doctrine teaches principles specific enough to identify what’s right and wrong, but general enough to allow the laity to work out the details of temporal life in conformity with those principles.

Catholic social teaching bases its approach on truths that philosophy teaches and that revelation confirms; thus it differs from other political positions in that it is founded upon the truth and is not merely pragmatic. This is fundamentally different than all other ideologies — the social doctrine differs not only in its approach to sociopolitical questions but also in its underlying assumptions.

Other political positions differ equally from the social doctrine in that they tend to be: skeptical, not recognizing an absolute Truth upon which to base political action; materialist, seeing the purpose of man’s life in society as mere enjoyment of this life, rather than as preparation for the next; and naturalist, not recognizing the existence of realities and truths that cannot be seen, touched and measured.

The social doctrine approaches politics in a radically different way. For Catholics, political life is a question of practicing virtue within the context of social living, and any structure of society that encourages virtue is to be praised because it helps people get to heaven. The opposite is true for societies that encourage vice — like ours — or make the practice of virtue difficult.

There are points of overlap between modern political positions and the social doctrine. Opposition to abortion, unlimited immigration, support for workers’ rights and concern for the poor are all positions that the social doctrine supports.

Non-Catholics can accept the various principles of the social doctrine without accepting the Church because the principles reflect the natural law, which based upon reason. So Catholics and others can collaborate in certain specific areas for specific policies that conform to Catholic social principles.

As a complete sociopolitical creed the social doctrine really is a third way that isn’t just between the Left and Right — it rather transcends both Left and Right and rises above them with its own vision of social order.

Q: Why is it important to rediscover the writings of the Catholic social thinkers of the early 20th century? What wisdom can they offer?

Sharpe: The thinkers of the 1930s were confronting the problems that we face today: unemployment, an industrialized economy, a financial system with ridiculous national debts and rampant usury. Their approach to these problems was based upon an articulation and application — without compromise or apology — of the true Catholic position.

Today, sadly, there is a tendency of some to water down the teachings of the Church, to adapt them to the world. Many works on the Catholic social vision are neutralized by a desire to not shock modern readers too much and to affirm aspects of modern society as acceptable that are not acceptable at all.

The thinkers from before World War II spoke the truth in all its purity — which is why our program takes their work as a starting point and hopes to pick up from there.

Q: The editors of IHS Press have stated that they are convinced the wisdom of Catholic social thought is, today, largely a buried treasure, relatively untapped and almost wholly neglected. Why do you think it was forgotten and has not been rediscovered until now?

Sharpe: World War II and Vatican II. These were two major events of the 20th century that somewhat eclipsed the work being done in implementing the Church’s social principles.

World War II seemed to confirm the triumph of capitalism and political liberalism, so that it became difficult, if not ungrateful, to oppose them. Laissez-faire economics and secular democracy — never mind that it was allied with militant, atheist Communism — triumphed over the Axis.

To many people, that physical triumph suggested that capitalism and political liberalism were in fact morally right, though the conclusion doesn’t follow at all. The position of papal teaching is that neither capitalism nor liberalism is an ideal social system.

Following World War II, criticisms of them could be dismissed as either totalitarian, politically; or socialist or communist, economically. Today, however, in the era of stock market bubbles, Enron, Wal-Mart, the Patriot Act and a tendentious war on terror, it is easy to see that the triumph of liberalism and capitalism in the 1940s was not an unmitigated blessing for humanity.

Nevertheless, the movements that flourished in the 1930s were decimated, at least ideologically, by the war.

The Distributist League, founded in 1926, fizzled away. The Scottish and English Catholic Land Movements, founded in 1929, ended in the middle 1940s.

And the Catholic schools of thought in France — theirs was corporatism — and Germany — the solidarism of Heinrich Pesch — were respectively discredited with the fall of the Vichy government in France, which had implemented a good bit of Catholic social doctrine, or drowned out by the din of the rise and fall of the Third Reich.

Meanwhile, the confusion accompanying the implementation of Vatican II throughout the world was later to do as much damage to the theoretical prospects of the social doctrine as World War II did to the practical prospects.

It has to be admitted — as many prominent churchmen including Cardinal Ratzinger have said — that the interpretation of the truths of the faith were, in some circles, watered down during the late 1960s and early 1970s. The social doctrine suffered a similar fate.

Even though the council documents suggest that the Catholic layman has the duty of implementing Catholic principles in social life, some reinterpreted those principles in a worldly context.

On the Left were the liberation theologians and Marxist priests who lost all sense of the otherworldly destiny of man and thought that Christian social action consisted in initiating a material paradise on earth. On the Right there was — and still is, in a bad way — a tendency to shy away from criticizing capitalism for fear of seeming reactionary.
So, the Church’s clear stance
against economic liberalism was and is watered down into a kind of Catholic capitalism that doesn’t square with the faith.

If in some circles Vatican II was used to try to appease the modern world by meeting it on its own terms — that, too, undercut any attempt to conform the world to the faith according to Catholic principles.

Everyone now admits that the effects of Vatican II weren’t all marvelous. That, along with the realization that the post-World War II triumph of liberalism and capitalism weren’t unmitigated blessings, provides the opportunity for a restatement, re-appreciation and implementation of the integral social doctrine.

Q: Why does your press highlight the writings of thinkers who call themselves “Distributists”?

Sharpe: The Distributist School was the main group of English thinkers from the 1930s who enunciated the vision of Catholic social doctrine with the most clarity and vigor. They wrote in English and are accessible to us. G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, both famous in their own right, were among their numbers.

Most important, though, is their clear articulation of the Catholic position in the face of the twin evils confronting it — capitalism and socialism. They understood that position fully, enunciated it in excellent prose and acted upon it by founding leagues, movements and journals that attempted to conduct an effective propaganda for the social doctrine and to make it a reality in the world.

One example is a book by Harold Robbins, a leader of both the Catholic Land Movement and the Distributist League, called “The Sun of Justice — An Essay on the Social Teaching of the Church.” That book is one of the best on the Distributist case for the social doctrine.

The Distributists are a very good place to start in beginning to reconstruct and re-popularize the social doctrine, and in attempting to implement the solutions it offers to the manifold problems facing the modern world.

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