Papal writings concerning democracy and economics have occasioned much confusion and debate in the period following the close of the Second Vatican Council, especially since the ascension of John Paul II to the papacy in 1979. At times, John Paul II and his successor, Benedict XVI, have been interpreted as re-emphasizing the principle of subsidiarity and the need for new economic arrangements centered around concepts such as the “gift economy.” At other times, they have been read as sanctioning something like economic liberalism. At still other times, they have seemed to call for substantial state intervention into economic life and for new global structures of economic authority that transcend the nation-state.

What is going on? Beneath these apparent inconsistencies is there an underlying—if only emergent—theoretical unity?

I think there is. By introducing three lines of argument represented here by historian William Leach, theologian William Cavanaugh, and philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, I hope to suggest that recent papal teaching has been neither confused, nor foolish, nor ignorant. Rather, that teaching should be understood as attempting to transcend the paradigms of what Pope Benedict referred to as the “binary logic of market-plus-state” by rethinking economics from the inside from a particular theological point of view.1 This point of view, which I will refer to as communio, also proposes an anthropology and is therefore not merely sectarian or “religious.”

The Whig Thomist Interpretation of Papal Economic Teaching

To inquire about the relationship between democracy and economics is, in effect, to inquire into the features of communities that promote human flourishing. Our economic forms and practices quite obviously can help build up those conditions or erode them. But how, exactly? What ought to be our criteria for judging those forms and practices? And do we really have any control over them, or are they more like natural forces?

Put another way, isn’t there really now only one remaining, legitimate mode of economic thinking: the mode known as economic liberalism, in forms that accept more or less a social safety net or body of regulations, depending on one’s preferences or on “what works”? Aren’t we fooling ourselves to think there is any alternative? Or rather, isn’t the only alternative a kind of Marxism or socialism that has been shown to be not only economically disastrous, but also oppressive and tyrannical? Isn’t economic globalization—the integration of every human community into a single world market of producers and consumers—inevitable? Like it or not, isn’t it the best we can do to deal with economic liberalism’s side-effects through sensible regulations and ameliorative social services?

This, I believe, is generally the point of view taken by the vast majority of Americans today, whether they be politically conservative or liberal, Republican or Democrat, Christian or non-Christian. To this way of thinking, if it is true that recent popes do not accept this fundamental economic-historical reality, they are fools, as is anyone who agrees with them. For this reason, many of the popes’ defenders insist that they do not really dissent from accepted truths about modern economic life. Or, if they do seem to dissent, this dissent represents the residue of an older Catholic approach to social order that may “wander into” papal texts but fortunately has been rejected in the recognition that liberalism, in one form or other, is the only option available to us, at both the theoretical and practical levels.

The belief that economic liberalism can and must be synthesized with orthodox Christian theology is one manifestation of the critical viewpoint that journalist George Weigel, one of its prominent champions, has called Whig Thomism. Theologian Tracey Rowland has used the Whig Thomist label to refer to the pro-liberal tradition of Christian thinking that extends from Lord Acton to Michael Novak and is present, in varying degrees, in other prominent thinkers such as Jacques Maritain, John Courtney Murray, and Richard John Neuhaus, among many others.2

Since the close of the Second Vatican Council, Whig Thomists have alternately been appalled and buoyed by papal documents concerning economics. In the Whig Thomist narrative, the classic preconciliar documents of Catholic social teaching—Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum (1891) and Piux XI’s Quadregissimo Anno (1931)—offered welcome defenses of the importance of private property for securing human dignity and flourishing. Not surprisingly, these encyclicals also included strong denunciations of socialism. But they were marred—perhaps understandably, given the times in which they were written—by equally strong denunciations of laissez-faire capitalism, and concomitantly strong affirmations of the rights of labor, affirmations which may have once been relevant but were now outdated and misleading. After all, claimed the Whig Thomists, the postwar, increasingly post-industrial, well-regulated market economies of the United States and Western Europe had secured the rights of labor as well as private property, while also providing open fields for the expression of human economic creativity. They thereby secured an important dimension of human dignity. In their record and continued promise of relieving the estate of the poor, the free-market economies of the postwar West instantiated Catholic economic teaching as well as any economies could.

Unfortunately, the progressive opponents of the free market could point to moments in papal teaching to buttress their own preferences for a high level of state intervention in, if not control over, the economy. Thus, in the Whig Thomist narrative, Pope Paul VI’s Populorum Progressio (1967) represented a low point in papal teaching. To them, it displayed a shallow understanding of free-market economics in its treatment of international economic relations; the right to a living wage; the universal destination of goods; and “integral human development”—and was in general just plain unrealistic (not to mention unfair to the West).

But with the papacy of John Paul II, things began to look up. The Whig Thomists greeted John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus (1991; hereafter referred to as CA)—which marked the hundredth anniversary of Leo XIII’s seminal Rerum Novarum—with glee. In this encyclical, they believed, John Paul II clearly transcended the outdated aspects of preconciliar Catholic economic teaching while embracing the dynamic market-based individualism of the West. Michael Novak wrote that the encyclical essentially proposed the U.S. economic system as the model for all others.3 Some commentators pointed out that the Whig Thomists ignored parts of CA that did not serve their narrative. John Paul’s call for “a comprehensive new development,” not only in the countries of the former Eastern bloc, “but also in the West” was, for example, rather studiously downplayed or ignored. But such niggles aside, the Whig Thomists could see that the tide had turned.

In 1997, the Whig Thomists’ most intelligent and measured representative, influential First Things editor Richard John Neuhaus, declared victory. In his essay “The Liberalism of John Paul II,” Neuhaus referred to Centesimus Annus “as a vindication of our understanding of Catholic social doctrine”—the “our” referring to he and his pro-liberal, Whig Thomist allies. In conventional fashion, Neuhaus read the encyclical, and the tradition it purportedly represented, as rejecting a certain form of radical liberalism—“laissez-faire economic liberalism” or “libertarianism”—while affirming the specific historical form of economic liberalism associated with the “American experiment.”4

More broadly, argued Neuhaus, CA must be seen as affirming the “free society, including economic freedom.” Neuhaus maintained that the achievement of John Paul II was to replant “the idea of the individual and of freedom in the rich soil of Christian truth from which, in its convoluted and conflicted development, it had been uprooted.” Nevertheless, he cautioned, despite the manifest alienation of “modern individualism” from this soil, it was a “mistake to pit, as some do pit, modern individualism against a more organic catholic understanding of community,” for the only “real-world alternative” to that individualism was “the collectivisms that are the great enemy of the freedom to which we are called.”

Neuhaus concluded with the argument that liberalism, very much including economic liberalism, was the indispensable condition for the freedom both of the church and the individual; the only alternative was the slavery of collectivism, whether theocratic or secularist. Catholics’ task, he urged was to “contend for the soul of liberalism” rather than to critique it, for “liberalism is freedom, and what we do with freedom is charged to our account.”

Then the papacy of Benedict XVI complicated things. Expected to extend the purportedly pro-liberal economic thinking represented in the documents issued by John Paul II, Benedict became unreliable. George Weigel charged Pope Benedict XVI’s 2009 encyclical, Caritas in Veritate (hereafter CIV) as being so confused that it “resembles a duck-billed platypus.” Weigel attempted to salvage CIV by claiming that for readers such as he “with advanced degrees in Vaticanology,” it was possible to distinguish Pope Benedict’s real thoughts and teachings—those which were in harmony with Weigel’s Whig Thomist interpretation of Catholicism’s proper relation to culture—from those associated with a discredited, impractical, leftist approach to “social justice” rejected by Pope John Paul II and, presumably, by the real Benedict XVI.5

Weigel was particularly exercised by Caritas in Veritate’s insistence on the centrality of “logic of gift” to Christian economic thinking. This section of the encyclical, wrote Weigel, “is so clotted and muddled as to suggest the possibility that what may be intended as a new conceptual starting point for Catholic social doctrine is, in fact, a confused sentimentality. . . .” CIV’s statement that authentic human development requires humanity to become more open to “forms of economic activity marked by quotas of gratuitousness and communion” bewildered Weigel, who could not fathom what it might mean and speculated that it might be merely “dumb.”

In Weigel’s appraisal of Caritas in Veritate, most if not all of the most common charges leveled by liberals against the emerging school of nonliberal Christian reflection on economics and its relationship to politics and culture are present: this tradition is said to be confused, naïve, sentimental, impractical, too leftist, too antimodern—and perhaps just stupid.

This appraisal, however, itself reflects certain liberal assumptions which are themselves highly questionable—assumptions regarding the nature of the human person and, as a result, the type of economic order that best suits human beings. Over the course of his celebration of John Paul II’s alleged liberalism, Neuhaus duly name-checked and even granted a partial validity to the arguments of Christianity’s most famous critics of liberalism, including David L. Schindler, Alasdair MacIntyre, Oliver O’Donovan, George Parkin Grant, and Stanley Hauerwas. But he declined to engage their argument, which, as he acknowledged, hinges precisely on the contentions that liberalism is not synonymous with nor a stable, neutral ground of authentic human freedom; that is not historically inevitable; and that it is not our only “real-world alternative” to tyrannical collectivism.

In what follows, I want to reflect on lines of critique launched against the sort of economic liberalism championed by the Whig Thomists. Arguments made by William Leach, William Cavanaugh, and Alasdair MacIntyre are presented here, in brief and incomplete form, as representative of those which might be and have been made by scholars working along the same lines.

From Leach, we learn that the institutions, practices, and ideas constitutive of industrial consumerism were not inevitable but were, for various reasons, manufactured at a particular point in time by particular men and women, and that their advancement depended upon the toppling of the traditional Christian stance toward desire. From Cavanaugh, we see how the understanding of freedom central to Christian anthropology (and, indeed, other anthropologies) is profoundly at odds with the view embedded in liberal free-market theory. And from MacIntyre, we learn how the modern state and the economic order that sustains and is sustained by it is inimical to the formation of the kinds of local communities that are necessary as a school of virtue.

William Leach and the Culture of Consumer Capitalism

It is often said that modern Catholic social teaching developed as a response to the new social conditions wrought by capitalist industrialism, as well as to the socialist backlash that gained its credibility from these conditions, in the latter part of the nineteenth century. As John F. Donovan puts it in his account of Catholic social teaching’s development, “In their workaday laboring lives, industrial workers were in the grip of economic forces that appeared hostile to the religious tradition affirmed in their Sunday worship. The dilemma they faced was the following: Could they affirm the reality of the modern economic order in a way that was congruent with their Catholic faith? Or were they forced to choose between them?”6

Yet as Donovan intimates, what was at stake was not just a mere change in economic relations, but, perhaps inevitably, something deeper: the alteration, even transformation, of a culture. The new culture which began to be birthed by consumer capitalism in the late nineteenth century, argues the historian William Leach, was “unconnected to traditional family or community values, to religion in any conventional sense, or to political democracy.”7 Instead, it was marked chiefly by the doctrine that “acquisition and consumption” are “the means of achieving happiness.” And it was fully a culture, with its own “images, symbols, and signs.”

The high priests of the new consumer-capitalist culture insisted on the primacy of new experiences, full individual expressiveness, and personal satisfaction. Consumer capitalism was positioned to help men and women pursue these goals—and to constantly instill new desires to be fulfilled, new forms of expression to achieve. Leach writes that “[t]he cult of the new was, perhaps, the most radical aspect of this culture, because it readily subverted whatever custom, value, or folk idea came within its reach.” Others might finger science as the dissolving agent of the old republican and Christian culture, but, Leach argues, science was “not intrinsically hostile to custom or tradition or religion. Market capitalism was hostile; no immigrant culture—and, to a considerable degree, no religious tradition—had the power to resist it, as none can in our own time.”8

The culture of consumer capitalism arose in part because of the shift to industrialization from an agrarian economy served to concentrate wealth and remove workers’ control over their own work. A new concept of democracy was the result. Democracy could not lie in the widespread distribution of land and productive property, since this seemed no longer to be possible. Rather, democracy was recast as consisting in the availability of consumer comforts for all. In other words, the rise of consumer capitalism wrought and reinforced a shift from a producer- and civic-oriented concept of democracy to a consumer-oriented and individualistic one.

Leach emphasizes, and presents a bookful of evidence to support, two important points: this new culture was, at least in part, an intentional creation, and not the inevitable result of economic forces or an invisible hand. And the new culture was resisted—by populist movements, unions, and (certain) social reformers; and by small merchants, intellectuals, democrats, socialists and many religious believers. This resistance was ultimately overwhelmed thanks to the success capitalism achieved in democratizing desire and re-imagining and compellingly re-presenting the good life and its dreams.

Let us look more closely at the historiography presented by Leach in order to show how contingent and intended was the new culture of consumer capitalism—and therefore why it would make sense not only for Pope Leo XIII and his successors to decisively respond to it, but to do so in the knowledge that economic relations were changeable.

In the late nineteenth century, argues Leach, advances in industrial technology, the availability of electricity, and the newly available means to pool vast amounts of capital made production much cheaper and hence threatened to flood the market with goods. This worried capitalists greatly. Marketing consequently acquired the purpose not merely of informing potential customers how a given product might fulfill their existing needs, but of creating new desires. As one proponent of the new culture, Emily Fogg Mead, wrote, it was imperative that Americans be awakened to “the ability to want and choose.” What was needed was a moral reeducation, the replacement of traditionally religious values with consumer values.

Thus, one of the new breed of merchants, Alexander Turney Stewart, was hailed by Harper’s Bazaar for freeing Americans “from the guilt of having wealth and desiring money.” L. Frank Baum, who was not only the author of The Wizard of Oz but a pioneer in the creation of the display case and show window, counseled hedonism: “To gain all the meat from the nut of life is the essence of wisdom, therefore, ‘eat, drink, and be merry’—for tomorrow you die.” To inculcate the ability to forget the past was a key aspect of the needed moral reeducation. Harry Selfridge, superintendent of Marshall Field’s, exhorted his staff “to forget the past, and deal more and more with the present.” Likewise, Mead “urged businessmen to penetrate the home, break down the resistance of ordinary housewives, and ‘forget the past’ in their pursuit of profits.”

The new breed of businessmen conceived of customer service as a way of buying good will while strengthening the toolkit for enlarging individual desire. Customer service was often dressed up in grandiose rhetoric, but as the Catholic radical Peter Maurin pointed out in 1932, “the service that emerged in America after 1880 was ‘commercialized hospitality’ or ‘service for profits.’” (We might think of today’s corporate philanthropy as following in this tradition.) In sum, “service” was one of the strategies that helped to define the values of the new culture, which emphasized “material well-being, luxury, comfort, pleasure, and happiness without ‘ugliness’ or ‘pain.’”

Along with moral reeducation, the new culture of consumer capitalism was made possible by the split between consumption and production, and the takeover of both by corporate businesses, that began to take place around 1880. Before then, Leach points out, “Most Americans knew where the goods and wealth came from, because they themselves produced them, knew their value, and understood the costs and sufferings required to bring them into existence.”

Separating the consumer world from the producer world seemed to make it more plausible that the former was the true realm of freedom and self-expression, as retailers implied. This separation also made it easier for consumers to ignore the conditions under which rapidly proliferating goods were produced. It eased consciences. Some critics, at least, noticed. Edmund Wilson complained, in words prefiguring Wendell Berry’s, that the distance between consumers and producers had the effect of making us irresponsible concerning the hardships and conditions and dangers faced by producers, thus fracturing human community and being morally deadening.

By 1910 more and more people were less and less aware about how things were made and who made them. Besides, who would want to know these things in a culture already disposed to encourage self-indulgence, self-gratification, and self-pleasure? To acknowledge suffering caused by capitalism under these new conditions would be to arouse one’s own guilt and to cause one’s own distress. But the separateness of consumption made it easy to deny the suffering: The outcome was a greater tendency toward selfishness and a corrosive moral indifference.

Museums helped promote consumerist ideology by exhibiting and promoting the new products and aesthetics of the mass-industrial era. Cutting-edge curators believed that all restrictions on personal freedom were illegitimate, and that, happily, stores rather than churches were now the most important culture-forming institutions and would lead America into a new era.

Curators like John Cotton Dana criticized those who preferred handcrafted to machine-made goods as “snobs”—always a good rhetorical tack in America. He and his allies claimed that industrial goods were art for “the people”—being very easy to understand and, most importantly, within economic reach of all. Leach counters: “That the ‘people’ did not conceive or ‘make’ these goods hardly mattered. It was enough for [Dana] to assert merely that mass marketed machine goods were destined to reflect popular taste, whereas handcrafted goods—which were made by men and women themselves—were ‘removed’ from the people, and inherently elitist, an argument more pro-business than pro-people.” Indeed, Dana is the prototype of writers today—ranging from enthusiastic libertarians such as Virginia Postrel to Whig Thomists such as Peter Augustine Lawler—who claim for their own pro-corporate point of view the mantle of “democratic,” and who imply, as a corollary, that those with high-culture or folk-culture tastes are snobs.

Finally, the new mass consumer capitalism triumphed in part because of successful collusion among merchants and government. Marshall Field, for example, fired any employee with any tie whatsoever to unions, financed the National Guard out of his own pocket to break strikes, and hired thugs to intimidate adversaries. And after 1900, the federal government evolved bureaucracies to aid and abet the rise of the new consumer economy. In part, these bureaucracies sought to reassert “the older consumer control over what was being produced and how”—for example, with laws preventing the exploitation of women and children. But most government regulation of corporations was symbolic. And of course, the corporate legal structure itself was a product of the state and could not exist without it.

Leach points out that the new progressive reformers were fervently anti-localist and anti-particularist. The Bellamy-inspired Nationalist movement “attacked all forms of ‘particularism’” and saw the department store as a great weapon in this battle. Bellamy-ite socialists “dreamed of integrating all Americans into a centralized system of mass consumption that guaranteed everybody, in exchange for acceptance of a disciplined industrial regime, instantaneous access to the same consumer goods and services.” The Nationalist movement’s goal “was to have what Bellamy called ‘a homogeneous world-wide social system’ along militaristic lines, free of class conflicts, local nuances, and sectarian differences.” Socialists and market proponents alike understood that locality and “sectarianism” were bulwarks against the homogenization demanded by their ideological goals.

William Cavanaugh and the Meaning and Conditions of Freedom

Leach’s historiography helps us see that the particular shape and institutions of historically existing capitalism are not inevitable. In his book Being Consumed, theologian William Cavanaugh asks what it means for a market to be free.9

Cavanaugh begins with the observation that even Christians who understand that their faith has import for their economic lives too often take the way in which economic thought is framed as a given to which they should react rather than, perhaps, challenge. For example, when is a market, or any particular transaction, truly free? Economic liberals such as Milton Friedman, F. A. Hayek, and Michael Novak, writes Cavanaugh, provide an account of voluntary exchanges that (1) defines freedom negatively, as the absence of coercion, with no status or consideration given to the parties’ “positive capacities” (e.g., their power, social status, property ownership, etc.); and (2) that there are no common ends to which we might say a party’s desires and exchanges ought rightly to be directed—the individual and the individual alone is considered capable of judging his ends.

Novak—a Catholic—insists on this point. He argues that “democratic capitalism” (that is, free-market liberalism, American-style) must not be oriented toward any common end precisely out of respect for the transcendent, “to which the individual has access through the self, beyond the mediations of social institutions.”10 For their part, Milton and Rose Friedman claimed that advertising does not create desires (a strange claim exploded by Leach, among many others), but simply serves those which are already there. How do our desires come into being, then? This question doesn’t matter for the Friedmans or those like them. In their view, “All that matters for a market to be free is that individuals have real wants and can pursue them without the interference of others, especially the state.”11

In the traditional Christian anthropology, freedom is not thus negatively defined, but is understood as the grace-inspired ability to pursue God’s will and thus participate in His being. In the truest sense, Cavanaugh points out, none of us are able to act freely without the help—indeed, the interference—of others, “the ultimate Other being God.” We are so made that “humans need a community of virtue in which to learn to desire rightly,” and thus become free. Augustine and those who follow him have a much more complex and satisfactory account of desire than do those like the Friedmans, writes Cavanaugh. For Augustine and other thinkers in the mainstream Christian tradition, “desire is a social production: desire is a complex and multidimensional network of movement that does not simply originate within the individual self but pulls and pushes the self in different directions from both inside and outside the person.”12

Some desires take us toward God, and some do not, and thus the fulfillment of some helps to make us free, and the fulfillment of others helps to enslave us. “In Augustine’s thought, we desperately need not to be left to the tyranny of our own wills,” writes Cavanaugh. So, in order to say whether a particular economic transaction is free, we must know whether the end toward which it is directed is a good one—that is, an end that moves us closer to fuller participation in God’s being.13

In modern consumer capitalism, of course, powerful forces are oriented toward directing our desires toward consumption regardless of ends. And because our desires are protean and social, these forces are variously efficacious. Imbalance of power between advertisers and individual consumers is one reason for advertising’s efficacy, and another reason to judge our free market as not as free as we think. From this perspective, we might wish to be skeptical of the contribution of “concentrated economic power” to the freedom of any economy. Even more so do asymmetrical power relations in the end-less economy of consumer capitalism contribute to the diminishment of power among employees vis-à-vis employers. Here again, great disparities in power and wealth undermine freedom.

Cavanaugh points out that free-market ideology in fact helps to create the conditions it purports only to describe. It claims that consumers will want to “maximize their own gain in any transaction by paying the lowest price possible for a product.” It claims that producers will want to do the same by paying the lowest prices possible for labor, capital, and other economic inputs. But in spreading this allegedly descriptive ideology it helps to shape the choices of producers and consumers, who come to believe that in a competitive economy if they fail to think of themselves in these ways, and act accordingly, they will be left behind.

Of course, political power itself is put into play in order to protect free-market ideology. If consumers, as citizens, fail to construct free-market order for themselves, it is the job of the powerful—even those in other nations—to free them; simply think of the wars waged by Great Britain and other Western nations in order to forcibly “open” Japan and China to trade in the nineteenth century.14

Ironically, then, for market liberals “[c]onsiderations of goodness and justice only seem to apply to the capitalist system as a whole. Friedman and other free-market advocates argue that capitalism as such is the best system based on its ability to give people what they want. A system that is allegedly based on individual rights is thus ironically justified by a utilitarian justification of the system as a whole, to which individuals and their freedom are sacrificed.”15

Cavanaugh’s second major point is that free-market ideology creates and sustains a new form of culture—consumer culture—and that this culture is an alternative—not complementary, and not harmless—system of moral formation to that provided by Christianity. In consumer culture, shopping is in fact a sort of liturgical activity. Buying things is how we construct meaning and identity. But the elevation of consuming over producing as a means of constructing meaning and identity is anti-Christian, in the sense that as John Paul II argued in his encyclical On Human Work, by producing we come to share in the creative work of God, to image Him, and thus to become more fully human.

Of course, our consumer enthusiasm is conditional on our being completely detached from the producers of the goods we buy and the conditions under which they must work—a point that, as Leach shows, was not lost on those who acted to construct the new consumer economy. In Cavanaugh’s terms, consumerism is conditioned, in other words, on a radical rupture in communion between us (consumers) and them (producers). The institutions of our consumer economy are structured precisely to protect this rupture: “Most of us would never deliberately choose our own material comfort over the life of another person. Most of us do not consciously choose to work others to death for the sake of lower prices on the things we buy. But we participate in such an economy because we are detached from the producers, the people who actually make our things.”16

Consumer culture—the culture brought into being by the ideology, institutions, and practices of economic liberalism—is thus a spiritual discipline at odds with Christianity. And like other moral/spiritual systems, it “lends itself to a certain practice of community”—those practices which can be realized via the identification with one another made possible by consumption. One can feel solidarity, in a consumer culture, without having to be in any real concrete solidarity with others, thanks to the consumption of certain highly spiritually charged items. In the Christian tradition, however, detachment from worldly goods is an essential part of concrete solidarity with others, typically via putting goods in the services of a greater end—communion with God and others. Christians must “not cling to material things . . . precisely because of our attachment to others. We must constantly be ready to relinquish our claim to ownership, and to use our goods for the common good of the whole body.”17 But that is the kind of relational, teleological anthropology whose truth is denied, usually implicitly but sometimes explicitly, by liberal market ideology.

Alasdair MacIntyre and the Need for Strong Local Communities

Alasdair MacIntyre’s entire philosophical project amounts, as is well known, to an attack on the pretensions and self-understanding of liberalism. His critique, as it touches on the subjects of democracy and economics, is especially well distilled in his 1997 essay “Politics, Philosophy, and the Common Good.”18

MacIntyre begins by observing that every social order embodies an answer to the question of how politics and philosophy ought to be related, modern Western liberal societies not excepted. What is unique about these societies is how compartmentalized they are—how their denizens are required to adopt different roles in the marketplace, within the family, at work, at school, etc., with different rules adapted to each. The result is a “fragmented ethics” about which philosophy can do nothing, because it too has been cordoned off from other areas of life, including politics. Politicians and political institutions continue to employ the rhetoric of ethics, especially the “ideals of liberty and justice,” but in practice modern liberal politics may be defined as “the sphere in which the relationship of the state’s subjects to the various facets of the state’s activity is organized, so that the activities of those subjects do not in any fundamental way disrupt or subvert that relationship.” Modern politics is also characteristically irrational; that is, it is not a matter of serious and sustained intellectual inquiry, despite the hopes and intentions of Kant and other Enlightenment thinkers.19

The liberal state does not thus articulate itself, of course. But as a matter of practice the choices presented to citizens of liberal democracies are limited, and these limits, when acknowledged, are justified in the name of social peace. Appeals to philosophical first principles are especially dangerous; “the task of the professionals of political life” is to ensure that “any political appeal to first principles does not become a philosophical debate about first principles. And their success in achieving this exemplifies the degree to which politics has been successfully insulated from philosophy and philosophy from politics.”20

MacIntyre presents as an example of a “fundamental issue” without contemporary political purchase the “threat of the imminent disappearance of the family or household farm.” Because of what he believes to be the virtues historically associated with this way of life, virtues that have had powerful spokesman (MacIntyre mentions Andrew Nelson Lytle and Wendell Berry), the disappearance of this social institution has “great significance for all of us.” But what is most illustrative about this example is that while related issues are the subject of political debate—taxation, tariffs, farm subsidies, and so on—what is not the subject of debate is whether we should or should not “acquiesce in this loss of a whole way of life.” Answers to such questions are “delivered by default,” and they are typically especially friendly toward “the way of life of the fashionably hedonistic consumer” at the expense of other ways of life.21

For these reasons, a politics of the common good is impossible in modern liberal regimes. To inquire into the common good is intrinsically a political act, since, as MacIntyre shows (here, and at much greater length in other articles and books), my own good as an individual is inseparable from the shared goods of the community and my contribution to those goods. But a community that justifies political authority by appealing to its ability to provide security from harm rather than with reference to shared ends—a la liberalism—is too unstable to last, for individual free-riding will come to be seen as rational, and accepting an “undue share of the costs of sustaining political authority” will come to be seen as irrational. Something else must be present in such a society to forge bonds between its members. MacIntyre suggests that this something is “shared practical enquiry” directed toward shared goods and the common good. But to the extent that plain persons are excluded from such forms of political enquiry, de jure or de facto, this source of social glue is lacking, and therefore “modern states cannot advance any justifiable claim to the allegiance of their members.”22 The result is a politics that is incoherent except precisely in its commitment to this sort of exclusion.

MacIntyre contrasts this sort of quasi-politics with the politics of local community. The central question that any political authority must be able to answer, or else “discredit itself” (even if it remains in power), is “under what conditions are individuals able to learn about their individual and common goods, so that questions about the justification of political authority can be asked and answered through rational enquiry and debate?”23 Those conditions are three. The first requirement is that the community’s members generally recognize the precepts of the natural law. MacIntyre notes that this sort of shared understanding remains present today in “a variety of local social contexts”—neighborhoods, families, parishes, work crews, etc.—but not in our politics, at least at its higher levels.

Thus, the second condition appears to be that a truly political society in which shared rational enquiry into the common good is possible “must be small-scale and, so far as possible, as self-sufficient as they need to be to protect themselves from the destructive incursions of the state and the wider market economy.”24 Scale is essential so that office-holders can be directly questioned and engaged by citizens, and so that participation is widespread and inclusive—truly democratic. MacIntyre emphasizes that this sort of political society is not a utopian dream; it describes “a kind of deliberative participation familiar in many local enterprises through which local community is realized.”25 It is characteristic of such communities that they persist across different spheres of life; local community is less compartmentalized, which makes it difficult for individuals to “avoid being judged for what they are,” in terms of their virtues or vices.26 This, of course, is not the case with respect to the large-scale politics of the modern state.

The third condition for the flourishing and maintenance of a properly political society is that the economic relations that characterize them must be “genuinely free.” But, says MacIntyre, what we typically call free-market economies do not meet this criterion. “They in fact ruthlessly impose market conditions that forcibly deprive many workers of productive work, that condemn parts of the labor force in metropolitan countries and whole societies in less developed areas to irremediable economic deprivation, that enlarge inequalities and divisions of wealth and income. . . .”27 To be truly free, a market must be “local and small-scale.” Participation in exchange must be truly voluntary, which means that “genuinely free markets will be societies of small producers . . . in which no one is denied the possibility of the kind of productive work without which they cannot take their place in those relationships through which the common good is realized.”28 MacIntyre concedes that such markets will be less elaborated technologically and economically than those of modern Western societies, but they would at least be capable of providing for the shared and rational pursuit of the common good.

Is this not a call for reviving the xenophobic, intolerant, closed communities of the unenlightened past? MacIntyre acknowledges that small-scale political/economic communities must be marked by a shared culture and widespread agreement about the nature of human goods. But he insists that not only could such a community include radically dissenting individuals and groups, but that precisely because it adhered to a natural-law understanding of the good, it would have “to ask what can be learned from such dissenters. It will therefore be crucial not only to tolerate dissent, but to enter into rational conversation with it and to cultivate as a political virtue not merely a passive tolerance, but an active and enquiring attitude towards radically dissenting views, a virtue notably absent from the dominant politics of the present.”29 The Christian communities of the past obviously failed to live up to this requirement, with respect to the Jewish communities in their midst, to slaves, and other groups. But, importantly, we can know that they failed with reference to their own standards.

MacIntyre concludes, then, that liberalism is a rival tradition to the teleological classical traditions that formed the West—and is not a tradition that is especially marked by “freedom” in the abstract. “Liberalism in the name of freedom imposes a certain kind of unacknowledged domination, and one which in the long run tends to dissolve traditional human ties and to impoverish social and cultural relationships. Liberalism, while imposing through state power regimes that declare everyone free to pursue whatever they take to be their own good, deprives most people of the possibility of understanding their lives as a quest for the discovery and achievement of the good, especially by the way in which it attempts to discredit those traditional forms of human community within which this project has to be embodied.”30 Exposing liberalism’s incoherence will not destroy it, however, precisely because liberal regimes successfully cordon off philosophical enquiry from the life of the state. Only by engaging in the politics and economics of small-scale community can true resistance to liberalism’s hegemony begin.

The Alternative Anthropology of Communio

The kinds of arguments made by thinkers such as Leach, Cavanaugh, and MacIntyre cast serious doubt on the suitability of economic liberalism from a Christian perspective, precisely because of liberalism’s anthropological deficiencies. Pope Benedict XVI’s thought, in contrast, is rooted in the communio school of Catholic social thinking that arose in the mid-twentieth century.

In brief, the communio tradition arose in the twentieth century in opposition to what its proponents saw as modern Christians’ deployment of Kantian, Enlightenment reason to defend their faith commitments. They believed that by baptizing the concept of rationality characteristic of liberal modernity this kind of neo-Thomism too often boiled down to textbook propositions that failed to do justice to the drama and phenomenology of human existence. Led by philosophers and theologians such as Karol Wojtyla and Joseph Ratzinger, the communio movement had risen to preeminence within the Catholic Church by the 1980s, but because of its theological orthodoxy the radical ways in which its proposed anthropology challenged the liberal status quo often went unnoticed or misunderstood.

At the heart of communio’s theologically informed anthropology, to employ the formulation of America’ leading communio thinker David L. Schindler, is the metapysical premise that “love is the basic act and order of things.” In the words of Pope Benedict XVI, “everything has its origin in God’s love, everything is shaped by it, everything is directed towards it.”31 Being might therefore be said to be an order or “logic” of love.

Understanding reality as an order of love has profound implications. Among these are that being is a gift, and our proper response to being is therefore in the first place one of receptivity and gratitude. If we do not respond to the cosmos in this way, it is because in some sense we have been “coached out of it”—by our culture, perhaps, or by our own choices and habits. Another implication of the idea of being-as-love is that being is intrinsically relational, not individualistic. The individual is real, to be sure, but included within individuality, and lying at its core, is relationality—to God, to whom the individual is constitutively related as a created thing is related to its creator, and to others, to whom the individual is related through a common relationship to God. Benedict XVI formulated this insight in this way: “Human beings are relational, and they possess their lives—themselves—only by way of relationship. I alone am not myself, but only in and with you am I myself.”32

In short, neither receptivity nor relationality are concepts that we can “add on,” even in abstraction, to a self-subsisting, non-related individual, as is characteristic of liberal thinkers. Before he or she is anything else, the person is a gift and exists in relation. Receptivity, rooted in giftedness, and relationality are constitutive of the human being, and indeed of all being.

These two ideas (to choose but two) are at the core of the thinking of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, including the places where that teaching touches on economics. They are profoundly at odds with the nature-is-dumb-stuff, individuals-are-self-owning principles of the liberal philosophical tradition, and it should therefore not be surprising that Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI, the communio pope, spent a lifetime challenging, if often implicitly, liberal economic premises and doctrines. Benedict denied, for example, that faith is a private, subjective affair more or less irrelevant to the real business of life pursued through political and economic activity.33 And he classified liberalism and radical individualism alongside Marxism and collectivism among the “winds of doctrine” that have helped to pulverize Christian culture and the “dictatorship of relativism” he believed to be operative in the West.34

Benedict praised John Paul II for his “passionate appeal to the world to share the goods of the earth equitably and so that the poor may have justice and love”—not, of course, something an economic liberal would have picked out as an accomplishment worth hailing.35 Elsewhere, he wrote that among our greatest problems was “inequality in the distribution of the goods of the earth, growing poverty, and the more threatening impoverishment and exhaustion of the earth and its resources.”36 Indeed, Benedict identified the ruthless exploitation of nature characteristic of modernity as an effect of the fall, and he contrasted the Lockean conception of nature with a Christian view that sees nature “as God’s gift” and a sign of His “saving and unifying goodness.”37 He called into question the techniques of factory farming, once saying to an interviewer that the treatment of animals in such farms degrades “living creatures to a commodity” and “seems to me in fact to contradict the relationship of mutuality that comes across in the Bible.”38

Benedict even claimed that Christians are called “to build heaven here,” on earth—a seemingly utopian goal against which Whig Thomists have leveled much criticism. To Benedict, this vision isn’t inherently problematic. Rather, what is problematic is an ideological approach to building the kingdom that dispenses with truth and subordinates it, including the truth about human beings that is embodied in the natural human relationships and communities that they form, to other ends. To Benedict, the charge of “utopianism” is one that can in some sense legitimately be leveled against Christianity, which refuses to accept any “realities,” including economic ones, which do violence to the truth about the human person as “inevitable.” Benedict, for instance, decried the role that a-theistic technological rationality and globalizing market economics had played in destroying “ancient social structures and spiritual and moral forces” in the third world, and he was not shy in calling for a new form of globalization, new practices and institutions, which would benefit all nations by being rooted in a more adequate anthropology.

It is not only not surprising, then, but (1) entirely in character, and (2) entirely in keeping with the emergent Catholic critique of liberalism, for Benedict to have written, in Caritas in Veritate, that we need “to promote a person-based and community-oriented cultural process of worldwide integration that is open to transcendence” and “to steer the globalization of humanity in relational terms, in terms of communion and the sharing of goods.” What these and other passages that so trouble or confuse certain critics point to is Benedict’s rejection of the liberal “binary market-plus-state” paradigm in the name of a Christian anthropology that recognizes the centrality of relationality—of love—to human flourishing.

A particular anthropology, then—the anthropology of communio—grounds recent papal teaching on the development of authentic democracy and more just economic relations. This anthropology finds expression in phrases such as John Paul II’s call for a “civilization of love,” and Benedict’s “economy of gratuitousness.” It can be understood as a rejection of the dominant anthropology embedded in and conveyed by liberal ideas, practices, and institutions, including the scale and impersonal nature of those institutions. The story told by liberalism, as critics such as William Leach, Bill Cavanaugh, and Alasdair MacIntyre have shown, fails to do justice to the complexities of history, of the human heart, and of the way in which character, virtue, and community are formed. To its critics, liberalism distorts the truth of who we are, and to the extent that its myths structure our existence, it prevents us from flourishing in justice and in love.

A version of this essay was first presented at a symposium sponsored by the Grace A. Tanner Center for Human Values at Southern Utah University in October 2013.

  1. The quotation comes from Caritas in Veritate, section 39. 

  2. See Rowland’s Culture and the Thomist Tradition: After Vatican II (London and New York: Routledge, 2003), for a book-length discussion of the Whig Thomist project. 

  3. “Capitalism Rightly Understood: The View of Christian Humanism,” Faith & Reason, Winter 1991. Online at 

  4. “The Liberalism of John Paul II,” First Things, May 1997. Online at 

  5. The Weigel arguments and quotations referenced here come from his article “Caritas in Veritate in Gold and Red,” National Review Online, July 7, 2009. Online at 

  6. John F. Donovan, “Pope Leo XIII and a Century of Catholic Social Teaching,” in David Matzko McCarthy, ed., The Heart of Catholic Social Teaching: Its Origins and Contemporary Significance (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2009), 55. 

  7. William Leach, Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture (New York: Pantheon, 1993). The subsequent discussion follows and draws quotations from this text. 

  8. Brad S. Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012) reaches similar conclusions about the relative importance of science and the market in bringing about a new cultural order. 

  9. William T. Cavanaugh, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008). The subsequent discussion follows and quotes from this text. 

  10. Being Consumed, 6. 

  11. Ibid., 7. 

  12. Ibid.,  9. René Girard’s anthropological account of desire as essentially mimetic has obvious consequences for economic thinking and, if true, would seem to create grave difficulties for liberal theory. 

  13. Ibid., 11. 

  14. For a lively account of these wars, see Walter McDougall’s Let the Sea Make a Noise: A History of the North Pacific from Magellan to MacArthur (New York: Basic, 1993). 

  15. Being Consumed, 25. 

  16. Ibid., 43. 

  17. Being Consumed, 53. 

  18. In Kevin Knight, ed., The MacIntyre Reader (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1998). Hereafter PPCG

  19. Ibid., 236. 

  20. Ibid., 237. 

  21. Ibid., 237–38. 

  22. Ibid., 243. 

  23. Ibid., 247. 

  24. Ibid., 248. 

  25. Ibid., 248. 

  26. Ibid., 249. 

  27. Ibid. 

  28. Ibid., 250. 

  29. Ibid., 251. 

  30. “An Interview with Giovanni Borradori,” in The MacIntyre Reader, 258. 

  31. Deus Caritas Est

  32. “Sin and Salvation,” in John F. Thornton and Susan B. Varenne, eds., The Essential Pope Benedict XVI: His Central Writings and Speeches (New York: HarperOne, 2007), 269. 

  33. See his introduction to the reissue of his book, Introduction to Christianity, where this critique is applied principally to liberation theology. 

  34. “Homily at the Mass for the Election of the Roman Pontiff,” in The Essential Pope Benedict XVI, 22. 

  35. “Message on the 25th Anniversary of the Pontificate of John Paul II from the College of Cardinals,” in The Essential Pope Benedict XVI, 38. 

  36. “Europe’s Crisis of Culture,” The Essential Pope Benedict XVI, 326. 

  37. “Sin and Salvation,” The Essential Pope Benedict XVI, 261. 

  38. Pope Benedict XVI, and Peter Seewald, God and the World: A Conversation with Peter Seewald, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2002), 78–79.