From Americanism to the City of God
Thomas Storck and Brian M. McCall, two towering writers in the field of Catholic social teaching, have both released books in recent years which wrestle with the social, political, and economic crises of our time—crises which cannot be divorced from the ongoing ecclesiastical crisis that has plagued the Catholic Church for half-a-century.
How Did We Get Here?
Storck, who has written on Catholic social and economic thought for over three decades, has pulled together a collection of his more recent magazine and journal pieces in From Christendom to Americanism and Beyond: The Long Jagged Trail to a Postmodern Void (Angelico Press 2015). Rather than be read as a straightforward history of modernity-to-postmodernity, Storck’s book should be approached as an extended meditation on the waning days of Christendom during the period wrongly labeled as “the Enlightenment” before exploring the most destructive and widespread ideology of the last 300 years: liberalism. For only by unmasking the roots of liberalism can Storck accurately track the rise of Americanism, that is, the idolization of the United States’s experiment in liberal democracy at the expense of Catholic truth. Storck, it should be noted, is neither an alarmist nor a reactionary in the emptyheaded, kneejerk sense. He, however, an astute analyst of the modern age who isn’t afraid to sound the alarm when the forces of secularism threaten the right understanding of the proper Christian political order. In that sense, we might think of him standing in the tradition of Continental Catholic political theorists such as Joseph de Maistre, Louise de Bonald, and Juan Donoso Cortes despite his aptitude for cultivating the slightly more moderating tones of Anglophone Catholic writers like G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc.
Speaking of Chesterton and Belloc, it is impossible to understand the whole of Storck’s thinking without appreciating his adherence to Distributist political economy. Although Distributism, and economics in general, are not at the heart of From Christendom, Storck helps build a case for a return to a more stable, sane, and sanctified economic order by unveiling how liberalism itself destabilizes families, erodes communities, and marginalizes the Church’s role in society. As Storck’s earlier economic writings demonstrate, far too many Catholics concerned with the state of contemporary politics, willfully ignore what the Church has taught on such matters as widespread property ownership, just wages, subsidiarity, and solidarity. It is impossible to critique liberalism without critiquing capitalism, the economic ordo ordained by this pernicious ideology.
For most traditional Catholics, much of what Storck writes concerning the foundational importance of the family and the relationship of the Catholic Church to the temporal order should already be known. What Storck adds to this understanding, however, is a deeper appreciation for the history behind the Church’s respond to liberalism and the hard battle many ecclesiastical leaders and laymen fought to keep liberal ideology at bay. Today, in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, we can lament that they were not altogether successful while holding fast to the belief that only by understanding how the inheritance of Christendom was set aside in favor of the dubious promise of Americanism can we hope to overcome the latter.
The Perils of Economic Liberalism
Though published a year before Storck’s From Christendom, McCall’s To Build the City of God: Living as Catholics in a Secular Age (Angelico Press, 2014) points beyond the cesspool of postmodernity to an authentic Christian political, social, and economic order. McCall, an accomplished attorney and professor at Oklahoma University College of Law, takes for granted that the world is fire; his main concern is showing how to extinguish it without ignoring competing arguments.
After briefly reviewing the doctrine of Christ’s social kingship, McCall’s book, like Storck’s starts logically with the family, which is the foundation of both political and economic society. What McCall wants to do is paint a clear picture of just how distorted contemporary family life has become due to the barrage of false ideas and images that we are inundated with daily. Even those who have foresworn television and limit their Internet access to edifying material alone cannot escape the routine broadcasting of dominant cultural assumptions concerning sexuality, equality between the sexes, and the independence of children; to build up a bulwark against such errors is no easy task, but it must be done.
Where To Build the City of God really shines is in McCall’s discussion of economic life. Over the course of several sections, McCall submits liberal economic ideology to a withering critique by reminding readers of one inescapable fact: all economic activity involves human choice. Contrary to the propaganda spread by the Catholic-operated Acton Institute and full-throated Catholic libertarians like Thomas Woods, the “science” of economics is not about “hard laws”; nothing is determined in advance absolutely, not even the so-called “law of supply and demand.” When supply shrinks, a choice is made to raise prices; it is not inevitable. And as for the classic argument that keeping prices low while supplies are short leads to a waste of scarce resources (an argument Woods and other economic liberals are fond to repeat), McCall highlights that raising prices only favors the wealthy; it doesn’t mean that those who truly value the scarce resources the most will acquire them. Additionally, a wealthy person may be more inclined to waste resources because he can. For instance, a man living alone making a million dollars a year could afford to buy ten EpiPens even though he only needs one, simply because he wants to keep one in his numerous cars and rooms. Meanwhile, a family of six with a father making $50,000/year will struggle to purchase just one even though they have a child whose life could depend on the device. Does the family of six value the EpiPen any less than the millionaire, or do they simply lack the means available to the millionaire?
As the book progresses, McCall offers up some practical advice for his fellow Catholics. While he has some rightly harsh words for usurers, McCall’s treatment of the topic is both charitable and nuanced. As he clarifies, not all loans—even loans with interest—are necessarily usurious, though many are. McCall also clears the air about bankruptcy brought on by such lending and other social conditions; although we have an obligation to pay our debts, there are legitimate circumstances where bankruptcy is necessary and the shame associated with the option is bound up with Protestant economic ideology rather than authentic Catholic teaching. Equally powerful is McCall’s discussion of tithing, a practice promoted by Protestants and even many Eastern Orthodox, but which has no authentic basis in the Gospel. It’s not that McCall is calling on Catholics to not support the Church; that duty can be found even in the natural law. Rather, McCall rejects the pernicious idea that the Church demands a flat 10% “tax” from the faithful while also discussing how the modern state and the current liberal economic ordo fleeces people of their rightful wages before they even have a chance to give to the Church.
Comprehending the Postmodern Age
Returning to Storck’s book, it should be noted that while liberalism remains his primary target, Storck is cognizant of the fact that socialist ideas which have also been condemned by the Church have come to dominate in recent times as well. That is to say, Storck is not an apologist for the Democratic Party over-and-against the Republican Party, and the closing chapters of From Christendom focuses on the collapse of the so-called “New Deal Coalition” which brought Catholics and Democrats together in the first half of the 20th Century and the rise of revolutionary forces in America, starting in the 1960s and carrying forward to the present day. This revolution brought with it not only an assault on the last vestiges of Christendom, but called the very possibility of truth into question. In place of learning, disputation, and belief comes ideology, relativism, and indifferentism.
When read in tandem, Storck’s From Christendom and McCall’s To Build the City of God supplies Catholics with the tools to comprehend the postmodern age while pointing to the means to overcome it. This overcoming will not be a merely natural work, however. Both Storck and McCall never lose sight of the supernatural even when they are forced to contend with the mundane. Rather than rely on earthly wisdom alone, both repair to the timeless traditions of the Church and the indefectible elements of her social magisterium to support their largely unified visions of a social order ruled once again by Christ the King.