Is Catholicism Conservative?

The Church doesn't endorse a particular political party, but the Church isn't neutral either. Two new books make a persuasive case that Catholicism is inherently conservative in principle.

Fr Dwight Longenecker
16.10.2013 // PRINT
Christopher Sessums
It’s a common saying that in polite society you should not talk about politics, sex, or religion. I guess that makes me impolite, because I think politics, sex, and religion are the only three topics of real interest.

Even more interesting is when the three get mixed up together. It’s like gunpowder, fire, and air being mixed. There’s likely to be a big explosion.

I was therefore pleased to receive two books for review, which complement one another in their discussion of religious liberty, political freedom, and economic theory. Samuel Gregg is a research director of the Acton Institute. An Oxford educated Australian, his latest book Tea Party Catholic – The Catholic Case for Limited Government, A Free Economy, and Human Flourishing doesn’t touch much on sex, but there is plenty about money, politics and religion. 

Catholics have too often fallen into the easy trap of conflating their political opinions with their political views. So left-wingers latch on to the Catholic Church’s “preferential option for the poor” and think that means Marxism. Right-wingers pick out the Catholic Church’s condemnation of socialism and conclude that Catholicism backs an unrestrained free market economy. 

The prevailing assumption among many American Catholics is that the Democratic Party is the Catholic party because they want to help the poor. A strong minority of American Catholics think the Republican Party should be favored because they’re for personal responsibility. Samuel Gregg encourages us to think more deeply about the relationship between Catholicism and the economic theories behind political movements.

Gregg shows how a properly understood free market system is rooted in Catholic history and social teaching, and how it undergirds and fosters true freedom and what Gregg calls “human flourishing.” Human flourishing is more than simply acquiring more money; instead, it is a truly abundant life in which individuals, families, and communities can prosper together.

Gregg analyzes the ideas of religious freedom for Catholics, and in his second chapter shows how political and economic freedom are inextricably linked. The heart of his study is the most important – the third chapter deals with the Catholic principles of solidarity and subsidiarity. Solidarity, simply explained, is the love of our neighbor. We are called to care for one another in community. Subsidiarity is the idea that problems are best solved at the local level. Gregg shows how the two principles are necessarily connected. The way we best care for others is through local organizations, community groups, churches, schools, and charities.

When solidarity is destroyed by an undue emphasis on individualism, we start to assume that “somebody up there” will take care of things. When we stop caring for our neighbor, we assume that Big Brother will take charge, and Gregg points out that the more we relinquish our responsibilities to Big Government, the more Big Government will take over. When that happens, our freedoms vanish and the tyranny of the totalitarian state sweeps in.

Gregg goes on to explain why religious freedom is “the first freedom,” discussing how social justice is best worked out in a free market economy. He envisions Catholic Americans as an increasingly “creative minority” – standing up for certain principles and values in the midst of a decaying and confused society. In his introduction to this important book, the cultural theologian Michael Novak quotes Charles Carroll’s words of warning:

"Liberty will maintain her empire, till a dissoluteness of morals, luxury, and venality shall have prepared the degenerate sons of some future age, to prefer their own mean lucre, the bribes and the smiles of corruption and arbitrary ministers, to patriotism, to glory and to the public weal."

Samuel Gregg’s book is a solidly argued and sobering call to an America adrift in exactly the kind of degeneracy that Carroll predicted. The great thing about Gregg’s book is that it is not an attempt to make a Catholic argument for the Republican Party or the Tea Party movement. It is, instead, a clearly explained way forward into a future that combines personal freedom and responsibility with community care and the prosperity of human flourishing.

Gregg’s book would have been improved with a chapter on the influence of the media in political dialogue. A critique on the media’s superficiality and the increasingly uncritical left and right wing partisanship in the media quashes real discussion and the chance for a positive and powerful “third way” emerging from the right-left impasse. Progress towards the realization of Gregg’s ideas will only happen through communication of those ideas, and for this, an intelligent and informed debate in the media is crucial.

Along with a vital debate in the media will be the relationships forged between key thinkers and politicians. The political theologian Michael Novak is a prime example of how an intellectual can influence the course of history. Novak’s introduction to Gregg’s book made for a good introduction to Novak’s own autobiography. 

Writing from Left to Right – My Journey from Liberal to Conservative is a fascinating story of how a working class son of immigrant Catholics from Pennsylvania worked his way through college to become one of the nation’s most influential intellectuals. It is all the more fascinating, because Novak begins his career firmly in the camp of the “Kennedy Catholics” and ends up being a Reagan-style conservative.

Novak’s life story provides the vehicle for a look at the same topics that Gregg covers in academic detail. Michael Novak begins his adult life as a Catholic seminarian, and as he later discerns that this is not to be his vocation, he advances through the academic world, connecting with politicians and political thinkers. Remarkably, he does so not as an economist, politician, or sociologist, but as a theologian. Influenced by the Lutheran thinker Reinhold Niebuhr and Catholic philosophers Jacques Maritain and John Courtney Murray, Novak brings Catholic moral theology into the public square and changes history by influencing the major players on the geo-political stage.

Michael Novak recounts his friendship with Sargent Shriver, George McGovern, Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II. As he tells the story of his remarkable life, he also charts the conversion in his thought. 

Starting as a typical left-wing Catholic, Novak comes to see the failure of the big government solution. A clear turning point is when he sees the pitiful result of socialism and asks his left-wing friends which example of socialism they would advocate: China? Cuba? Albania? Sweden? Russia? They are mute. He sees that socialism is nothing more than a dreamy idea, which becomes first a dreadful ideology then a deadly tyranny.

Novak is especially good in analyzing why capitalism “works,” citing its basis in self-interest. However, this is not simply Gordon Gecko saying, “Greed is good.” Novak explains that capitalism works because it is realistic, and that the self-interest that provides the motor for the free market needs to be balanced by Christian moral values. Catholic social teaching provides for the ownership of capital and the just reward of labor, but it also demands personal responsibility and the proper care for workers, the poor, and the vulnerable. Capitalism works, but if it is not built on a foundation of personal virtue, it will soon crumble.

Michael Novak’s winning personality shines through his clear and direct writing style, but we get the impression that this is the Michael Novak with his tie fixed and hair combed. I would have liked more of Novak’s personal story. He touches on his love for his wife, but we do not hear much about her or their family. Children and grandchildren appear fleetingly. The book would have had more personal depth had we been given entry past the professional Michael Novak to the personal Michael Novak.

That being saidWriting From Left to Right is a fascinating memoir, and taken with Gregg’s book we are given both theory and experience. Gregg explains the thought behind an intelligent and fully Catholic social system, while Novak tells the story of one Catholic’s journey discovering that truth in the midst of the rough-and-tumble of international politics.

Fr. Dwight Longenecker’s latest book, The Romance of Religion, is to be published by Thomas Nelson in February. Visit his blog, browse his books, and be in touch at

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KCBC Bible Commission & Kerala Catholic Bible Society POC

A Kerala Model for New Evangelisation It‰Ûªs just awesome! 560,829 are the participants this year for Logos Mega Bible Quiz to be conducted on 30th September 2012 in Kerala the great and ancient centre of Christianity in India. The interest in the Quiz has gone up steadily since it was initiated in 2000 the Great Jubilee Year by the Bishops‰Ûª conference. This year saw an increase of 25,000 compared to last year‰Ûªs registration (537,300). This colossal phenomenon, called ‰Û÷Logos Mega Bible Quiz‰Ûª, invites the keen attention of the universal Church at the dawn of the Synod on New Evangelization. The Aim The Logos Bible Quiz, which is organized by Kerala Catholic Bishops‰Ûª Council‰Ûªs Bible Commission, provides people opportunity to read and study the Holy Bible carefully. ‰ÛÏOur aim is to promote interest in Bible reading and to cultivate a culture of systematic study of the Bible in order to make a vibrant Christian life possible‰Û, says Rev. Dr. Joshy Mayyattil the chief co-ordinator of Logos Mega Quiz and Secretary of KCBC Bible Commission and Kerala Catholic Bible Society. The Mode The participants, in the quiz conducted by Bible Commission of the Kerala Catholic Bishops Council, are divided into six age groups. People of all walks of life can participate in this popular Bible quiz. Many religious and priests too participate in it. The preliminary round of the Logos Quiz, conducted in parishes under the auspice of Diocesan Bible Apostolate directors, lasts for one and half hours in which the participants will answer multiple answer questions. Three toppers from each age category will participate in the written quiz conducted in KCBC headquarters at Kochi. Top ten from each age category from this round will be eligible for the final round which includes audio, video, written, oral and Bible verse recitation tests. Once the final round gets over, the winners in each category is awarded with gold medals and cash prizes. And the champion of the Logos Quiz (Logos Prathibha) will have a free pilgrimage to Holy Land. The possibility of introducing scholarship for Bible study for the Logos winners is under consideration. Last year the Logos Prathibha (i.e., Logos Champion) was Sr. Betty LAR from the diocese of Palai. Year before last it was Miss Reshma Pius a 16-year old student hailing from an economically poor family. This Bible lover has proved that her family‰Ûªs richness consists in their love for the Scripture. A Year-long Preparation for 35 chapters! People prepare themselves well in advance for the quiz. The syllabus of almost 35 chapters from the Old and New Testaments (the syllabus for this year: Exodus 25-40; the Gospel of Mark; II Peter) for the quiz is announced a year in advance so that the contestants can get ample time to prepare. Often people carry their personal Bibles during travels in order to read the portions. In many cases parents and children get ready for the Logos making collective study and preparing notes in the family. It is not a rare thing in Kerala to see members of the same family, especially children, competing among themselves to learn biblical verses by-heart. In some places, the participants of the Logos Quiz sit together after the Sunday Catechesis and revise the topics. Study guides are also available. Last year more than 20 various guides were available in the bookshops. In Future ‰ÛÏLogos Quiz has become a Herculean task for the conducting team. However it is also a pleasant task‰Û, says Bishop George Punnakkottil the Chairman of KCBC Bible Commission. ‰ÛÏLast year we introduced on-line registration (visit: In a few years we will be able to conduct on-line exam also. Thus the desire of numerous Keralites abroad to participate in the Logos Quiz would be realized‰Û. ‰ÛÏThe KCBC Bible Commission has plans to make this Bible Quiz popular in other parts of the world too. For this purpose, the Bible Quiz, which is currently conducted in Malayalam and English, will be made available in other languages also‰Û, added Bishop Punnakkottil. The e-mails that the organizers of the Logos Bible Quiz receive are evidences for the desire of the people around the globe for such methods and tools for Bible study. The great success of this Bible contest in Kerala could be a pointer for the universal Church ‰ÛÒ Bible Quiz, if culturally adapted, may be one of the best means for the new evangelization.

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