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The Church used to have a powerful economic voice. What went wrong?

Pope Leo XIII

One hundred years ago, the National Catholic War Council, the predecessor of today’s US Conference of Catholic Bishops, issued a “Program for Social Reconstruction”. Drawing on American progressive thought and the encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891), it argued for a living wage, urban housing, trust-busting, worker-run cooperatives, and employee ownership of industry.

Unlike most documents issued by America’s Catholic bishops, this one gained widespread notice. It was denounced by some as socialistic, though it in fact condemned socialism in unsparing terms. Leo XIII had done the same in Rerum Novarum. Then as now, a great deal of confusion arose from the fact that the Catholic Church condemns socialism while advancing ideas many people falsely regard as socialist. Some Catholics (including this author) who reject what the Church rejects have even called themselves socialist in this colloquial sense, with more exuberance than accuracy.

The statement’s ideas, some more practical than others, were not immediately implemented. But they helped shape the arguments and activism that would later result in the New Deal and the Great Society. The priest who drafted the statement, Fr John A Ryan, became an influential supporter of Franklin Roosevelt. The Program remains the most important intervention the American bishops have made in economic debates.

Given the document’s importance, the American bishops have marked its centenary rather tepidly. Instead of issuing an updated version of the plan for the 21st century, they have simply noted the anniversary in an admirable letter by Bishop Frank Dewane.

What prevents the Church from speaking as boldly today as it did in 1919?

A few clues come from revisiting the National Program for Social Reconstruction. It combined a zealous concern for economic justice with a clear concern for serving the common goods proper to family and Church. The former concern is today associated with the Left and the latter with the Right, but American politics was less polarised on issues of sexuality, family and faith in 1919.

Looking back on the document now, a right-wing observer is likely to view it as too economically progressive, and a leftwing observer is likely to view it as culturally retrograde. For example, the bishops state that women should receive equal pay for equal work, but that only adult men are to be guaranteed a living wage (the idea being that the man is responsible for supporting the family). They ask that women be treated fairly – in the name of justice and chivalry. Yet they insist that “the proportion of women in industry ought to be kept within the smallest practical limits.”

Not all these statements necessarily follow from Catholic premises. But simply glossing over them (as many left-wing admirers of the Program do) obscures something important about the document, however questionable some of its conclusions may be. Its signatories felt it was natural to argue simultaneously for economic justice and for healthy families (as they understood those things). They did so in a way that offends liberal economic and cultural pieties. Their statement showed an unabashed confidence in Catholic thought, economic and moral, that has since been lost.

This loss of confidence has much to do with developments in post-war politics. The Left focused on cultural deregulation and the Right on deregulation of the economy. It is hard for the Church to support unions when unions support abortion. It is hard to endorse the pro-life party when its members deny the universal destination of goods.

It is no secret that both political parties have become alienated from the working class. Hillary Clinton’s denunciation of “deplorables” and Mitt Romney’s misleading dismissal of “people who pay no income tax” were of a piece. Though it has generally avoided such crude rhetoric, the Church has suffered the same fate. Poorer and wealthier Catholics used to attend Mass at roughly equal rates. But there has been a large drop in attendance among working-class Catholics born after 1960. It should not surprise us that the Church has lost its economic voice at the same time it has lost the attachment of the working class.

Today the best elements on both the left and the right are endeavouring to respond to the needs of the working class. Despite resistance, writers such as Elizabeth Bruenig and Angela Nagle, and outlets such as Red Scare and Jacobin, have sought, however fitfully and inconsistently, to move the Left away from its insistence on mindless social liberalism and back towards the concerns of working men and women. Likewise, a host of figures on the right – including Josh Hawley, Marco Rubio, Ross Douthat, Yuval Levin and Oren Cass – have begun to gesture towards a more solidaristic politics. They have, predictably and inaccurately, been denounced as socialists.

Though the right-wing reformers are currently enjoying more success, neither cause seems assured of victory. Catholic intellectuals are contributing on both sides. They must keep in mind Leo XIII’s observation in Rerum Novarum that “Society can be healed in no other way than by a return to Christian life and Christian institutions.” No social programme, however well judged, can substitute for divine grace.

Matthew Schmitz is senior editor at First Things