George Weigel

To Sanctify the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II

Generic selectors
Exact matches only
Search in title
Search in content
Post Type Selectors

The Free and Virtuous Society

[On May 19, EPPC Senior Fellow George Weigel delivered the fourth annual Tyburn Lecture at Tyburn Convent, Marble Arch, London. Previous lecturers have included Charles Moore, then editor of the Daily Telegraph; and Cherie Booth Blair, Q.C., wife of Prime Minister Tony Blair.]

Christians have been thinking through their relationship to the tangled worlds-within-worlds of politics, economics, and culture for nearly two millennia. The essential nature of that unavoidable entanglement, and the distinctive character of the Christian’s presence in “the world,” came into focus early. As the Letter to Diognetus, most likely written in the second century, reminds us, Christians are always “resident aliens” in the world, for while Christians honor just rulers, obey just laws, and contribute to the common good of whatever society in which they find themselves, a Christian’s ultimate loyalty is given to a Kingdom that is elsewhere. Christians believe that history can only be read in its fullness in the light of faith in the Risen Christ, the Lord of history. And in that perspective, history is both the arena of God’s action and the antechamber to our true home, the “city of the living God” [Hebrews 12.22]. Those who know that about history live in history in a distinctive way.1

One might think that this two-edged conviction about the present and the future absolves Christians from responsibility for politics, economics, and culture, and some Christians have in fact regarded a quietistic withdrawal from the world and its affairs as a demand of discipleship. Catholic faith takes a different stance, however. The Catholic Church believes that it is precisely because Christians live their lives “in the world” by reference to transcendent Truth and Love that Christians can offer their neighbors a word of genuine hope amidst the flux of history. Because Christians live both in time and ahead of time – because Christians are the people who know how the human story turns out, viz., in the final vindication of God’s salvific purposes – Christians are in a unique position vis-a-vis history, politics, economics, and culture. As Hans Urs von Balthasar has put it, amidst the world’s accelerating development Christians are the people who “can confront [that development] with a divine plan of salvation that is co-extensive with it, that indeed always runs ahead of it because it is eschatological.”2

Over the centuries, there have been numerous Christian proposals for understanding the Church’s relationship to the world of politics, economics, and culture; H. Richard Niebuhr’s classic, Christ and Culture, still offers a useful typology of the five principal approaches.3 Surely one of the most intellectually important Christian efforts to shed the light of the Gospel on public life has been the tradition of Catholic social doctrine. Reaching back to the classical and medieval masters for its inspiration while putting their insights into conversation with the realities of the contemporary world, modern Catholic social doctrine has always had a distinctive public quality to it, beginning with Leo XIII’s pioneering 1891 encyclical, Rerum Novarum. Unlike certain other Christian explications of the Church’s position in the world, which speak essentially to the believing community, Catholic social doctrine has been thoroughly ecumenical in the full sense of the oikumene: Catholic social doctrine has understood itself as being “not for Catholics only.” Although the phrase does not appear until John XXIII, the social doctrine of the Church has always been addressed to “all men and women of good will.” It is a genuinely public proposal, using analyses and arguments about public goods and the means to achieve them that can be engaged by any intelligent person.

From the years prior to Pope Leo’s writing Rerum Novarum to the present, Catholic social doctrine has evolved in a collaborative dialogue between the successors of Peter and theologians. I would like to suggest where that dialogue and that papal teaching have led us in this first decade of a new century and a new millennium, so that we can better understand the areas where Catholic social doctrine requires development in the years immediately ahead.


The Contribution of John Paul II


The social magisterium of John Paul II assumes, even as it develops, the three great principles that have shaped the Church’s social doctrine since Leo XIII; John Paul has also cemented a fourth principle into the foundations of Catholic social doctrine.

The first classic principle is the principle of personalism, which can also be called the human rights principle. According to this foundation stone of the Church’s social doctrine, all right thinking about society — in its cultural, political, and economic aspects — begins with the inalienable dignity and value of the human person. Right thinking about society does not begin, in other words, with the state, the party, the tribe, the ethnic group, or the gender group. It begins with the individual human person. Society and its legal expression, the state, must always be understood to be in service to the integral development of the human person. The state, in particular, has an obligation to defend the basic human rights of persons, which are “built into” us by reason of our very humanity. “Rights,” in the Catholic understanding of the term, are not benefices distributed by the state at its whim or pleasure; they are goods to be protected and/or advanced by any just state.

The second classic principle is the principle of the common good, or what we can call the communitarian principle; it complements and completes the personalist principle. Because men and women grow into the fullness of their humanity through relationships, each of us should exercise his rights in such a way that that exercise contributes to the general welfare of society, and not simply to our individual aggrandizement. Living in service to the common good is essential for the integral development of persons as well as for the good of society.

The third classic principle is the principle of subsidiarity, which we can call the free-associational principle or principle of civil society. It was first given magisterial form in Pius XI’s 1931 encyclical, Quadragesimo Anno, although its vision of a richly-textured and multi-layered human society reaches back to medieval Christian experience. The principle of subsidiarity teaches us that decision-making in society should be left at the lowest possible level (i.e., the level closest to those most effected by the decision), commensurate with the common good. American “federalism” is one empirical example of the principle of subsidiarity at work. Articulated under the lengthening shadow of the totalitarian project in the first third of the twentieth century, the principle of subsidiarity remains today as a counter-statist principle in Catholic social thinking. It directs us to look first to private sector solutions, or to a private sector/public sector mix of solutions, rather than to the state, in dealing with urgent social issues such as education, health care, and social welfare.4

These were the foundational principles inherited by John Paul II, principles he taught in his pre-episcopal days as a seminary lecturer on social ethics. As pope, John Paul has added a fourth principle to the foundations of the Church’s social doctrine: the principle of solidarity, or what we can call the principle of civic friendship. A society fit for human beings, a society capable of fostering integral human development, cannot be merely contractual and legal, John Paul teaches; it needs a more richly-textured set of relationships. It requires what Jacques Maritain used to describe as “civic friendship:” an experience of fellow-feeling, of brotherhood, of mutual participation in a great common enterprise. A genuinely human society flourishes when individuals dedicate the exercise of their freedom to the defense of others’ rights and the pursuit of the common good, and when the community supports individuals as they grow into a truly mature humanity – that is what living “in solidarity” means.5 Here, we note, is one important way in which the social doctrine of the Church is clearly distinguished from that prominent current of modern political thought that reduces all social relationships to the contractual. (Americans instinctively understood the false picture of democratic society proposed by a merely contractual understanding of society on September 11, 2001, when great acts of heroism and compassion were done by people who clearly knew that their relationship to their fellow-Americans, and to America, was not reducible to the terms of a contract.)

On this four-principled foundation, John Paul II has developed the social doctrine of the Church in five of his encyclicals. Three of these are “social encyclicals” stricte dictu; two other encyclicals address grave questions at the heart of today’s “social question.” Let me highlight here the original contributions of John Paul II to Catholic social doctrine.

In his first social encyclical, Laborem Exercens (1981), John Paul offered the Church and the world a rich phenomenology of work. Challenging the view that work is a “punishment” for original sin, the Pope taught that work is both an expression of human creativity and a participation in the sustaining creative power of God.5 Work is less to be understood as constraint, and more to be understood as an expression of our freedom. Through our work, John Paul urges, we do not simply make more; we become more.6 Thus work has a spiritual dimension, and when we identify our work and its hardships with the work, the passion, and the death of Christ, our work participates in the development of the Kingdom of God.7

In his second social encyclical, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (1988), John Paul defined, for the first time in Catholic social doctrine, a “right of economic initiative,” which he described as an expression of the creativity of the human person.8 At a macro level, the Pope insisted that civil society and its network of free and voluntary associations is essential to economic and political development; the Pope also taught that development economics and economic development strategies cannot be abstracted from questions of culture and politics. Nor can the problems of underdevelopment be understood, in Catholic perspective, as a question of victimization only; integral human development, John Paul wrote, requires Third World countries to undertake rigorous legal and political reforms. Participatory government, the Pope suggested, is crucial to integral development.9

In what seems, in retrospect, a prophetic anticipation of the communist crack-up, John Paul II warned in Sollicitudo Rei Socialis against the dangers to integral human development (at both the individual and societal levels) of a “blind submission to pure consumerism,” a theme to which he would return frequently in the next decade.10 In another anticipation of the post-Cold war debate, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis also urged the developed world not to fall into “selfish isolation;” “interdependence” (a phenomenon that would subsequently evolve into “globalization”) has a moral, not merely material, character, the Pope taught. No country or region can ever be read out of history or simply abandoned.11

John Paul II’s most developed social encyclical, Centesimus Annus, was published in 1991 to mark the centenary of Rerum Novarum and to launch the Church’s social doctrine into a new century and millennium. Among its principal themes were the following:

1) What the Church proposes to the world of the twenty-first century is the free and virtuous society. The two are inseparable. The contemporary human quest for freedom is undeniable. But it will be frustrated, and new forms of tyranny will emerge, unless the free society is also a virtuous society.12

2) The free and virtuous society is composed of three interlocking parts — a democratic political community, a free economy, and a robust public moral culture. The key to the entire edifice is the cultural sector. Because free politics and free economics let loose tremendous human energies, a vibrant public moral culture is necessary to discipline and direct those energies so that they serve the ends of genuine human flourishing.13

3) Democracy and the free economy are not machines that can run by themselves. It takes a certain kind of people, possessed of certain virtues, to run self-governing polities and free economies so that they do not self-destruct. The task of the moral-cultural sector is to form these habits of heart and mind in people, and the primary public task of the Church is to form that moral-cultural sector. Thus the Church is not in the business of proposing technical solutions to questions of governance or economic activity; the Church is in the business of forming the culture that can form the kind of people who can develop those solutions against a transcendent moral horizon.14

4) Freedom must be tethered to moral truth and ordered to human goodness if freedom is not to become self-cannibalizing.15

5) Voluntary associations — the family, business associations, labor unions, social and cultural groups — are essential to the free and virtuous society. They embody what John Paul calls the “subjectivity of society,” and they are crucial schools of freedom.16

6) Wealth in the contemporary world is not simply to be found in resources, but rather in ideas, entrepreneurial instincts, skills. The wealth of nations is no longer stuff in the ground; the wealth of nations resides in the human mind, in human creativity.17

7) Poverty in today’s circumstances is primarily a matter of exclusion from networks of productivity and exchange; it is not to be understood simply or simplistically as a matter of having an unequal and inadequate portion of what are imagined to be a fixed number of economic goods. Thus we should think of the poor, not as a problem to be solved (as modern social welfare states tend to do), but as people with potential to be unleashed. Welfare programs should aim at developing the habits and skills that allow the poor to participate in networks of productivity and exchange.18

In his 1993 encyclical on moral theology, Veritatis Splendor, John Paul II also had important things to say about the free and virtuous society. To take but one example: the Pope’s teaching that the equality of citizens before the law is most securely grounded in our common human responsibility to avoid intrinsically evil acts is an intriguing proposal for democratic theory to consider.19

Finally, in his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae, John Paul made his most developed statement on the relationship of constitutional and statutory law to the moral law, and on the relationship of the moral law to the free and virtuous society. Democracies risk self-destruction, the Pope warned, if moral wrongs are defended and promoted as “rights.” A law-governed democracy is impossible over the long haul when a certain class of citizens claims the right to dispose of other classes of citizens through the private use of lethal violence. Reducing human beings to useful (or useless, or troublesome) objects for manipulation erodes the moral culture that makes democracy possible. Abortion and euthanasia are two examples of this deadly syndrome; the production of so-called “research embryos” destined from conception for experimentation and death is another. A “culture of life” is thus essential for democracy and for human flourishing. Unless the state has no other means to defend itself against predatory individuals, the use of capital punishment erodes the culture of life and should thus be avoided.20

John Paul’s social doctrine has taken the Catholic Church into new territory. There is no sense in these encyclicals of a nostalgia for the world of the ancien régime; there is not the slightest hint of a longing for the way-things-were before the emergence of the modern state and the modern economy. Centesimus Annus, in particular, brought a new empirical sensitivity to the papal social magisterium, which has at times been characterized by a certain abstractness about political and economic life. A Church widely perceived as a foe of democracy in the 19th century has become, through the Second Vatican Council and the social magisterium of John Paul II, perhaps the world’s foremost institutional defender of human rights, and a sophisticated participant in the worldwide debate over the nature and functioning of democracy.21

Indeed, one can widen the lens ever farther and say that, at the turn of the millennium, the social doctrine of the Church had a comprehensive quality and a salience in public life that would have amazed Leo XIII, “prisoner of the Vatican.” As the century and the millennium turned, there were three proposals for organizing the human future that had global reach and were supported by the necessary institutional infrastructure to have a worldwide impact. One proposal was the pragmatic utilitarianism that defined much of moral discourse in western Europe and North America, even as it was carried worldwide through American popular culture and certain aspects of economic globalization. The second was the proposal of radical Islam. And the third was the proposal of Catholic social doctrine: a way of living freedom that ties freedom to truth and truth to goodness, and a way of thinking about the human prospect that can be engaged by every person of good will. One does not risk a charge of special pleading by suggesting that the course of the twenty-first century and beyond will be determined in no small part by the answer to the question, how will each of these proposals shape the emerging global culture?


The Development of Catholic Social Doctrine


What, then is the work that John Paul II has left the rest of us to do as we consider the Church’s social doctrine in the first years of a new century and millennium? Let me suggest here a pastoral/catechetical issue, a methodological issue, and a set of specific policy issues where the wisdom of Catholic social doctrine is urgently needed, but the social doctrine itself remains, at present, insufficiently developed.


The Pastoral/Catechetical Issue: The Reception of Social Doctrine


The first thing to be done about Catholic social doctrine in the 21st century is to ensure that it is far more thoroughly received throughout the world Church.

In the United States, it is often said that Catholic social doctrine is Catholicism’s “best-kept secret.” There is an unfortunate amount of truth in that. The social doctrine of the Church is rarely preached and poorly catechized. It is possible to complete a pre-ordination theology program without having taken a semester-long course on the Church’s social doctrine. Courses in the social doctrine of the Church are rarely a staple of secondary or college-level Catholic education. The social doctrine of the Church is barely mentioned in most programs that prepare adults for baptism or for reception into full communion with the Church. In all of this, I fear that the Church in the United States is not alone.

The compendium of social doctrine that has been in preparation at the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace for several years is itself a testimony to the world Church’s failure to draw deeply enough from the wells of its own wisdom in the related fields of culture, economics, and politics — if the Church had truly received the social doctrine of the twentieth century Popes, would such a compendium be necessary? The pastoral leaders of the Church, including the world episcopate, are simply not as conversant with the Church’s social doctrine as they must be, if the Catholic proposal is to have the impact it should on shaping the emerging global culture.

This question of reception is both general and specific. In addition to a generalized failure to make the social doctrine “live” in the local Churches, intellectually and pastorally, there has been a specific failure to reckon with the distinctive contributions of John Paul II to Catholic social teaching. In more than a few Catholic intellectual and activist circles in western Europe, North America, and Latin America, it often seems as if Centesimus Annus had never been written. In these quarters, the quixotic search for a “Catholic third way” somewhere “beyond” capitalism and socialism continues apace, and the teaching of Centesimus Annus on the free economy is virtually ignored. Several interventions at the 2001 Synod of Bishops also suggested a striking unfamiliarity with John Paul II’s social doctrine and its emphasis on the poor as people with potential who are to be empowered to enter local, national, and international networks of productivity and exchange. “Globalization” was often discussed in the Synod absent the empirical sensitivity evident in Centesimus Annus. Indeed, insofar as one purpose of Centesimus Annus was to challenge dependency theory and other forms of Marxist-influenced economic analysis in Latin American Catholicism, it must be said that the encyclical has, to date, not been altogether successfully received in the new demographic center of the world Church.

Thus a more thorough reception of the twentieth century papal social magisterium, with specific reference to the social magisterium of John Paul II, is an imperative for twenty-first century Catholicism.


The Methodological Issue: Refining Principles Through Rigorously Empirical Analysis


The world Church owes the Church of western Europe a great debt of gratitude for taking the lead from the mid-19th to the mid-20th centuries in developing Catholic social theory in its modern form. That influence continues today, as a glance at the Annuario Pontificio and the demographics of the relevant organs of the Holy See devoted to social doctrine demonstrates. No serious student of Catholic social doctrine can doubt that those steeped in the intellectual traditions that produced von Ketteler and von Nell-Breuning, Maritain and Simon, and other such giant figures will have much to contribute to the development of Catholic social thought in the twenty-first century.22

That continental European legacy must be complemented in the twenty-first century, however, by an intensified dialogue with Catholic social thinking as it has evolved in the United States. I have done no scientific survey of the matter, but I think it not unlikely that the social doctrine of this pontificate has had its greatest public impact in America. Several of the encyclicals cited just above were debated in the secular American press with an interest and rigor that was not always evident in other parts of the world Church; indeed, I think it is fair to say that no great world newspaper has taken this pontificate with such intellectual seriousness as the Wall Street Journal, arguably the world’s most important business newspaper. A journal that regularly explores the implications of John Paul II’s social doctrine, First Things, is the most widely-read religious-intellectual journal in America, and indeed one of the most widely read intellectual journals, period. In the United States, book-length analyses of Catholic social doctrine are debated in intellectual and public policy circles far beyond the formal boundaries of the Catholic Church. All this suggests a dynamic ferment of reflection that, in dialogue with its European antecedents, will be important in developing the social doctrine of the Church in the new century.

American Catholic social ethicists and theologians and their colleagues from throughout the Anglosphere will bring to the development of Catholic social doctrine in the twenty-first century an inductive, empirical approach to social analysis that will complement the more deductive, abstract analysis that has characterized continental European approaches to Catholic social thought. Differing Anglo-Saxon and continental European concepts of human rights and of the nature of law, and differing American and European experiences of the social welfare state and the management of the free economy, will be put into conversation in ways that should produce a more intellectually rich result.23

In discussing briefly this North American-European axis of dialogue, I do not in any way intend to demean the crucial contributions to Catholic social thought that must come from Latin America and from the new Churches of Africa and Asia. I do mean to emphasize what seems to me the more thorough discussion of the social doctrine of John Paul II that has taken place among American Catholic intellectuals, and the importance of that for the world Church of the next decades, in common intellectual work and in the relevant offices in Rome.


Five Specific Issues


1. Catholic International Relations Theory


The events of 9/11 and the response to them throughout the world Church have reminded us that Catholic international relations theory must be refined and developed if the Church is to bring the moral wisdom of its tradition to the pursuit of the peace of order, justice, and freedom in world affairs. John XXIII’s Pacem in Terris is not usually considered a “social encyclical” or an integral part of the Church’s social doctrine. But here, too, a development of thinking is in order. If the social doctrine of the Church is prepared to address issues of globalization in the economic sphere, it must be prepared to help statesmen and citizens think through the transition from world dis-order to a measure of world order in the sphere of international politics. The “social question” now includes the question of world order.

The first requirement in this area of intellectual development is, I suggest, to retrieve the classic Catholic notion of peace as tranquillitas ordinis: the tranquillity of that “order” within and among nations that is composed of justice and freedom.24 In this context, it is also essential to renew our understanding of the just war tradition as a tradition of statecraft in which all the instruments of legitimate public authority, including the instruments of proportionate and discriminate armed force, are analyzed for their ability to contribute to the building of tranquillitas ordinis on a global scale. Among many other things, this renewal of understanding will mean recovering the classic structure of the Catholic just war tradition, which does not begin with a series of means-tests but with a demonstration of legitimate public authority’s obligation to defend the innocent and pursue justice. The just war tradition must, in other words, be renewed as a reflection on obligatory political ends, rather than be further reduced (as it has been in recent decades) to a thin casuistry of means. Ad bellum questions must once again take their proper theological priority in moral analysis over in bello issues, if the latter are going to be understood properly.

This, in turn, will require a development of the just war tradition itself. How are we to understand the classic components of “just cause?” Does the first use of military force to prevent the use of a weapon of mass destruction satisfy the classic concept of a “just cause” as “repelling aggression”? In order to think through the full implications of the Holy Father’s teaching that “humanitarian intervention” is a moral obligation in the face of impending or actual genocide or mass starvation, is it necessary to recover the older “just cause” notion of “punishment for evil” as a legitimate causus belli? Questions of “legitimate authority” are also in need of urgent investigation. Where is the locus of moral legitimacy in world politics today? Are there occasions when military action absent the sanction of the U.N. Security Council can serve the ends of tranquillitas ordinis? What does the ad bellum criterion of “last resort” mean in a world where unstable, aggressive regimes may possess weapons of mass destruction, the means to deliver them over long distances, and the capacity to transfer them to terrorist organizations? Are there circumstances in which “last resort” can mean “only” resort, given the nature of the regimes involved? Indeed, does the just war tradition challenge the Westphalian notion of the sovereign immunity of the nation-state, in itself and in light of the emergence of states which are innately threats to world order because of their ideology and their weapons capabilities?25

These are all questions in need of urgent attention. Catholic international relations theory has lain fallow for the better part of four decades. It is time to revive it and develop it as an important component of the social doctrine of the Church.


2. Interreligious Dialogue and the Global “Social Question”


As I noted a moment ago, activist Islam is one of the other proposals for the human future with global “reach” in the early part of this new millennium. This suggests that the social doctrine of the Church must take its place in interreligious dialogue, if that dialogue is to be anything more than an ineffectual exercise in political correctness. This, in turn, suggests that the Catholic-Islamic dialogue in the immediate future must be framed, from the Catholic point of view, in frankly strategic terms.

Can the Catholic Church, in other words, be of some modest assistance to those Islamic scholars, lawyers, and religious leaders who are working – often at great risk – to develop a genuinely Islamic case for religious toleration in something approximating what we in the West would call “civil society”? If a world safe for diversity and pluralism requires a billion Muslims to become good Rawlsian secular liberals, then we really do face the grim prospect of a global “clash of civilizations.” Thus the crucial question for the Islamic future, from the vantage point of Catholic social doctrine, is whether Islam can find within its sacred texts and legal traditions the internal resources to ground an Islamic case for crucial aspects of the free and virtuous society, including religious toleration and a commitment to the method of persuasion in politics.

Some may wonder whether the Catholic Church has anything of particular interest to bring to this discussion. What it has to offer, I suggest, is its own recent history – for it took the Catholic Church until 1965 to develop and articulate a thoroughly Catholic concept of religious freedom and its implications for the organization of public life. Indeed, one can draw a rough analogy between pro-civil society Islamic scholars and religious leaders today and those Catholic intellectuals and bishops who were probing toward some sort of rapprochement with religious freedom and democracy as the old order was crumbling in Europe throughout the nineteenth century. Surely there are lessons to be learned from this experience – which eventually led to a dramatic development of social doctrine in Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Freedom [Dignitatis Humanae] – that could and should be brought into the Catholic Church’s global dialogue with the multi-faceted worlds of Islam.

3. The Emerging Global Economy and the Environment


Centesimus Annus has raised a host of important questions for further exploration. Its phenomenology of economic life suggests the possibility that there are economic “laws” written into the human condition in a way analogous to the moral law. Teasing out what those “laws” might be should be one issue on the agenda of exploration in the years immediately ahead. Important experiments in welfare reform are now underway in various cou

Share This Post

Latest Articles

Catholic And Vatican Affairs

Why Just War Theory Always Matters

Last month, I had the honor of addressing the Civitas Dei Fellowship, which is sponsored by the Dominicans’ Thomistic Institute in partnership with Catholic University’s Institute for Human Ecology. By the time I

Catholic And Vatican Affairs

The Summer Reading List

A long time ago (but not in a galaxy far away), Baltimore’s St. Paul Latin High School had us reading six or seven books every summer. I confess that I

Popular Articles


Stay in the know by receiving George Weigel’s weekly newsletter