Catholic Social Thought in Proper Context | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | Ignatius Insight | September 29, 2011Catholic Social Thought in Proper Context | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | Ignatius Insight | September 29, 2011

Brian Benestad, Church, State, and Society: An Introduction to Catholic Social Doctrine
Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2011.
500 pp.
ISBN 978-0813-21801-4.
$34.95 paperback.
"The concept of justice as order in the soul of the individual needs to be rediscovered today." — Benestad, 144.

"Nowadays, service to others is often presented as the distinguishing characteristic of a Catholic university; but without linking that service to the prior task of seeking truth and achieving some order in one's soul through prayer, a sacramental life, acceptance of the Catholic creeds, and the practice of Christian morality. It seems na•ve to me, and even Pelagian, to think that Christ-like service can be informed and embrace without a foundation in Christian doctrine and a basis in learning." — Benestad, 284.

We have been waiting for this remarkable book for a long time, one that knows not just episcopal and papal thought but the whole history of theology, political philosophy, and philosophy at large. This book has roots not only in the Greeks and Romans, but also in Scripture and the great theologians of the Church. And it is aware of the pitfalls of language and ideas that often steer Christian thinkers into the heady, dangerous realms of ideology. Dr. Brian Benestad knows his Locke and Hobbes, his Marx, and the more modern liberal relativist theories associated with Rawls and other American writers.

Benestad, at the University of Scranton, is the best qualified and able of American scholars to write an overall understanding of Catholic Social Thought, which has tended to become a rather narrow and isolated body of knowledge. Benestad's mentor, whom he often cites and whose collected essays he edited, was the late Father Ernest Fortin, A.A. Fortin, along with Heinrich Rommen, Jacques Maritain, Yves Simon, John Courtney Murray, and Charles N. R. McCoy, was certainly the most critical and acute mind in the intellectual circles of his time. Fortin covered the whole gamut of thought from Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero, to the Fathers of the Church, Aquinas, Aquinas, Dante, and into the modern world. Fortin was familiar with Strauss and Bloom and their critiques of modernity.

This book is more than the "introduction" of its sub-title. It is nothing less than a critical, philosophical reflection on the whole tradition of what is loosely called "social thought or doctrine." It knows its way through the relation of reason and revelation. Its range includes economics, environmentalism, universities, political institutions, war, life and family questions, subsidiarity, and culture. Metaphysics is always just below the surface.

Benestad, to be sure, unlike Plato, Aristotle, and the current pope, does not have much to say about music. But he makes remarkable use of classic literature and novels to illustrate virtues and vices. He is obviously a broadly learned man in the tradition of liberal education. This overlook of social thought is doubly necessary as many of the basic words and notions that are found in modern thought and in political usage are anything but neutral or friendly to what Catholicism is and what it holds.


Thus, a major effort of Benestad is to clarify what is meant by "justice," "rights," "social justice," "values," and "dignity," the language that even the popes and bishops have, sometimes incautiously, chosen to use to explain Catholic positions in the public order. Each of these words has an ancient or recent history that is anything but self-evident. Different philosophies make each concept in effect equivocal, not meaning at all what other users mean.

Each concept or word needs to be carefully distinguished. We need to see that what Hobbes meant by "rights" was not what Aristotle meant by justice. Among these words and phrases, perhaps none is more necessary to rethink than that of "social justice," a very modern phrase from the late nineteenth century that cannot, in spite of heroic efforts to do so, easily be reconciled with classic political thought or Christian terms. The phrase is inspired largely by modern liberal thought that presupposes human autonomy with no relation to natural or divine law.

Benestad does a remarkably fine job in tracing the roots and implications of this phrase and how it might be properly used so that it does not bear its ideological baggage from Locke or Rousseau. A major reason that Catholic thought has not had the impact that it should is because words like justice, values, rights, and dignity come from Hobbes, Locke, Nietzsche, Weber, and Kant. They do not mean what it looks like they mean from a tradition of Aquinas or Aristotle. Benestad, to his credit, is well aware both that these words are the meat of modern discourse and the source of considerable confusion. The book is a constant effort to relate rights to duty, dignity to being, values to objective norms, and justice to virtue.

Indeed, it might well be said that the major effort of Benestad is to show how no concept of justice as some sort of rearrangement of society can stand by itself apart from the classical emphasis on the need of individual virtue. We cannot have a "just" society if we do not have "just" people who know that justice is not a subjective "right" or "want" but something that is objectively "due."

Aristotle's political philosophy had been well aware that regimes reflect the virtue of the people that composed it. He knew we cannot have a good regime and un-virtuous citizens. Modern thought has largely rejected this to claim that vice and disorder can be cured simply by change of regime. It doesn't and cannot happen that way, even though some regimes are better than others.

Benestad is completely familiar with what is known as modern Catholic social thought from the work of Leo XIII on. He knows of Pius XI and Pius XIII, John XXIII, and Paul VI. He is aware that in John Paul II and Benedict we have something in the Church that has perhaps never existed before: two popes, one following the other, both working together, who are themselves first class scholars and (particularly in the case of John Paul II) charismatic leaders of world historic significance. The world has done its best to refuse to acknowledge their genius and the truth of their lives and teachings. In this sense, our intellectual problems are initially moral ones.

Benestad is well aware of the extra-ordinary genius of the present pope. His appendix is devoted to Caritas in veritate, the pope's third "social" encyclical. At one level, it is amusing to realize that the Catholic Church has been headed since Leo XIII at the end of the nineteenth century by men of superior intellect, but more recently by men the equals of any minds or their own or any other time. How little this intellectual foundation of the Church is appreciated within the Church and culture is a judgment on the quality of the lived faith and ongoing intelligence of our time.

The book contains four parts with twelve chapters. The first part concerns "the human person, the political community, and the common good." Part two covers "civil society and the common good, three mediating societies (family, Church, and universities). Part three brings us to private property and the universal destination of goods. Finally, part four is on the international community and justice. It is in this latter section that Benestad deals sanely with war and international institutions.

One thing that particularly struck me about this book is that Benestad always makes his own judgment on the issues that he presents. The reader always knows where he stands on the issues, and why. He is quite critical of many of the politicized American episcopal initiatives in the social order, none more so than that of Cardinal Bernadin's confused "seamless garment" doctrine. Often such documents bear ideological traits that never should be there.


Benestad is a prudent man in the classical sense. And as he knows, that prudence is a fundamental virtue both of politics and of scholarship. We want to know where, on the basis of the evidence he presents, the scholar stands. Too often issues of economics or politics are presented as absolutes whereas they are contingent issues that could reasonably be otherwise. Benestad is always clear on this distinction.

One of the best chapters in the book (they are all good) is the one on the Catholic university. Benestad's remarks on the Jesuit general's view of universities is most illuminating for those who wonder why things went wrong. Benestad's mentor, Father Fortin, also spoke to this university issue. What Benestad recognizes is that universities are not simply training grounds for jobs or for social action as they are often made out to be. He understands the classical need of a study of the theoretic order as such.
Moreover, he understands that the very endeavor to study the classic authors, to think with Plato and Aristotle and Augustine, is itself more likely to move the souls of students to do what is right than any hands-on experience, however useful, may accomplish. In addition, classic thought always keeps the issue of truth before minds bent on action. This chapter is the best overall critique of modern Catholic universities that I have seen, particularly if we add Father Fortin's and Msgr. Sokolowski's remarks on Catholic universities. (Fortin, "Do We Need Catholic Universities?" Human Rights, Virtue, and the Common Good; Sokolowski, "Catholic Tradition and the Catholic University," Christian Faith & Human Understanding).

Two authors that Benestad frequently cites, Mary Ann Glendon and Jean Bethke Elstain, along with Janet Smith, show not merely the importance of women scholars, but of women scholars who do not just talk about women (though they talk about them too). Benestad's chapter on the family reads like it is written by a family man, which, of course, Benestad is. He understands how much danger the family faced within society today.

Benestad is very careful to state and explain the validity of the Catholic position on family, abortion, contraception, same-sex marriage, cloning, and a host of other issues that are the topic of every day discourse. He is quite aware of the most pejorative effect of many Catholic judges and politicians on the undermining of the family. Benestad is wise to be guided by Leon Kass and Robert George in many of these areas of bioethics and family.

In short, Benestad tells us what we need to know about Catholic Social Thought. It is a serious book that requires careful reflection and reading. It would be difficult to overestimate the importance of this book. I note that it has little to say about Islam, surely a (if not the) major problem of the Church in the immediate future. Likewise, I think that the nature of environmentalism needs more direct analysis and criticism. It is the source of much modern totalitarian thought and not just some effort to keep the earth for the future or the grass green.

On two issues I thought something was missing. One was the notion of legal justice in Aristotle. Many recent Catholic writers have tried to make this mean social justice in their sense. But for Aristotle it simply meant that every act of an individual could affect the common good. Hence, it was also open to legislation for this purpose. It does make the point that Benestad wanted to make, namely, that the common good is not something apart from private goods. The perfection of a virtue includes its relation to others.

With regard to the common good itself, I am sorry Benestad did not refer to Yves Simon, perhaps our best thinker on this issue. The common good is not some overarching good over and above everything else. Rather it is a good that of its very nature allows other goods to exist and flourish. Without careful distinction, it is quite easy to become a totalitarian by advocating the "common good," not that I think Benestad does this, of course.

This book is the book in the field because it knows the whole field, including the philosophical questions to which revelation is addressed. Benestad has clearly done his homework. I read his earlier book on Catholic Social Thought, The Pursuit of a Just Social Order, when it was first published in 1982 by the Ethics and Public Policy Center. It was clear to me then that Benestad was a young scholar to whom we could look with utter confidence that things would be seen and judged in a profound philosophical and Christian sense.

The present book is simply the fruit of thirty years of thinking on this topic and talking it over with his students, to whom he often refers, and with fellow scholars. It is something to be savored and studied, and yes, enjoyed, for its calm pursuit of the truth of things, even and especially political and social things.

Related Ignatius Insight Articles and Essays:

The Necessity and Limits of Politics: A Review of Daniel J. Mahoney's The Conservative Foundations of the Liberal Order | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
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Jacques Maritain and Dignitatis Humanae: Natural Law as the Common Language of Religious Freedom | Brian Jones, M.A.
The Scandal of Natural Law | An Interview with J. Budziszewski
Pope Benedict XVI On Natural Law | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
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• The Religion of Liberalism, Or Why Freedom and Equality Aren't Ultimate Goals | An Interview with James Kalb
Secularity: On Benedict XVI and the Role of Religion in Society | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
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What Is Catholic Social Teaching? | Mark Brumley
Liberal Democracy as a Culture of Death: Why John Paul II Was Right | Dr. Raymond Dennehy
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"Certain Fundamental Truths": On the Place and Temptations of Politics | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
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Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.

He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture, and literature including Another Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning, The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006), The Sum Total of Human Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), The Regensburg Lecture (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), and The Mind That Is Catholic: Philosophical and Political Essays (CUA, 2008). His most recent book from Ignatius Press is The Order of Things (Ignatius Press, 2007). His new book, The Modern Age, is available from St. Augustine's Press. Read more of his essays on his website.

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