Catholicism, Modernity, and Ground-Up Politics

"The turning point, or peripeteia, begins with Pope Leo XIII’s attempts to engage with modern politics and society. In great, transformative encyclicals such as Rerum Novarum, the Thomist pope sought to undercut the attraction of collectivism by inventing a kind of “Aristotelian” middle way between the anarchism of the robber barons and the socialism of their employees. The rule of law without which no market economy can function takes its grounds from the natural moral law, Leo XIII taught, and he encouraged the development of a society in which most people are property owners, a dignity proper to them as individual persons.

Rather than sound like he thought the defunct ancien régime was the only regime worth doing business with, as Leo’s predecessors had done, the Thomist pope taught that any regime that recognizes the natural, moral law is legitimate and should be respected. Though America was only dimly, and largely negatively, in the Victorian Pope’s sights, Michael Novak was surely right to see America as the best exemplification yet of what Rerum Novarum was after. But that insight was all too long in coming. Rerum Novarum, and Leo’s attempt to engage with political modernity in Thomist categories, soon became a fixed Catholic utopia, deployed as a measure by which to judge and find modernity wanting, not as a means through with to converse with actual realities and personalities."