The first issue of the 11th volume of Logos, published last January, features an article titled “Catholic Social Thought and Modern Liberal Democracy” by Thomas W. Smith. In the preface, editor Michael C. Jordan writes, “With persuasive clarity, Smith urges us ‘to recognize that the search for justice is one with the search for richer visions of human flourishing and to ask how the Gospel vision and the traditions arising out of it bear on these questions.’ Smith helps us to understand that con- temporary political discourse offers opportunities that Catholic social thought can engage in the ongoing effort to enrich and deepen the cur- rent cultural situation with the spiritual richness of the Catholic intellec- tual and social traditions.” The following is an excerpt from this article.

How might proponents of Catholic social thought persuade citizens of the United States to take the Church’s social teaching seriously? Several problems intrude. The United States does not have a tradition of Christian Democratic parties. These parties, whose platforms were marked by a concern for personal dignity, subsidiarity, and a lively sense of human frailty, often suffused the political life of nations such as Holland, Germany, France, and Austria with principles congenial to those of the Church’s social teaching. By contrast, as Louis Hartz argued, the liberal tradition is the tradition in American political life, and this may lead to a certain myopia regarding alter native ways of approaching public policy questions. …

Finally, part of the difficulty is that it is not clear where the Church stands in relation to liberal democracy. Sometimes she praises, and other times criticizes, aspects of it. How can we expect our fellow citizens to take the Church’s teachings about liberal democracy seriously when she seems muddled about what she thinks? Do we have to resolve this ambivalence before we start a conversation? One cannot explain this ambivalence away by arguing that the Church’s social teaching has evolved, for we find that ambivalence persists in more recent encyclicals. If the notion of an evolving social teaching will not do, can we resolve the ambivalence by seeking some underlying consistency in the Church’s teachings about liberal democracy? Perhaps, but both these strategies assume that ambivalence should be avoided. Yet, isn’t ambivalence a proper response to an ambiguous situation? What if Catholic social teaching’s ambivalence toward western liberal democracies reflects ambiguities within them? If so, we should try to understand how modern democracies like the United States contain ambiguities that invite ambivalent judgments. In fact, perhaps this goes a long way toward answering our question about how to get Americans to take Catholic social thought seriously. Perhaps beginning a profitable conversation entails understanding better the ambiguities within American political practices and showing how Catholic social thought can move beyond them in a way our conventional practices cannot. …

According to Catholic social thought, every social ethos contains some implicit notion of ultimate human destiny; every political action, no matter how corrupted, expresses some deep longing for the felicitous communion that we naturally desire. In light of this, Catholic social thought’s theological presentation of politics does not give way to a moralistic political radicalism that undermines political life by condemning in toto the way politics is practiced today. Instead, it insists at one and the same time on a lively sense of the limits of politics, but also on the grandeur of its vocation. In short, it seeks a moderate, yet elevated, politics – one that invites a dialogue into richer notions of freedom, flourishing, and human life than the conventional ones we in America are working with. …

If the temptation of Catholic political reflections in the nineteenth century was to condemn liberal democracy, the temptation today is to adopt its ethos as the definitive horizon for reflection on justice. Christian faith is not in crisis nowadays as much as faith in liberal democracy is. Just a few generations ago, apologists for liberal democracy could assume that history was like a single glacier flowing inexorably toward an ever brighter future. At that time, Christians had cause to fear that their beliefs would be ground to dust under this glacial weight, for it was comprised of uncontested and apparently mutually reinforcing trends like modern natural science, technology, democratic politics, and Enlightenment accounts of the dignity of the individual. However, the floe broke apart on the chaotic waters of world wars, the dissolution of European colonialism, critiques of Enlightenment, ecological disasters, nuclear weapons, and the realization that democracy does not automatically guarantee human dignity. Today secular advocates of liberal democracy find themselves navigating the relationships among these sometimes dangerous cultural icebergs. They do so, however, without a compass, for they participate in a culture that increasingly undermines the spiritual resources needed to deal with such fragmentation. Indeed, by seeking popular support through the pursuit of a materialistic conception of flourishing, late- liberal societies foster alienation among the spiritually sensitive people that communities rely upon for periodic renewal.

Yet we are suffering from a lack of ambition if we limit the implications of Catholic social thought to saving our democracy from its self-generated impasses. While this is a necessary rhetorical strategy in getting partisans of liberal democracy to start to seriously consider Catholic social thought as an alternative, it cannot be the final word on the subject. The final word is to be open to the work of the Kingdom of God. Human beings are not exhaustively defined by their participation in political life, however important that life is to the completion of our interdependent nature. Human life has dimensions that go beyond this. So Catholic social thought urges us to use our imagination and practical wisdom to carve out some reasonable, sane alternatives within the Church and society, while recognizing that this work is always radically incomplete and in need of divine grace. To be useful to our fellow citizens, we most of all cannot worry about the usefulness of the Church’s social teachings. This is not a strategy of condemnation and resistance. It seeks dialogue so as to learn and be of service to others. Catholic social thought urges us to the kind of unconventional wisdom and hopeful audacity that comes from hope in and love of the Kingdom of God.