“True Economic Liberalism” and the Development of American Catholic Social Thought, 1920-1940

Journal of Catholic Social Thought 5 (2):285-314 (2008)
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This paper considers the maturation of the American Catholic tradition of social and economic thought in the seminal period between 1920 and 1940, particularly as encapsulated in the work of John A. Ryan. While different social ethical models emerged in the American Church during this time, the dominant school of thought was the liberal tradition associated with Ryan. This tradition, which Ryan described as "true economic liberalism," forged American political liberalism and papal critiques of secular modernity into a new social ethical theory which became the capstone of prewar Catholic progressivism. True economic liberalism first manifested itself in critiques of the Supreme Court's description of "freedom" in Adkins v. Children's Hospital (1923). It took positive form during the 1920s in the widespread Catholic embrace of industrial democracy as a moral alternative to laissez-faire capitalism It was during the 1930s, however, when the Church confronted the economic crisis of the Great Depression, that true economic liberalism became a more totalizing system of social thought. It was also during the 1930s that this theory revealed the difficulties Catholic liberals have had in defining their relationship to a market economy and the state. On one hand, true economic liberalism provoked the creative maturation of Catholic thought and established the Church as a leading progressive critic of capitalism. At the same time, true economic liberalism circumscribed the possible depths of the Catholic moral critique. American Catholics liberals were so committed to constructing a social ethic that upheld "the priceless goods of liberty, opportunity, and democracy," that they accepted a reformed capitalism, guarded and chastened by religion, as the most desirable outcome for a modern economy. As John P. Carroll revealingly wrote, "The remedy, then, for the social evils. . . does not lie in the destruction of the present social system. The way to clean a house is not to dynamite it." By accommodating the Church's social ethic to the ideals of American democracy, liberal Catholics rejected radical reforms in favor of moderate legislative schemes which one writer described in Commonweal as "sniping at capitalism." It was for this reason that so many Catholics fawningly embraced the New Deal and, indeed, found in Franklin Roosevelt the supreme advocate for the principles set forth in Pius XI’s 1931 Quadragesimo Anno.



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