The relationship between religious belief and the liberal order has always been complex. It has fluctuated between collaboration and strife. The Catholic relationship in particular has often experienced these side-by-side. Catholic emancipation in Britain came in living memory of the brutal war in the French Vendée. Post-war accommodation of American liberalism came shortly after Mexico’s Cristero war, during which an anti-clerical government judicially murdered thousands of its opponents and the Mexican priesthood shrank to nearly a tenth of its former size. U.S. oil interests pursued and gained that same government’s cooperation. Decades later, the Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero similarly would be assassinated via the agents of a U.S.-backed regime. Between the Catholic and the liberal projects, the only constant factor has been uncertainty.
This tension has been reflected within Catholic political thought. The popes of the 19th century took a strong stand against the militant and revolutionary liberalism of their day. Those of the 20th century—as well as the ecumenical Second Vatican Council —attempted to seek areas of cooperation and common understanding. But decades of cultural conflicts and deepening reflection on the modern world by Catholic minds has seen the rise of a new, critical, and confrontational approach. Nor does this approach break the continuity of teaching. On the contrary, it is reflected in the teachings of successive popes, and not least in that of the first Supreme Pontiff from the Americas: Pope Francis. The global reshaping of the Catholic Church and the orientation of this teaching points toward an ever more direct and dramatic confrontation between the Catholic and liberal worlds.
The consequences are by no means restricted to practicing believers. The Catholic Church includes nearly 1.3 billion in its ranks, around a seventh of the human population. In those countries where it has long existed, it remains a powerful institutional force. In other regions, especially the global south, it is advancing via population growth and conversion. The signs are already there. There are Africa’s 200 million Catholics, many of whom travel to Europe not just as migrants but also as priests and monastics. Further east, the Vatican continues diplomatic efforts with China on behalf of a growing Catholic populace estimated at 12 million or more. Latin America continues to experience strong population growth. But while the Church’s makeup and centers of influence are fluctuating, they have done so many times. Its intellectual and social influence will ripple far beyond its membership. Such is the nature of an institution which has survived through the rise and fall of multiple civilizations.
The Birth And Death Of Fusionism
Much of the 20th century relationship between the Catholic and liberal worlds has been a product of Europe and the United States. The former is not only the home of the Roman See, but also the region where two world wars shaped Catholic concerns. The latter has been the seat of global liberal power since the close of those wars, and was also the major foe of global communism. Moreover, its large Catholic population became influential across American society, from its labor movement to its conservative intelligentsia. Meanwhile, Christian democratic parties in Europe appeared to harmonize the aims of Christian values and liberal politics.
The Second Vatican council, which ran from 1962 to 1965, was widely understood to have emphasized areas of common ground between Catholic teaching and liberal concerns, such as human dignity (with results considered bridge-building by advocates and betrayal by critics). Yet this period was, in many ways, a high point for those who favored cooperation. The cultural upheavals of the 1960s-70s saw turns toward moral norms which the Church could not abide. As a result, realignments occurred in the following decades along the lines of social issues, benefiting conservative parties. The rise of neoliberal economics also fueled the decline of the organized labor movement in which Catholics had been so present.
With the renewed anti-communism of Thatcher and Reagan, a coalition began to build around social conservatism and free market economics. A number of Catholic intellectuals and publications would contribute to this “fusionist” position, which was most prominent in the English-speaking countries. However, its last hurrah came within years of the 2008 U.S. election. Conservative positions in the culture war on marriage and secularism had been lost. Moreover, its “compassionate” capitalism had prevented neither the economic crisis of 2008-9, nor the stagnation faced by huge segments of the American electorate. With populism reshaping the global political spectrum, the fusionist experiment is widely viewed as a failure. The same has echoed throughout the Western world, with populist movements in Hungary, Poland, Italy, and other countries embracing a Catholic language on cultural and social issues combined with various programs of social support for families.
Papal Teaching And Liberal Man: A Tale Of Two Anthropologies
The question of Catholic political thought is not merely a sociological one—that is, Catholic thought is not reducible to the spectrum of beliefs among those who self-identify with the religion. Rather, it is shaped by the reflections and actions of a hierarchical organization which exercises teaching authority over the broader population of believers. This hierarchy exercises a power called the magisterium, a term which refers to the teaching authority of the Pope and bishops in interpreting the Catholic faith, its sacred tradition, and its application through the course of history. The highest expression of this authority is in the Pope’s role as supreme pastor and teacher of the Church—an ex cathedra dogmatic pronouncement on matters of faith and morals—or in the decrees of ecumenical councils. However, the daily public teaching of the Pope and bishops through encyclicals, letters, homilies, and the like also has a binding authority known as the ordinary magisterium. It is in the magisterium that the highest religious teaching authority is to be found, and it is here where the pattern and the continuity of meditation on liberalism and the modern world has the strongest implications for Catholics.
A survey of papal teaching on the question of liberalism reveals an increasingly sophisticated understanding of our current age. Moreover, it is ever more confrontational toward it, and this has developed through successive popes, confounding the categories of “conservative” and “liberal” Catholicism imposed by current political structures.
To understand this development, it’s important to return to an earlier age of the liberal project. In the early 19th century, liberalism remained a militant, secularist, and often anti-clerical force. The Church of this period had already been rocked by the events of the French revolution, and saw similar forces rising near its center in the guise of Italian nationalism. But beneath these events lay a political doctrine, and it was in this context that the Papal magisterium began to address this doctrine in detail. Pope Gregory XVI released the encyclical Mirari vos in 1832, condemning the notion that religious belief is irrelevant provided that one is moral (indifferentism), the liberties of conscience and of publishing without regard to truth, and the severing of religious and political authority by the separation of church and state, among others. A generation later, Pope Pius IX added his voice in a response to the forces of Risorgimento, which pursued a liberal Italian nation-state and targeted Rome itself. In 1864, he published the encyclical Quanta Cura, which included the well-known Syllabus of Errors. These documents were wider in scope and confronted a liberalism which was developed but also increasingly diverse.
In the modern context, the declarations of Mirari vos seem arbitrary. But it is in Quanta Cura and the Syllabus that the Papal magisterium began to discern and target fundamental differences between itself and the liberal doctrine. Unlike later rivals—Marxism, National Socialism, and the like—liberalism has never had a foundational text or unified doctrine, though certain themes have consistently reoccurred. The documents condemned a variety of propositions found in the literature of the day which were thought to be incompatible with Catholic doctrine.
Most fundamentally, the encyclical and Syllabus targeted the idea that there existed a rational “secular truth” which could ignore the truths and values proclaimed by the Church. They countered this with the stance that human reason and conscience do not exist in an autonomous sphere divorced from the world. Religious claims could be true or false, but they cannot be relegated to the private sphere in favor of a neutral state. Affirming that the Church’s claims were true and bore consequences for social and political life, Quanta Cura and Syllabus defended it from demands of subjugation by secular powers. More particularly, they rejected the claim that either private reason or the public state could get away with disregarding these truths.
To the modern reader, this seems presumptuous, even arrogant. But it bears consideration that modern states and their citizens do not act differently. Both governments and individuals must make decisions, pass judgements, and set goals. In order to do this, one must have some kind of desirable end in mind. This in turn depends on a value system and a view of the world.
While some differences about the nature of reality can co-exist with each other, others cannot. Universities have faced internal battles on the teaching of evolutionary biology, first between scientists and religious objectors, and today between scientists and social constructionists. When governments fund university departments, they participate in this battle over truth. The same holds true for cultural mores. The definitions of marriage and gender are not merely arbitrary points of private opinion. Based on the progressive view, governments have legislated penalties against certain kinds of speech, schools promote a particular vision of morality and justice, and both public and corporate power fund the advance and popular celebration of these values. Many would not even consider this a real clash of moral worlds. These values are merely those things which all good and respectable people believe—despite being only a few years old. In reality, a certain pattern of belief and behavior has been normalized, and it socially and legally excludes those rival patterns which contradict it.
However, there is a key difference between the old order and the new. In the age of Pope Pius IX, the understanding of truth was explicit and formal. Currently, those with the power to shape the beliefs of society do so freed of any duty to affirm the source of their judgments. Moreover, the lack of any formal institutional approach allows for new factions to quickly arise and overthrow their predecessors. The radicals of the 1960s have become the worried centrists of the 2010s, and the classical liberals have taken to making podcasts rather than mounting barricades. But the arbitrariness of liberalism’s principles and taboos is merely the effect of its structure. Even in 1864, Pius IX sensed that when liberalism unleashed the individual from the spiritual, moral, and communal worlds, the main beneficiaries were the bearers of power:
And, since where religion has been removed from civil society, and the doctrine and authority of divine revelation repudiated, the genuine notion itself of justice and human right is darkened and lost, and the place of true justice and legitimate right is supplied by material force, thence it appears why it is that some, utterly neglecting and disregarding the surest principles of sound reason, dare to proclaim that “the people’s will, manifested by what is called public opinion or in some other way, constitutes a supreme law, free from all divine and human control; and that in the political order accomplished facts, from the very circumstance that they are accomplished, have the force of right.” But who, does not see and clearly perceive that human society, when set loose from the bonds of religion and true justice, can have, in truth, no other end than the purpose of obtaining and amassing wealth, and that (society under such circumstances) follows no other law in its actions, except the unchastened desire of ministering to its own pleasure and interests?
The rise of liberalism as a doctrine cannot be separated from the social mechanism of that rise: a bourgeois class which was increasingly influential, confident, and intent on removing the obstacles to its power. The values of individualism, meritocracy, and social liberation served specific goals. The tie between doctrine and power was not an observation specific to the Church. From a very different perspective, Karl Marx noted the alignments of French revolutionary factions with class interests: legitimists with the landed gentry, Orleanists with the wealthy merchants, and social democracy as an alliance between the middle classes and the burgeoning urban proletariat. Two forces must be distinguished in this account of liberalism. The first is that of a class promoting a particular ideology. The second is that of the ideological belief system itself. If a particular class maintains its power, then ideologies can well change with the interests of that class. In the 20th century, concerns about socialism led some parts of the business class to see fascism as a lesser evil. Likewise, an ideology can be adopted by various classes sharing similar interests. Marxism has been the tool not only for Western urban workers, but Chinese and Cuban peasantry.
The point of this observation is that the transformation of society by a liberal political order was not only a matter of debates on truth. Social and economic life was in the thralls of the industrial revolution, which brought about both a new technological world and the poverty of mass dislocation. From this strife, liberalism began to confront the rising power of socialism. With members of all classes among its ranks, the Church likewise confronted the crisis.
In 1891, Pope Leo XIII released the historic encyclical Rerum Novarum. It is generally known for its rejection of an unbridled market and its affirmation of labor unions as a method to secure social and economic dignity. It also called on employers to subject their economic interests to greater social and religious duties, such as time off on feast days. Written at the end of the 19th century, it promoted a notion of property tied to familial ownership, particularly of land. In the tradition of Aquinas, it affirmed that this property was subject to the good of both spiritual duty and the commonwealth, while the commonwealth likewise must respect the rights of the family according to natural law. It also called on states to recognize that while the rights of all must be respected, the duty of justice required a focus on those segments which made up the bulk of the commonwealth but lacked the private resources of wealthier classes.
While much can and has been written on the differences between the liberal and Catholic ideas of property, it is what underlies this difference which is of deeper concern. In Rerum Novarum, a distinctive ordering of life exists. Economic power is subject to the good of the commonwealth, which is safeguarded by the state. The political power itself is subject in faith and morals to the spiritual authority of the Church, which is (as we saw in the earlier encyclicals) the guardian of those truths which allow humans to realize their highest good. Popes Gregory XVI and Pius IX had condemned a doctrine where religious authority was subject to political authority, with the latter warning against power divorced from truth. Pope Leo XIII was confronting the economic consequences of such a divorce.
Nevertheless, there is an optimism in Rerum Novarum which is hard to miss. At the time of its writing, a number of private associations had arisen for the benefit of workers. In addition to the growing power of organized labor, even employers and wealthy benefactors had, to an extent, embraced a culture of public responsibility. Charities, insurance associations, and workingman’s associations had begun to create a support structure to alleviate the excesses of the industrial revolution. The encyclical praises these and ends on a hopeful note that such developments will resolve the crisis of labor. In this sense, Rerum Novarum can perhaps be viewed as the beginning of a period where the Church began to see opportunities for cooperation, taking the best of liberal achievements and turning them toward Christian values. The coming decades would see two world wars eliminate most of the remaining Christian monarchies in Europe and the rise of ideologies hostile to Catholicism. Its post-war engagement was with a triumphant and vigorous liberal international order.
The Second Vatican Council is often viewed as the Church’s attempt to engage the modern world from its highest levels. While this is an over-simplification, elements within the council did desire rapprochement and an end to the battles of the past century. It is also true that a renewed witness and evangelization was front and center in the minds of the council fathers, and especially of the popes who oversaw it: John XXIII and Paul VI. The results of this council were of monumental significance. On the one hand, the council provided a renewed framework for addressing a host of theological and social concerns. On the other, it created conflict between “traditionalist” and “conciliar” factions within the Church. The former believed that a number of the council documents had sacrificed clarity for the sake of diplomacy, or worse, capitulation. The latter often adopted a similar reading of the council documents, but embraced and sought to accelerate what they considered to be the “spirit of Vatican II.” Liturgical reforms to the rites of the Mass became a battleground. Some sought to protect the ancient liturgy against what they saw as a new, stunted ritual, while others implemented changes far beyond anything which the council had sanctioned. Many of the splits and factions from this period last to the modern day.
For the moment, we’ll refrain from going down the rabbit-hole of post-conciliar politics. Rather, our interest is in the council’s approach to defining and contrasting the Church’s doctrine with those promoted by the world around it. The council fathers discerned that it was ever more vital for the Church to defend and champion its view of the human person as an integral being: material, social, political, religious. This commitment was not merely intellectual, but was born in the fire of war. It underpinned many anti-Hitlerist Catholic writings, such as those of the White Rose dissidents and Bishop Clemens von Galen of Münster. Likewise, Catholics underwent severe persecution along with Eastern Orthodox Christians under Soviet rule, particularly those of the eastern-rite Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.
Among the documents most positive toward the post-war political order was the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, entitled Gaudium et Spes. In this context, the council fathers began with a reaffirmation of the human person, its nature, its dignity, and its telos in the world. It begins in the beginning, reasserting the Christian understanding of man as bearing the divine image, as a being created for communion with others, and as a creature who finds himself in a fractured and darkened state:
Although he was made by God in a state of holiness, from the very onset of his history man abused his liberty, at the urging of the Evil One. Man set himself against God and sought to attain his goal apart from God. Although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, but their senseless minds were darkened and they served the creature rather than the Creator…Therefore man is split within himself. As a result, all of human life, whether individual or collective, shows itself to be a dramatic struggle between good and evil, between light and darkness.
While this doctrine might seem all-too-familiar, its implications for the Church’s role in the world are enormous. As a result of this belief, it can never accept a vision of man that separates him from his telos. The notion that human society can exist as something distinct from human nature is a contradiction in terms. Thus, it declares that modern minds have used freedom “perversely as a license for doing whatever pleases them, even if it is evil.” As it develops, the document squarely targets the moral construct of the sovereign and autonomous individual:
Coming down to practical and particularly urgent consequences, this council lays stress on reverence for man; everyone must consider his every neighbor without exception as another self, taking into account first of all His life and the means necessary to living it with dignity, so as not to imitate the rich man who had no concern for the poor man Lazarus…As God did not create man for life in isolation, but for the formation of social unity, so also “it has pleased God to make men holy and save them not merely as individuals, without bond or link between them, but by making them into a single people, a people which acknowledges Him in truth and serves Him in holiness [Lumen Gentium].”
With this in mind, Gaudium et Spes condemns the division of the world into religious and irreligious spheres:
[They are] wide of the mark who think that religion consists in acts of worship alone and in the discharge of certain moral obligations, and who imagine they can plunge themselves into earthly affairs in such a way as to imply that these are altogether divorced from the religious life. This split between the faith which many profess and their daily lives deserves to be counted among the more serious errors of our age. Long since, the Prophets of the Old Testament fought vehemently against this scandal and even more so did Jesus Christ Himself in the New Testament threaten it with grave punishments. Therefore, let there be no false opposition between professional and social activities on the one part, and religious life on the other.
Based on this foundation, the remainder of the document—and the other documents of the council—expand on the implications of such an anthropology for social, political, economic, and religious order.
The avenues of thought opened by the council have lasted to the modern day. The optimism, arguably, has not. The final arc of development takes place after the council and in the context of a Western culture increasingly hostile to religious life and values. The reason for this was simple: like Christianity, the liberal view of man in fact possessed a telos, a goal which it pursued for human societies. While the Christian anthropology called on humans to embrace God and neighbor, the liberal one oriented them towards liberation of the individual. The former required people and societies to embrace both religious commandments and social obligations. The latter increasingly saw these as coercive, even in the form of cultural norms rather than legal ones.
The liberal telos advanced across the political spectrum, eroding both institutions and values shaped by traditional social norms on the on hand and the economic left on the other. Those parties associated with the left abandoned the causes of labor and embraced those of social progressivism. Meanwhile, the right’s social traditionalism increasingly became merely a tool of coalition-building. Its real contributions to government and society became economic neoliberalism and internationalist neoconservatism. Decade by decade, more of the perceived shackles of social morality and economic solidarity were torn off. Yet the prediction of Pope Pius IX still held: behind the ideology of the free individual lay the reality of unbounded power.
Nevertheless, the Church now possessed well over a century of meditation on liberalism as a doctrine. Moreover, it had increasingly developed an anthropology which perceived the fundamental divide between the Catholic and the liberal telos. Armed with these tools, it became possible for the magisterium to perceive a particular mode of being into which humanity was increasingly socialized. Moreover, it could explain why this mode of being subjected the human person to both spiritual and social violence, subverting the telos both of communion with God and with neighbor. This brings us to the encyclicals of three Popes: John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis.
Technocratic Humanity: The Strange Fruits Of Freedom
Pope John Paul II was renowned for his theological and philosophical reflection on the human person. This current of thought characterized his pontificate in encyclicals such as Redemptor Hominis. His personalist philosophy, founded on the idea of the human person as a moral end, made him aware that human life was becoming increasingly mechanistic. He was hardly the first to make this observation. In 1954, Heidegger had written about a technological mode of being, in which not only nature but even humanity became a “standing reserve” of production. During the 1970s, Michel Foucault studied power and discipline as shaping forces operating on the human person. But unlike these counterparts, John Paul II operated within the framework of his papal predecessors. This allowed him to connect the technocratic mode of being with the erasure of a higher, non-economic human telos. As the Pope stated in the encyclical Laborem Exercens:
In all cases of this sort, in every social situation of this type, there is a confusion or even a reversal of the order laid down from the beginning by the words of the Book of Genesis: man is treated as an instrument of production, whereas he…ought to be treated as the effective subject of work and its true maker and creator. Precisely this reversal of order, whatever the programme or name under which it occurs, should rightly be called “capitalism”…[I]n the light of the analysis of the fundamental reality of the whole economic process—first and foremost of the production structure that work is—it should be recognized that the error of early capitalism can be repeated wherever man is in a way treated on the same level as the whole complex of the material means of production, as an instrument and not in accordance with the true dignity of his work-that is to say, where he is not treated as subject and maker, and for this very reason as the true purpose of the whole process of production.
In contrast to Rerum Novarum, this encyclical perceives that “property,” as with the whole host of “rights” imagined by social and economic liberalism, has transformed into a moral concept entirely different from that understood by the Church. The Pope directly attacks the capitalist notion of property understood in this sense:
Christian tradition has never upheld this right as absolute and untouchable. On the contrary, it has always understood this right within the broader context of the right common to all to use the goods of the whole of creation: the right to private property is subordinated to the right to common use, to the fact that goods are meant for everyone…As mentioned above, property is acquired first of all through work in order that it may serve work. This concerns in a special way ownership of the means of production. Isolating these means as a separate property in order to set it up in the form of “capital” in opposition to “labour”—and even to practise exploitation of labour—is contrary to the very nature of these means and their possession. They cannot be possessed against labour, they cannot even be possessed for possession’s sake, because the only legitimate title to their possession—whether in the form of private ownership or in the form of public or collective ownership—is that they should serve labour, and thus, by serving labour, that they should make possible the achievement of the first principle of this order, namely, the universal destination of goods and the right to common use of them. From this point of view, therefore, in consideration of human labour and of common access to the goods meant for man, one cannot exclude the socialization, in suitable conditions, of certain means of production.
Nor does Laborem Exercens shrink back from naming the cause:
This state of affairs was favoured by the liberal socio-political system, which, in accordance with its “economistic” premises, strengthened and safeguarded economic initiative by the possessors of capital alone, but did not pay sufficient attention to the rights of the workers, on the grounds that human work is solely an instrument of production, and that capital is the basis, efficient factor and purpose of production.
Writing in 1981, Pope John Paul II could not have then predicted the ways in which neoliberal policy and the coming digital service economy would transform the nature of work. The freezing of eggs by tech companies and mass migration’s transformation of human populations into production inputs were still to come. Nevertheless, the radical individualization of morality and gutting of organized labor already proved his words prophetic.
This explicit confrontation with humanity’s increasingly mechanistic mode of being and its causes was further developed by Pope Benedict XVI a generation later. In 2009, he published the encyclical Caritas in veritate. Written in the wake of the economic crisis of 2008-9, it sought to provide a moral framework to the forces of economic development. A lengthy and deeply reflective encyclical, it targets the rise of a destructive form of global political and economic development. It sees this rise as a key contributor to the erosion of human communal bonds and of non-economic modes of being: social, political, moral, religious.
However, it takes a further step and advocates for a competing and alternative form of development. This concept was far from original to Pope Benedict XVI, and the encyclical in fact draws strongly on the earlier Populorum Progessio, written by Pope Paul VI. However, Caritas in veritate confronts both its immediate context in the economic crisis and the broader reduction of human life to the economic sphere. In place of this, it advocates for an alternative form of development centered on the full and integral spectrum of human nature. At the foundation of this form of development lies the concept of charity in truth. Charity unbound from truth becomes a merely relativistic sentimentalism, while truth without charity would unbind the communal bonds which people are meant to forge. The implications are not only personal or religious, but political:
If…man did not possess a nature destined to transcend itself in a supernatural life, then one could speak of growth, or evolution, but not development. When the State promotes, teaches, or actually imposes forms of practical atheism, it deprives its citizens of the moral and spiritual strength that is indispensable for attaining integral human development…the conviction that the economy must be autonomous, that it must be shielded from “influences” of a moral character, has led man to abuse the economic process in a thoroughly destructive way…Truth — which is itself gift, in the same way as charity — is greater than we are, as Saint Augustine teaches. Likewise the truth of ourselves, of our personal conscience, is first of all given to us. In every cognitive process, truth is not something that we produce, it is always found, or better, received. Truth, like love, “is neither planned nor willed, but somehow imposes itself upon human beings.”
The identification of this form of life with a “practical atheism” strikes at the heart of the conflict. The liberal individualization of life has increasingly negated the possibilities for speaking about goals and obligations which can unite human action. First, it has ever more dissolved the social bonds which permit caritas to develop. Second, it has continually abolished the categories of truth which “impose themselves” on human beings and which private reason has no right to reject. By the end of the 19th century, respectable people sought to remove the dominance of specific religious confessions. Throughout the 20th century, an increasing variety of moral norms was rejected both legally and culturally. In the 21st century, the body and human nature itself have become oppressive shackles to be removed.
In response, there is Pope Pius IX’s prediction that what was presented as liberation of the average person would instead permit material power to follow “no other law in its actions, except the unchastened desire of ministering to its own pleasure and interests.” This seems to have been realized. Rather than a great adventure of self-discovery, the average person’s experience is at the mercy of the mechanistic mode of being. Economic necessity rewrites human priorities, even undermining the formation of families. The power of markets to produce wealth is no longer a means, but an end.
In repudiation of this form of life, Caritas in veritate targets the modern conception of technology itself. Pope Benedict XVI draws on Paul VI and John Paul II to advance a different conception of technology. It is a technology brought back under the control of human reason and human ends:
In technology we express and confirm the hegemony of the spirit over matter…It touches the heart of the vocation of human labour: in technology, seen as the product of his genius, man recognizes himself and forges his own humanity. Technology is the objective side of human action whose origin and raison d’etre is found in the subjective element: the worker himself. For this reason, technology is never merely technology. It reveals man and his aspirations towards development, it expresses the inner tension that impels him gradually to overcome material limitations.
In that case, why is it that modern life has ceded its control over the power of technology? The encyclical explicitly targets the question of who and what the human being is. Discussing a variety of technological developments of concern to the Church, from eugenic abortion to euthanasia, Pope Benedict declares:
Following [Pope Paul VI’s] lead, we need to affirm today that the social question has become a radically anthropological question, in the sense that it concerns not just how life is conceived but also how it is manipulated…These practices in turn foster a materialistic and mechanistic understanding of human life.
Recounting the papal magisterium’s trajectory of thought is useful at this point in the discussion. As we saw, the popes of the 19th century were concerned with doctrines of truth, religion, and human life which they saw as incompatible with the Christian faith. They further saw the development of social conditions which accelerated conflict and allowed such views to flourish. The history of the early 20th century saw a period of rapprochement, but also an increasingly sophisticated understanding at the core of the magisterium that human nature was a key battleground. In the decades following Vatican II, a destructive view of human nature began to eclipse the possible grounds for cooperation. A mechanistic mode of being and the reduction of human life to a materialist and economic state was not reconcilable with the Church’s firm belief in the human being’s destiny for communion with both God and neighbor. The polarization increased, decade by decade.
The election of Pope Francis is fascinating for a number of reasons. From the beginning, the establishment and popular media appeared to see him as one of their own and a possibility for the Church to align with the broader culture’s moral views. His tendency to emphasize mercy and outreach, as well as off-the-cuff answers in exchanges, made this an easy narrative to promote. His position as the first pope from the global south meant that he promoted issues of globalization, wealth inequality, and climate change, none of which are out of place in Western establishment media. However, this narrative fails to take into account that the Church’s own pronouncements in these issues from a radically different basis.
Thus, the publication in 2015 of the encyclical Laudato si’ attracted positive attention from much of the secular press, particularly for its lengthy engagement with the issues of climate change. Little if any of this publicity read the encyclical in its broader theological context.
In fact, those with the best understanding of Laudato si’ may have been its critics. Business-friendly politicians fulminated against papal interference in an economic sphere which should be independent and autonomous. First Things editor R. R. Reno may have come closest to the mark when he declared the encyclical to be hauntingly familiar to the papal rhetoric of the combative 19th century, rather than the optimistic 20th. His critical reading perceived that “[i]n fact, this is perhaps the most anti-modern encyclical since the Syllabus of Errors, Pius IX’s haughty 1864 dismissal of the conceits of the modern era.”
This suggests a very different reading of Laudato si’: an encyclical of Pope Francis the exorcist, who declared that infernal enemies work against human family, who advocates renewed and ongoing spiritual warfare. The Pope himself hinted that the encyclical should not be understood as a mere discussion of ecological issues. When asked by a journalist whether this was a “green” encyclical, he replied: “No, it’s a social encyclical.” Nor was it meant as mere pronouncement from the center of authority. The Catholic Church on earth has always been understood as the “church militant.” His extensive inclusion of statements from bishops conferences around the world implies a sense of mobilization. If Reno’s reading was near the mark, then the implications for the global Catholic Church are significant.
The encyclical begins with a discussion of various forms of ecological crisis, including pollution, water crisis, loss of biodiversity, and the weak responses and controversy about proper responses. It then moves into a deeper meditation, regarding the ecological crisis as the symptoms of a distorted view of man and his world. Pope Francis opposes the idea of nature as a purely utilitarian entity to be studied and controlled—though this encyclical does not use the term, we can again consider Heidegger’s “standing reserve”—with the Christian notion of creation as non-arbitrary, freely gifted, and a common home requiring a communion among its inhabitants. This requires recognizing the value and distinctiveness of each part through the lens of their cooperation in a greater whole.
However, the most dramatic confrontation with the modern world order occurs in Pope Francis’ investigation into the human roots of the ecological crisis. He locates its driving impulse in the “technocratic paradigm” shaped by the phenomenon of technological progress undisciplined by social, moral or transcendent direction.
This paradigm exalts the concept of a subject who, using logical and rational procedures, progressively approaches and gains control over an external object. This subject makes every effort to establish the scientific and experimental method, which in itself is already a technique of possession, mastery and transformation. It is as if the subject were to find itself in the presence of something formless, completely open to manipulation…The effects of imposing this model on reality as a whole, human and social, are seen in the deterioration of the environment, but this is just one sign of a reductionism which affects every aspect of human and social life. We have to accept that technological products are not neutral, for they create a framework which ends up conditioning lifestyles and shaping social possibilities along the lines dictated by the interests of certain powerful groups. Decisions which may seem purely instrumental are in reality decisions about the kind of society we want to build.
The encyclical further targets the notion that this paradigm has done nothing more than expand out choices. Contrary to the rhetoric of liberation, the lack of higher direction and dissolved social bonds of the technocratic paradigm have removed the possibility for alternatives:
The technological paradigm has become so dominant that it would be difficult to do without its resources and even more difficult to utilize them without being dominated by their internal logic. It has become countercultural to choose a lifestyle whose goals are even partly independent of technology, of its costs and its power to globalize and make us all the same. Technology tends to absorb everything into its ironclad logic…The technocratic paradigm also tends to dominate economic and political life. The economy accepts every advance in technology with a view to profit, without concern for its potentially negative impact on human beings. Finance overwhelms the real economy. The lessons of the global financial crisis have not been assimilated, and we are learning all too slowly the lessons of environmental deterioration…Yet by itself the market cannot guarantee integral human development and social inclusion.
Pope Francis also addresses the question of Christian anthropology. He locates part of the problem in a misunderstood and misrepresented version of that anthropology in previous times, when the theology of human dominion of the earth was understood only in an exploitative way. This allowed ways of thinking and working to arise which the modern world has been able to accelerate. He thus calls for a renewal of this anthropology in a way which correctly understands the communion between persons and stewardship of the world. Mirroring Pope Benedict XVI’s call for an integral alternative path of human development, Pope Francis presents an integral ecology which restores both humans and the earth into a context of ongoing intercommunion. Able to shape political, social and economic action, such an ecology would take as a starting point the fact that man depends on those around him, on the world about him, and on the transcendent orientation beyond and within him. Such an ecology is far-reaching, even entering discussions about the politics of space:
[Historic, cultural, and artistic] patrimony is a part of the shared identity of each place and a foundation upon which to build a habitable city…There is a need to respect the rights of peoples and cultures, and to appreciate that the development of a social group presupposes an historical process which takes place within a cultural context and demands the constant and active involvement of local people from within their proper culture. Nor can the notion of the quality of life be imposed from without, for quality of life must be understood within the world of symbols and customs proper to each human group.
What Laudato si’ represents is a radical confrontation with the technocratic world and all its works. With each successive encyclical we have examined—in addition to a number which couldn’t be covered here, such as Quas Primas, Quadragesimo Anno, and Populorum Progressio—the varying developments were undergirded by a deepening understanding on the part of papal teaching about the nature of what it was confronting. The substantive worldview which had shaped human development spoke of individual liberation, but instead cemented a mode of being which did violence to the human person. In Laudato si’, we encounter a warning against severe and worsening crisis, as well as an exhortation to rebuke the paradigm behind it and restore the power of technology and production to human ends.
The integral ecology called for by Pope Francis and the alternative path of development advocated by Pope Benedict XVI are the consequence of taking Pope Pius IX’s old warning seriously. If power is to be united with real authority—one informed by higher truth and the natural law—then it must discipline itself. The anthropology developed by the Catholic magisterium in response to the liberal one does not permit that the human being divorce themselves from either higher truth or from those around them. Both popes see the disappearance of bonds with neighbor and with God as resulting in the fragmentation of human life. Furthermore, this phenomenon undermines the ends for which the human person actually exists. This is the meaning of Pope Benedict XVI’s choice of title: Caritas in veritate—charity in truth. The technocratic paradigm, which has abandoned this foundation, is summed up succinctly by Italian-German priest and theologian Romano Guardini, cited in the later part of Laudato si’:
The gadgets and technics forced upon him by the patterns of machine production and of abstract planning, mass man accepts quite simply; they are the forms of life itself.
Many Roads From Rome: Papal Teaching And The Broader Church
While this breadth of papal teaching is intellectually fascinating, its mere pronouncement does not force the broader mass of Catholic believers to receive it. So the question must be asked: is the direction of radical confrontation which has been developed by the magisterial authority one which will shape the Catholic Church as a political force?
In fact, the strength of this long development—beyond the formal religious authority of the papal office—is that it has been consistently developed by popes from many backgrounds within the Church. Nowhere is this testified to more greatly than in the final three. Pope John Paul II came from what was then a bloc under Soviet domination and was keenly aware of geopolitics. As the first pope elected after the close of Vatican II, his approach to developing its theology was viewed as too conservative by some and too compromising with heterodoxy by others. Pope Benedict XVI was a son of western Europe, a deeply theological man. He was both one of the great minds of the Vatican II council and later a supporter of causes associated with traditionally-minded Catholics, such as endorsement of the traditional Latin form of the mass and the integration of many Anglicans into the Church. Finally, Pope Francis has come from the “periphery,” from a world which often found itself far away from the halls of power. His Jesuit order has often been associated with more radically reformist currents within the Church. His approach has led to conflict with more conservative factions, but he has also taken steps toward normalizing relations with the staunchly traditionalist Society of St. Pius X.
Likewise, confrontation with the liberal order has been reflected across various political currents within the Church. One of the most dynamic manifestations of this trend is in the realm of political theology. The collapse of “fusionist” Catholic politics as a rallying point in the culture wars has led to a reinvigorated questioning of how Catholic life relates to the political world. In particular, the intellectual life of Catholic integralism has seen revitalization at the highest levels. Originating in the battles about how to respond to events like the French revolution, the integralist school of thought maintains a substantive approach to moral and political order. It upholds that social and political life must be formally and explicitly oriented toward the sphere of religious truth. As a result, its chief political principle is the Gelasian dyarchy: that the temporal political power is sovereign and autonomous within its proper sphere, but must submit to the spiritual power in the sphere of faith and morals. The reasoning for this is laid out succinctly by the integralist blog The Josias:
Catholic Integralism is a tradition of thought that rejects the liberal separation of politics from concern with the end of human life, holding that political rule must order man to his final goal. Since, however, man has both a temporal and an eternal end, integralism holds that there are two powers that rule him: a temporal power and a spiritual power. And since man’s temporal end is subordinated to his eternal end the temporal power must be subordinated to the spiritual power.
Integralism has arisen in a number of countries and is by no means a new doctrine. An intellectual emphasis on religion’s power to shape life from the political to the personal level was articulated by many responding to earlier liberal revolutions. Among the first luminaries in the modern context was Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges’ influential 1864 work The Ancient City, which argued for religion as the driving force in ancient Greek and Roman society. French Catholicism in particular has always seen integralist anti-liberalism maintain a coherent and organized force among its traditionalist elements.
Its American advocates come in the context of renewed criticism of liberalism’s effect on religious life. Works such as journalist Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option and Notre Dame professor Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed have made influential contributions to this discussion. Integralism represents perhaps the most confrontational approach to this crisis. In contrast to Dreher and Deneen’s localist retreats, it seeks to enter the world of polarized liberal disintegration and offer a superior vision. Though its active intellectual numbers are small in the United States, they have influence. A graduate course on the topic is even available for Harvard law students. It is co-taught by constitutional law professor Adrian Vermeule, who has written and lectured extensively on liberalism and the modern administrative state, as well as their effects on the possibility of a substantive common good in the social order.
Younger integralists are also distinctive in their relationship to Pope Francis. While the French founder of the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, wrote extensively on the questions of liberalism and religious liberty, he was at odds with the papacy regarding his doubts on many aspects of Vatican II. Conversely, prominent modern integralists, such as Austrian Cistercian monk and editor of The Josias Edmund Waldstein, emphasize a continuity with Vatican II viewed through a lens of continuity with prior teaching. Integralism’s substantial intellectual online presence has also translated into institutional engagement with its own critics, liberal and otherwise. In 2018, the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture hosted discussions on the topic of liberalism and the common good. Its closing discussion included integralist voices through Vermeule, as well as University of Dallas professor and American Affairs editor Gladden Pappin, alongside skeptic Patrick Deneen, and liberal defender V. Phillip Muñoz.
This current has also seized upon the connection between liberalism and the technocratic mindset. In his comments on Carl Schmitt’s Roman Catholicism and Political Form, Vermeule draws out the difference between technical rationality and Catholic rationality. In particular, technical rationality applies logic to efficient means but has no ordering principle for its ends. Conversely, Catholic rationality maintains principles of natural law to which it must order changing circumstances of life, a task requiring changing means but consistent ends. He quotes Schmitt on technology as a political force:
Intelligence and rationalism are not in themselves revolutionary. But technical thinking is foreign to all social traditions: the machine has no tradition. One of Karl Marx’s seminal sociological discoveries is that technology is the true revolutionary principle, beside which all revolutions based on natural law are antiquated forms of recreation. A society built exclusively on progressive technology would thus be nothing but revolutionary; but it would soon destroy itself and its technology.
Vermeule elaborates further on the precise mechanisms on this destruction:
The state becomes overrun by rent-seeking interests and a depoliticized managerial politics, while citizens relapse into a kind of apathetic and hedonistic privacy, dominated by consumerism and a consumerist approach to political life. At a certain point, however, the thinness of the regime’s claim to loyalty, and the accelerating pace and increasing burdens of relentless creative destruction, jointly become intolerable. The sheer plasticity and restless liberationism of the regime exceed the populace’s appetite for freedom, and a kind of rebellion against the principles of the regime itself will occur. The populace craves the return of “strong gods” (in R. R. Reno’s phrase) and summons them. It is not impossible to discern the beginnings of such a process in our own era, as Reno indeed does. The economic-technical state ultimately turns out to be self-undermining, because it rests upon a defective psychology and anthropology.
Despite the strong alignment of American integralists with Vatican II continuity and Pope Francis, the world of Catholic traditionalism has also taken note. These communities are generally characterized by favoring the traditional Latin mass and an approach to theology and prayer which emphasizes continuity with the Church as it existed before Vatican II.
Since Pope Benedict XVI’s affirmation of the traditional form’s legitimacy, participation in its worship has rapidly increased among young Catholics. This current has even had some influence on popular culture, particularly in the plot and aesthetic of HBO series The Young Pope. However, insofar as traditional Catholic life is defined by an embrace of contradiction to the broader culture, its numbers would be even larger. This definition would include many young Catholics who attend the ordinary form of the Roman mass, as well as those who may be in other communities such as the eastern Catholic Churches (which stem from eastern theological and liturgical traditions) or the personal ordinariates (communities mainly across North America, the UK, and Australia which originated with Anglican parishes which joined the Catholic Church).
The diversity of traditional Catholic communities makes it difficult to define a general motivation. But many working with young traditional Catholics have noted that they often embrace a cohesive and substantive rejection of liberal modernity. Even before the current surge in traditional Catholic engagement online, Archbishop DiNoia, O.P. noted in 2010 comments:
I have noticed it over the past few years, but it seems more pronounced or at least more evident to me in the people born in the mid- to late 80s and early 90s. My sense is that these 20- and 30-somethings have been radicalized by their experience…these 20- to 30- somethings have experienced the moral relativism and eclectic religiosity of the ambient culture-and possibly of their own personal experience- and recognized it as a chaotic but radical alternative to Christianity with which no compromise is possible.
It is likely no coincidence that young people are finding traditional Catholic life at the same time that they are encountering theologically-influenced pop culture voices such as Jordan Peterson. Both are driven by a desire for meaning which is not only tolerant of radical divergence from the dominant culture but attracted to it. However, the polarization between many traditional communities and Pope Francis is likely to prove a stumbling block to explicitly embracing the framework of Laudato si’. Nevertheless, their embrace of the same currents within earlier writings—be it Pope Benedict XVI or Pope Pius IX—certainly places these communities on a convergent trajectory. Whether a full reconciliation will occur remains to be seen.
The existence of such communities also provides Catholic intellectual life with a sphere of praxis. Catholic philosophers such as renowned virtue ethicist Alasdair MacIntyre have addressed such issues as the communal basis for virtue and Christian objections against the liberal capitalist form of property. Traditional Catholic communities, such as that around the Benedictine monastery of Clear Creek Abbey in eastern Oklahoma, have been upheld as examples by students of MacIntyre’s communitarian approach, including Rod Dreher.
However, MacIntyre has proven to be an intellectual force beyond these quarters. A third political force in American Catholicism in particular is that of the Catholic left. MacIntyre’s substantive critique of capitalist modes of production and life builds on his own Marxist past, which makes it quite distinctive from general right-populist suspicion of centralism or foreign influence. The Catholic left is not a unified group so much as a tendency which can be found among a number of individuals and groups. In general, this group is defined by greater involvement in politically leftist groups such as the Democratic Socialists of America and is animated by opposition to both the Trump administration and the neoliberal establishment of the Democratic Party. It received attention following the release of the Tradinista Manifesto, which called for a socialism compatible with Catholic social teaching. Figures such as The Washington Post’s Elizabeth Bruenig and writer Kevin Gallagher, who authored the American Affairs piece on Catholic fusionism, remain influential on social media.
Additionally, the rise of a populist left more focused on issues of economic and racial inequality could perhaps open a window for more diverse views on social issues. While the white middle-class center-left could afford to hold a party line on such matters, the same may not be true of an Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez coalition which includes more socially conservative but economically left minority and immigrant populations.
Ultimately, these debates may prove influential for Catholic communities attempting to steer a course through technocratic liberal modernity. However, they largely apply to Catholics who find themselves in the Western sphere of influence. The numerically strongest populations are made up of those Catholics who live, work, and pray in communities outside of this sphere. A prominent African Catholic voice has been that of Guinean Cardinal Robert Sarah, who is known for his damning criticisms of the Western mode of life. Though often associated with the more traditional current within the Church, his 2018 homily condemning consumerism and “frenzied individualism” at the widely-attended Chartres pilgrimage might well have come from Laudato si’.
African Catholicism seems likely to take many courses, dependent on region, and reflecting broader geopolitics. Parts of the global Church already find themselves in cities and regions increasingly under Chinese influence. The political theology of Catholic communities in Addis Ababa or Lagos, not to mention Lusosphere African nations like Angola, will ultimately be responding to this influence. This is reinforced by increasing interaction between the Chinese and African churches. A parish of Chinese and African Catholics worshiping side by side at a Latin mass in Beijing paints a striking image of Catholic political theology’s future. It will have to respond not only to the technocratic paradigm of the Western liberal order, but to that of an increasingly wealthy and interconnected global south. Whatever the outcome, it is unlikely to embrace the answers of an ailing and less influential Western liberalism.
The controversial agreement reached between the Vatican and the Chinese government itself came in the context of Rome’s push to unify the Chinese church and normalize relationships with its hierarchy. This has long been a complex situation, with strong overlap between the state-sanctioned body and underground organizations. While it is unlikely that Chinese Catholics will live entirely free of persecution in the near future, the trajectory from all sides is to reach a settlement that includes the Chinese state.
The retreat of Western influence is not global in scale. Countries like France and Italy play ongoing roles in Africa, particularly driven by responses to the migrant crisis. African and South American Catholics traveling to Europe for clerical, monastic or academic roles are entering a continent which is progressively under the sway of populist and post-liberal movements. While Italy’s current Lega-M5S coalition government is most relevant to the Vatican itself, such movements have influenced politics in Austria, Germany, France, Italy, the U.K., and Spain, among others. While there is far less migratory movement to eastern Europe, the influence of Catholic and sovereigntist governments like those in Hungary and Poland is significant in the realm of ideas. Just as Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro took political inspiration from global north populism, it will not be surprising to see Catholic political theologians do the same. While the concerns of development, climate, and economic exploitation may well make them distinct from and even in confrontation with their northern counterparts, they seem unlikely to be forces shaping a new secular and capitalist liberalism.
The reshaping of the Catholic Church which has birthed both Pope Francis and Cardinal Sarah will not only continue, but accelerate. In this extensive overview, we have seen Catholics in Western power centers face exclusion and disenchantment with their various coalitions. Furthermore, we’ve seen decisive steps being taken towards political projects which are substantively and unapologetically Catholic, deeply influenced by magisterial teaching and combative on cultural flashpoints. In the wide world of Catholicism’s growing adherents and future centers of influence, historical experiences at the hands of the liberal world order leave many less enchanted by its promises than scarred by its realities. Moreover, the rise of new paths of development are already exercising influence over the societies in which many live. It is these Catholics who will provide the priests, theologians, social theorists and political actors of coming generations.
Most vitally of all, this reshaping is not occurring despite the center of religious authority, but is being actively informed by it. While individual memories are short, institutional ones are long. Nearly 200 years of papal teaching has occurred in the midst of variously militant and accommodating liberalism. But having observed its fruits, the Catholic magisterium has begun to directly confront what it long warned against: a technocratic mode of being created by the reduction of human life to the materialist and economic sphere, and the incompatible anthropology beneath it. What occurs at this center echoes out and religiously informs the lives of nearly a seventh of the world’s population, and through them impacts the world as a whole.
The pontificate of Francis is another step on a trajectory which is unlikely to alter itself. In a 2018 homily, the man whom Catholics adhere to as the vicar of Christ on earth spoke uncompromisingly:
The paganization of life can occur, in our case the Christian life. Do we live as Christians? It seems like we do. But really our life is pagan, when these things happen: when we are seduced by Babylon and Jerusalem lives like Babylon. The two seek a synthesis which cannot be effected. And both are condemned.