Catholic Social Teaching and the Ideology of Liberalism
Ideology is the first problem to address in any contemporary political discussion. Ideology may be defined as the attempt to answer vast, complex problems by means of simplistic, “common sense,” closed systems of thought.
Ideologies are always narrow in their approach, promising utopia if only their doctrines can be given full assent and obedience. They provide a false haven from the perennial problems of life, and are in this sense an attempt to escape from the responsibility of real action, choosing instead a vague, abstract, and usually ambiguous solution.
The present pope has identified, perhaps more than any of his predecessors, the specific evil of ideology, and has responded by declaring war on this way of thinking. Pope Francis speaks of ideology as a “distilled faith,” passed through a filter with only the superficialities retained:
“In ideologies there is not Jesus: in his tenderness, his love, his meekness. And ideologies are rigid, always. Of every sign: rigid. And when a Christian becomes a disciple of the ideology, he has lost the faith: he is no longer a disciple of Jesus, he is a disciple of this attitude of thought.”
Socialism and capitalism are two ideologies with which Catholic Social Teaching struggles most, although it sometimes refers to the first as Marxism, and the second as economic “liberalism.” Because the latter—capitalism—is the reigning ideology of the present era, we will develop the Church’s teaching on this ideology in particular.
It does not matter at all that there is no such thing as pure capitalism in actuality, any more than there is pure socialism. That neither of these extremes can be realized in practice does not prevent them from being entertained in the mind as erroneous ideals, poisoning the thinking of millions. It is in this latter “idealistic” form that ideologies such as capitalism wreak havoc in modern society. It is also as ideologies that Pope Francis condemns them.
Paul VI wrote of his period:
“…we are witnessing a renewal of the liberal ideology. This current asserts itself both in the name of economic efficiency, and for the defense of the individual against the increasingly overwhelming hold of organizations, and as a reaction against the totalitarian tendencies of political powers. Certainly, personal initiative must be maintained and developed. But do not Christians who take this path tend to idealize liberalism in their turn, making it a proclamation in favor of freedom? They would like a new model, more adapted to present-day conditions, while easily forgetting that at the very root of philosophical liberalism is an erroneous affirmation of the autonomy of the individual in his activity, his motivation and the exercise of his liberty.”
And so it seems that any contemporary discussion of ideology must give special focus to liberalism, because it represents the operating ideology of the present era. Yet we must be clear about what is meant by the word. As we have already stated above, when the Church refers to “liberalism” she is speaking of that ideology,
“which believes it exalts individual freedom by withdrawing it from every limitation, by stimulating it through exclusive seeking of interest and power, and by considering social solidarities as more or less automatic consequences of individual initiatives, not as an aim and a major criterion of the value of the social organization.”
In Catholic Social Teaching, the Church is usually speaking directly of economic liberalism, which, as we remarked above, is also called capitalism. However, capitalism is only one expression of liberalism, and there are two others with which the Church has done battle in the past: religious liberalism and political liberalism. Recalling the definition of liberalism stated above, it should be obvious that just as capitalism represents the precise application of liberalism in the economic sphere, so the Reformation expressed the same principles in the religious sphere, while birth of secular government represents liberalism in the political sphere. We can identify these three liberal movements as personified by their respective thinkers: Adam Smith in the economic domain, Martin Luther in the religious, and John Locke in the political.
In fact, we could go so far as to say that Catholic Social Teaching in general represents a prolonged response to the errors of liberalism in the economic sphere.
b. Liberalism is not an American political party
Despite the way the term is used in the United States, when the popes speak of liberalism they are not fighting against the American Democratic Party. They have something much larger in mind.
No doubt, of course, the American “liberals” are products of the liberal ideology, as evidenced by their preference for secularism in political affairs and their insistence on the absolutism of certain political rights; however, American “conservatives” are just as much children of liberalism as their counterparts, what with their intemperate devotion to the autonomy of markets, combined with their insistence on the absolutism of property rights. The two American parties are both thoroughly liberal—they simply represent two different sides of the coin.