Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Catholic Whiggery: The Neo-Conservative Betrayal Of Church Social Teaching

by Dr. Peter Chojnowski

In the past 20 years or so, we have witnessed, especially here in the United States, the emergence of what some authors have termed, "Catholic Whiggery." This movement, best exemplified by such authors as Michael Novak and Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, is but an attempt at a Catholic version of the more encompassing "Neo-Conservative" movement, which has its origins with anti-Stalinist Trotskyites, who came to be considered "conservatives" during their years of opposition to Soviet Communism during the Cold War.

Led by such intellectuals as Irving Kristol, the "Neo-Cons," as they are called, embraced the "Whig Tradition," which found its modern-day expression in the social and economic writings of Friedrich von Hayek. Hayek, a Libertarian and northern European secularist, attempted to revive and promote the Whig tradition, which advances laissez-faire economics, secular democracy, and religious and cultural pluralism. This Whig tradition could be said to have its ideological origin in the writings of the defender of the English Revolution of 1688, John Locke. (This so-called "Glorious Revolution" was the which overthrew the legitimate Catholic Stuart monarch James II and placed James's Protestant daughter Mary and her Dutch husband William of Orange jointly on the British throne.)

To understand the "world vision" of these contemporary Liberals (i.e., Libertarians), we must first remember that they themselves trace their ideological origins to the 18th- century Enlightenment. Michael Novak has described the scheme of these Enlightenment theorists and political leaders as follows:

One of the great achievements of the Whig tradition was its new world experiment, the Novus Ordo Seclorum (the New Order of the Ages). Its American progenitors called that experiment the commercial republic. The Whigs were the first philosophers in history to grasp the importance of basing government of the people upon the foundation of commerce. They underpinned democracy with a capitalist, growing economy.1

That such a Liberal ideology could prevail amongst secularists and non-Catholics groping for an alternative to post-World War II Soviet Communism and Fabian Socialism is not terribly surprising. What is surprising is that such an ideological view could be defended by Catholic thinkers who, subsequently, attempt to "discover" a "Catholic Whig tradition" running back in time to St. Thomas Aquinas. That such Catholic Whigs are claiming to base their circumvention of the entire Catholic Social Teaching on the "Whiggery" of certain "late Spanish Scholastics" is well known. Novak himself attempts to make the Angelic Doctor a precursor of this "tradition" by claiming that St. Thomas's belief in "ordered liberty," mixed government (i.e., several different bodies of the State exercising the various powers of Sovereignty and serving as a hindrance to the emergence of tyranny), and his belief in man's powers of "reflection and choice," puts him firmly in the camp of Democratic Capitalism. The untenable nature of this claim, especially in light of St. Thomas's condemnation of usury, his understanding of the common good, and his unequivocal position that monarchy is the best form of human government, causes Novak, in various places in his writings, to rely on the more standard Whig philosophers like John Locke and Adam Smith to ground his ideological defense of democratic capitalism, American-style. His laudatory rhetoric in praise of these thinkers and the System they spawned often descends to the level of the blasphemous and the absurd. In an article entitled, "A Theology of the Corporation," Novak cites the memorable and moving last words of the young Abbe d'Ambricourt, "Grace is everywhere," to offer "signs of grace in the [multinational] corporation." In this regard, Novak finds seven such "signs," which he states is a "suitably sacramental number."2

In an appendix to this same article, Novak acknowledges that the Capitalist Idea, which is part and parcel of the Whig ideology, owes its origins to the Enlightenment thinkers Locke, Montesquieu, and Adam Smith, and the "economic development," which they uniquely initiated, was brought about first with the "white race and the Anglo-Saxon peoples, and, indeed, of a few philosophers."3

We can fully understand the inflated claims of this advocate of the enlightened Liberal New Age, when we read that, "The notion that poverty could be diminished was born with John Locke and Adam Smith."4

Those who were against these "few" enlightened, poverty-hating thinkers were "many Continental philosophers and theologians-Latins, Germans, Slavs-[who] opposed 'Manchester liberalism' all through the 19th century, disliking it intensely."5

What is heartening for those who seek to uphold the Catholic Church's Social Teachings against this new Capitalist Messianism of the Catholic Whig is Novak's dismissal of those social teachings with his statement that, "The papal encyclicals treat it [meaning Liberal Capitalist theory] as a Protestant heresy."6

What is at the core of this Liberal ideological view, shared in full by the "Catholic Whigs" of our own time, are the ideas of social, political, religious, and economic individualism and the subsequent non-interventionism of the State. It was the task of John Locke to philosophically ground this Whiggish Liberal world-view, while it fell to Montesquieu to formulate the exact nature of the Liberal Commercial Republic of the post-Enlightenment period. The descriptive part was easy. Montesquieu understood the Liberal regime to be a union of fellow citizens, bound together, not so much by ties of friendship, as by contract. This alliance of contracting parties was intent upon maximizing their freedom of choice through a confederation of convenience. In such a socio-political order, men found themselves cut off from one another or, at best, linked through a market mechanism. What would happen if this Liberal Republic was realized, would be a world in which everything had its price and, accordingly, its sellers and buyers. A marketplace of arms' length transactions would replace political community.

As we can surmise, religion is of no importance in such a commercial republic. This is why Locke restricts religion to the private sphere. Couldn't we say that it is exactly this restriction that distinguishes the Liberal regime from the regimes of Old Europe? This Whig view, which understands government to be constituted by contracting individuals and whose sole purpose is to insure the execution of the contracts made between individuals, cannot but alter Christendom's understanding of what the purpose of civil society is. In his first Letter Concerning Toleration, Locke argues for the civic toleration of all religions (except the intolerable anti-liberal Catholic one) by making the following claim about the nature of civil society itself:

The commonwealth seems to me to be a society of men constituted only for the procuring, preserving, and advancing of their own civil interests. Civil interests I call life, liberty, health, and indolency of body; and the possession of outward things, such as money, lands, houses, furniture, and the like.

Locke is even more explicit as regards his understanding of a Liberal political order when he states, in his Second Treatise on Government, that,

The great and chief end, therefore, of men uniting into commonwealths, and putting themselves under government, is the preservation of their property; to which in the state of Nature there are many things wanting.

Any idea of a common end of all the members of society and of society as a whole is completely lacking in this political view. The religion of the people, along with their growth in the virtues of faith, hope, and charity are certainly not the concern of the rulers of such a Liberal State. As Locke states in the same text,

If a heathen doubt of both Testaments, he is not therefore to be punished as a pernicious citizen. The power of the magistrate and the estates of the people may be equally secure whether any man believe these things or no. I readily grant that these opinions are false and absurd. But the business of the laws is not to provide for the truth of opinions, but for the safety and security of the commonwealth and of every particular man's goods and person.

According to this analysis, then, government is only delegated the task of guaranteeing the private relationships and agreements initiated by the individual citizens themselves. Society does not have a corporate task, responsibility, or goal. Any goal which transcends the one of material acquisition and psychophysical contentment is considered beyond the legitimate realm of State interest and concern. "Providing the conditions necessary for the advancement in virtue and the ultimate attainment of Heaven" is out. Christendom is nullified. The past, made up of completely non-Liberal societies, is to be initially vilified and then forgotten. All the Whig theorists advance this same goal, whether Locke, Montesquieu, Adam Smith, Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, Lord Acton, or Michael Novak. Indeed, this rejection of the idea of socially and economically significant State intervention in the affairs of the commonweal is the very essence of the ideology of the Whigs, whether neo-Catholic or non-Catholic. Novak himself states this when he writes,

The foundational concept of democratic capitalism, then, is not, as Marx thought, private property [which it would be, of course, for Distributism]. It is limited government. Private property, of course, is one limitation on government. What is interesting about private property is not that I own something, that I possess; its heart is not 'possessive individualism'....Quite the opposite. The key is that the state is limited by being forbidden to control all rights and all goods.7

What is little realized by those who attempt to stand up to the steam roller of Whiggery, whether in its Catholic or non-Catholic versions, is the fact that Locke constructed an entire theory of human knowledge for the express purpose of bolstering the Whig theory of government and society. This theory is called "empiricism" and has shaped the minds of most men in the Anglo-American world since that time. It can be understood as the theoretical foundation of all the Liberal claims about man and the world of men. Fundamentally, this theory claims that human knowledge is limited to the external appearances of things in the world. The very "substantial being" of things, the essence of created things and structures in the natural world, cannot be known by the human mind. Substance, according to Locke, is "I know not what." The importance of this basic philosophical stand cannot be overerestimated. If man, and, more importantly, the embodiment of the society of men, the State, cannot know the "what" of things, he certainly cannot know the "why" of things. Locke allowed that individual men could know the "why" of things by blind faith alone. The State, however, has not the authorization or the competence to speculate as to the "why" of things. Therefore, any theological or philosophical teachings that answer the question "why" are strictly beyond the pale of acceptable political discourse. The State is simply relegated to keeping the individual citizens, who come up with their own private "whys," off each other's back and, most importantly, out of each others wallets!

Dr. Peter E. Chojnowski has an undergraduate degree in Political Science and another in Philosophy from Christendom College. He also received his master's degree and doctorate in Philosophy from Fordham University. He and his wife, Kathleen are the parents of five children. He teaches for the Society of Saint Pius X at Immaculate Conception Academy, Post Falls, ID.


1. Taken from Thomas Storck, "The Social Order as Community" in Caelum et Terra, Fall 1996.

2. Michael Novak, "A Theology of the Corporation," in The Corporation: A Theological Inquiry (Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Reseach, 1981), pp.206-207.

3. Ibid.,p.225.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid., p. 209. Cf. For a complementary view, see Paul Johnson, "Is There a Moral Basis for Capitalism?" in Democracy and Mediating Structures: A Theological Inquiry, ed. Michael Novak (Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Institute, 1980), pp.49-58.

©Dr. Peter Chojnowski

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