Thursday, July 05, 2007

Catholic Social Thought and the New Deal

In the Boston Review essay In Search of the Common Good Lew Daly pens an examination of the roots of the New Deal in Catholic social thought especially as interpreted through the work of Msgr James A. Ryan. At times he echoes Murray Rothbard's analysis of the liturgicalist-pietist fissures in early twentieth-century American life. Daly's particular focus, however, is the rise and fall of the common good as an objective of good government.

Limiting capitalist acquisitiveness, securing a living wage for the working class, and instilling social solidarity between workers and owners were goals which found support among activist clergy inspired by papal encyclicals and the Catholic working class. Daly takes particular aim at the concept of a secularist New Deal:

The Catholic press had little doubt that the New Deal’s vision of social justice was rooted in Christian thought. As Commonweal magazine urged readers to recognize, Roosevelt’s triumph in 1932 was “likewise the Catholic opportunity to make the teachings of Christ apply to the benefit of all.” The Christian journalist and editor Stanley Hoflund High, who organized the interdenominational Good Neighbor League to mobilize religious support for Roosevelt in 1936, similarly argued that “the fundamental objective of what we call the New Deal is religious.” This is the first time in modern history, he stated, “when a Government in any nation has set out to give practical application to the principles of the Sermon on the Mount.”

At a minimum it should be clear that the common good of New Deal liberalism involved much more than the bland commitment to self-sacrifice proposed by Tomasky. Indeed, it was in many ways a product of extraordinary developments in religious thought (if not “religious faith”). We cannot ignore or deny the religious roots of that ideal if we want a revival of the common good to motivate significant changes today.

By way of contrast Dorothy Day, another American devotee of Catholic social thought, found the New Deal to be an unacceptable compromise. In her view its programs locked workers in place, keeping them from another key goal of the papal encyclicals: ownership of economically productive property for the lower classes. Here she is on Social Security:

Security for the worker, not ownership; security for the industrialist, the owner, not confiscation--that is what Beveridge plans and Wallace plans of permanent employment lead to.

There is more vision, more Catholicity in that plan of the Auto Workers Union, CIO, to buy one of the Ford plants for reconversion and make prefabricated homes for workers. At least this is a step in the right direction toward ownership and responsibility.
The Servile State

Day aside, the collapse of the New Deal coalition marked the decline of Catholic influence on the national scene. As Daly writes:

Sexual freedom, extreme secularism, and other agendas of the new social liberalism did not merely replace the common good as a normative framework. It shifted the whole framework of rights from the worker and his family and community, viewed as something in need of protection, to the detached individual of liberal philosophy, regardless of economic position or need. Essentially, the common good was supplanted by individual liberation, and what remained of it in public discourse was little more than empty rhetoric (think “compassionate conservatism”).

While the economic individualism of the Right undermines its declared support for "Family Values," the lifestyle individualism of the left compromises its efforts at economic solidarity.

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