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Is Catholicism Conservative?

Christopher Sessums

Fr Dwight Longenecker - published on 10/16/13

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.

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