The Catholic Church and Progressivism

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by Paul Gottfried by Paul Gottfried

The Church Confronts Modernity: Catholic Intellectuals and the Progressive Era, Thomas E. Woods Jr., Columbia University Press, 228 pages.

A thoughtful historian (who I discovered to my embarrassment is younger than my son), Thomas Woods produced most of this book while still in his mid-twenties. Although obviously influenced here by the conservative Catholic position he was coming to embrace, Dr. Woods allows his subjects to speak for themselves. By the end of the book, it is hard to resist his critical interpretation of the progressive Catholic culture of the early 20th century or his re-evaluation of the clerical opposition it met. In an earlier form this work won the approval of Woods’s TV-celebrity thesis director at Columbia, Alan Brinkley, who recognized the high intelligence of a student whose politics are very different from his own. It is to Woods’s credit that Columbia University Press, whose book catalogues I’ve been scanning, published this study. Given some of the press’s other offerings in American history, which include documentary histories of predictable multicultural victim groups plus an advertisement about "inaugurating new fields of disability studies," The Church Confronts Modernity is like the object on Sesame Street that "just doesn’t belong."

Woods’s study explores the struggles that ignited a hundred years ago over what became the "Modernist" heresy. The target of papal attacks, most notably in the encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis (1907), and something that Pope Pius X exhorted churchmen to stamp out, Modernism, according to Woods, referred to a medley of positions that the pope wished to keep his flock from feeding on. Vitalism, Social Darwinism, moral relativism, and the reduction of religious belief to subjective experience were all positions identified with this predominantly American heresy. At the same time, the Church took on a second heretical outgrowth of the New World, "Americanism," which stressed the need to adapt Catholic discipline and beliefs to American democracy. Although Americanists were not necessarily Modernists, and seemed in their democratic enthusiasms to foreshadow Catholic neoconservatives, for the European and American Catholic hierarchies the differences were not always clear. Both errors had sprung up in the vicinity of American Catholic intellectuals, including some clergy, and each tried in different ways to make religious doctrine less binding on the believer. Both, moreover, appealed to an emotionally and rhetorically charged notion of Progress to justify their departure from received Catholic truths.

Advocates of the two heresies fell into the crosshairs of papal leadership that since the time of Pius IX had been deeply suspicious of the acids of modernity. In the Syllabus of Errors (1864), Pius IX, faced by revolutionary movements and culturally radicalizing forces, had declared the Church’s hostility to "liberalism, progress, and modern civilization." Although this anti-modernist hostility did not rule out the Church’s recognition of labor organizations or its insistence on a fair wage for workers, most conspicuously under Pius IX’s successor Leo XIII, it did put Catholic progressives on notice that their accommodations of the Zeitgeist might result in ecclesiastical censure.

Woods outlines the struggle waged by the papacy and various churchmen to eradicate these false beliefs and stresses the positive effects of this counteroffensive. During this campaign no one was tried for heresy and very few excommunications were imposed. What did happen is that churchmen spoke out in conformity with papal directives, and the contributors to such respected publications as America and American Catholic Quarterly Review underlined the incompatibility between Catholic belief and Modernist and Americanist positions. Woods further suggests that the hard line the church took in this matter, which in some cases went beyond the actual dangers it faced, served it well. Into the 1960s, the majority of American Catholics dutifully attended Mass, sent their children to parochial schools, and showed a higher birth rate than Protestants. Up until Vatican II, the backbone displayed by the Italian peasant who became Pius X and those who rallied to him kept the American Church from straying.

The unspoken assumption here is that the present unwillingness of churchmen in the U.S. and in other Western countries to rein in Catholic politicians and Catholic journalists who talk up gay unions and the right to partial-birth abortion is a no-win strategy. Woods is making a self-evident point. We are not telling the entire story by protesting that we live in a different time and that the "undemocratic" means churchmen once chose to keep their flock in line are out of date. This recalls the excuse given for why both American Republicans and German Christian Democrats have moved uninterruptedly toward the social Left. Supposedly, they have no historical choice. But how do we know that a counter-strategy won’t work until we put one in place — and apply it with every available resource?

Woods approaches cautiously the pro-labor politics of John A. Ryan, a priest who wrote on distributive justice at the beginning of the last century. Ryan associated himself with policy positions that Woods clearly rejects; but the author distinguishes Ryan’s modified Thomistic concept of a "just price" from the prevalent Progressive opinions of his age. Woods tries to be fair when he makes this distinction and as a known economic libertarian he may have strained to do so. But a question might be asked whether the pro—labor union stance of Ryan and other workers’ priests did not lead as far to the left as the heresies that Pius IX condemned. The structural alliance between ethnic Catholics in Anglophone countries, including Canada and England, and the evolving welfare state provided foot soldiers and even conservative coloration for what became social democratic government. In only a few decades such governance went from redistributing income to engaging in social policies that undermined the "Christian family."

It is possible to recognize this without denying the fact that Ryan, as an advocate of "fair wages," was taking a stand against dismal working conditions. Nor does one have to pretend that day laborers in 1900 were not living with few amenities to argue that the welfare state has done more social evil than social good. Woods quotes at length from America and Catholic World and the writings of the Paulist father and head of the Catholic Welfare Council, John E. Burke, to the effect that handing over charitable acts to government administrators would be dangerous for the Church morally and religiously. Certainly there were churchmen in 1910 who foresaw later ominous political developments and predicted what would happen if state managers went from providing welfare support into socializing the young. And they understood the emptiness of the hype about a morally neutral approach to governance, which was not about good and evil but about "efficiency" and "scientific planning." Well before the awakening of other Americans to the false Progressivist claims about administered democracy, at least some of the Catholic writers presented by Woods grasped the larger picture. But these devout Catholics often conveyed their suspicions in sermonic language while bringing up as their major concern the threat to Church authority. It might have been better if more of them had formulated their critical perceptions in less sectarian terms and had delineated what they saw as the crisis in government for Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Unfortunately some of the clerical writers, like Ryan, showed another failing: They believed they could work with the regime they criticized without being swallowed up.

Woods cites Allan Carlson on the demographic and religious revitalization of the ’50s to demonstrate that American fecundity in that decade was due mostly to Catholics. He views Catholic natality in terms of the hold that the Church established over the laity during its struggle against the Modernists. Another proof for his case that Woods might have cited is that the American conservative movement was disproportionately Catholic in the ’50s and ’60s, that is, before the American intellectual Right began to shift leftwards. According to George Nash in The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America, "The new conservatives’ brand of Christianity [in the 1950s] was often of a decidedly Catholic, even medieval cast." Cradle and convert Catholics back then were associated with the anti-Communist and often anti-modernist Right. And while commentators Samuel Lubell and Kevin Phillips would have disagreed in their political opinions, both believed that Catholic ethnics were a driving force in the mounting American reaction against the Left.

But what is omitted from this picture is that 50 years ago most American Catholics were farther left than their Protestant compatriots on relevant socio-economic issues, including government-sponsored integration. In the ’60s and ’70s, as shown by the polling results in Andrew Greeley’s The American Catholic, Catholics stood closer in their political profile to American Jews than to white Protestants. Greeley does make allowances for the urbanization and professionalization of the group and for their historically bad relations with the largely Protestant Republican Party. But he also finds a line of continuity in thought and temperament between Catholic (particularly Irish Catholic) New Deal liberalism and the slide toward the left that Catholics underwent later. He avoids ascribing too much importance to the Second Vatican Council when he plots this long-range trend. According to Greeley, both Catholic traditionalists and Catholic liberals point to that council as a ready explanation for whatever in one case they condemn and in the other they find agreeable.

Although Greeley, a liberal Catholic priest, and Professor Woods might view these conclusions about the continuity of Catholic political loyalties from diametrically opposed perspectives, neither would deny their validity. After all, Woods has criticized in no uncertain terms the Church’s easy acceptance of the welfare state. Note that my observation is not a blot on this precociously wise book and magnificent prose (which is far better than my own). It is rather an attempt to re-examine the author’s generous judgment of some of his subjects without calling into question the value of such retrospective generosity.

September 29, 2004

Paul Gottfried [send him mail] is Horace Raffensperger Professor of Humanities at Elizabethtown College and author of, most recently, Multiculturalism and the Politics of Guilt.

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