By Thomas Storck
Thus liberalism, as used in papal documents, and as it affects the economic order, means something like what John Paul II has called "rigid capitalism" or "unbridled capitalism," a more or less free-market approach to the economy. It obviously includes important elements of what we in the United States call conservatism. Now let us turn to the Acton Institute's own statements and see how they characterize the relations of liberalism and Catholicism.
In a column in the September/October 1997 issue of Religion & Liberty, Fr. Sirico writes of John Paul II's encyclical Centesimus Annus, and asserts that in that document "two traditions have come together...religious orthodoxy and classical liberal social theory...." Whether Fr. Sirico's claim that Centesimus does indeed accept the liberal tradition is true or not, we will examine later, but it is interesting that Fr. Sirico is not bold enough to claim that the Church has always accepted the free market, for in the same article he writes that
the Church, during certain periods, has strongly criticized what was construed to be the free society, partly because some social thinkers conflated the theories of economic liberalism with moral libertinism, viewing them as one in the same and as mutually reinforcing.
But now, he claims, because "of the courage of John Paul II and his case in favor of the free society... No longer do we feel compelled to speak of classical liberalism and religious orthodoxy as belonging to two separate intellectual worlds."
Thus we have Fr. Sirico's frank admission that he stands in the tradition of liberal thought, so that if we find the Church has always condemned that tradition, then logically Fr. Sirico's entire enterprise will fall. For the popes objected to the tradition of liberalism not merely because they saw it as promoting "moral libertinism," but because their conception of the task of government is entirely at odds with Fr. Sirico's. The government as such is a creation of God, and as such has duties toward God and toward its subjects. It is not a mere enforcer of contracts, but must have an active care for the common good.
In the same article Fr. Sirico has some interesting words about Lord Acton. Speaking of the conflict between the Catholic and liberal traditions, Sirico says,
As the tensions mounted in the latter half of the nineteenth century, the allegiances of men such as Lord Acton were torn as they came to believe that they had to choose between spiritual authority and the dictates of reason, a situation the late scholastics would have seen as a grave departure from teaching of their master, Saint Thomas.
It is not just the late scholastics who would have viewed such a man with alarm, but St. Thomas himself. But the Angelic Doctor's reply would have been that the poor man in question had not reasoned well if he found himself opposed to the teachings of the Church. The necessary agreement between the Catholic faith and human reason does not mean the necessary agreement between the Catholic faith and Lord Acton's reasoning. Since our reasoning can err, but the Church cannot, it is clear which of the two must yield. This is not to denigrate reason, but to point out that no individual is infallible in his own reasoning power.
Before proceeding further we will look at some statements of various popes to see if there has been a consistent tradition of papal condemnation of liberalism, including the liberal tradition in both government and economics. In these selections, which I take from various papal documents, I will show how liberalism, either by name or not, has been explicitly defined as an enemy of Catholic faith and Christian civilization. First two selections from Pope Pius XI:
With regard to the civil power, Leo XIII boldly passed beyond the restrictions imposed by liberalism, and fearlessly proclaimed the doctrine that the civil power is more than the mere guardian of law and order, and that it must strive with all zeal "to make sure that the laws and institutions, the general character and administration of the commonwealth, should be such as of themselves to realize public well-being and private prosperity." (Encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, no. 25, May 15, 1931)
In fact, the Encyclical Rerum Novarum completely overthrew those tottering tenets of liberalism which had long hampered effective intervention by the government. It prevailed upon the peoples themselves to develop their social policy more intensely and on truer lines, and also encouraged outstanding Catholics to give such efficacious help and assistance to rulers of the State that in legislative assemblies they were not infrequently the foremost advocates of the new policy. (Ibid., no. 27)
Originally Published in Social Justice Review, vol. 93, no. 5-6, May-June 2002 ©Thomas Storck