Reimagining American Community

In a certain mood I think of us Americans as living through a kind of imperial twilight not so different from the fate of St. Augustine in his old age. The latter famously saw Rome’s decline as something other than a catastrophe, given the empire’s moral condition and the new hope that a Christian culture could bring to society.

By contrast, St. Jerome, who was contemporary with St. Augustine, was full of laments that “the City which had taken the whole world was itself taken” and exclamations such as “Who could believe that Rome, built upon the conquest of the whole world, would fall to the ground?”

While I have friends in the Augustine camp, I can think of numerous others who apparently go along with Jerome’s idolizing attachment to a worldly kingdom and its great culture. For the latter friends, it is often 1950s America which they see dissolving in one sense or another, our great city on a hill, where certain kinds of people did well because they were in some strange way “chosen”—to win the Second World War, to invent consumer culture, to make ancient Rome’s achievement look small.

Perusing a copy of Anthony Esolen’s new book, Reclaiming Catholic Social Teachings, it’s easy to hear the voice of Jerome over anything Augustinian. Esolen, be it noted, is an excellent writer and an old-fashioned humanist (in the best Renaissance sense) whose translation of Dante was perhaps his best work.

Yet he too, like so many other Jeromes we might think of, has become dispirited and dismayed by our culture’s crepuscular descent in recent decades. His more recent books contain flashes of brilliance undercut by a kind of angry pessimism and even despair that seem far removed from Christian joy.

Not that his reflections on how we destroy our children’s imaginations and their very sense of life’s abiding wonder are not well grounded. Much of his analysis of our moribund culture is painfully apt and indeed eloquent. But it veers easily back toward the sentimentalism of a Jerome yearning for some golden moment in the past when most things cohered—often a pre-Vatican II Catholicism of a particularly American kind. In these pages, I’m afraid, there is no vision for building a civilization of love, only dismay at remembering what “Rome” once was. Or at least our old parish.

And why, according to Esolen, does Catholic social teaching (or CST) require “reclaiming”? Because if one is a committed culture warrior, as Esolen tends to be in weaker moments, the notion that CST has been hijacked by irresponsible leftists is easy to believe. We must retake this ground! And so Esolen mounts an interesting but finally incomplete campaign.

Oddly, and despite his title, the book does not attempt to survey all of CST but rather confines itself to a number of works by Leo XIII, considered the papal founder of CST. Thus from the outset Esolen unnecessarily narrows his focus by omitting the important social documents issued by later popes.

Because Leo also wrote encyclicals on topics such as the Eucharist, Christian marriage, and religious schools, Esolen takes the occasion to bring many of them into his discussion of CST, partly with the laudable goal of showing the seamless nature of Catholic reflection on faith and society.

Unfortunately, Esolen’s reclaiming of what we call now the life issues, including marriage, under the heading of CST includes practically no discussion of the issues of justice, equity and the guidelines for a political economy. In the somewhat maddening fashion of many culture warriors on the right, Esolen recuses himself from these “technical” issues, as though an ignorance of credit default swaps meant we laypeople simply could not comment on structural inequality or its role in creating a permanent underclass. As a result, this book on CST contains almost no consideration of the very issues on which most readers turn to CST for guidance—for example, human solidarity, the nature of work, the living wage or the common good.

In his zeal to demonstrate why the right to property naturally derives from valuing the institution of marriage, for example, Esolen misses the opportunity to observe how many fewer people in the U.S. today own much of anything by comparison with earlier periods or other societies. Thus he undercuts his premise for the book—to correct an imbalance in our understanding of CST as merely about social justice—by substituting his own imbalanced view of CST as merely about marriage and family life. I don’t imagine this was his intent.

But such is the spell of economism and that dark science of the economic “experts” into whose precincts we mere mortals dare not tread, lest we be accused of trying to get “technical.” So long as our best commentators continue to pay this unwarranted obeisance to the gods of finance and technocracy, the sources of right action in CST will remain cloudy and obscure to us.

And thus our attempts at culture war—which have failed as miserably as our genuine shooting wars in the last two decades–will amount to little more than play-acting in costume.

About the Author
A native Texan, Elias spent several good years studying classics and medieval Italian at UC Berkeley before wasting several more years in financial journalism around Chicago. He has written for Strong Towns, the American Scholar, the New Urbs blog, and the Gary Catholic Worker and is the co-author of a textbook on character education. He briefly published something called The Armchair Historian. None of his three teenage daughters display an interest in the Greek and Latin classics thus far. He and his family reside in leafy Valparaiso IN.