Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Paul Henry Lecture offers a succinct overview of neo-Calvinist political thought. That body of thought is rooted in the work of the late 19th- and early 20th-century thinker and politician Abraham Kuyper. It is therefore roughly coeval with the body of social teaching promulgated by the magisterium of the Catholic Church and is, Wolterstorff says, its rival in “scope and depth.”
Though I shall not take up this comparative claim here, I will take stock or inventory of Catholic political thought in section 1 so that anyone who wants to assess the comparative claim can do so. There is valuable common ground between neo-Calvinist political thought and Catholic political thought, though I shall not explore it here. Instead, in section 2, I will develop an idea that is central to Catholic political thought but that seems to be absent from neo-Calvinism, and I will ask Wolterstorff what, if any, practical and theoretical difference this conceptual difference makes. I will conclude in section 3 by identifying a challenge that both Catholic and neo-Calvinist political thought urgently need to address.
§1. Catholic Political Thought
In his opening remarks, Wolterstorff refers to the papal encyclicals and magisterial pronouncements that make up what is called “Catholic Social Teaching.” Catholic Social Teaching is a subset or strand of what I shall call “Catholic political thought.” I use this more encompassing term to refer to what is said or implied about political questions in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures which the Catholic Church recognizes as canonical, and in the writings of thinkers who were more or less consciously drawing on, extending, and transmitting Catholic thought as it has developed to the point of their authorship.
This characterization of Catholic political thought is regrettably rough-and-ready. The phrase “said or implied” has to be understood loosely since scriptural passages are sometimes marshalled to support political claims which they neither explicitly say nor logically imply. The reference to thinkers who were more or less consciously working within Catholic thought is also loose. Catholic political thought as I understand it is a body of thought that has been developing for more than two millennia, but that—I hope—will never stop growing or reach senectitude. What it means to be Catholic or to work within Catholic thought, and what if any ongoing project an author could consciously have intended to participate in, have all varied across times and places and will continue to do so.
Not all of the writings—indeed, not all of the greatest writings—that make up Catholic political thought are works primarily about politics. Augustine never wrote a book that was primarily about politics and Aquinas wrote only one free-standing political treatise which he seems to have abandoned on the death of the monarch to whom it was dedicated. Yet both Augustine and Aquinas said or implied claims about politics in their theological works and both are, or at times have been, vital sources of Catholic political thought.
The political questions whose answers are said or implied in the constituent works of Catholic political thought range quite widely. They concern—among many other things—the licitness of slavery in the ancient world, the Christian’s obligation to pay taxes, the conditions of just war, the question of which regime-type is best, the virtues on which political life draws, the vices contrary to those virtues, the nature and implications of evangelical poverty, the rights of native peoples in the then-newly discovered western hemisphere, the right to private property, the rights of laborers to form unions under industrial capitalism, the culture of mass consumption, and—from ancient times until the present—what would now be called “church-state relations.”
We can distinguish a number of elements within Catholic political thought so understood, in addition to the scriptures:
- the writings of the Greek and Latin fathers that touch on social and political questions, prominently including certain works of Augustine’s
- the writings of the Scholastics and Renaissance Scholastics that touch on those questions, prominently including Thomas Aquinas from among the Scholastics, and Vitoria and Suarez from among the Renaissance Scholastics
- the works of polemicists, publicists, political actors, and scholars of philosophy and theology throughout the Christian era who try to labor in the Catholic tradition
- Catholic Social Teaching properly so-called, which was inaugurated by Pope Leo XIII with his publication of Rerum Novarum, and which includes the great social encyclicals that have followed in its wake. Catholic Social Teaching also includes some of the documents of Vatican II—such as Gaudium et Spes and Dignitatis Humanae—as well as other documents and pronouncements by popes and by episcopal conferences.1
Scripture, papal encyclicals, and conciliar documents enjoy very great authority. Those sources aside, it is impossible to generalize about the relative importance of these elements because different elements have had more or less importance to different thinkers at different times. My sense is that the writings of Augustine, for example, are not important sources for Anglophone scholars now woring in Catholic political thought. But they were certainly important to Aquinas. And they were vitally important to the early- and mid-twentieth-century French thinkers who developed the politics of the nouvelle theologie to counter what they believed was the exaggerated independence that neo-Scholastics like Jacques Maritain granted to the political sphere.2
The political writings of Maritain himself are much less read than they were a few decades ago, when the Catholic Church’s relationship to democracy was more unsettled. Heinrich Rommen’s The State in Catholic Thought is probably not read at all.3 And I suspect that Vitoria’s de Indis, like the writings that have come down to us from the Investiture Controversy and the Conciliarist movement—fascinating as they are and influential as they were—are now regarded as primarily of antiquarian interest.4 I hope that this brief survey shows that Catholic political thought is a rich, diverse, and ever-growing body of writing, a body of considerable scope and depth that is available to Catholics who now want to read and think about politics.
§2. The Common Good
Because Catholic political thought has developed for so long, has been nurtured by so many thinkers and has responded to such different historical and political circumstances, it is possible to find support within it for a wide variety of answers to political questions, including some answers that we would now be happy to repudiate. But a current snapshot of Catholic political thought shows some significant family resemblances to the positions Wolterstorff finds in neo-Calvinism. Wolterstorff implies that neo-Calvinism supports democracy. As can be inferred from my earlier remark about Maritain, support for democracy in Catholic political thought was rather long in coming,5 but it now seems firmly ensconced.6
Catholicism has always taught that human beings are made in God’s image. In Catholic political thought as in neo-Calvinism, our creation in the divine image is thought to confer a dignity on human beings that has powerful implications for the shape of our polities and our treatment one another. I would not be surprised if many of the implications of human dignity drawn out by Catholicism and neo-Calvinism are similar. Rather than pursue the similarities, I want briefly to mention one implication that seems like a significant difference.
The concept of the common good is central to Catholic political thought but absent from Wolterstorff’s survey of neo-Calvinism. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church says that that good—perhaps what is meant is “the importance of that good” or “the imperative to realize that good”— “stems from the dignity of all people.”7 The Compendium continues immediately that the common good is “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfilment.” There are some conditions of individual and group flourishing which a political society cannot, or cannot legitimately, promote. The political common good consists of the conditions of individual and group flourishing at which a political community properly aims. Realizing those conditions is one the ends or the teloi of political action.
The literature on the common good is vast.8
The basic contours of the common good are best sketched in terms of the interests that are said to be served when the common good is realized, and in seeing why and for whom its realization is good. The interests in question are those of the human persons who make up a political community, but they are not interests those persons are observed to have. Rather, they are associated with a normative conception of the human person, a conception of the human person as naturally political.
All normally functioning members of a political community are thought of as having an interest in leading genuinely flourishing or choice-worthy lives. A fully flourishing life—understood as the exercise of the distinctively human powers of intellect and will on the highest object—is not available in this life. It has to await the beatific vision. But there are forms of flourishing in this life that are choice-worthy of their own sake. Call the lives in which these forms of flourishing are integrated “lives of temporal flourishing.” Satisfaction of the natural human interest in leading a life of temporal flourishing belongs to each person’s good, and so the realization of the conditions which promote such flourishing is good for each person. Some such conditions may be common in the sense that one person’s enjoyment of them does not make less of them available for others. Other conditions of flourishing may be positional or rivalrous. In the latter case, what the common good presumably requires is some fair way of adjudicating the rivalry. Thus is one form of justice built into the political common good.
Members of a political community are also thought of having an interest in their compatriots’ leading genuinely flourishing or choice-worthy lives as well. This is not because someone else’s leading a flourishing life advances my private ends. Rather, my compatriots’ leading choice-worthy lives is an end in itself. It is therefore good for each that the conditions of temporal flourishing be common, now in the sense that they be available to all.
The flourishing of others in the political community matters to each because they are related—as co-members, fellow citizens, or fellow subjects—and according to the conception of the person as naturally political, each person has an interest in the flourishing of their relationship. The relationship among all members of the community will flourish when the fact that everyone cares for the flourishing of everyone else and of the relationship are themselves pieces of common knowledge. When that relationship flourishes, the members of the political community enjoy civic friendship. Finally, realizing the conditions of temporal flourishing is a project members engage in together, and so is a common project—though how members engage in that project depends upon the regime-type of their community. Members’ successful engagement in that common project, and common knowledge of their successful engagement, also conduces to the flourishing of their relationship, to their civic friendship.
The concept of the common good so understood raises an enormous number of questions. One is what kind of priority members are supposed to give promotion of the common good to their other allegiances and projects. Another is what a flourishing human life is. Civic friendship will obviously have a very different character if autonomy is an ingredient of it than if it is not. For if it is, then each would have to wish others well in their pursuit of the lives they have chosen from a range of options rather than in her pursuit of the very few good lives valorized in, say, Aristotle’s Ethics. Still another question is what a government can licitly or effectively do to promote the flourishing of those who live under it. If religion is an ingredient of temporal flourishing, then this question will seem especially pressing in increasingly secularized societies.
I cannot pursue these questions here. For now: the assumption that there are lives of temporal flourishing that are choice-worthy for their own sake and superior to many other ways of life that people in fact choose, and the assumption that politics should aim at making conditions of temporal flourishing available, explain why Catholic political thought is often thought to be perfectionist. The importance of flourishing civic relations explains why it is often thought to be communitarian rather than liberal, and why solidarity is considered so important a social virtue.9 I would be interested to know whether neo-Calvinism has a similar idea of the common good which Wolterstorff does not mention, whether it incorporates the same perfectionist and communitarian values using different concepts, or whether the importance of the common good in Catholic political thought indicates a fundamental theoretical difference from neo-Calvinism—perhaps a difference with practical implications.
§3. A Challenge for Both Traditions
I close by drawing attention to a matter that both Catholic political thought and neo-Calvinism need to address. To see it, recall a remark of Kuyper’s that Wol- terstorff quotes near the end of his lecture. Wolterstorff quotes Kuyper as saying:
When rich and poor stand opposed to each other, [Jesus] never takes His place with the wealthier, but always stands with the poorer. . . . Both the Christ, and just as much His apostles after Him as the prophets before Him, invariably took sides against those who were powerful and living in luxury, and for the suffering and oppressed (italics original, underlined emphasis added).
What I find striking about the passage is the underlined conjunction in the second sentence: “powerful and living in luxury.” Kuyper refers here to those against whom Christ took sides. Perhaps in Christ’s time, the powerful generally did live in luxury. But I would have expected Kuyper to observe that the economically powerful—the rich—do not always live that way. And I would have expected him to ask whether Christ also takes sides against those who are rich but who choose not to live in luxury, or whether—on the contrary—the wealth of the rich is a sign that they enjoy divine favor and their voluntary asceticism a sign that they are faithful to the Calvinist ethic. I would have expected this, not based on my admittedly minimal and second-hand knowledge of neo-Calvinism, but based on what Max Weber says about Calvinism in chapter 5 of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.10 If Kuyper is indeed denying that wealth is a sign of favor and is asserting instead that God sides with the poor, then it strikes me—someone outside the neo-Calvinist tradition—that Kuyper is calling for a revolutionary shift in Calvinism. I wonder whether Wolterstorff thinks my assessment is correct.
What does this have to do with what Catholic political thought and neo-Calvinism should confront now?
The speech of Kuyper’s that Wolterstorff quotes was, Wolterstorff says, delivered in 1898, at a time of great rural poverty in the Netherlands. That was the same year that Pope Leo XIII published Rerum Novarum, moved by the poverty of the working classes in industrial Europe. I do not know whether Kuyper was worried that socialism would capture the hearts and minds of the rural poor, but Leo clearly was worried about its appeal.11 If Kuyper was as well, then I find it significant that leading practitioners of both neo-Calvinist and Catholic political thought should have seen that conditions were ripe for challenges to the social order and should have published timely and powerful responses. There is an important lesson to be learned from the timeliness of Kuyper’s and Leo’s interventions.
A century and a quarter after Kuyper and Leo wrote, the social order in the west is once again under threat, for liberal democratic institutions are at their most fragile in living memory. They have not just been enfeebled by the pervasive meanness, incivility, and bald-faced mendacity in public life that Wolterstorff quite rightly deplores. They are fragile because authoritarianism, not socialism, is increasingly seen as an attractive political option. What makes authoritarianism attractive in the United States and Europe is not the poor living condition of those employed in the agricultural and industrial sectors. What has made it seem attractive is a combination of four decades of neoliberal economics, the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs to countries with much lower labor costs, the outsize inequalities consequent on the financialization of western economies, the weakening of the social safety net, the failure of western governments equitably to respond to the financial crisis of 2008, and the cultural threats thought to be posed by immigration and by liberal social policies. Unfortunately, some of those who promote authoritarianism or who are drawn to it support it in the name of Christian values. What is needed from those who formulate and those who preach either neo-Calvinism or Catholic political thought is as full-throated a response to the threat we currently face as was voiced by leaders of those traditions 130 years ago.
Cite this article
- For documents in English, see “Foundational Documents of CST,” United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, accessed February 1, 2023, https://www.usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/what-we-believe/catholic-social-teaching/ foundational-documents.
- Sarah Shortall, Soldiers of God in a Secular World: Catholic Theology and Twentieth- Century French Politics (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2021).
- Heinrich Rommen, The State in Catholic Thought: A Treatise in Political Philosophy (St. Louis, MO: B. Herder Company, 1945).
- For a superb treatment of the political thought of the Spanish Scholastics, see David M. Latingua, Infidels and Empires in a New World Order: Early Modern Spanish Contributions to International Legal Thought (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2020).
- John T. McGreevy, Catholicism: A Global History from the French Revolution to Pope Francis (New York, NY: W. W. Norton, 2022).
- Samuel P. Huntington, “Democracy’s Third Wave,” Journal of Democracy 2, no. 2 (1991): 12–34, p. 13.
- Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, Vatican website, June 29, 2004, https://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/justpeace/documents/rc_pc_ justpeace_doc_20060526_compendio-dott-soc_en.html, §164.
- I am indebted to Waheed Hussain, “The Common Good”, in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward N. Zalta (Stanford University Press, 2018), https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2018/entries/common-good/.
- Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, §193.
- Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Parsons and Giddens (London, UK & Boston, MA: Unwin Hyman, 1930), https://www.marxists.org/ reference/archive/weber/protestant-ethic/. Weber writes, “When the limitation of consumption is combined with this release of acquisitive activity, the inevitable practical result is obvious: accumulation of capital through ascetic compulsion to save. The restraints which were imposed upon the consumption of wealth naturally served to increase it by making possible the productive investment of capital. . . . [I]n Holland, which was really only dominated by strict Calvinism for seven years, the greater simplicity of life in the more seriously religious circles, in combination with great wealth, led to an excessive propensity to accumulation.” On Weber on Calvinism, see also Benjamin M. Friedman, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2021), pp. 389 and 401.
- See Rerum Novarum, §§4–5.