American Catholic reception of the bishops' program of social reconstruction 1919-1986: The continuing conflict between Catholic social teaching on economic rights and the American way
Certain segments in American Catholicism have refused to receive the concept of economic rights in Catholic social teaching. Some considered them somehow "un-American." Others simply have not realized the extent of teaching on human rights within the Catholic tradition. Consequently they have not made the connection between human dignity and those economic rights it requires. Concentrating on the 1919 Bishops' Program of Social Reconstruction and the 1986 pastoral, Economic Justice for All, I will offer an explanation for a principle of non-reception of these moral teachings by certain groups within American Catholicism, represented by Conde Pallen in 1919 and Michael Novak in 1986. A strong American tradition of laissez-faire capitalism is partially responsible for this non-reception. However, in Novak's writings on economic rights, I detect a divergence, not only in ethics, but also in anthropology, from the bishops' statements. This involves a conflict not limited to specific applications of universal principles, but a more profound disagreement on the dignity of humanity. I will conclude that this differing anthropology stems from a misunderstanding of four Catholic doctrines. First, the importance of the incarnation; second, acceptance of the Kingdom as partially begun in this world; third, an excessive emphasis upon individual sinfulness; and fourth, appreciation of the transformational gift of grace. These misconceptions are significantly responsible for Novak's generally pessimistic view of the human potential for good, of an opportunity for salvation, and of the bishops' proposals concerning economic democracy. The American bishops support democratic capitalism as potentially beneficial of human dignity. If used in ways such as they recommend, it can be a source of empowerment for humanity. Interestingly, both Novak and the bishops ground their views in what they consider authentic Catholic social tradition and the "American way."
Michael Thomas McCartan,
"American Catholic reception of the bishops' program of social reconstruction 1919-1986: The continuing conflict between Catholic social teaching on economic rights and the American way"
(January 1, 1994).
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