David Bentley Hart on “Laudato si'”

Orthodox writer David Bentley Hart has a piece at First Things this month, wondering why American Catholics of a conservative bent, as he calls them (we tend to say, “Catholics on the American political right,” which we think better captures the phenomenon) have such distaste for the Holy Father, especially his recent social encyclical Laudato si’. He notes,

I suppose that in America, such sentiments [as those expressed in Laudato si’ – pjs] might sound a bit outrageous. We tend to think that all enterprise is of a piece, that the small business that produces a useful product and creates needed jobs exists in some sort of inviolable continuum with global corporate entities of every kind, and that we cannot affirm the former without defending the latter. Even “conservative” Christians who deplore the cultural costs of late modernity treat any critique of its obvious material basis as practically blasphemous. But everywhere else in the world, those same criticisms would simply, and correctly, be described as “true.” They would even be regarded as simply “Catholic.” Laudato Si positively trembles from all the echoes it contains of G. K. Chesterton, Vincent McNabb, Hilaire Belloc, Elizabeth Anscombe, Dorothy Day, E. F. Schumacher, Leo XIII, John XXIII, John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and (above all) Romano Guardini; its native social and political atmosphere is that rich combination of Christian socialism, social democratism, subsidiarism, distributism, and anti-materialism that constitutes the best of the modern Catholic intellectual tradition’s humane alternative to all the technologisms, libertarianisms, corporatisms, and totalitarianisms that in their different ways reduce humanity to nothing more than appetent machines and creation to nothing more than industrial resources.

(Emphasis supplied.) Read the whole thing there; it won’t take long. He’s pretty much right, too.

One point where Hart is light is on the history—even the fairly recent history—of American Catholicism’s resistance to the Church’s social teaching. For example, John XXIII’s Mater et Magistra prompted the jibe “Mater si, magistra no.” And, more recently, American Catholics bent over backward either to explain why Benedict didn’t write all of Caritas in veritate or to make the same old (tedious at this point) arguments about how the Church doesn’t have same authority in matters of state and economy as it does in matters of faith and morals. (How Pius IX would have laughed at them! Right before handing them copies of Syllabus.) All this is to say that Francis is not the first pope to encounter resistance to his social teaching from Catholics on the American political right, though he might be the first pope to wade into a debate still very active in American political circles with his social teaching. (Maybe. Quadragesimo anno certainly addressed issues that were very much au courant in 1931.) Indeed, resistance to the Church’s social teaching might be a major characteristic of American Catholicism.