The Irony of Feminism and the Reasonableness of Marriage

By Peter A. Kwasniewski
The sharpest irony of the everyday feminism that has trickled down to all levels of society is simply that men—and certainly not the best men—stand to profit most from the so-called liberation of women. Indeed, as a moment’s reflection can show, it is no exaggeration to say that the movement from the very start has played into the manipulative hands of pleasure-hungry males. To see why this is so, we need merely consider what things used to be like before the heralds of “equal rights” and “sexual liberation” came on the scene announcing a new code of behavior. In the past, when a woman’s “honesty” or “virtue” (as the state of premarital and marital chastity came to be called) was guarded by social convention, firm moral codes, parental supervision, religious belief, and a deeply-rooted sense that love quite naturally leads to marriage and children, the man (always in the position of suitor, one who must suit himself to the woman he wishes to woo) was expected, and usually obliged, to honor his would-be bride, promising her the fidelity of his body and the integrity of his intentions.
Now, however, nearly any man can arrange to keep a woman (whom a more forthright age would have called a mistress) for his entertainment at a minimal cost to himself, with little need for vows, forethought, or responsibility. Since women are offended by the idea of dependency, they will bring in extra money; since they are equally horrified at the prospect of offspring (who might curtail their “liberated” desires), a man need not worry himself about the natural result of coition, and is therefore free to indulge his own bodily wants with relative impunity. If a man gets what his body wants without any effort or sacrifice, chances are he will never stop to ask what his soul needs—or for that matter, what his mistress’s soul needs.
In Crossing the Threshold of Hope, Pope John Paul II wrote:

I think that a certain contemporary feminism finds its roots in the absence of true respect for woman. Revealed truth teaches us something different. Respect for woman, amazement at the mystery of womanhood, and finally the nuptial love of God Himself and of Christ, as expressed in the Redemption, are all elements that have never been completely absent in the faith and life of the Church. This can be seen in a rich tradition of customs and practices that, regrettably, is nowadays being eroded. In our civilization woman has become, before all else, an object of pleasure. (p. 217)

Traditions of courtship and engagement have precisely this deeper purpose: to lay the foundations for a lasting friendship and affection rooted in the common good of man and woman together, teaching them to rise above the limitations of their private goods. That is why continence is required throughout the years prior to consummating the marriage vows. The consummation is meant to be the sacred seal on a pledge already inscribed in the hearts of bride and bridegroom. When they have made their solemn vows to each other, the marriage of wills has already taken place because of their prior devotion and sacrifices. Seen in this light, the privileges of marriage are always secondary to the demands of committed love, although nuptial love receives its most intense and fitting expression through those privileges.
In other words, as Augustine implies, the virtuous man is he who can transform the water of earthly pleasure into the wine of heavenly joy, without scorning the genuine goods of this world. Christ does not say to the steward, “Get rid of that ordinary water and bring something better.” He says, “Fill your jars with water and bring them to me,” whereupon he miraculously transmutes one substance into another, like an alchemist transmuting lead into gold. So too, God calls upon the husband and wife to elevate and purify their fleshly union, not so that it may cease to be fleshly, but rather, that its very fleshliness may become holy and beautiful—a constant renewal of the nuptial promises, a song of praise to the Creator, a worthy symbol of the union of Christ and His Church. The union of husband and wife on all its levels—physical, psychological, spiritual—should be a sacrament of presence, a redemption from selfishness, a banquet where each is offered to and for the other, a celebration of the solemn vows spoken months, years, decades before. And, it seems almost superfluous to add, if such a love is truly present and active in the lives of the spouses it will bear fruit in children whose advent is eagerly sought and generously welcomed. As the Book of Tobias expresses it: “Then Tobias exhorted the virgin, and said to her: Sara, arise, and let us pray to God today and tomorrow, and the next day. . .For we are the children of saints, and we must not be joined together like heathens that know not God” (8:4, 5); “And now, Lord, thou knowest that not for fleshly lust do I take my sister to wife, but only for the love of posterity, in which Thy name may be blessed for ever and ever” (8:9).
The wisdom of this approach becomes evident when we consider for a moment one of the basic reasons why the Church, listening to the voice of nature, must forbid contraception. It is wrong for couples to indulge their sensual appetites whenever they please for the simple reason that each appetite of the human being needs to be kept in due proportion or balance with the other activities of a fully human life. When all aspects of a man’s or a woman’s life are properly measured, nothing too prominent or submerged, we then speak of a person of integrity, someone who “has it all together.” For as Democritus says, “If you exceed the measure, what is most enjoyable becomes least enjoyable.” Food is naturally good, eating is an operation according to a natural inclination for sustenance; but one can eat to excess, thereby perverting the goodness of the act. By so exceeding the mark, one brings upon oneself numerous other defects of body and soul. Gluttony is thus an instance of the kind of indulgence which is capable of upsetting a person’s inner peace and outward behavior; it is impossible to cultivate the presence of Christ if the parts of the soul are out of order and cannot harmonize with one another. Likewise with the act of marriage: allowing free indulgence out of a mistaken “realism” is nothing other than approving the malformation of character and the disordering of wills, which is altogether contrary to human dignity and fulfillment. Such a lax and permissive attitude, in fact, leads to the carnalization or cheapening of authentic love, which of its proper essence is a spiritual good having union with God as its final goal. Put otherwise, the Church forbids sensual vice not because she has a problem with pleasure, but because too much pleasure causes problems. It is the nature of man as created by God that lays down the laws by which ordinary conduct is to be governed. An ethical code or a magisterial pronouncement is only meant to help us find the right measure, without having to ruin ourselves by the regrettable mishaps of ill-advised experimentation.
We digress from our initial theme. The most poignant irony of our times is that “modern” women have all but invited men—already inclined by fallen nature to promiscuity and, as a result, in great need of a woman’s good example and discipline—to persevere stubbornly in their own worst vices: arbitrariness of physical passion and the constant temptation to run after the next beautiful girl. The very behavior (not to mention dress) of many contemporary women has the result of frankly encouraging men to satisfy their desires in a bestial way, destroying at its roots the foundation for constancy and fidelity in marriage. On the assumption that such women actually want their husbands to remain faithful to them, one cannot help but marvel at their nearsightedness. According to current standards of “dating” and “engagement,” a man and a woman are free to parade their concupiscence and feed it wantonly. In modern times, there is nothing holy or dignified about the way people approach the real union of lover and beloved, an act ennobled in healthier ages by the sacrament (“sacred pledge”) of matrimony. Is it any surprise that a vast number of marriages end in divorce, when a vast number of relationships begin in lust? Now as before, there is but one way to conquer the blindness of the world and the folly of man: living out the Christian ideal of marriage. “Your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit,” writes St. Paul; again, “Let marriage be honorable in all things.” The Apostle only echoes his Master, who teaches us that God is the source and end of marriage, the one who effects the bond and perfects its blessings: “What God has joined together, let no man put asunder.” Love that is rooted in God, a union nourished by faith and purified through suffering—this love alone will prosper and bear fruit “thirtyfold, sixtyfold, a hundredfold, in time and in eternity.”

The Popes and Education in the 20th Century

Peter A. Kwasniewski

During her 2,000 years of history, the Catholic Church has been intimately involved in every type of educational endeavor known to Western man, from the ancient schools of rhetoric to the great universities of the High Middle Ages, from humble rudiments taught at grammar schools to lofty flights of reason and imagination in the arts and sciences. The Successor of St. Peter has a special reason to be attentive to the state of education in the flock he shepherds and to guide and encourage it in every way possible. In fact, we find among the popes, particularly those of the last millennium, an impressive connection with schools at various levels—naturally, first and foremost, schools of formation for the clergy, but also, as time goes on, schools for religious and for the laity. Pope John Paul II fittingly reminded the world in Ex Corde Ecclesiae (1990) that the university was born from the heart of the Church and that the Church is still her best ally in the delicate, decisive, and inescapable work of educating the whole person, above all with respect to man’s capacity to know and love God, on which his very dignity is based.
If we consider the popes of our own time, from Leo XIII (1878–1903) onwards, we see several major themes consistently present in their speeches and writings. First and foremost, the Church belongs in higher education. As Leo XIII wrote to the Archbishop of Baltimore in 1887: “It has always been the glory of the Pastors of the Church, but above all, of the Supreme Pontiffs, constantly to promote the acquisition of a knowledge worthy of its name, and carefully to watch over the teaching—especially theological and philosophical—imparted, so that it may be in keeping with the principles of faith. This union between the teaching of revelation and that of reason constitutes an indestructible bulwark of the faith.” The Church has always inspired the best kind of education, the most well-rounded and the most profoundly searching, because, as the same Pope observed in 1897, “divine faith is not only in no way hostile to culture, but rather is the crown and climax of culture.” Indeed, a defining characteristic of Catholic education is its drive toward synthesis, a unified vision of God and the world, with the drama of redemption at its center. “Directly or indirectly, all studies have some connection with religion,” wrote Venerable Pius XII (1939–1958) in 1950. “University does not mean simply an overlaying of curricula which are extraneous to one another, but indicates rather a synthesis of all the subjects of learning. … To actuate this synthesis from its center up to the main key that unlocks the whole edifice is the task of a Catholic university.” Accordingly, the curriculum of a genuinely Catholic institution “assign[s] in its zeal for truth the correct place in its programs to natural sciences and metaphysics, to mind and heart, to past and present, to reason and revelation,” as the same pontiff explained in 1939. On the negative side, as this Pope observed in 1952, “the university would fulfill its mission badly were it to abandon itself to pluralism or to a superficial eclecticism.”
Another important papal theme is service of the common good. Education, at its best, forms Catholics who love the common good of their nation and their Church, are equipped with the knowledge and zeal to work towards that goal, and are willing to make sacrifices for it. Of course, Catholic education cannot form such “apostles” unless it remains abidingly true to itself and to its own identity. As Pope Pius XII declared in 1949: “In accordance with absolute fidelity to Christian principles, which are the whole reason for existence of the Catholic University, it must, today more than ever, watch the aims for which it arose, and with persistent purpose of mind keep faith with the engagement solemnly undertaken to provide the nation’s social body with leaders and lovers of science and learning who will honor the faith and the Church.” Almost fifty years ago, in September 1958, the same pontiff observed: “The Christian school will justify its existence in so far as its teachers—clerics or laymen, religious or secular—succeed in forming staunch Christians”—words that give rise to sober reflection in view of the number of historically Catholic institutions that now justify their existence for reasons extrinsic or even contrary to the apostolic intentions of their founders and benefactors, whose great longing was that minds be illuminated with the light of Christ, souls nourished with the Bread of Life, hearts inflamed with the fire of God’s love.
To all the popes of modern times, therefore, the rapid secularization of schools at all levels, whether by government coercion or by traitorous choice, has been a cause of immense sorrow and a target of their impassioned protests. The popes, especially Pius XI (1922–1939) in his masterful encyclical Divini Illius Magistri (1929), repeatedly and effectively refute the unnatural claims of “naturalism”—the view, now universally accepted in spite of its deplorable record of real-life failure, that children and young adults should be educated without any reference to God, their immortal souls, and the virtues necessary for salvation, and without the aid of the Church’s ministry. Consider these forceful words of Pius XII from 1951: “Education which does not bother about being moral and religious fails in its greatest and better part, in that it neglects the noblest faculties of man, deprives itself of the most efficacious and vital energies, and ends up by ‘diseducating,’ mixing up uncertainties and errors with truth, vice with virtue, and evil with good.” The threat of secularism is a threat not only to the Church’s own institutions of learning but also to the common good of modern nations as they slide more and more rapidly into the moral chaos of techno-barbarism.
In his well-known Apostolic Constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae, John Paul II, a university professor in his younger days, drew extensively upon an ancient and living tradition to offer the Church a compelling vision of what Catholic higher education must be in our times as well as a body of directives and provisions to which institutions must be held accountable to guarantee their fidelity. It seems, then, beautifully providential that at the start of this new millennium the Lord has given His Church another “pope of education” in the person of Joseph Ratzinger, a scholar, theologian, and author of enormous stature. There is seldom an audience, address, or letter in which the Pope does not mention or discuss the subject of education. The famous Regensburg lecture, the speeches given at the Lateran and Gregorian Universities, and the address intended for La Sapienza in Rome are all exemplary of Pope Benedict XVI’s intellectual penetration into the relationship of faith and reason, his sound judgment regarding the modern situation, his deep academic learning made humble by the love of God, and, in a period of doubt and confusion, the strong and steady leadership he exercises for the benefit of the People of God. Let us hope and pray that his example and teaching—a powerful summons to sanity and sanctity—will be heard and heeded by our universities and other institutes of learning.

Catholic Social Teaching at the Catholic University

Peter A. Kwasniewski

An insistence on spreading the Church’s social doctrine among all Catholics, especially by educational programs for the laity, runs throughout the modern papal Magisterium, beginning with Leo XIII’s exhortations to the laity of the late 19th century. At that time, it was indeed somewhat unusual for a pope to appeal directly to the people and to ask them to acquire the intellectual and moral training required to confront successfully the ever-growing challenges of the modern world. Yet by the time we reach Pius XI and Pius XII, it is taken for granted that the main audience for papal teachings on economics and politics must be Christ’s lay faithful, who are striving to impress the divine law upon, and apply the natural law to, the changing situations of their temporal life. Thus, while even the forward-looking Leo XIII addressed his celebrated 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum on labor and capital (or the rights and duties of workers and employers) to the bishops of the world, Pius XI, commemorating the fortieth anniversary of the same with his 1931 encyclical Quadragesimo Anno on the reconstruction of the social order, added to his addressees “likewise all the faithful of the Catholic world.” This is only to be expected, for while the clergy have as their primary task the internal governance and upbuilding of the Church, believers living in the world have the corresponding task of purifying and sanctifying secular realities with a view to leading souls to salvation in Christ. Thus, if there is a definite Catholic doctrine on social, political, and economic life—and, of course, there is just such a thing: a rich and detailed corpus of teaching rooted in Scripture and Tradition, refined by centuries of experience—then it only stands to reason that educating the Catholic faithful in this body of doctrine is of paramount importance, a basic and necessary component of their ongoing catechetical and theological training.
Along these lines, St. John XXIII’s great encyclical Pacem in Terris of 1961 stated (and these words are representative of many other papal documents that might be cited): “We must reaffirm most strongly that this Catholic social doctrine is an integral part of the Christian conception of life. It is therefore Our urgent desire that this doctrine be studied more and more. First of all it should be taught as part of the daily curriculum in Catholic schools of every kind … Our beloved sons, the laity, can do much to help this diffusion of Catholic social doctrine by studying it themselves and putting it into practice, and by zealously striving to make others understand it. … It is vitally important, therefore, that Our sons learn to understand this doctrine. They must be educated to it.” The natural conclusion is that Catholic colleges and universities (or chaplaincies connected with non-Catholic ones) must make room in their curricula for mandatory instruction and optional specialized work in this crucial area of the Magisterium.
Those who know about the state of affairs in modern Catholic higher education will not be surprised to hear that unfortunately this obvious conclusion has yet to penetrate the consciousness of school authorities. Or more accurately, many schools that once upon a time offered sound instruction in the area of social ethics abandoned it together with much else that was jettisoned in the wake of the Second Vatican Council—ironically, in view of a Council that contained the strongest endorsement to date of the apostolate of the laity and emphasized the pervasive role Catholic social teaching must play in the modern world, if our world is to be saved from ever-growing futility and violence. Worse still, many of today’s colleges and universities that once gloried in the name Catholic actively subvert the Church’s social teaching by fostering an academic milieu and a campus lifestyle that contradict it on nearly every head, even at times by offering courses in social ethics that inculcate distorted and refuted models such as Marxist-liberation theology or feminist theology. Students enrolled in such institutions are likely to end up worse off than they began, like the clean-swept room into which seven demons settle down (cf. Lk. 11:24-26).
We are living in times when the tide is beginning, ever so slightly, to change. A newly ignited commitment to their faith on the part of a significant minority of Catholic students around the country is bringing slow change and real alternatives to campuses otherwise awash in the relativism and hedonism of modern academia. We can see a similar phenomenon with the sacred liturgy: campuses that were once desolate wastes of postconciliar faddism are now enjoying a veritable renaissance of such once-forbidden treasures as Gregorian chant and even the traditional Latin Mass. Young people in the same contexts are likewise encountering elements of Catholic social teaching, albeit often by chance and in an over-simplified form, and they find it exciting because it offers a genuine alternative to the stale, predictable “solutions” of analysts and politicians. This small but robust vanguard of what we will soon be calling the “Benedict XVI generation” surely affords educators a providential opportunity to follow up with programs offering solid, orthodox instruction and campus support systems for those who are called to dedicate themselves to applying the Church’s social doctrine to the enormous problems facing us in the Church, in the nation, and in the world.
In addition, we must not forget the handful of staunchly Catholic institutions of higher education, where the disheartening spectacle of doctrinal and moral amnesia was either never experienced or has been successfully driven back. Although on a worldly scale of values their influence would seem a whisper behind the roar of contradiction, graduates of the twenty-one Newman Guide colleges will to one degree or another have engaged authentic Catholic social teaching, at very least by gaining an acquaintance with some of its major sources and themes. Their minds will have been opened to the massive political and economic problems of modernity, problems to which the Catholic Church alone, in her divinely-guided wisdom, offers sane, reasonable answers that comport with human dignity and man’s ultimate end. Students who attend a more traditional Catholic liberal arts college will learn firsthand, usually by discussing influential Great Books, the rotten roots and fatal consequences of self-destructive ideologies; if the program is well designed, it will not fail to include something of the Church’s own Magisterium, whether it be a selection of social encyclicals of the modern popes from Leo XIII down to John Paul II (soon to be joined by Benedict XVI in his forthcoming third encyclical), the excellent summary offered in the relevant portions of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (nn. 1691–2557), or the synthesis given in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church.
In saying this and reflecting on the lamentable fact that the vast majority of Catholic students in our country, through no fault of their own, have no faithfully Catholic curriculum to benefit from, I am reminded of Fr. James Schall’s wonderful book from twenty years ago: Another Sort of Learning, the subtitle of which begins with this phrase: “How finally to acquire an education while still in college or anywhere else.” It is possible, even if not ideal, to educate oneself in Catholic social doctrine; one can find good resources on the internet, sometimes one can find a decent discussion group in one’s area; best of all, one might reach out to like-minded Catholics and start such a group. The reading list is obvious: the aforementioned documents of the Magisterium, above all the papal encyclicals. To commit some free time to working through this material is far better than remaining in the dark. We may hope for the day when Catholic schools will rediscover their birthright and offer it generously to their students. Meanwhile, there is much work to do. As Nehemiah nobly said to the disheartened Israelite exiles who had returned to the land of Canaan: “You see the trouble we are in, how Jerusalem lies in ruins with its gates burned. Come, let us build the wall of Jerusalem, that we may no longer suffer disgrace … The God of heaven will make us prosper, and we his servants will arise and build” (Neh. 2:17, 20).


Further reading
I published an article called “A Brief Introduction to Catholic Social Teaching,” with a bibliography of recommended papal documents, in the Summer 2008 issue of Catholic Men’s Quarterly. The article has been made available at the following URL:
Rodger Charles, An Introduction to Catholic Social Teaching. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000.
For reference: Encyclopedia of Catholic Social Thought, Social Science, and Social Policy, 2 vols. Ed. Michael L. Coulter, Stephen M. Krason, Richard S. Myers, and Joseph A. Varacalli. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2007.

Why Pascendi Is Still Relevant

Peter A. Kwasniewski

On September 8, 1907, Pope St. Pius X issued his encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis, On the Doctrine of the Modernists. The Modernists in question were a group of mostly European Catholic intellectuals of the late 19th and early 20th centuries who, as they saw it, had the mission of bringing Christianity “up to date” and into conformity with the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the age. To them, the march of modern progress, most plainly seen in the ever-expanding discoveries of the sciences, forced a reinterpretation or redefinition of every major tenet of Christian doctrine. The attempt to do so, however, meant sooner or later rejecting the very idea of an inerrant deposit of faith contained in Scripture and Tradition, and of a Magisterium that understands and teaches this deposit without error. As a consequence, many of the Modernists came to reject the great Creeds, drifted away from the Faith, and turned into hardened skeptics.
While the Modernists never formed a definite school with a definite system (there was much variation in opinion from individual to individual, country to country, discipline to discipline), nevertheless their ideas tended to emerge from similar currents of modern thought and to issue in similar proposals. As a result, it was possible and desirable for St. Pius X to publish a survey of the overall system to which these ideas would of necessity give rise, and then to demonstrate how it is utterly irreconcilable with confessional Christianity, or even with sound philosophy.
The hundredth anniversary of this encyclical in 2007 came and went without public celebration or official commemoration; relatively few Catholics nowadays have heard of it. Theologians and historians who deign to mention the document often dismiss it as an embarrassing papal tantrum, a belligerent caricature that fell wide of its mark, a protest that was buried with Pius X and holds no lasting significance. Indeed, a recent Jesuit writer declared that “the movement of the ‘innovators’ (at least the doctrinal and theological movement) remained confined to the restricted circles of Catholic scholars, mostly young priests or seminarians,” and therefore had no real impact on wider Catholic life and thought.
And yet, it can hardly escape the notice of one who reads it attentively that this encyclical is not only not irrelevant, it is vastly more relevant now than it was a century ago. The errors in doctrine and practice that Pius X condemned are far more prevalent in the Church of today, and in Catholic educational institutions, than they were in the heyday of the Modernists such as Loisy, Tyrrell, and von Hugel. As for the Jesuit’s remark, one is perhaps reminded of those who say that the Americanism condemned by Leo XIII was a “ghost heresy” that only existed on European paper and never really existed on American soil. On the contrary, I challenge anyone who reads Testem Benevolentiae today to deny that the principles targeted by Leo XIII permeate and dominate the church in this country. Leo XIII and his successor Pius X were astute doctors of the body politic and the body ecclesiastical: they knew the cancerous effects of false principles left unchecked. That is why they did their utmost to lead the Church away from the many reductive and destructive “-isms” of modernity, toward the only whole that precontains and validates all partial truths, the Catholic Faith.
Consider, for a moment, the Modernist reinterpretation of Christianity, as the encyclical Pascendi portrays it. For the Modernist, faith is an interior “sense” originating in a need for the divine; it is not a gift from without, but an immanent surge, an intuition of the heart, a subjective “experience.” Religion, accordingly, is when this “sense” rises to the level of consciousness and becomes an expression of a worldview. What, then, is revelation? The awakening consciousness of the divine within me. Doctrine, in turn, is the intellect’s ongoing elaboration of that awakening, while dogmatic formulas are mere symbols or instruments by which the intellect tries to capture the meaning of religious experience. Hence, of necessity, dogma evolves in response to the pressure of vital forces, with ever-changing beliefs corresponding to ever-changing understandings of reality and of subjective experience. What become of Scripture and Tradition? Tradition is the sharing with others of an original experience in such a way that it becomes the experience of others too, while Scripture is the written record of particularly powerful experiences, expressed with poetic inspiration. Sacraments, finally, are public gestures by which the faith community represents to itself a certain worldview and excites in itself an awareness of the divine.  No wonder the 1907 document Lamentabili Sane from the Holy Office condemned the following Modernist proposition, among others like it: “Truth is no more unchangeable than man himself, since it evolves with him, in him, and through him.” As Cardinal Mercier wrote in the same year:

Modernism consists essentially in affirming that the religious soul must draw from itself, from nothing but itself, the object and motive of its faith. It rejects all revelation imposed upon the conscience, and thus, as a necessary consequence, becomes the negation of the doctrinal authority of the Church established by Jesus Christ, and it denies, moreover, to the divinely constituted hierarchy the right to govern Christian society.

On one occasion I was teaching Pascendi to a group of college students and after we had finished laying out the Modernist redefinitions of traditional terms like faith and revelation, I asked them: “So, what do you think of all this?” Sure enough, one student said: “Well, it sounds a lot like what we learned back in my catechism class.” Another said: “Yeah, I’ve heard stuff like that preached a few times from the pulpit.” Still another: “My friend had a book about the Mass that was exactly the same as what you said.” Then I asked: “Why does St. Pius X reject all of it, lock, stock, and barrel?” A student piped up: “Because it’s all subjective, it’s all in your head, and where’s God?” To which a neighboring student added: “It completely does away with the idea of faith as a gift, as something God does for you. The Modernists created their own God and their own religion, so that they didn’t have to submit their minds to the real one. It takes humility to abandon oneself in faith and not to think that modern man is so special and different.” As our discussion went on, this much became painfully clear to me (and, I hope, to my students as well): all the errors that Pius X analyzes in Pascendi are still being taught today, and there is more need than ever for teachers who, deeply in love with the truth of Christ and of His Church, will speak that truth with love, and live it with joy.
After all, as our Lord said in no uncertain terms: Veritas liberabit vos, the truth will set you free. He Himself is that truth—Ego sum via, et veritas, et vita—and His Church is the “pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15). Because of the flight from God that began with Adam’s rebellion and worms its way into the children of Eve, we will not be surprised if the world prefers the slavery of subjectivism to the truth that sets us free: “The time is coming when people will not endure sound doctrine, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths” (2 Tim 3:3–4). But surely it is not too much to ask of Catholic schools that they not follow suit; that, instead, they welcome and promote sound doctrine in all faith and humility, never contradicting the Magisterium; that they turn away from fashionable modern myths to embrace a heritage of perennial truths; that they accumulate teachers who, unashamed to be lowly pupils in the school of Christ, feed upon every word that comes from the mouth of God, and nourish their own students with the same life-giving food.

Conversion of Culture

By Peter A. Kwasniewski

Originally published in Homiletic & Pastoral Review, vol. 107, no. 9 (June 2007).  This version has been slightly edited.


Today, there are many people who are interested in studying the social doctrine of the Catholic Church; there would be even more, if this “best-kept secret” were more openly taught and more vigorously implemented. When students or friends have asked me what steps should be taken either to learn this area of doctrine or to pass it on to others, I like to say that the first step of all is to ask, or to encourage others to ask, those fundamental questions that come before any particular treatment of any particular problem. What kind of presence are Christians supposed to have in the world around them? What kind of influence are they supposed to have on the cultural life of the community to which they belong? Put differently, what is the basic relationship between “secular” society and the Christians who dwell in it as citizens, receiving certain goods from it, of course, but also—and one hopes more energetically—giving to it something that it would otherwise lack, to its own imperilment?

As Catholics blessed with one great teaching pope after another, from Leo XIII down to Benedict XVI, we turn to the Chair of St. Peter for answers. Of the many appropriate places we could look, one of the best is Pope Paul VI’s Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi of 1975, on “Evangelization in the Modern World,” which was a seminal text for the pontificate of John Paul II. For Paul VI, the question of Christianity in the world comes down to this: the willingness of Christians, in spite of all opposition and setbacks, to continue patiently and courageously in bearing witness to Christ and to his Gospel, in living according to his teaching, and in translating this teaching as well as they can into the rhythms and structures of everyday life—not excluding, but neither being identified with or collapsed into, politics and political society as such. We have seen both errors in our time: the error of the liberation theologians, who took their inspiration from Marx; the error, in a different way, of classical liberals, who speak as if the flourishing of markets and the extension of technological benefits to as many people as possible were an answer to the human predicament, a sort of secular Gospel that has power to liberate man from ignorance and vice. In contrast, as if announcing the main theme of his document, Paul VI writes: “[W]hat matters is to evangelize man’s culture and cultures—not in a purely decorative way, as it were, by applying a thin veneer, but in a vital way, in depth and right to their very roots” (§20). He continues:

The kingdom which the Gospel proclaims is lived by men who are profoundly linked to a culture, and the building up of the kingdom cannot avoid borrowing the elements of human culture or cultures. . . . The split between the Gospel and culture is without a doubt the drama of our time, just as it was of other times. Therefore every effort must be made to ensure a full evangelization of culture, or more correctly of cultures. They have to be regenerated by an encounter with the Gospel.

In pursuit of his topic the pope speaks about the role of the laity in the (modern) world—a major theme of Vatican II but one that is still surprisingly and sadly neglected in the contemporary Church, where “involvement” has too often been construed as parish busy work, clericalization, rather than brave interventions and concerted efforts in the cultural spheres proper to the non-ordained. Paul VI understood what was demanded of the lay faithful:

Lay people, whose particular vocation places them in the midst of the world and in charge of the most varied temporal tasks, must for this very reason exercise a very special form of evangelization. Their primary and immediate task is not to establish and develop the ecclesial community—this is the specific role of the pastors—but to put to use every Christian and evangelical possibility latent but already present and active in the affairs of the world. Their own field of evangelizing activity is the vast and complicated world of politics, society and economics, but also the world of culture, of the sciences and the arts, of international life, of the mass media. It also includes other realities which are open to evangelization, such as human love, the family, the education of children and adolescents, professional work, suffering. The more Gospel-inspired lay people there are engaged in these realities, clearly involved in them, competent to promote them and conscious that they must exercise to the full their Christian powers which are often buried and suffocated, the more these realities will be at the service of the kingdom of God and there-fore of salvation in Jesus Christ, without in any way losing or sacrificing their human content but rather pointing to a transcendent dimension which is often disregarded. (§70)

In this passage Paul VI echoes the call of Vatican II’s Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, Apostolicam Actuositatem, which called for an intensive involvement of lay Catholics in every aspect of social life—against the dominant contemporary conception, traceable to the Enlightenment, that religion is a purely private affair that should not make waves in the public square. (Religion is like a hat or a coat; you take it off and hang it at the door before going inside the offices of government or business.) On the contrary, the vocation of the Christian is to seek to transform the world by the energetic exercise of moral and theological virtues, not in pure solitude, as a hermit might do, but in society, and as a public activity and witness. The authentic teaching of the Council was not to separate still further the State from the Church (“equivalent to the separation of human legislation from Christian and divine legislation,” as Leo XIII succinctly put it1), but to encourage the laity to infuse the spirit of the Gospel into all temporal realities.2 Gaudium et Spes §43 exhorts the laity to impress the divine law on the affairs of the earthly city. Apostolicam Actuositatem was still more precise. In §7, the Fathers first recognize the “intrinsic value” of temporal realities, then note how easily they can be perverted to the grave harm of mankind, and finally issue a call to Christians, especially the laity, to transform the temporal order ac-cording to the Gospel—without, needless to say, aspiring to a simple fusion of temporal and spiritual societies, as has occurred historically in a number of ways: the Caesaropapism of Byzantium, the Erastianism of some Western nation-states, the Gallicanism and Josephinism of the Enlightenment. Surely modern Christians have tended towards the opposite extreme, the divorcing of personal conviction from public life, which is a perilous attitude ceaselessly opposed by Catholic social teaching.3 The conclusion in Apostolicam Actuositatem §7 is unequivocal:

The whole Church must work vigorously in order that men may become capable of rectifying the distortion of the temporal order and directing it to God through Christ. Pastors must clearly state the principles concerning the purpose of creation and the use of temporal things and must offer the moral and spiritual aids by which the temporal order may be renewed in Christ.

The same document defines the “apostolate in the social milieu” as “the effort to infuse a Christian spirit into the mentality, customs, laws, and structures of the community in which one lives” (§13). Catholics are urged to take an active interest in the reconstruction and perfection of civil society according to unchanging principles, so that citizens may be prepared for receiving the Gospel (§14).

The avowed goal of the Christian is to win souls for Christ; the goal of the Catholic is to make the world Catholic. The believing Christian, impelled by the Spirit of truth and of love, must be restless and pained as long as the world around him is not Christian in its attitudes and appearance, its desires and deeds—and all the more pained to the degree that it is opposed to the mind which is in Christ Jesus (cf. Phil. 2:5). It should come as no surprise that the Pope who convened the Council, Blessed John XXIII, was urging the Church to do just this in his 1961 encyclical Mater et Magistra, promulgated on the eve (as it were) of the Council that he hoped would underline, clarify, and inflame the missio ad gentes:

The laity especially must not suppose that they would be acting prudently to lessen their personal Christian commitment in this passing world. On the contrary, We insist that they must intensify it and increase it continually. . . . The Church today is faced with an immense task: to humanize and to Christianize this modern civilization of ours. The continued development of this civilization, indeed its very survival, demand and insist that the Church do her part in the world. . . . In conducting their human affairs to the best of their ability, they must recognize that they are doing a service to humanity, in intimate union with God through Christ, and to God’s greater glory. . . . To search for spiritual perfection and eternal salvation in the conduct of human affairs and institutions is not to rob these of the power to achieve their immediate, specific ends, but to enhance this power. (§254–§257)

Blessed John Paul II convened an Extraordinary Synod of Bishops in November and December 1985, to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the closing of Vatican II and to focus, in particular, on the correct reception and interpretation of the Council.4 In the Synod’s Final Report we read:

From this paschal perspective, which affirms the unity of the cross and the resurrection, the true and false meaning of so-called aggiornamento [updating] is discovered. An easy accommodation that could lead to the secularization of the Church is to be excluded. Also excluded is an immobile closing in upon itself of the community of the faithful. Affirmed instead is a missionary openness for the integral salvation of the world. Through this, all truly human values not only are accepted but energetically defended—the dignity of the human person, fundamental human rights, peace, freedom from oppression, poverty, and injustice. But integral salvation is obtained only if these human realities are purified and further elevated through grace and familiarity with God, through Jesus Christ, in the Holy Spirit. (Part D, §3)

And in the same part, we read further:

Jesus Christ declared the poor blessed (Mt 5:3; Lk 6:20) and he himself wished to be poor for us (2 Cor 8:9). Besides material poverty there is a lack of liberty and of spiritual forms of poverty, and it is particularly grave when religious liberty is suppressed by force. The Church must prophetically denounce every form of poverty and oppression, and everywhere defend and promote the fundamental and inalienable rights of the human person. This is above all the case where it is a question of defending human life from the time of its very beginning, of protecting it from aggressors in every circumstance and of effectively promoting it in every respect. . . .
The salvific mission of the Church in relation to the world must be understood as an integral whole. Though it is spiritual, the mission of the Church involves human promotion even in its temporal aspects. For this reason the mission of the Church cannot be reduced to a monism, no matter how the latter is understood. In this mission there is certainly a clear distinction—but not a separation—between the natural and the supernatural aspects. This duality is not a dualism. It is thus necessary to put aside the false and useless oppositions between, for example, the Church’s spiritual mission and diakonia [service] for the world.

Turning now to John Paul II himself, I think we can make some further progress in understanding how the Church understands her role vis-à-vis temporal realities, including the political realm and its elements (rights, constitutions, laws, leaders, democratic process, etc.).
The question comes down to this: Are the laws and customs of the State, are the cultural practices of the people, supposed to reflect and embody Catholic truth, or not? It is evident that the answer can only be yes, for if the faith is vibrantly and courageously lived, then it is not only possible but likely that a large number of citizens or statesmen will become imbued with the Faith, and this will tend to affect for the better their practical judgments and way of life. If they tried to remain totally “neutral” in their public lives and practised the faith only in private, they would play the hypocrite, and give the lie to their beliefs. The Catholic politician cannot “leave his faith behind” in his decisions; he must continually view temporal realities from the eternal and divine perspective of his faith. If we accept St. Thomas’s definition of reason as a participation in the eternal law—that is, in eternal wisdom, the mind of the Creator Himself—then even to judge “according to natural law” is, in fact, to apply the divine measure to human realities.5 Failure to do this is not just an incidental failure, it is the total failure of prudence, above all of political prudence. A ruler cannot be a ruler at all, let alone a good one, if he is not seeking always to judge and legislate the affairs of temporal life according to unchanging principles. The Catholic position is simply that such principles may and should include supernatural principles as well as natural ones. The Catholic position rejects any understanding of politics that would remove or relativize fixed natural principles, by making the will of a majority, or the will of a dictator, the source of right. Fascist Germany, contemporary France, the United States in its liberal drift, are no different in this fundamental way: each has let what is right and wrong be determined by the will of man, whether by electorates or by unchallenged leaders. Far from being “pre-Vatican II,” this position is exactly what one finds in John Paul II’s Veritatis Splendor and Evangelium Vitae.6
Although he recognized the “healthy secularity” of the modern state as did Pius XII before him, John Paul II was not a simple secularist, for otherwise he could not have continually demanded that states and societies make due efforts to preserve and promote man’s integral good, which transcends the order of material creation and life in this world. Yet seemingly he did not draw the Leonine conclusion that, since religion (taken in the Thomistic sense of the offering of public worship to God) is the first and highest moral virtue, the State has a solemn obligation to promote precisely this virtue and its exercise. Perhaps, like Pius XII, he was too anxious about the incompetence of the modern State to legislate well in regard to the highest conditions of human flourishing. And who could blame him for being skeptical? In one of his homilies, John Paul II spoke as follows:

Some of these systems [viz., ideological and economic systems succeeding one another in the last two centuries] also presumed to relegate religion to the merely private sphere, stripping it of any social influence or importance. In this regard, it is helpful to recall that a modern State cannot make atheism or religion one of its political ordinances. The State, while distancing itself from all extremes of fanaticism or secularism, should encourage a harmonious social climate and a suitable legislation which enables every person and every religious confession to live their faith freely, to express that faith in the context of public life and to count on adequate resources and opportunities to bring its spiritual, moral and civic benefits to bear on the life of the nation.7

What can we make of this, particularly the italicized portion? Does it not seem to rule out, from the start, a “Catholic confessional state” or a state that is moving in that direction due to the laudable efforts of its Catholic citizens?
The main point John Paul II is making here is one that the pope’s own teacher and model, St. Thomas Aquinas, taught first: a citizen’s practice or profession of religion cannot be dictated to him, imposed on him, or otherwise coerced. In that sense, the Catholic faith could never be a “political ordinance.” It could be, however, and should be, a socially privileged reality. What would this look like in practice? Things like keeping businesses closed on Sundays and holy days,8 forbidding hospitals to perform unethical practices, forbidding doc-tors to prescribe contraceptives, appointing that parliament or congress must open and close with prayer led by a priest, stipulating that proposed legislation be evaluated by the council of bishops, and so on. It is less clear whether or not the modern State, even if predominantly Catholic, would be within its rights to prohibit the construction of a mosque or even of a Protestant church. In any event, a strong case can be made for the minimum obligation of the State to protect “natural religion,” in such a way that atheism and all its expressions (e.g., literature arguing for a purely materialistic process of evolution) as well as metaphysical absurdities (e.g., Mormonism; polytheistic pagan religions) could be prohibited tout court, with no provision being made for their public exercise, since in them the intellect is denying first principles, and so cannot be said, in any way, to be pursuing truth.
Let us go back for a moment to Paul VI. Among the messages Paul VI wrote for specific audiences at the end of Vatican II stands a message addressed “To Rulers,” read out, like the others, on December 8, 1965. It captures extremely well the post-conciliar approach to politics. Its apparent minimalism (“we only ask…”) can only be read as deft rhetorical strategy, for two reasons: first, a position of “maximum minimalism” is certainly contradicted by the Magisterium of the Church, even in Dignitatis Humanae itself (by “maximum minimalism” is meant that the Church must always ask for, and choose, the least possible social presence and influence, being content with a mere absence of persecution—clearly an absurdity); second, if the demanding message it contains were truly implemented, it would lead necessarily to the conversion of society and to a Catholic regime, and so would undermine the “autonomy” of the secular. Nevertheless, it has a certain consistency as a temporary mechanism, that is, for so long as the Church does not occupy the privileged position rightfully and fittingly hers.
Here, then, is that message, which was read out on December 8 by Cardinal Liénart of Lille, assisted by Cardinal Alfrink of Utrecht and Cardinal Colombo of Milan. Its unfamiliarity to most people and the exceptional importance of its content warrant quotation in full:

At this solemn moment, we, the Fathers of the 21st Ecumenical Council of the Catholic Church, on the point of disbanding after four years of prayer and work, with the full consciousness of our mission toward mankind, address ourselves respectfully and confidently to those who hold in their hands the destiny of men on this earth, to all those who hold temporal power.
We proclaim publicly: We honor your authority and your sovereignty, we respect your office, we recognize your just laws, we esteem those who make them and those who apply them. But we have a sacrosanct word to speak to you and it is this: Only God is great. God alone is the beginning and the end. God alone is the source of your authority and the foundation of your laws.
Your task is to be in the world the promoters of order and peace among men. But never forget this: It is God, the living and true God, who is the Father of men. And it is Christ, His eternal Son, who came to make this known to us and to teach us that we are all brothers. He it is who is the great artisan of order and peace on earth, for He it is who guides human history and who alone can incline hearts to renounce those evil passions which beget war and misfortune. It is He who blesses the bread of the human race, who sanctifies its work and its suffering, who gives it those joys which you can never give it, and strengthens it in those sufferings which you cannot console.
In your earthly and temporal city, God constructs mysteriously His spiritual and eternal city, His Church. And what does this Church ask of you after close to 2,000 years of experiences of all kinds in her relations with you, the powers of the earth? What does the Church ask of you today? She tells you in one of the major documents of this Council. She asks of you only liberty, the liberty to believe and to preach her faith, the freedom to love her God and serve Him, the freedom to live and to bring to men her message of life. Do not fear her. She is made after the image of her Master, whose mysterious action does not interfere with your prerogatives but heals everything human of its fatal weakness, transfigures it and fills it with hope, truth and beauty.
Allow Christ to exercise His purifying action on society. Do not crucify Him anew. This would be a sacrilege, for He is the Son of God. This would be suicide, for He is the Son of man. And we, His humble ministers, allow us to spread everywhere without hindrance the Gospel of peace on which we have meditated during this Council. Of it, your peoples will be the first beneficiaries, since the Church forms for you loyal citizens, friends of social peace and progress.
On this solemn day when she closes the deliberations of her 21st Ecumenical Council, the Church offers you through our voice her friendship, her services, her spiritual and moral forces. She addresses to you all her message of salvation and blessing. Accept it, as she offers it to you with a joyous and sincere heart, and pass it on to your peoples.

This message sums up the approach of Paul VI; John Paul II followed the same line. In a letter to the Pontifical Council for Culture, he famously stated: “A faith that does not become culture is not fully accepted, not entirely thought out, not faithfully lived.” Now, is not the way a people organize and govern themselves politically an immense aspect of their culture, one that is particularly influential over all other aspects of culture?9 Is this not, then, prime missionary territory to be entered and converted? And if this domain is converted, will it not mature into something like . . . Christendom, in the model depicted by St. Thomas Aquinas?10 In Ecclesia in Oceania (2001) John Paul II wrote: “It is vital that the Church insert herself fully into culture and from within bring about the process of purification and transformation” (§16). “It is the fundamental call of lay people to renew the temporal order in all its many elements. In this way, the Church becomes the yeast that leavens the entire loaf of the temporal order” (ibid., §43). “The Christian concept of marriage and the family is being op-posed by a new secular, pragmatic and individualistic outlook which has gained standing in the area of legislation” (ibid., §45). The implication of the last text is that the natural and even the Christian concept of marriage ought to attain, or regain, authoritative standing in the area of legislation. This is something John Paul II consistently demanded, confident that he was asking the State to undertake a task essentially within its competence—indeed, a basic requirement for the survival and prosperity of the people. As John Paul II has said in his 1984 Discourse to the Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Council for Culture, (§8): “More than ever, in fact, man is seriously threatened by an anti-culture which reveals itself, among other ways, in growing violence, murderous confrontations, exploitation of instincts and selfish interests.” And in his address to the same organ-ization in 1992 he said (§9):

The challenge of the 21st century is to humanize society and its institutions through the Gospel; to restore to the family, to cities and to villages a soul worthy of the human person, created in the image and likeness of God. . . . The Christian leaven will enrich living cultures and their values and bring them to full flower. In this way, hearts will be penetrated and cultures renewed by Christ, the Way, the Truth and the Life (cf. Jn 14:6) who “has brought complete newness by bringing Himself,” as Irenaeus of Lyons wrote (Adv. Haer., IV, 34, I).

In his own words again: “Freedom is fully exercised only through the acceptance of the truth and love which God offers to every person. For Christians this is an immense challenge to witness to the love of the one who has set us free—Jesus Christ, the source and the fulfilment of every culture” ibid., §8). In all these texts and many more besides, John Paul II was repeating and elaborating on what the Fathers of Vatican II had said in Apostolicam Actuositatem: People of God, men and women of the Church, do your utmost to bring the Gospel into the world, transforming culture in all its elements, including the economic and political!
But then what? If the popes, bishops, clergy and faithful of the Dark Ages had decided at one point to give up their quest for a Christian society—“It’s awfully depressing, all these plagues and barbaric tribes and crumbling buildings and seedy politicians, why don’t we just forget all about justice and peace in this world, which is a rotten place anyhow, and flee to the forests”—I daresay the Middle Ages, the Age of Faith and Chivalry, of Cathedrals and Summae, would never have been born. Tempted by discouragement in the face of evil, we must learn the same lesson: If we truly love Christ, then we will love and long for Christendom, which is the flowering of His grace in this vale of tears. This means we will do everything we can, as individuals, to make this world more welcoming to Christ, to His Church, to His saving Gospel and to its sanctifying power. And this will be the only long-term solution to our short-term problem: the want of seriously Catholic statesmen. It is a want that only faith, hope, and love, working against all odds, can supply, and not before many grains of wheat have first fallen into the ground and died (cf. Jn. 12:24). “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth . . . For we are God’s fellow workers” (1 Cor. 3:6, 9).


1. Au Milieu des Sollicitudes, Letter to the Bishops and Faithful of France (1892), §28. See also Leo’s encyclical on the Christian Constitution of States, Immortale Dei (1885).

2. See Thomas Storck’s Foundations of a Catholic Political Order (Beltsville, MD: Four Faces Press, 1998), and his The Catholic Milieu (Front Royal, VA: Christendom College Press, 1987).

3. For a recent iteration, see the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life, November 21, 2002.

4. The Final Report is an example of what Benedict XVI called “the hermeneutic of reform” over against the “hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture” (Address to the Roman Curia, December 22, 2005).

5.  As many magisterial texts declare, the Church is the guardian and interpreter of natural law in its purity; without giving ear to her teaching, it would be impossible for a State to follow “natural law morality” consistently and stably.

6. So much so that the encyclicals immediately generated a predictable reaction from liberals: “John Paul II is turning back the clock to the preconciliar days!” See the article “Democracy under the Care of a Guardian” (


8. Something John Paul II expressly calls for in, for instance, his Apostolic Letter Dies Domini of May 31, 1998.

9. It is obvious that people can organize themselves politically in evil ways, in anti-Christian ways (see Discourse to the Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Council for Culture, 1990). Does it not follow that Christians may and must organize themselves in good ways, in ways expressly Christian?

10. I have in mind Aquinas’s opusculum On Kingship, where he argues in favor of a hierarchical society ruled by a Christian prince, himself subject to the Pope and the priests of the Roman Church. Over against this “consecrational Christendom” Jacques Maritain and Charles Journet attempted to articulate what a “secular Christendom” might look like, but I am not convinced they did not create a chimera, a contradiction in terms.

Political Economy: Science or Witchcraft?

By Ron McArthur

The following is a talk given by Dr. Ronald McArthur, founding President of Thomas Aquinas College, on June 25, 2011.  Before Dr. McArthur’s death he kindly made it available for publication in Third Millennium.


Many years ago, when some of us founders of our college were teaching at Saint Mary’s College, we were privileged to have as our colleague Colin Clarke, a world-class economist from Australia who was with us for a year as a visiting lecturer. We were then teaching in the integrated liberal arts program, and he asked us if we studied economics. We told him that we read some parts of Smith’s Wealth of Nations, but nothing more in economics. He told us we were wise not to pursue in detail the study of economics since it was an illiberal study, and rightly called “that dismal science”. Now Dr. Clarke was immensely learned in his field, and had become a convert by reading Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno. He therefore opposed many of the tenets of modern political economics, so well presented by Adam Smith, and further developed and promulgated by David Ricardo and John Stuart Mill. This is the view of economics which supplanted the economics of Christendom. We in America live within its folds, and our continuing acceptance, or rejection, of it will determine not only the shape of our lives-the lives of our families and friends, our communities, cities, states and country- but shape as well the lives of everyone in the world.

I don’t intend this evening to discuss whether the study of economics is part of liberal education, but I have become convinced over the years, pace Dr. Clarke, that we Catholics must join with Leo XIII, Pius XI, and succeeding Popes in understanding, in its broad and determining principles, the nature of modern political economics. Only then will we be able to contend with it, as I believe we are called to do by the Gospel itself.

What then are the broad and determining principles of this modern economics, assumptions upon which it stands? They can be summarized briefly: a) man can be considered, in so far as he is involved in wealth-getting, in isolation from any other aspect of human nature; b) the science of economics considers this isolated man as governed by natural laws, akin to the laws of physics, which cannot be altered or modified by human will; c) one of these natural laws is the law of supply and demand, i.e., if supply is greater than demand, the price comes down, while if the demand is greater than supply the price goes up, which is reducible to the more general principle that man always intends, in mercantile exchange, to get as much as he can and give as little as he must; d) a focused desire for personal gain is the result of a natural self-interest and works for the good of all, since the competition which results guarantees the lowest prices; e) there are wages paid for labor and prices paid for commodities, but there is no such thing as a just wage or a just price — wages and prices are adjusted according to the natural laws which govern economics; f) labor is a commodity, and acquires a price which is subject to the law of supply and demand; g) the role of government is to ensure that enlightened self-interest and the law of supply and demand can freely bring about their beneficent effects; h) morality may govern economic relations to the extent that there must be laws against fraud, but the economic relationship itself has nothing to do with morals. There is never a gap, in economic transactions, between what is and what should be; what should be is what is.

This is the thinking which came to permeate the economic life of our civilization, and which prompted Leo XIII to write Rerum Novarum, considered the founding document of Catholic social thought. The encyclical, of course, is authoritative for us Catholics, but Leo was not alone in his assessment of the enemy. While his time had become imbued with the thinking which had by then all but destroyed the connection between civilization and Catholicism; while politicians and leaders were extolling the new economics as the road to well-being, there was a minority of thinkers who opposed that same political economy. Such a one was John Ruskin, who wrote a series of essays in the early 1860s called Unto this Last. Most of us, if we have heard of Ruskin at all, have heard that he was a romantic poet. He was, however, much more than that, and an accomplished writer besides. My point in this lecture will be to expose, in prose much inferior to his own, some of his criticisms of modern economics, criticisms based upon the ancient wisdom so dear to the thinking which lies at the root of Catholic Social Thought.

It is first of all interesting to note that Ruskin claims that political economy has, in his mind, the same status as alchemy, astrology and witchcraft. As alchemy was characterized by the pursuit of the transmutation of base metals into gold, as astrology was concerned with the influence of the planets upon the destinies of men, as witchcraft was concerned with the power of wizards, so political economy assumes that there can be some relations among men which are wholly devoid of humanity – i.e., devoid of anything except the acquisition of wealth. The first object of Ruskin’s essays in opposition is “to give an accurate and stable definition of wealth”. His second object is “to show that the acquisition of wealth [is] finally possible only under certain moral conditions of society, of which quite the first [is] the belief in the existence, and even, for practical purposes, in the attainment of honesty”. Here, in this connection, is his reaction to Smith’s contention that, “The effectual discipline which is exercised over a workman is not that of his corporation, but of his customers. It is the fear of losing their employment which restrains his frauds, and corrects his negligence.” Ruskin says in rebuttal, “I will make… a very earnest request to any Christian reader to think within himself what an entirely damned state of soul any human creature must have got into, who could read with acceptance such a sentences as this: much more, write it.” He opposes Smith with the words on the church of San Giacomo di Rialto, built in A.D 421, and located in the Rialto market, the original center of Venice. They say “Be the true cross, oh Christ, the salvation of this place. Around this temple, let the merchant’s law be just, his weights true, and his contracts guileless.”

Later in the essays, he will wonder how is it that we can be gotten to think it acceptable to buy as cheaply as possible and sell as dearly as possible. At the same time, he realizes that it has become possible because of the prior acceptance of the “economic man”, the man of enlightened self-interest abstracted from the real men the majority of whom work to acquire the necessities of minimal decency. This world of economy, the road to riches, includes the elimination of “affection”, his word for the normal unfolding of human relations, the relations without which life itself becomes degraded and misshapen…

By way of opposition, Ruskin first of all tells us that all those who are hired to perform a task in whatever capacity will, since they are flesh and blood, do their work better if those who hire them show them affection, and respect their humanity… Since this is obviously so, why then opt for economic relations which deny it? He even goes further to say that those who are relatively poor, relatively uneducated, and of ordinary talent should be mentored by those who hire them — mentored so that they may develop as human beings in their work, and given work which brings about something worthwhile. In short those who hire others must violate the rules which are supposed to insure the economic success of their ventures.

There are other considerations which count against modern economics. Though we may, with one part of our mind, accept this modern view, there are, in the recesses of that same mind at least a partial agreement with a tradition we think we have supplanted. We think (and in this we are still with the ancients) that there are what we call professions, and that the professionals are concerned with the good of those to whom they minister, for which ministry they should be remunerated.  The doctor is as such concerned not with his own health but with the health of his patient, the judge is not concerned with what is justly due himself, but what is due those whose entanglements he is concerned to equalize, the lawyer is concerned with achieving justice for his client, the minister is concerned with the spiritual good of his parishioners. (To laugh at all this is to make the point, for we think that those who do not seek the health of their patients, justice for their clients, equity in court, the good of souls, are different sorts of fakes and failures — crooks if you will.)

Now, to keep following Ruskin, take those who are concerned with what we call the market, with those in agriculture, in manufacture, in retail trade. How do we look upon them? Remember first of all that were there no farmers, no manufacturers, and no retail traders, we would not have the wherewithal to become healthy, to become just in any but a rudimentary sense, to be able to seek justice in courts, or to have the free time to hear the gospel preached. Should not they then, be seen as concerned with those to whom they minister? They are, after all, concerned in our society with the basics, without which none of the other arts and services could develop. Yet in these cases, which we consider that part of life concerned with economics, we assume that the farmer, the manufacturer, and the middleman seek exclusively their own private good, and do so without criticism. Those who become rich at the expense of all others are not fakes and failures; rather, they are many times counted successful, and can become pillars of the community. Ruskin looked aghast at this assessment, for it meant to him not only the enshrining of greed, but the assumption that it was as a property of man, as unchangeable as the laws of gravity. No wonder then his castigation of the Christian who would ever entertain such a concept, and no wonder that he took as his masters both the Old and New Testaments, Plato, Xenophon, and Cicero. He does not refer to Aristotle, but to those of us who read Aristotle one finds an ally. Aristotle maintained that there could be no polis worthy of the name without a pervasive general justice, and that there could not be general justice without friendship — at least the friendship of utility — where even though the association is one of utility alone it should be yet a friendship, whereby there was on both sides concern for the other, “affection” if you will, and honesty certainly.

One could go on, but we all get the point: economics is not emancipated from the rest of life, and is therefore to be brought under the governance of right reason and the moral virtues. If in the Middle Ages there was an antipathy to merchants, it was because their role encouraged an all-too-common greed. For modern political economists, that greed is a property of human nature, as fixed as gravity. To give an example: If you go to the second floor of a building with a rock and drop it, the rock will fall down and hit the ground. If you take Socrates to that same second floor and drop him he too will fall down and hit the ground: Gravity. If now you take Socrates and place him in an economic situation, wherein he has a small supply of things which are in great demand, he will charge more than usual for his product: Economic law of supply and demand. It is clear, however, that Socrates need not charge more for his product under those conditions; it was not nature, but his greed, a vice, which prompted his action. Where Socrates had to go to the ground when he was thrown out the window, he does not have to charge more for his product. He would in fact be immoral if he charged excessively for something much needed by others who could barely afford what he was demanding. Socrates is not in this situation an economic man abstracted from his nature as a man, and separated from the other human actions which shape his life. It is this supposed abstraction of economic man which leads Ruskin to say that the modern economy, which calls itself political is not in fact a political economy. It is instead a mythical economy based upon that part of life which is concerned with the exchange of goods and services. It is therefore concerned almost exclusively with private riches, and not directly with the wealth of the community. In fact it is for Ruskin a recipe for the destruction of the Commonwealth. I would think, though he does not say it, that he would object to the title of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations...

Now our author is well aware of the other side of the argument. His adversaries will tell him almost by way of concession, that there may indeed be many advantages of affection in all kinds of human relationships, advantages not to be disdained, but which they exclude from their new science. Their science is simply the science of getting rich. Ruskin concedes that the successful businessman may be able to tell you how he became wealthy, how he balanced his gains and losses. What he won’t be able to tell you is how his activities, along with the similar activities of all those who implemented that same science of getting rich, affect the myriad activities and fortunes of families, communities, and states. The application of the new science compares to the ripples caused by skipping pebbles on a windless pond. They may not disturb the equanimity of the one who throws the pebbles, but they can disturb and confuse the fish in the pond.

Here, in his own words, is what Ruskin proposes as true political economy:

Political economy (the economy of the state, or of citizens) consists simply in the production, preservation, and distribution, at fittest time and place, of useful or pleasurable things. The farmer who cuts his hay at the right time; the shipwright who drives his bolts well home in sound wood; the builder who lays good bricks in well tempered mortar; the housewife who takes care of her furniture in the parlor, and guards against all waste in her kitchen; and the singer who rightly disciplines, and never overstrains her voice, are all political economists in the true and final sense; adding continually to the riches and well-being of the nation to which they belong.

Mercantile economy, by contrast, is

…the economy of ‘merces’ or of ‘pay,’ [and] signifies the accumulation, in the hands of individuals, of legal or moral claim upon, or power over, the labor of others; every such claim implying precisely as much poverty or debt on the one side, as it implies riches or right on the other.

Those of capitalist mentality may suppose that we are now headed toward another version of socialism or communism. This, however, is not the case, for Ruskin detests economic equality, thinks not only that there will be a wealthy class, but that it is in many ways beneficial to the state that there be significant wealth among some of its citizens. When he says that wealth implies a claim upon, or power over the labor of others, he is merely stating a fact. He says:

Suppose someone be put in possession of the largest state of fruitful land, with rich beds of gold in his gravel, countless herds of cattle in his pastures; houses, and gardens, and storehouses full of useful stores: then suppose, after all, that he can get no servants. In order that he may be able to have servants, someone in his neighborhood must be poor, and in want of some of his gold — or his corn. Assume that no one is in want of either, and that no servants are to be had. He must, therefore, bake his own bread, make his own clothes, plow his own ground, and shepherd his own flocks. His gold will be as useful to him as any other yellow pebbles on his estate. His stores must rot, for he cannot consume them. He can eat no more than another man could eat, and wear no more than another man could wear. He must lead a life of severe and common labor to procure even ordinary comforts; he will be ultimately unable to keep either houses in repair, or fields in cultivation; and forced to content himself with a poor man’s portion of cottage and gardens, in the midst of a desert of wasteland, trampled by wild cattle, and encumbered by ruins of palaces.

A wealthy man will have power over others is so far as he can hire them to work for him, those he pays so that they in their turn have the means to pay for some of the goods the wealthy man already has. This implies that those hired will be able to pay for the labor which produces the goods they buy. Since, however, (and this is a moral imperative for Ruskin) it makes all the difference that the original wealthy man, who hires those who must work, hires them to do something conducive to the good life of the community, offers work that somehow leads to the moral and mental development of the workers, and pays them a wage which will enable them to lead a life befitting their dignity as men. Only this relationship, Ruskin claims, will permit a vibrant and happy social order; anything else leads to conflict, violence and the death of the soul, if not the body.

There would still be the wealthy, but there would be a better distribution of wealth, and the wealthy would have less power over the rest of us. Here is how Ruskin sees it: Let there be a wealthy man, and let there be, for the desire to hire workers, a disproportionate number of those who need work. The prospective workers will be willing, since they are in competition with each other, to work for less money than if there was a greater demand for the work. The one who hires them, therefore, could pay each of them one half of what he would have had to pay them had they been fewer. Therefore, he who hires them can hire more of them at the same price he would have had to pay for fewer of them, and he can then increase his own wealth in the bargain. Therefore, in this situation the wealthy man becomes wealthier, and if wealth bespeaks power over others, he has increased his power when he hires workers for the lower wages.

However, following Ruskin, no matter the supply of workers, the worker must be paid a wage which permits a modest well-being. He too must be able to acquire a modicum of wealth, and to that extent be freed from the domination of the wealthiest. (This permits, by the way, an expansion of private property, and adds to the self-sufficiency of the worker, the reverse of Socialism.)

The great social question as it came to be understood in Ruskin’s time was the question of wages for the workers who constitute the large majority within the state. The moral solution to that question demanded, in his mind, “the organization of labor, with fixed wages”, which in its turn demanded the overturn of the so-called “natural” laws of the fictional political economy he opposed.

Here, if I follow him, is the way to look at this question. The one who works for another is owed something for his work. In the simplest terms, his employer owes him the same amount of work in return. However, his employer has money, and so he pays the worker, who would be then able to hire another to do the same amount of work for him, who would now be the employer. The original worker, however, does not have the wherewithal to pay that other to work for him; he must buy the things he needs in order to live- food, clothes shelter. But, when he buys those staples, he is buying indirectly the labor of others that went into producing the staples. The price of the staples depends upon, and should be gauged by, the labor it took to produce them. The one who made the shoes may not have plowed the fields of the buyer, but he did in fact work for him; he made him the shoes, and in that sense he was hired. Now the cobbler is a living, breathing man, not an economic abstraction, and so he should get a living wage. An equitable exchange demands that the wage of the first worker, who worked on the estate, be measured against the labor of the cobbler who made the pair of shoes he sold. In other words, a way of figuring out what is just includes figuring out the right price for the shoes. Therefore, the just wage is inseparably connected to the just price.

It may be easier to see if we take the first worker and, instead of working for the landowner, we have him making houses, which he exchanges for shoes… The question then becomes the number of shoes he should get for the house, and that will be determined by the amount of labor in each case. This is demanded because every such exchange happens between equals, and must be evenly balanced, which means that there can be no profit to either party.

The exchange may, as Ruskin claims, be advantageous on both sides, but never profitable — never, that is, based upon unjust wages, too little or too much for the worker, and too little and too much in the exchange of products. Those, then, who engage in economic transactions must act according to the cardinal virtue of justice, which means that they must not only be concerned with what they get, but with what the other gets as well; not only with what they give, but with what the other gives.

Now when you hear all this you might be inclined to smile at the naiveté of it all, or, more soberly, to question the possibility of determining, especially in any complicated economy, just prices and just wages. Ruskin is aware of the difficulty, and states clearly that only God can determine them perfectly. He claims, however, that we must try the best we can to approximate the Divine mind, and reminds us that while only a few may be able to successfully bridge the gap between Divine wisdom and our own approximations to it, men in general have a sense of justice and injustice, and recognize almost instinctively the gross violations of justice when they see them.

Ruskin aids us in seeing that justice is possible. He brings to our attention Solomon and all his riches, thus showing us that it is morally possible to own significant wealth, that the man of wisdom can at the same time be wealthy, that it is for the good of all that some wise men are wealthy, and that such wealth could not have been legitimate at the expense of a sense of justice. Solomon, that wisest of all men, emphasizes the importance of justice in Proverbs, his book filled with maxims of practical wisdom. Some of them show, according to Ruskin, “that it is possible for a very practical and acquisitive tradesman to hold, through a not unsuccessful career, that principle of distinction between well-gotten and ill-gotten wealth…” We find in the Proverbs that “the getting of treasures by a lying tongue is a vanity tossed to and fro of them that seek death”; that “treasures of wickedness profit nothing: but justice delivers from death”; that “he that oppresses the poor to increase his riches, shall surely come to want”; that we should “Rob not the poor because he is poor –neither oppress the afflicted in the place of business. For God shall spoil the soul of those that spoiled them”.

Now all this, Ruskin contends, is intimately related to the just wage and the just price. He begins his last essay of Unto this Last by reminding us that

We saw that just payment of labor consisted in the sum of money which would approximately obtain equivalent labor at a future time; we have now to examine the means of obtaining such equivalence. Which question involves the definition of Value, Wealth, Price, and Produce.

He insists that we need to define them, since:

Most persons confuse the value of the thing with its price (which is as though they should estimate the healing powers of the medicine by the charge of the apothecary); confuse the wealth (or the possessions which constitute the well-being of an individual) with riches (or the possessions which constitute power over others); and, finally, confuse production, or profit, which is an increase of the possessions of the world, with acquisition or gain, which is an increase of the possessions of one person by the diminution of those of another.

The popular notion of value, which is also the view of the political economists, means “value in exchange”. But, according to the political economists, the subject of political economy is wealth. And wealth consists in all useful and agreeable objects which possess exchangeable value. But, says Ruskin, to possess exchangeable value means not only that the objects might be useful and agreeable in themselves, but that they are thought so by a sufficient number of people who demand them. If there is no demand, there is no value. But the demand for an exchangeable commodity depends upon the character and disposition of the prospective consumer. However, says Ruskin, we are told that morality has nothing to do with political economy, and so “moral considerations have nothing to do with human capacities and dispositions.” Against this, Ruskin maintains that the only reasonable understanding of value comes to this:

The value of the thing… is independent of opinion, and of quantity. Think what you will of it, gain how much you may have of it, the value of the thing itself is neither greater nor less. Forever it avails, or avails not; no estimate can raise, no disdain repress, the power which it holds from the Maker of things and of men.

Having said this, Ruskin is prompted to transform our understanding of political economy into a conception of the real science of political economy. It is, after this transformation,

That which teaches nations to desire and labor for the things that lead to life: and which teaches them to scorn and destroy the things that lead to distraction. And if, in a state of infancy, they suppose indifferent things, such as excrescences of shellfish and pieces of blue and red stone, to be valuable, and spent large measures on the labor which ought to be employed for the extension and ennobling of life, in diving or digging for them, and cutting them into various shapes, — or if, in the same state of infancy, they imagine precious and beneficent things, such as air, light, and cleanliness, to be valueless, — or if, finally, they imagine the conditions of their own existence, by which alone they can truly possess or use anything such, for instance as peace, trust, and love, to be prudently exchangeable, when the markets offer, for gold, iron, or excrescences or shells — the great and only science of political economy teaches them, in all these cases, what is vanity, and what substance, and how the service of Death the Lord of Waste, and of eternal emptiness, differs from the service of wisdom, the Lady of Saving, and of eternal fullness; she who has said, ‘I will cause those that love me to inherit Substance; and I will fill their treasures.’

As for wealth, Ruskin begins by accepting John Stuart Mill’s statement that, “To be wealthy is to have a large stock of useful articles.” He nevertheless disagrees with Mill about how it should be understood. What, asks Ruskin, is the meaning of “to have”, and the meaning of “useful”? As to possession he begins with an example:

At the crossing of the transepts of Milan Cathedral has lain, for 300 years, the embalmed body of St. Carlo Borromeo. It holds a golden crosier, and has a cross of emeralds on its breast. Admitting the Crosier and the emeralds to be useful articles, is the body to be considered as having them? Do they, in the politico economical sense of property, belong to it? If not, and if we may, therefore, conclude generally the dead body cannot possess property, what degree and period of animation in the body will render possession possible?

While it may be difficult to decide, it is at least true, according to Ruskin,

that possession, or ‘having’, is not an absolute, but a graduated, power; and consists not only in the quantity or nature of the thing possessed, but also (and in a greater degree) in its suitableness to the person possessing it and in his vital power to use it.

Ruskin’s first modification of the definition of wealth, then, becomes “The possession of useful articles which we can use.” This leads him to consider the meaning of ‘useful’. Ruskin says the useful, according to a right-thinking political economy, is something material which, worthwhile according to the exigencies of our nature, is enjoyed, consumed, or exchanged, by one whose soul is rectified, and therefore alive so that he can truly possess it. This leads him to his final definition of Wealth: “THE POSSESSION OF THE VALUABLE BY THE VALIANT”, which he claims should be one of the principal aims of any strong and vibrant nation.

Ruskin goes equally against our modern grain when he turns his attention to price, “that is to say, of exchange value, and its expression by currencies.” He claims, first of all, that there can be no profit in exchange. “It is”, he says “only in labor there can be profit — that is to say, of making in advance, or making in favor of”; and this from proficio – to make headway, to advance, to make progress. This is contrary to the general notion of profit, where the exchange of goods is the very arena in which profit is made. Our notion of profit is taken from political economy, wherein it is defined as “excess of returns over outlay or expenditure”. “In exchange”, says Ruskin, “there is only advantage, i.e., a bringing advantage or power to the exchanging persons.” They exchange what has been gained by labor; nothing is constructed or produced in the exchange.

Only that which had been before constructed is given to the person by whom it can be used. If labor is necessary to effect these changes, that labor is in reality involved in the production, and, like all of the labor, bears profit. Whatever number of men are concerned in the manufacture, or in the conveyance, have a share in the profit; but neither the manufacture nor the conveyance are the exchange, and in the exchange itself there is no profit.

There may however, be acquisition; each, by exchange, acquires something — something which was the result of labor. But if there is gain at all, it must be prejudicial. Listen to Ruskin:

The Science of Exchange… considered as one of gain, is, therefore, simply nugatory; but considered as one of acquisition, it is a very curious science, differing in its data and bases from every other science known. Thus– if I can exchange a needle with a savage for a diamond, my power of doing so depends either on the savage’s ignorance of social arrangements in Europe, or on his want of power to take advantage of them, by selling the diamond to anyone else for more needles. If, further, I make a bargain as completely advantageous to myself as possible… the advantage to me in the entire transaction depends wholly upon the ignorance, powerlessness, or heedlessness of the person dealt with. Do away with these, and the [mercantile] advantage becomes impossible.

Ruskin goes on to say that “it is therefore a science founded on nescience, and an art founded on artlessness.”


This science, alone of sciences, must, by all available means, promulgate and prolong its opposite, nescience; otherwise the science itself is impossible. It is, therefore, peculiarly and alone the science of darkness; probably a bastard science — not by any means a divina sciencia, but one begotten of another father, that father who, advising his children to turn stones into bread, is himself employed in turning bread into stones, and who, if you would ask the fish of him….., can but give you a serpent.

Since the basis of all political economy, the right political economy, is labor, “The price of anything is the quantity of labor given by the person desiring it in order to obtain possession of it.” Since, however, there are different kinds of labor, different grades of labor, and different circumstances attending labor, to ascertain the right price for commodity, itself the result of labor, is very difficult. “Phenomena of price, therefore, are intensely complex, curious, and interesting”, but they reduce finally to the value and price of labor. “[T]he price of things must always be counted by the quantity of labor, not the price of labor by the quantity of other things.”

Someone may say that this is all very interesting, and even intriguing as a series of puzzles, but it cannot be applied to the world as it is. That world is now so complex that all attempts to quantify labor are useless. Ruskin’s answer however is to say, again, that we may not be able to get that just price known by the mind of God alone, but that we must approximate it if we are to concern ourselves with the poor of this world, and the large number of people who have no other way of living except to sell their labor for the things they need to live.

While it may be impossible to find the accurate measure of labor, it is yet certain that labor produces something, and it is through his conception of production that Ruskin advances his general view of the right conception of political economy. He knows, in this connection, that labor well executed can have various aims. These aims can be judged by the product produced, and it is those products that should be our concern. So much is this true, he says, that all labor should be divided into “positive and negative labor: positive, that which produces life; and negative, that which produces death”. Murder, for example, produces death, while rearing children produces life. All labor that produces life is honorable, while all labor that produces death is dishonorable. Therefore, says Ruskin, “labor being various in its result, the prosperity of any nation is in exact proportion to the quantity of labor which it expends in obtaining and employing means of life.” He means by this not only producing wisely, “but wisely distributing and consuming”, and he holds that “consumption is the end Crown and perfection of production.” So much is this true that he claims, “the vital question, for individual and for nation, is, never ‘how much do they make?’ But ‘to what purpose do they spend?’”

All this leads him, finally, to consider Capital and its functions. Capital, to follow him, is “material by which some derivative or secondary good is produced. It is only capital proper… when it is producing something different from itself.” It is as a root producing fruit. There is something malign, then, about capital which, without producing fruit produces more roots; production is for consumption, and only the fruit can be consumed. If, for example, a well constructed plowshare “did nothing but beget other plowshares…. it would have lost its function of capital.” The test of the plowshare as capital is not other plowshares, but furrows. This being the real nature of capital, it follows that

there are two kinds of true production, always going on in an active state: one of seed, and one of food; or production for the ground, and for the mouth, both of which are by covetous persons thought to be production only for the granary; whereas the function of the granary is but intermediate and conservative, fulfilled in the distribution; else it ends up in nothing but mildew, and nourishment of rats and worms. And since production for the ground is only useful with future hope of harvest, all essential production is for the mouth and is finally measured by the mouth; hence as I said above consumption is the crown of production; and the wealth of a nation is only to be estimated by what it consumes.

Ruskin concludes:

 The final object of political economy, therefore, is to get good method of consumption, and great quantity of consumption: in other words, to use everything, and to use it nobly; whether it be substance, service, or service perfecting substance.

Ruskin also holds that the demand for commodities is, finally, a demand for labor, a demand for the right kind of labor, the labor which provides a decent life, which develops the powers of the worker, and which enables him in turn to participate in true wealth – a noble soul owning the material things which in their turn help him to act virtuously. His labor then enables him to purchase the commodities he needs to live well. Therefore, it is the manner and result of consumption which are the real tests of production. Hence, according to Ruskin,

Production does not consist in things laboriously made, but in things serviceably consumable; and the question for the nation is not how much labor it employs, but how much life it produces. For as consumption is the end and aim of production, so life is the end and aim of consumption.

And what is life? He says that life is virtue, and the more there is virtue throughout the nation the more there is life, the more successful the country. He calls his view,

a strange political economy; the only one, nevertheless, that ever was or can be: all political economy founded on self-interest being but the fulfillment of that which once brought schism into the Policy of Angels, and ruin into the Economy of Heaven.

I hope my presentation of Ruskin’s essays is faithful to his thought, while knowing at the same time it lacks the pungency of his language, the beauty of his prose, and the literary references that engage the mind. What interested me, however, when I first read him is that it makes good sense. I think, also, that he resurrects in our time the wisdom of the ancients, the wisdom of the Scriptures, and their relevance to our current economics. Would it not, after all, be disconcerting to think that our Western Civilization, based as it is upon reason and revelation, the wisdom of the Greeks and Catholicism, the civilization which Newman calls “civilization itself”, should have nothing to teach us about economics, that progress should demand a denial of the principles that made it? Ruskin shows us this error from the inside, and leads us to reflect anew on the ancient teachings as they bear upon economics. There are many examples, so I will take a few of the most important.

Socrates, when speaking of the genesis of the city in the second book of the Republic, contrasts the city concerned with the essentials of life — food, clothing, shelter, — the healthy city, with the luxurious city concerned with ornaments and trinkets, “gorged”, as he puts it, “with a bulky mass of things, which are not in cities because of necessity….” This city, to follow Socrates, is an unhealthy city, and because of its excesses, it is never self-sufficient- which means that it will finally become grasping and warlike. It is then the city of death, not life. Ruskin echoes this when he tells us that wealth is the possession of things which enhance our nature as possessed by the rectified soul, as well as in his excoriation of those who surround themselves with frivolous things which are of no use to them or anyone else.

Aristotle, in his Politics, speaks about wealth-getting, and concludes that it should be undertaken for the sake of managing the family. He also claims that there is a natural wealth getting, necessary for the good of the family, and another kind of wealth getting which looks as if it were the same, but which he characterizes as unnatural; it is intrinsically evil because it has no natural end. This reminds us of Ruskin’s claim that the plow is for the furrow, not more plows; and the seed is for the fruit, not more seed. Capital is for the sake of life, and not for more capital. Aristotle also claims that the family is the first society, the basis of every other. Likewise Ruskin holds that the worst labor is warfare – death; but that the best labor is the raising of the young in a family — life.

Ruskin’s scorn of “enlightened self-interest”, a philosophical key that opens the door to modern economics, is compatible with Aristotle’s doctrine of the common good, that good which is not ordered to us, but to which we are ordered, and in which we find our perfection as political animals. Ruskin holds that a common good is achieved in the measure in which wealth is diffused, and that those who are more intelligent, more able, more prompted by the accidents of birth and fortune, must be concerned with the lives and fortunes of those they otherwise control. This is reminiscent, with the usual reservations, of Aristotle’s theory of the natural slave. The natural slave, he says, is one who cannot live according to his own reason, but must yet as a man, live according to reason. He therefore lives according to the reason of his master, and without that subjection he could in no way perfect his soul. While there are no natural slaves, there are inequalities within nature, and those who are superior have an obligation to be concerned with those whose livelihood depends upon them. This is contrary to the contention of the capitalists, who love egalitarian democracy because it tells them that all men are after all the same, that each man can take care of himself, that no one man should concern himself in economics with the lives of others, and that in fact such concern does not increase, but diminishes the wealth of all.

There are further connections with the ancients. In the Aristotelian corpus, there is a treatise on economics. It was not written or dictated by Aristotle, but the first book is obviously Aristotelian. Here we learn that

In regard to property the first care is that which comes naturally. Now in the course of nature the art of agriculture is prior, and next comes those large efforts which extract the products of the earth, mining and the like. Agriculture ranks first because of its justice; for it does not take anything away from men, either with their consent, as do retail trading in the mercenary arts, or against their will, as do the warlike arts. Further, agriculture is natural; for by nature all derive their sustenance from their mother, and so men derive it from the earth. In addition to this it also conduces greatly to bravery; for it does not make men’s bodies unserviceable, as do the illiberal arts, but it renders them able to lead an open air life and work hard; furthermore it makes them adventurous against the foe, for husbandmen are the only citizens whose property lies outside the fortifications.

This rather cryptic assessment takes us back to Xenophon, who in his Oeconomicus elaborates on those same points. There we find that Cyrus, the Persian king, thought that the art of husbandry (which includes the flower garden), the cultivation of the land and the development and use of animals, was desirable not only for sustenance, the first well-being of the family, but also necessary for the beautification of lands and parks — all conducive to the well-being of his empire. Cyrus also thought that husbandmen had to learn various arts and skills, and that this was a better development of their faculties than the repetition of a single task. He also thought that such men were far more able to be warriors when the Empire needed them. Therefore Cyrus spoke of the nobility of farming, and of the noble character of the accomplished husbandman. This being so, it mattered first of all that there be good families, good wives of good husbands; that they worked the land, that the wives managed the home and that they together educated their young.

If Ruskin is correct when he contends that those of more wealth should use it to enhance the lives and develop the character of those who must work for them, it means that those with superior wealth and power, rather than increasing them through industrialization and the factory system which eliminates the husbandman and sentences workers to repetitious jobs and meaningless lives in our huge cities, should encourage the return of the agrarian life, smaller communities and local technology. Then, more of those same workers might own their own property, and become self-sufficient; not slaves, but free men.

These are just a few of the connections one is led to make between Ruskin and the Ancients.  He, as they, saw politics, and hence economics, as ordered to the perfection of the soul. There is here, as in so many other areas, the battle between the ancients and the moderns. Why is it that Plato, Aristotle, Xenophon, to name but a few, have lost traction for modernity? How did it happen? There are many reasons, and it may be impossible to clarify the whole story. One thing, however, is certain: the Catholic Fathers and Doctors, the scholastic theologians and their disciples, all accepted the ancient understanding of economics, as before all else the discipline ordered to the management of a family, the first of all associations, upon which all others depend if they are to bring health and vitality to the souls of men. .

The Enlightenment thinkers of the 18th century — Hume, Voltaire, Kant, Diderot, the French Encyclopedists — held themselves together in a loosely conceived association because, despite their differences, they were as one in detesting Christianity—the great myth which for the previous thousand years had destroyed, corrupted and impeded the flowering of human nature. Everything connected with it had to be rethought; while there might be a learned nod in the direction of ancient thought, its integration into the teaching of the Church had to be overthrown. The result was a new politics (Locke); a new economics (Smith); a new basis of morality (Kant); a new science of nature (Newton). We Catholics, along with everyone else in our times, are still in the midst of the great revolution which aims to substitute, for the civilization based on God, a new civilization based upon man — and we are losing the battle; not the war, but the battle.

Ruskin maintains that the rectification of the evils he opposes demands not just men acting, but acting as honest men because they are honest. He is clear that it cannot come about through government alone There is no return to a healthy economy without curing the diseased soul — justice rather than greed. This rectification, he thinks, demands for its guidelines a serious acceptance of Revelation as it teaches about economics, which explains his references to Proverbs, and his allusions to the Gospel.

Even more than all this however, our author has in four essays resurrected from oblivion the conviction that our economics cannot be understood without the notion of the good. The scientific revolution did not refute but conveniently buried Aristotle’s doctrine of final causality, an obstacle to the emancipation of the mind for what was conceived to be the shackles a religiously imposed philosophical orthodoxy. This led to a new orthodoxy, not discovered by reason, but accepted by faith and still with us, that no one knows what is good for man. While Socrates labored in many of the dialogs to separate the real from the apparent good, we now know that it was all a waste of time; the same is true when Aristotle labors to discover the nature of happiness, that real good to which we should direct our actions. While no one this side of insanity denies that men act with purpose, it is commonly accepted that no one can know that one good is better than another. We are latter-day discoverers that Protagoras has been right all along; each man is the measure of his own actions. We are now attempting with our latest brand of secularization, to establish something as yet unknown to the human race — a society based on mores completely divorced from morality, and especially divorced from any opening to religion. The lineaments of such a society become clearer all the time. The popular culture scorns, ridicules and opposes with all its might any position about practical matters which involves a measure other than the individual will. Any reference to morality is immediately characterized as religious, the product of a faith which along with other faiths (excepting this newest) is irrational and therefore menacing were it to become public.,

Through it all, however, men cannot help but desire happiness, which most men think consists primarily in the possession and enjoyment of material goods. Since nothing is natural to man, there can be no distinction between natural and unnatural wealth getting, no distinction between responsible acquisition and greed. The rich are in fact the happy. The poor have no moral case against injustice. Their avenue to more wealth depends upon revolution or political power through the ballot box and the lobby. So much is this true that words like social justice, just price, and just wage, are remnants of the misconceptions we are content to have long-ago buried. While there are relatively few convinced atheists among us, our culture celebrates a practical atheism which knows no limits.

There was a time, for example, when Christian believers thought there was some connection between their lives on earth and the disposition of their souls after death. Now, thanks to the doctrine of salvation by faith alone, it doesn’t matter how we live so long as we believe that Jesus is our personal savior. And after all it might be true that everyone goes to heaven anyhow. We no longer think that a just social order depends upon an explicit recognition of the existence of an all-knowing and all provident God and the immortality of the human soul, that soul which will be most solemnly judged after its separation from the body. If those doctrines are not taken seriously, why should we be surprised at the condition of our society? Why should we be surprised that economics is concerned solely with the material riches? All our labors to bring about a reasonable social order congruent with the nature of man have no chance of success as long as the current mentality prevails. That mentality is now the intellectual custom which has permeated almost every part of our lives, and it will not go away by treating symptoms and ignoring the disease..

Ruskin, for all his virtues, and they are many, is silent about that one thing needed. He is, in fact, a kind of rough and ready theologian, and what he needs as a proximate cause of his revolution backwards is the kind of theology one finds in the IIA IIAE of the Summa, wherein the revelation from above is made more intelligible through the philosophical wisdom of the ancients.  But while moral theology can stand as a proximate cause, it alone is in no way sufficient to bring about the change. The only thing that can save us in a world gone mad is the One who has already saved us by his incarnation, passion, death and resurrection. He saves us, however, through his church, and so it is impossible for us to rise from our miseries unless the church be publicly accepted and recognized as the mystical body of Christ, wherein are contained not only the truth without which we perish but the sacraments, the ordinary means of sanctification. Only in the public acceptance of the church as a society superior to any temporal order, which looks to a happiness beyond this world, a church which brings us the councils, creeds, dogmas, fathers and doctors, the Saints, theologians, poets, artists, can there be any hope. The social doctrine of the Church is but a part of sacred theology, and we need the restoration of the whole of that theology. Only there will we find, in full measure, faith seeking understanding, and at the same time the elevation and completion of the natural wisdom of the ages. If this were to come about, we would then see that the social doctrine is concerned primarily with the good of the family, the antidote of the industrialism which continues his warfare against the real wealth of which Ruskin speaks. Without the resurgence of the Catholic faith, there is no possibility of a general return to the “honesty” Ruskin demands. It is only the church which can maintain, “in season and out of season” the principles of any sane economics. An ecumenical Christianity based upon a number of common denominators is next to useless. What we need is the authoritative Church, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, and the Real Presence without which Ruskin’s honesty can never take hold… This is, of course, contrary to all we see around us, to that liberal democracy which reduces religion to a purely private concern, and which destroys any connection between the citizen and the Lord and Savior of nations.

Solzhenitsyn has his own way of putting it. He said, “John Paul simply said that the third totalitarianism is coming, the absolute power of money, ‘the inhuman love of the accumulation of capital for capital’s sake,’ … I would summarize as follows: untouched by the breath of God, unrestricted by human conscience, both capitalism and socialism are repulsive.” He went on to say that neither system, “can tolerate Christian commandments; they do not concern themselves with the spiritual sphere; they reject the spiritual sphere.”

To bring the spiritual sphere to bear upon political economics, more and more of us would have to study the social doctrine of the Church, be aware of the problems and the general solution to them, and be willing and able to stay the course. Then, if through the prayers and sufferings of the faithful the Church returns to a place of honor, there might be a chance. Failing all this we shall simply stagger from one crisis to another, and disintegrate more and more in the name of liberty and progress.