Conservatives Do Believe in Social Justice. Here’s What Our Vision Looks Like.

Last month, America lost a great defender of freedom, Michael Novak.

Novak was committed to rightly ordered liberty and cared deeply about the principles and practices that produce it. His enormous body of work emphasized the cultural prerequisites for political and economic freedom, as he stressed that economic conservativism and social conservatism are indivisible.

In the words of Heritage Foundation founder Ed Feulner, “Michael forced those of us trained in the dismal science of economics to explain that we should be more than ‘free to choose’—rather we should be free to make good free choices.”

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Caritapolis: A New Global Vision for Catholic Social Thought

Remarks delivered by Michael Novak at Acton University on June 19, 2014 in Grand Rapids, MI

Also available at the Witherspoon Institute's Public Discourse.


What would it profit the human race, if we were to achieve a higher level of political liberty and economic liberty than ever before, only to live like pigs, enslaved to our desires, without reflection and deliberation? That is, what if the human race were to use its newfound liberties merely to live by the appetites of the lower animals? It is not only our political and economic systems which must be worthy of our human nature, but also our habits of moral living.

For most of the last six or seven generations, human beings have been preoccupied with two questions: one political, one economic.

The POLITICAL question was, Which political system is better for poor people and ordinary people, authoritarian power (for Stalin, Mussolini, and Hitler, straight-out dictatorship) – or democracy? The horrors of the vast Communist Gulag Archipeligo and the Nazi death camps – Dachau, Auschwitz, and a score of others – convincingly settled this question. In 1900, there were only ten democracies on the planet; in 1974 there were only thirty-five; and by 2013 there were 120. By unimaginable suffering, nearly the whole human race has learned the superiority of republican government (with checks and balances against the tyrannical tendencies of majoritarian democracy) over Fascism, Nazism, and Communism, the three progenitors of the new totalitarianism of the twentieth century.

The ECONOMIC question was, Which economic system is better for poor people and ordinary people? Painful experiments from around the world settled this question in favor of the mind-centered system, rooted in invention, discovery, and enterprise in new ventures; in other words, capitalism. There the accomplishment of one medical miracle after another: the dramatic extension of lifespans and dramatic drops in infant mortality; the quadrupling (and more) of the earth’s productive capacity; and the advancement of the virtues connected with personal responsibility and personal initiative – all these – all these provided very powerful evidence of the superiority of capitalism to socialism. Gorbachev once reported that the socialist economy of the Soviet Union had declined to “fourth-world” status. As Leo XIII predicted, Socialism failed. It would prove not only evil, he wrote, but futile. And he proved to be correct. But the main point is this.

What has been largely neglected during these many generations is a third and more important question, What is the moral ecology under which the dignity and solidarity of all the peoples of the world can best thrive?

What do we mean by “moral ecology”? Here is the best definition I have encountered: “the sum of all those conditions – ideas, narratives, institutions, symbol systems, prevailing opinions and practices, and local dispensers of shame and praise – that teach us the habits necessary for human flourishing, and support us in their practice.”

Thus, “moral ecology” – by analogy with environmental ecology – means those exclusively human ideas and institutions that guide human conduct toward the good and the beautiful, and that are the true signs of human flourishing. Humans do not live by bread alone. And doing whatever one desires does not human liberty make. Dogs, cats, tigers and all the other animals can do that much. What they cannot do is live by reflection and choice.

Human beings are called to higher aspirations. Even in the context of political liberty, the personal possession of wealth – if such wealth does not lead to full human flourishing – is merely empty, and quite often self-destructive. Full human flourishing means striving toward beauty, nobility of soul, purity of heart, and great moral deeds. But how can the whole world together flourish in that way?  If there is to be peace and amity on earth, there needs to be a new global vision that all cultures can strive for.


 The Need for a New Global Vision: Caritapolis

            Caritapolis, the City of Caritas. That is in effect how St. Augustine defined The City of God. For that City is infused with, and lives by, the unique love that is the ball of fire in the belly of God, His own inner life, which He has willingly infused into those human beings who freely accept it. By contrast, the City of Man is ruled by the disordered passions and interests of humans, who do not choose to be God’s friends.

Pope Paul VI and later popes preferred the expression the “civilization of love.” That expression, too, is apt, since even the pagan sage Cicero deemed friendship the cohesive inner bond that suffuses cities with life. Between the deeper, richer Christian view and the secular view, in other words, there is an analogue. There is a secular way of coming near to the idea of Caritapolis.

What exactly does Caritas mean? Where we in English usually try to make do with one love, the ancients and later sages distinguished among nine different loves. All are related. Each ascends, as it were, upward. All spring from God’s own inner love.

The first, most general name for love, which points to a felt attraction, a pull, is Amor. L’amor che muove il sole e l’altre stelle (“The love that moves the sun and all the stars)”, as Dante put it.) Then comes Affection, as when one hugs a child, or a spouse, in a gesture of being moved by the sight of them. Third is Eros, the source of “romantic love” – that drive, sometimes almost like a madness, that tends to override all reflection and deliberation – and which is almost entirely distinctive of the experience of the West (C.S. Lewis, Denis de Rougemont). Since its demands are so romantic --"happily ever after" --and not down-to-earth, the happiest outcome of romantic love is death as in such classic tales of romance as Romeo and Juliet, Bonnie and Clyde, and thousands of other Western tales of love.

Fourth comes Philia, the kind of love that expresses kinship or some similar closeness, as when one speaks of Philadelphia, the love of brothers, or philosophy, the love of wisdom, or philanthropy, the love of humankind. The root here is Greek, but it also appears in the Latin names for filius and filia (son and daughter), or filial.

Much stronger, fifth, is Dilectio, in which you can see the root electio, to choose, as when by reflection and deliberation one selects one other to commit oneself to. One has a special love for one’s family, but one does not choose it. Dilectio is the love for your lifetime of your one beloved, your lover, your spouse. It is the love of The Song of Songs.

Sixth comes the most central of all loves, Amicitia, friendship, that happy love in which the one to whom you want to commit yourself also chooses commitment to you. This can be as spouses, or even as “best friends,” or as a fellow soldier, one’s “brother” for whom one is ready to die. If you have ever felt unrequited love – you love another, who does not have the same love in turn for you – you know how sweet the free gift of friendship from another can be.

Seventh comes Dostoevsky’s central love, “humble charity,” all those smiles or gestures or small acts of kindness that show that one respects another’s personhood and degree of goodness – a humble acting out of “peace on earth,” and goodwill and outward-goingness. Dostoevsky describes humble charity as throbbing like light along a translucent filament circling the earth, binding humankind together, warming all souls on earth. Inside this filament, he writes, it takes but fifteen minutes for a kind deed in one humble place to circle the planet, intensifying as it were the luminosity of humble Caritas in all places.

Eighth is Agape, that deepest insight into the inner life of the Creator and Father, shown in the willingness of the Son to endure the insults, lashes, and grinding pain of carrying the cross, and three hours nailed to that wood, until He could no longer hold himself upright but collapsed downward, to die of suffocation. He did this for others. For us.

And how He did it shows us that the essence of our existence, and the inner existence of God, is suffering love. Quite directly, the Lord tells us that we must also suffer – take up our cross, follow Him, die to ourselves. This is how God made the world. To be like God, to be close to God, is to love even in suffering.

Thus, in showing us all this, God shows that He too plays by the same rules. He too submits in his Son to die the death of suffering love, surrounded by insults, held in contempt, scorned. In short, all this is God explaining to us: “My children this is what Caritas is. You will all live through it. Embrace it. Let Me pass this Caritas through you, continuing to show it to all humans, and to live now through you. If you will allow Me.”

Now, this is where Catholic social, political, and economic thought begin. In Caritas – in giving us a symbol and moving narrative of what a Civilization of Love is, what the Caritapolis of the future is to be like: Love until death for one another. One human family of brothers and sisters, willing to give their lives for each other.

The world is very far from that place yet.

Yet packed into this story are four important propositions. First, all human creatures form one family, each made in the image of God, each a unique image of God. Thus, “Go teach all nations” sends us far beyond boundaries of family, nation, language, race, or religion. It signifies a global, a universal, a catholic community (one that is worldwide, concrete, visible, as well as in in its deepest part invisible).

Second, this community is not yet. It is real, in its fallenness and failures, it is concrete and can be seen with one’s eyes. Yet there is also an inner war going on, in soul after soul in the invisible filament that girdles the earth, an intensely fought battle for the enduring commitment of each to each other, and thus to God. A battle between good and evil or, more exactly, between the living God and the not-god, between friendship with God and the turning away from God. This battle in the inalienble freedom of each soul is the ground of the Christian idea of progress. This epic battle is unending. It gives history its shape and its meaning. It distinguishes progress from decline.

Third, God offers friendship, but it must be freely accepted or freely rejected. If friendship is to burn like a fire, freedom is its oxygen. As the Society of Friends put it: “If friendship, then liberty.” The Liberty Bell rings out that God does not want the coerced friendship of slaves. The deepest root of the idea of liberty lies here, in the freedom of free women and free men before God, as both Madison and Jefferson grasped. (Madison in his Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments [1785], Jefferson in his Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom [1786].)

Fourth, our Creator and Redeemer is a straight-talker, not a deceiver. He does not promise us a rose garden. He promises us the cross. He sees that all the inner beauty of freedom and suffering love flares out only when we see the burnt out ember “fall, gall itself, gash gold-vermillion.” Only in dying to their earlier life do all beauty, all bravery, all heroism, all true love “gash gold-vermillion.” That is the way the world was made. Therefore, beware of merely romantic love, beware of false promises, beware of utopias. Keep your eye on the points of suffering at the heart of things. Watch for concrete results, not sweet talk. Caritas is a teacher of realism, not soft-headedness; of fact, not sentiment; of suffering love, not illusory bliss. To think in a utopian way is a sin against Caritapolis.

In this spirit of realism, there is a bitter, stunning reality coming down on us today. Very soon now, in our own era, we will have to begin dealing in earnest with the fact that a small but significant portion of Muslims who interpret Islam in an extremely violent way, are working with all their power to drive all other faiths from their own lands and, some boast, from the face of the earth. The vast majority of Muslims, it appears, are appalled at the violence of this small minority, and contemptuous of its claim that it alone represents true Islam. Still, as these violent ones grow in international strength – and this is what seems to be happening – those who do not want to be subdued by them will most likely have to go to war against them. These fierce antagonists do not appeal to argument, only to raw power. They do not appeal to life, but to death. They do not appeal to natural rights, only to total submission. We must realistically understand what it is we are facing. Caritapolis does not lift us into a pretty world of starry-eyed fantasy. It seems to strike every generation with an awakening blow, some horror of its own to subdue.

Obviously, most of the world is not Christian, not even Western, so a term like Caritapolis is not native to the major part of humankind. More exactly, about one-third of the citizens of earth (just over 2 billion, and growing more rapidly than any other group) is now Christian, and the other two-thirds live under non-Christian paradigms and narratives. Therefore, even though we think that Caritapolis is the most fruitful paradigm for picturing the direction in which humanity will best thrive, we need to focus on intermediate steps that are less specific and more open to universal acceptance.


Four Milestones in the Direction of Caritapolis

            To my mind, there are four intermediate steps toward Caritapolis of highest importance. At the moment these four are not too far from universal esteem, at least among significant peoples in all lands. I call these the virtues on which future world progress hinges, that is, the FOUR CARDINAL VIRTUES [Latin, cardo = hinge] OF MORAL ECOLOGY. These four virtues are cultural humility, the regulative idea of truth, the dignity of the human person, and solidarity.

1. By cultural humility I mean a proper sense of one’s own fallibility, past sins, limits, and characteristic faults. (To see one’s own faults and limits, and those of one’s culture, is not necessarily to hold that all cultures are equal, or to embrace cultural relativism. It is consistent with holding all cultures to the same, or at least analogous, standards.) Any nation, people, or culture lacking this humility before these standards will awaken enormous resentment – and resistance – from other cultures.


2. The regulative idea of truth.  If we do not agree that some things are true and others false, that some actions are just and others unjust, then we doom ourselves to relativism, or even worse, nihilism. By that door, the thugs, those willing to use the most awful violence, enter the nation, set the rules, concentrate all power in their own hands, and rule with ruthlessness. And if we do not agree that the difference between truth and falsehood, and between justice and injustice, is to be decided by evidence (not the desires of the thugs) as to what is real and what is good – then we have no protections against tyranny and torture.

Proponents of relativism in the West are, therefore, playing with fire, since regimes built solely on relativism, without any possibility of appealing to evidence and fair judgment, dwell under the wild desires of stark, naked power. In the Kingdom of Relativism, where truth no longer exists and only power matters, the thugs most willing to use brute power move into positions of leadership, and the finer spirits, concerned about such niceties as evidence and argument, are driven first into exile, and eventually to prison. Against false imprisonment these cannot shout, “Injustice!” For to this claim the thugs reply, “That’s just your opinion.” And one cannot say, “These charges are false!” For there is no longer any such thing as “true” or “false.” It is now power, power alone, that speaks.

But why do we speak of truth as a “regulative ideal”?  Because we need to emphasize that no one “possesses” the truth. We must each come closer and closer to approximating it, to getting it right, and getting it clear, making necessary distinctions. And because we each work under rules that equally regulate all of us, we need rules of evidence and methods of determining which are those rules. To come closer to establishing these for all of us, we need each other. We need to converse and to argue, to refute false claims – often through the pain of undeniable experience. That is why, in our era, vast human suffering often points to the truth by a via negativa: “This fiery cauldron cannot be the way to go. Try a better way.” That is how both Nazi and Communist claims were refuted, not by words merely, but by bitter experience. That is how the extreme violence and deliberate cruelty of the minority of Islamists within a more humane Islam are rapidly losing their moral standing as friends of humanity. See how rebellion against them builds.

No one culture “possesses” the truth. Each struggles to get closer to it. Civilized peoples do this by conversation and reasoned argument. Barbarian civilizations club others into submission. Sometimes justice demands that the barbarians be stopped from clubbing the weak around them. Civilized peoples must defend the rules of civilization. And they must prevail. If they do not, the whole human race slides that much deeper back into barbarism.


3. The dignity of the human person. More and more cultures (but not all) are recognizing that human beings are worthy of esteem and honor, and are of primary importance. Through television and other media, more and more individuals around the world catch a glimpse of the higher standard of dignity under which other humans are living today. More and more they are demanding that a greater dignity be paid them, too, in their home countries. As Thomas Aquinas noted, the human person is the most beautiful creature in all creation, the one that most closely images the Creator. That is a major reason why human beings must be treated as ends, not merely means (Immanuel Kant). Today’s realities bring many of the oppressed of the world to a new “Awakening” [ein Aufklarung] to that truth.


4. Solidarity. As human beings, and also whole cultures mature, they see that they are not alone in the world. One cultural world impinges on another as never before, and the whole Noösphere, as Teilhard de Chardin put it, the whole inner empire of human consciousness, becomes more interactive, and seeks to drive humans upward, aspiring higher. What begins to emerge is a virtue of solidarity, the habit by which more and more individuals come to see that they share a world in common with many others who are quite “other.” But the aspirations of one part of the world begin to be known (and sometimes imitated) by other parts of the world. The rights and dignity achieved by human beings in some countries strike the hearts of many in other countries, who begin to confront their own political leaders and to insist on these rights for themselves.

In a sense, solidarity is the internal dimension of globalization. It is the change in the minds and souls, and maybe even the sympathies, induced by humans sharing concrete images of others that they had never before imagined.

Recall for a moment four economic definitions of globalization: a dramatic drop in transportation and communications costs; a single global interchange of ideas and goods connected by the Internet, satellites, cell phones, and television; a geometric increase in “foreign direct investment”; and international cross-border trade.

Beyond these, and even deeper, the interior dimension of globalization is a change in the way individuals experience themselves, and the way they think about others. For example, some persons of enterprise now think not only of supplying goods to their local markets, but also of how they can serve a global market. This is a new dimension of self-awareness. Along with this, the highly visible suffering and pain of other peoples awakens sympathy in faraway places, and the glaring tortures and little tyrannies practiced by some local leaders raise resentment and resistance, rather than passive submission, which was often the response in the past.

These four cardinal virtues – and perhaps there are others – are compatible with Caritapolis, but alone they are not sufficient to fulfill all its aspirations. Even so, in secular terms they would, if taken, constitute great steps forward in the direction of human flourishing.


            Similarly, we ourselves, in thinking of social justice, need to form a clear idea of what we would like the whole world to look like in twenty-five years, or fifty, or a hundred. From the Creator’s point of view, this is His world, and He intended that His Kingdom (the civilization of love) should come on earth as it is in heaven. While until the End of Time, we always live, as Reinhold Niebuhr taught us, in the realm of the “not yet,” still, it does help to think through a concrete vision of achievable worldwide steps toward the “city on a hill” – Caritapolis. We cannot promise ourselves success, but at least we see directions in which, however slowly, all cultures can move

The Economics of Liberation Theology

Published by Carroll Ríos De Rodríguez at on July 23, 2014  

None of the prominent liberation theologians influential in Latin America had significant training in or exposure to the discipline of economics. This was odd given that their concern for the material well-being demanded at least some attempt to provide an economic explanation of underdevelopment and mass poverty. Instead of engaging in such economic reflection, many liberation theologians effectively married their theology to various renderings of what was then the fashionable dependency theory, which holds that that resources flow from a "periphery" of poor and underdeveloped states to a "core" of wealthy states, enriching the latter at the expense of the former.

In his 1991 book Will It Liberate?: Questions About Liberation Theology, theologian and philosopher Michael Novak devoted an entire chapter to painstakingly demonstrating the ties between dependency and liberationist thinking. One of the quotes he uses as evidence seems proof enough of the connection. According to the Brazilian theologian Hugo Assmann, liberation theology would make little sense “apart from the factual judgment that the poor of Latin America suffer not from simple poverty but from oppressive structures, linked to external forces of domination.”

Assmann and his peers were persuaded by Argentine economist Raul Prebisch’s insight that was central to dependency theory: that peripheral economies were at a disadvantage vis-à-vis the developed, industrialized center due to the unfavorable terms of international trade. On this basis, dependency theory maintained that governments should erect barriers to trade. These would reduce reliance on agricultural products and exports and lead to the emergence of a domestic industrial sector in underdeveloped countries. Other dependency theorists emphasized that the region’s status as dependent economies had even deeper structural and social causes. Therefore social transformations had to accompany state intervention and direction of markets. Here we should note that this sociological language was also more familiar to many Latin American priests and theologians than the more abstract jargon of formal economics, given that most such theologians were educated within a continental European university framework which often gave precedence to anthropological and sociological concerns.

Leading proponents of liberation theology were not simply looking to curb external domination or implement piecemeal types of reforms. They called for a more-or-less socialist revolution.  Indeed, as Novak demonstrates, theirs was not a lukewarm socialism or mild social democracy capable of coexisting with private property, markets, and democratic institutions. It was, to use Gutiérrez’s language, the radical doing-away with “private appropriation of the wealth created by human toil” and the abolition of the “culture of the oppressors.”

How did dependency theory with its socialist-like proposals to solve poverty and the Marxist influence on liberation theology fuse together? One often hears disclaimers to the fact that not all dependency and liberationist writings were Marxist. This is of course true. Novak himself argued that “liberation theology forms a tapestry much broader than its Marxist part and is woven of many colors.” It is worth stating that the work of carefully distinguishing between the various theoretical foundations suited to liberation theology, as Novak and Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) did at the time, is not the same as trivializing the broader Marxist influences. There are some subtle differences between the Ratzinger-Novak caveat and other claims concerning the impact of Marxism. Some of these other assertions were that (1) classic Marxism had been revised or distilled by the seventies, (2) Marxism as an academic tool did not contradict Catholic dogma and doctrines, (3) the first Christian communities were proto-marxian, and (4) a “Christian socialism” that eschewed Marxist atheism and materialism was possible. In a scholarly analysis published in 1988, H. Mark Roelofs maintained that the differences between liberation theology and old-style Marxism could be explained in the following manner:

Liberation theology is not a Marxism in Christian disguise. It is the recovery of a biblical radicalism that has been harbored in the Judeo-Christian tradition virtually from its founding … Liberation theologians turn to modern Marxism chiefly to gain a comprehensive understanding of contemporary class conflict and poverty.

In the face of such obvious equivocation – most notably, concerning whether it was possible to separate Marxist analysis from Marxism’s operating assumptions of atheism and materialism – Novak complained: “What no one clarifies is what is meant by ‘Marxist analysis.’” Novak went on to list seven elements in liberation theology that were present in much of the literature and decidedly Marxist in tone and content. These were (1) the effort of liberation theology seeks to create a new man and a new earth, (2) the espousal of a utopian sensibility, (3) the benign view of the state, (4) the failure to say anything about how wealth is created, (5) the advocacy of the abolition of private property, (6) the treatment of class struggle as a fact, and (7) the denouncement of capitalism. In Novak’s opinion, this worldview was not only theologically and morally wrong. It would result in Latin America paying a high economic and political price that would hurt the poor.

A ‘Liberal’ and Catholic Proposal

When he looked ahead to how Latin America ought to be transformed, Novak was categorical: “Liberation theology says that Latin America is capitalist and needs a socialist revolution. Latin America does need a revolution. But its present system is mercantilist and quasi-feudal, not capitalist, and the revolution it needs is both liberal and Catholic.”

The platform that Novak recommended for Latin America – democratic capitalism – was thoroughly described in his 1982 book The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism. Novak went to significant lengths to explain that free markets, understood as spontaneous social institutions, were grounded on a substantive moral substructure. Humanity, he argued, could best achieve prosperity in an open environment, whereby the creative energies of millions of individuals were released from the base. According to Novak, markets also induce free and responsible participants to behave habitually with integrity and reliability; economic and social cooperation, for example, is preconditioned on the trust we can place in each other.

This line of thought was deployed by Novak for the intended audiences of Will It Liberate? Novak stressed, for example, that the market liberates us from poverty while democracy liberates us from tyranny and torture. In the format of a dialogue that he playfully calls a “catechism,” Novak established some of the liberation theologians’ biases against – and ignorance of – capitalism.

Capitalism, Novak insisted, is not morally bankrupt nor has it been improved on or superseded by the welfare state. Latin America, Novak went on to state, was still living in a “pre-capitalist, traditional system.” This meant that the market economy had not even been properly tested throughout the region. One cannot therefore say that capitalism has somehow failed. There is no reason, Novak added, why free markets should work only “up North.” Free markets did not benefit the rich to the detriment of the poor. Indeed, undue privileges now afforded some economic players in Latin America would not exist in a truly free market, and corruption would diminish.

The toughest objection of the liberation theologians addressed by Novak was what they perceived to be the Catholic Church’s alleged condemnation of capitalism. Was it not the case, the liberation theologians maintained, that economic liberalism led to moral permissiveness by making “money and wealth the measure of all things” and imposing an unyielding economic logic on life?

To such claims, Novak responded, “free markets are no more permissive than God himself, who sends his rain on the just and unjust alike.” The decline in moral standards and religiosity in the West, Novak stated, is not causally related to free markets. Indeed, he added, “the very foundations of the liberal society crack” when people abandon their faith in principles that antecede “any state or social order” and that “reside in man’s spiritual nature.”


This article is excerpted and adapted from "Michael Novak, Freedom, and Liberation Theology" by Carroll Ríos de Rodríguez in Theologian & Philosopher of Liberty – Essays of Evaluation & Criticism in Honor of Michael Novak, edited by Samuel Gregg (Acton Institute, 2014).