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Is Catholicism Conservative?

Is Catholicism Conservative?

Christopher Sessums

Fr Dwight Longenecker - published on 10/16/13

The Church doesn't endorse a particular political party, but the Church isn't neutral either. Two new books make a persuasive case that Catholicism is inherently conservative in principle.

It’s a common saying that in polite society you should not talk about politics, sex, or religion. I guess that makes me impolite, because I think politics, sex, and religion are the only three topics of real interest.

Even more interesting is when the three get mixed up together. It’s like gunpowder, fire, and air being mixed. There’s likely to be a big explosion.

I was therefore pleased to receive two books for review, which complement one another in their discussion of religious liberty, political freedom, and economic theory. Samuel Gregg is a research director of the Acton Institute. An Oxford educated Australian, his latest book Tea Party Catholic – The Catholic Case for Limited Government, A Free Economy, andHuman Flourishing doesn’t touch much on sex, but there is plenty about money, politics and religion. 

Catholics have too often fallen into the easy trap of conflating their political opinions with their political views. So left-wingers latch on to the Catholic Church’s “preferential option for the poor” and think that means Marxism. Right-wingers pick out the Catholic Church’s condemnation of socialism and conclude that Catholicism backs an unrestrained free market economy. 

The prevailing assumption among many American Catholics is that the Democratic Party is the Catholic party because they want to help the poor. A strong minority of American Catholics think the Republican Party should be favored because they’re for personal responsibility. Samuel Gregg encourages us to think more deeply about the relationship between Catholicism and the economic theories behind political movements.

Gregg shows how a properly understood free market system is rooted in Catholic history and social teaching, and how it undergirds and fosters true freedom and what Gregg calls “human flourishing.” Human flourishing is more than simply acquiring more money; instead, it is a truly abundant life in which individuals, families, and communities can prosper together.

Gregg analyzes the ideas of religious freedom for Catholics, and in his second chapter shows how political and economic freedom are inextricably linked. The heart of his study is the most important – the third chapter deals with the Catholic principles of solidarity and subsidiarity. Solidarity, simply explained, is the love of our neighbor. We are called to care for one another in community. Subsidiarity is the idea that problems are best solved at the local level. Gregg shows how the two principles are necessarily connected. The way we best care for others is through local organizations, community groups, churches, schools, and charities.

When solidarity is destroyed by an undue emphasis on individualism, we start to assume that “somebody up there” will take care of things. When we stop caring for our neighbor, we assume that Big Brother will take charge, and Gregg points out that the more we relinquish our responsibilities to Big Government, the more Big Government will take over. When that happens, our freedoms vanish and the tyranny of the totalitarian state sweeps in.

Gregg goes on to explain why religious freedom is “the first freedom,” discussing how social justice is best worked out in a free market economy. He envisions Catholic Americans as an increasingly “creative minority” – standing up for certain principles and values in the midst of a decaying and confused society. In his introduction to this important book, the cultural theologian Michael Novak quotes Charles Carroll’s words of warning:

"Liberty will maintain her empire, till a dissoluteness of morals, luxury, and venality shall have prepared the degenerate sons of some future age, to prefer their own mean lucre, the bribes and the smiles of corruption and arbitrary ministers, to patriotism, to glory and to the public weal."

Samuel Gregg’s book is a solidly argued and sobering call to an America adrift in exactly the kind of degeneracy that Carroll predicted. The great thing about Gregg’s book is that it is not an attempt to make a Catholic argument for the Republican Party or the Tea Party movement. It is, instead, a clearly explained way forward into a future that combines personal freedom and responsibility with community care and the prosperity of human flourishing.

Gregg’s book would have been improved with a chapter on the influence of the media in political dialogue. A critique on the media’s superficiality and the increasingly uncritical left and right wing partisanship in the media quashes real discussion and the chance for a positive and powerful “third way” emerging from the right-left impasse. Progress towards the realization of Gregg’s ideas will only happen through communication of those ideas, and for this, an intelligent and informed debate in the media is crucial.

Along with a vital debate in the media will be the relationships forged between key thinkers and politicians. The political theologian Michael Novak is a prime example of how an intellectual can influence the course of history. Novak’s introduction to Gregg’s book made for a good introduction to Novak’s own autobiography. 

Writing from Left to Right – My Journey from Liberal to Conservative is a fascinating story of how a working class son of immigrant Catholics from Pennsylvania worked his way through college to become one of the nation’s most influential intellectuals. It is all the more fascinating, because Novak begins his career firmly in the camp of the “Kennedy Catholics” and ends up being a Reagan-style conservative.

Novak’s life story provides the vehicle for a look at the same topics that Gregg covers in academic detail. Michael Novak begins his adult life as a Catholic seminarian, and as he later discerns that this is not to be his vocation, he advances through the academic world, connecting with politicians and political thinkers. Remarkably, he does so not as an economist, politician, or sociologist, but as a theologian. Influenced by the Lutheran thinker Reinhold Niebuhr and Catholic philosophers Jacques Maritain and John Courtney Murray, Novak brings Catholic moral theology into the public square and changes history by influencing the major players on the geo-political stage.

Michael Novak recounts his friendship with Sargent Shriver, George McGovern, Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II. As he tells the story of his remarkable life, he also charts the conversion in his thought. 

Starting as a typical left-wing Catholic, Novak comes to see the failure of the big government solution. A clear turning point is when he sees the pitiful result of socialism and asks his left-wing friends which example of socialism they would advocate: China? Cuba? Albania? Sweden? Russia? They are mute. He sees that socialism is nothing more than a dreamy idea, which becomes first a dreadful ideology then a deadly tyranny.

Novak is especially good in analyzing why capitalism “works,” citing its basis in self-interest. However, this is not simply Gordon Gecko saying, “Greed is good.” Novak explains that capitalism works because it is realistic, and that the self-interest that provides the motor for the free market needs to be balanced by Christian moral values. Catholic social teaching provides for the ownership of capital and the just reward of labor, but it also demands personal responsibility and the proper care for workers, the poor, and the vulnerable. Capitalism works, but if it is not built on a foundation of personal virtue, it will soon crumble.

Michael Novak’s winning personality shines through his clear and direct writing style, but we get the impression that this is the Michael Novak with his tie fixed and hair combed. I would have liked more of Novak’s personal story. He touches on his love for his wife, but we do not hear much about her or their family. Children and grandchildren appear fleetingly. The book would have had more personal depth had we been given entry past the professional Michael Novak to the personal Michael Novak.

That being saidWriting From Left to Right is a fascinating memoir, and taken with Gregg’s book we are given both theory and experience. Gregg explains the thought behind an intelligent and fully Catholic social system, while Novak tells the story of one Catholic’s journey discovering that truth in the midst of the rough-and-tumble of international politics.

Fr. Dwight Longenecker’s latest book, The Romance of Religion, is to be published by Thomas Nelson in February. Visit his blog, browse his books, and be in touch at

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