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By Christopher Shannon


Another Third Way?

The mixed record of Catholic social thought.

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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.

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.  Fré;dé;ric 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.

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