Catholic Intellectuals and the Challenge of Democracy
By Jay P. Corrin
University of Notre Dame Press
571 pp.; $59.95

The collapse of Soviet communism in the late 1980s changed how American historians write history.  Even as certain radicals who came of age during the 1960s rejected Stalin and his legacy, the Bolshevik Revolution provided enough heroes (Trotsky, or perhaps even an early Lenin) to keep the dream of radical socialism alive.  Vague about what authentic socialism might look like, they were very clear that it would be something different from the welfare state that mainstream American liberals of the 1950s promoted as the closest possible approximation of industrial democracy.

With the fall of the Berlin wall, the formerly maligned welfare state took on a fresh glow not seen since the glory days of Richard Hofstadter.  Allan Dawley, a labor historian who had once argued that the ballot box was the coffin of class-consciousness, wrote a survey text that returned Progressive Era and New Deal reform to their privileged place in the liberal struggle for justice.  Daniel Rogers explored the connections between European socialism and the American welfare state.  Similarly, James Kloppenberg argued that an eclectic mix of early 20th-century intellectual movements, ranging from American pragmatism to Weberian sociology, should be understand as part of a general international movement toward social democracy, a third way or via media between state socialism and laissez-faire capitalism.

All of this may have made secular liberals and radicals feel at peace with the political developments of the late-20th century, but intellectually it is little more than an exercise in wishful thinking.  Those not content with the notion that what is, is right, would do well to read Jay P. Corrin's Catholic Intellectuals and the Challenge of Democracy.  Catholic social thought has occupied a somewhat ambiguous position in relation to mainstream social democracy.  On the one hand, as Gene McCarraher has shown in his Christian Critics, organizations such as the National Catholic Welfare Conference played a key role in bringing Catholics into the New Deal coalition; on the other, while liberals always appreciated Catholic votes, they maintained a suspicion of Catholic authoritarianism, a suspicion confirmed for them by working-class Catholic opposition to racial integration in the 1960s and 1970s.  Tracing the Catholic encounter with liberal democracy from the French Revolution to World War II, Corrin argues that suspicion of Catholic authoritarianism, while to some degree legitimate, has obscured a small but significant tradition of "liberal" Catholicism that offers a far more radical "third way" than anything being peddled by the academic lap dogs of our current corporate liberal order.

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Corrin begins his study in post-Napoleonic France.  If Europe had retreated from the extremes of red republicanism, the old order had nevertheless passed away.  Nominal monarchies found themselves trapped in a decidedly bourgeois social order driven by demands for free markets and mass democracy.  Pope Gregory XVI's 1832 encyclical Mirai vos condemned the efforts of Catholic liberals to reach some kind of accommodation with the new order, and this siege mentality shaped the Vatican response to liberal democracy for roughly the next 50 years. 

Despite such papal pronouncements, liberal Catholics of varying degrees of orthodoxy continued to struggle to forge some way of reconciling Catholicism and modernity.  Frédéric Ozanam led this effort in France.  A layman and scholar, Ozanam worked to revive the Church's tradition of the "social deaconry," which emphasized the obligation of the Church to move beyond its sacramental ministry to attend to the material welfare of the community.  In 1833, he founded the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, a charitable organization dedicated to serving the poor of Paris.  St. Vincent de Paul societies quickly spread across Europe and North America, and provided lay Catholics with an opportunity to participate in the Church's social ministry.

In 1840, Ozanam published Reflections on the Doctrine of Saint-Simon, a scathing critique of the degradation of work under industrial capitalism similar in tone and analysis to Marx's later and better-known Communist Manifesto.  Ozanam differed from Marx in two significant ways:  first, he looked back to the medieval guilds as a model of worker control, and second, he rejected the dictatorship of the proletariat in favor of more limited state intervention in the economy.  His embrace of democracy put him at odds with conservative Catholics; his critique of the market put him at odds with liberals; his critique of the state put him at odds with socialists.  Following Ozanam's untimely death at the age of 40 in 1853, those who took up the mantle of liberal Catholicism would find themselves in a similarly marginal position.

The second half of the 19th century saw greater clerical involvement in the social deaconry.  Baron Wilhelm Emmanuel von Ketteler, Bishop of Mainz, sought to deepen Ozanam's liberalism by incorporating Thomistic philosophy into Catholic social critique.  His 1864 work The Labor Question and Christianity looked once again to the guilds as a middle path between the state and the market, but also emphasized that any meaningful social transformation required an "interior regeneration of the heart" on the part of all citizens.  Clerical activism reached its 19th-century zenith in the career of Henry Edward Manning, Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster.  Over the objections of politically quiescent old English Catholics, Manning publicly aligned himself with the labor movement in 1872.  He played a key role in mediating the bloody London dock strike of 1889; British workers showed their appreciation by carrying his portrait alongside that of Karl Marx in their 1890 May Day celebration.  Like liberal Catholics before him, Manning endorsed limited state action on behalf of social welfare, but warned against the dangers of centralization latent in existing theories of state socialism.

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Liberal Catholics such as Ozanam, von Ketteler, and Manning were hardly representative of 19th-century Catholic leaders, lay or clerical.  Amazingly, they proved to be the dominant influence on the most significant statement of modern Catholic social teaching, Pope Leo XIII's 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum.  The encyclical refused to endorse specific programs or social systems, averring that the particulars of history and culture preclude any single solution to problems of industrial civilization.  Still, Leo endorsed all the general principles of the liberal Catholic third way:  the acceptance of democracy; the right of labor to organize; a legitimate role for limited state intervention in the economy; and a willingness to work across confessional lines for common social goals. The encyclical also reaffirmed the conservative Catholic emphases on cross-class harmony and the inescapably moral nature of all social problems.

Most significantly, it affirmed a distinctly Catholic concept drawn from Thomistic philosophy:  subsidiarity.  According to Corrin, Leo understood the concept to mean that "government should provide auxiliary services to its citizens so as to supplement the efforts of individuals and their families," but "direct state intervention into the lives of citizens should occur only when those basic agencies proved incapable of protecting themselves."  At a time when most major political parties in the West were still trying to choose between laissez-faire capitalism and state socialism, liberals denounced Rerum Novarum for his support of state intervention while radicals denounced it for its defense of the autonomy of private associations, in particular the family.

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Leo's third way was far ahead of its time.  Corrin presents it as the best-kept secret in Catholicism for the 50 years following its release and blames the conservatism of bishops and priests at the lower levels of the Church hierarchy for distorting and defusing Leo's radical message.  There is certainly much truth to this, but Corrin seems at times to let Leo off a bit too easy.  The pontiff who wrote Rerum Novarum also condemned what, in Testem Benevolentiae, he called "Americanism."  People at the time, and even many today, are not sure exactly what Leo meant by Americanism, but the condemnation could hardly be taken as a ringing endorsement of democracy.  Despite the truly heroic ideals expressed in Rerum Novarum and reaffirmed forty years later by Pius XI in Quadragesimo Anno, the Vatican continued to send out mixed messages on democracy and the modern world well into the 1960s.  Throughout this period, the Vatican provided conservatives with plenty of ammunition to challenge the two great social encyclicals touted by Catholic liberals.

Distributism, the most significant tradition of Catholic social thought inspired by Rerum Novarum, itself sent out dangerously mixed messages on the implications of papal teaching.  At its best, as in the work of G.K. Chesterton, it offered a distinctly Catholic version of democratic localism, with a bias toward agrarian traditionalism.  At its worst, as in the work of Hilaire Belloc, it rejected democracy in the name of an anti-Semitic traditionalism that scapegoated Jews for all the evils of modernity.  Corrin devotes the second half of the book to an explication of Distributism and an in-depth analysis of what can be seen as the Armageddon of the first wave of Catholic liberalism, the Spanish Civil War.

For anyone sympathetic to the best of Catholic social thought, Corrin's account of the Church in that galvanizing conflict makes for unpleasant reading.  The Vatican's support for Franco's fascist regime seemed to confirm all the non-Catholic liberal suspicions of Catholic authoritarianism.  Conservative Catholics in America played to type and used the Vatican to silence Catholic liberals in the late thirties.  Corrin ends his account with Catholic liberals in retreat.  He somewhat misleadingly suggests that they did not resurface again until Vatican II, but this discounts the central role of Catholics in the democratic crusade of World War II.  As McCarraher has argued, the real problem of mid-century Catholic social thought was not the eclipse of Catholic liberalism but rather the co-optation of the Catholic third way by the welfare state.

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Corrin nonetheless provides an invaluable survey of the main currents of modern Catholic social thought up to World War II.  For this alone, his book should be required reading for undergraduates and the general reader interested in social ethics or the history of ideas.  Corrin also provides a needed corrective to the still persistent equation of Catholicism and authoritarianism.  Chesterton may have flirted with anti-Semitism, but he opposed the civilizing mission of the British Empire at a time when thoroughly rational, properly progressive Fabian socialists unabashedly endorsed British imperialism.  Anti-Semitism was only one ingredient in the fascist brew that gave us Auschwitz; others include eugenics, scientific management, industrial mass production, bureaucratic centralization, and a hubristic belief in progress.  These latter were all mainstream ideals supported by good liberals on both sides of the Atlantic—and opposed by the Distributists.

When it comes to violence, liberal democracy has proven to be a remarkably Teflon ideology.  Closer to our own time, Catholic support for right-wing dictatorships in Latin America seemingly proved the inherently authoritarian nature of the Church, while U.S. support for those regimes led merely to earnest, soul-searching ruminations on the troubled journey or uncertain victory of American liberalism.  Catholicism in the modern world has never had the luxury of acknowledging its dirty hands only as evidence of mistakes made in the past.  This is one of many reasons why Catholic social thought offers a uniquely valuable resource for thinking about our dirty hands in the present.

Christopher Shannon teaches at Saint Mary's College in Indiana.

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