Probably no informed Catholic would dispute the fact that the period since the end of the Second Vatican Council in 1965 has been a notably tumultuous period in the life of the Church. Dissent and heresy have flourished and many Catholics have little troubled to base their thought on the doctrine of the Church. Although most people focus on dissent from dogmatic truths and in certain areas of moral theology, such as contraception or abortion, the social doctrine of the Church is another area in which Catholics have failed to espouse the Church’s teaching. There was a time, though, when not a few Catholics heeded the call of the popes, especially of Pius XI and Pius XII, and battled on behalf of the Church’s social doctrine for the reconstruction and renewal of human society. In those days, when on the whole Catholics more often sought to form their minds according to Catholic teaching and tradition and obediently listen to the voice of the Church, even writers who are not particularly known for addressing the social question espoused positions which today would be considered quite radical, but were quite in accord with Catholic doctrine. For example, Msgr. (later Archbishop) Fulton Sheen wrote in his work, Communism and the Conscience of the West:
The basic assumption of bourgeois civilization was that the best interests of the world, the state and the community could be served by allowing each individual to work out his economic destiny as he saw fit. This is known as the principle of laissez-faire. As far as possible individual life is unregulated by the state, whose function is purely negative, like that of a policeman. The less the state does, the better. It was not long until the evil of this principle manifested itself. If every individual is to be allowed to work out his economic destiny as he see fit, it will not be long until wealth is concentrated in the hands of the few and the vast majority are reduced, as Hilaire Belloc showed, to a slave state.1
And the two well-known radio priests, Frs. Leslie Rumble and Charles Carty, in their compilation, Radio Replies, in reply to the question “What alternative policy would you suggest to replace the Capitalistic one…,” stated,
I would suggest a Co-operative State, with vocational groups carrying on all present necessary works and businesses, and taking over many of the functions the State has taken upon itself. The State should give more time to regulation, and less to enterprises it has tended to assume and control. A redistribution of wealth is necessary by lifting wages from their actual condition to those necessary for a decent living, with opportunities of comfort and culture. Wages must not be sacrificed to profits—profits must, if anything, be sacrificed to wages.2
What is the situation today? Unfortunately as part of the turmoil and loss of faith that followed the Second Vatican Council and the many changes in Catholic praxis that were instituted in the decade following, many Catholics lost both knowledge of the Church’s social doctrine and the passionate concern for economic justice that previously was fairly widespread among informed Catholics. Today among Catholics who might be said to display interest in the faith and a desire to understand it or to engage in apostolic activity, most are only vaguely aware of the body of Catholic social doctrine, and as a result they take their socio-economic views from the secular culture. Others are indeed aware of Catholic social doctrine, but they do not approach it with the docility that ought to characterize a Catholic. In some cases they make use of selective quotations to try to make the Church’s social teaching fit in with their classical liberal capitalist ideology. And in the extreme case associated with adherents of so-called Austrian economics, they openly repudiate social doctrine, asserting that it is not really part of the legitimate teaching of the magisterium.
What seems so odd to me is that this attempt to reinterpret social doctrine, or even its arrogant rejection, is somehow not seen as part and parcel of the dissent that has followed the Council. Many people understand that if a Catholic rejects any teaching on faith or morals—the doctrine of transubstantiation or the evil or abortion—he is a dissenter or even a heretic. But somehow it is thought that this does not apply to the social teachings, even though social doctrine has been stressed by every modern pope. But because in the minds of many Catholics orthodoxy has become associated with American political conservatism, dissent on social doctrine is usually given a free pass.
What, if anything, is the remedy for this? In my opinion, probably the best means for addressing this selective dissent from Catholic teaching is simply a recovery of our Catholic identity, a recovery of a sense that it is more important to be a Catholic than to be a conservative, a liberal, an American, or indeed anything else on the face of the earth. All these other identities are acceptable only if, and to the extent that, they harmonize with our primary identity of being a Catholic. There are many, in fact, who are discovering this. People, for example, who begin by recognizing the beauty of the traditional Latin liturgy, and are led from that to the entire range of traditional Catholic thought on subjects from theology and philosophy to art to history, and not least to economic and social thought. Quite tragic, on the other hand, and in a way ridiculous, is the position of those who passionately adhere to traditional Catholic thought in some few areas, but whose primary identity remains as conservative Americans, whose Catholicism is simply their way of participating in the American Way of Life, as the sociologist Will Herberg noted many years ago.3
I realize that there are many who are interested in Distributism who are not Catholics, and that Distributism as an economic philosophy appeals to human reason and experience more than to the Gospel and the doctrines of the Catholic Church. So naturally I welcome the cooperation and support of all, Catholic and non-Catholic, on behalf of Distributism. Although it is a fact that many are led toward Distributism by their interest in Catholic social thought, I am glad both for those who are attracted to Distributism because they see in it a humane and reasonable way of conducting our economic activity and for those who come to it out of a desire to permeate their thinking with Catholic principles. Both groups can work together to promote economic justice. This past fall we saw the Occupy Wall Street movement, the most outspoken voice on behalf of justice to be heard for many years. Distributists cannot but rejoice in this, even if most of the occupiers are not explicitly distributists or have never even heard of it. Capitalism has more and more revealed itself as the tool of the rich, Socialism has in practice become either totalitarian or simply another form of Capitalism (witness the recent “socialist” governments of Greece or Spain). Thus I think that Distributism has an opportunity to make itself better known and perhaps to become an intellectual force which can help shape our national life. The many practical means for promoting Distributism, from farmers’ markets to agricultural and craft cooperatives, offer something which can be done right now without seeking permission from any political or economic power.
So while the tradition of radical action may be foreign to many Catholics, we should see in Occupy Wall Street and similar protests allies or potential allies, people who recognize, even if not always clearly, the flaws of both Capitalism and Socialism and the need of a new way of organizing our economy. So let Catholics embrace their own heritage, and by so doing, they will find a surprising affinity with others whose message for economic justice is the best hope for transforming America that we have seen for years.