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What Americans Believe

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Current speaker Catholic social thought has a long history and shows great variety. It would be naive to expect anything else from an organization that is more than a thousand years old and has more than a billion members. As a result, I can't give you a summary of all that has been written in the Catholic tradition concerning social life and politics. But I can say that since the late nineteenth century, the Church has made a concerted effort to come to grips with the modern world, including industrialization, personal liberty, and democratization. In a series of papal encyclicals, certain ideas on economics, poverty, the working classes, democracy, and the state have developed. I think I can say something about those key ideas.

I should also say that Catholic thought in the United States has always had a distinctive twist to it. Catholics in the US found themselves in a Protestant country with a democratic tradition. There was always a tension between some traditional Catholic ideas and the dominant political and social ideas here in the US. Americans believe in republican government, free speech, and the separation of church and state. American Catholics have had to come to grips with those ideas. Nevertheless, there have been some standout Catholic thinkers in the US, including people like John Ryan, Dorothy Day, and John Murray. These people have worked to bring together the Catholic and the American traditions.

For now, I want to lay out some basic concepts and principles of Catholic social thought. Here's a list of some of the important concepts:


Catholic Social Thought: Basic Concepts



  • God and divine revelation

  • Natural law

  • Human dignity and human rights

  • The common good

  • A third or middle way between capitalism and socialism

  • Subsidiarity




Each of these concepts is fundamental. They can be embodied in principles that give us the essence of Catholic social philosophy.


Catholic Social Thought: Principles and Views



  • God is not only the creator of all things, but created all things for a purpose. Therefore, as a matter of principle, we must work toward those purposes. In particular, God created the resources of this earth for the benefit of all his creatures -- especially humankind.

  • Natural law is a source of morality. Human reason can determine the natural moral law from a study of the nature of human beings, their history, and the conditions under which they live. This moral law is also supported by divine revelation.

  • Human dignity is the basis of human rights. These rights are part of the natural moral law.

  • There is a common good for human beings. It includes the good of the whole, but it also includes the good of each and all individuals. This means that everyone must share in the bounty of God's gifts to humankind and no one's good can be ignored or traded off for the good of others. The very possibility of a common good is incompatible with the Marxist idea that different social classes have fundamentally different interests. In modern times, the common good consists largely in protecting the rights of all.

  • There is a middle way between extreme individualism and extreme collectivism in the proper organization of society. That middle way sanctions private property but also stresses that property must be used to promote the common good.

  • The principle of subsidiarity indicates that decisions should be made and problems dealt with at the lowest effective level. Decision making should not be centralized to an unnecessary degree.



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