Press Reprints Old Texts for New Audiences
NORFOLK, Virginia, 11 SEPT. 2003 (ZENIT).
There's nothing new under the sun, says the Book of
Ecclesiastes. John Sharpe thinks that adage is particularly applicable
to social ills.
That's why Sharpe started IHS Press, a publishing company aimed at
making old books on Catholic social teaching available to a contemporary
Sharpe, a free-lance writer and lecturer who founded IHS two years ago,
shared with ZENIT why books written decades ago can be so important to
understanding and healing society today.
Q: What inspired the creation of HIS Press?
Sharpe: The Press was created to fill a gap. There are books on all
kinds of Catholic subjects readily available, except for serious works
on politics and economics from a Catholic standpoint. Much of the
Catholic social justice writings from the 1960s and 1970s have a Marxist
or materialist bent.
The clear, substantial works on what a Catholic society should look like
come from the 1930s, the last decade to witness a serious movement for
Catholic social principles. IHS was formed to help people rediscover
those works, and to form a movement of people concerned about where
society is headed. People can base their sense of what's wrong with the
world on the clear thinking of Catholic social teaching.
Q: What is Catholic social teaching, and how is it an alternative to the
political ideologies of today?
Sharpe: Catholic social teaching is that part of Catholic moral teaching
that deals with man's social life it suggests what society should
look like in its social, political and economic aspects, based upon the
ultimate purpose of temporal life in society.
The social doctrine teaches principles specific enough to identify
what's right and wrong, but general enough to allow the laity to work
out the details of temporal life in conformity with those principles.
Catholic social teaching bases its approach on truths that philosophy
teaches and that revelation confirms; thus it differs from other
political positions in that it is founded upon the truth and is not
merely pragmatic. This is fundamentally different than all other
ideologies the social doctrine differs not only in its approach to
sociopolitical questions but also in its underlying assumptions.
Other political positions differ equally from the social doctrine in
that they tend to be: skeptical, not recognizing an absolute Truth upon
which to base political action; materialist, seeing the purpose of man's
life in society as mere enjoyment of this life, rather than as
preparation for the next; and naturalist, not recognizing the existence
of realities and truths that cannot be seen, touched and measured.
The social doctrine approaches politics in a radically different way.
For Catholics, political life is a question of practicing virtue within
the context of social living, and any structure of society that
encourages virtue is to be praised because it helps people get to
heaven. The opposite is true for societies that encourage vice like
ours or make the practice of virtue difficult.
There are points of overlap between modern political positions and the
social doctrine. Opposition to abortion, unlimited immigration, support
for workers' rights and concern for the poor are all positions that the
social doctrine supports.
Non-Catholics can accept the various principles of the social doctrine
without accepting the Church because the principles reflect the natural
law, which based upon reason. So Catholics and others can collaborate in
certain specific areas for specific policies that conform to Catholic
As a complete sociopolitical creed the social doctrine really is a third
way that isn't just between the Left and Right it rather transcends
both Left and Right and rises above them with its own vision of social
Q: Why is it important to rediscover the writings of the Catholic social
thinkers of the early 20th century? What wisdom can they offer?
Sharpe: The thinkers of the 1930s were confronting the problems that we
face today: unemployment, an industrialized economy, a financial system
with ridiculous national debts and rampant usury. Their approach to
these problems was based upon an articulation and application
without compromise or apology of the true Catholic position.
Today, sadly, there is a tendency of some to water down the teachings of
the Church, to adapt them to the world. Many works on the Catholic
social vision are neutralized by a desire to not shock modern readers
too much and to affirm aspects of modern society as acceptable that are
not acceptable at all.
The thinkers from before World War II spoke the truth in all its purity
which is why our program takes their work as a starting point and
hopes to pick up from there.
Q: The editors of IHS Press have stated that they are convinced the
wisdom of Catholic social thought is, today, largely a buried treasure,
relatively untapped and almost wholly neglected. Why do you think it was
forgotten and has not been rediscovered until now?
Sharpe: World War II and Vatican II. These were two major events of the
20th century that somewhat eclipsed the work being done in implementing
the Church's social principles.
World War II seemed to confirm the triumph of capitalism and political
liberalism, so that it became difficult, if not ungrateful, to oppose
them. Laissez-faire economics and secular democracy never mind that
it was allied with militant, atheist Communism triumphed over the
To many people, that physical triumph suggested that capitalism and
political liberalism were in fact morally right, though the conclusion
doesn't follow at all. The position of papal teaching is that neither
capitalism nor liberalism is an ideal social system.
Following World War II, criticisms of them could be dismissed as either
totalitarian, politically; or socialist or communist, economically.
Today, however, in the era of stock market bubbles, Enron, Wal-Mart, the
Patriot Act and a tendentious war on terror, it is easy to see that the
triumph of liberalism and capitalism in the 1940s was not an unmitigated
blessing for humanity.
Nevertheless, the movements that flourished in the 1930s were decimated,
at least ideologically, by the war.
The Distributist League, founded in 1926, fizzled away. The Scottish and
English Catholic Land Movements, founded in 1929, ended in the middle
And the Catholic schools of thought in France theirs was corporatism
and Germany the solidarism of Heinrich Pesch were
respectively discredited with the fall of the Vichy government in
France, which had implemented a good bit of Catholic social doctrine, or
drowned out by the din of the rise and fall of the Third Reich.
Meanwhile, the confusion accompanying the implementation of Vatican II
throughout the world was later to do as much damage to the theoretical
prospects of the social doctrine as World War II did to the practical
It has to be admitted as many prominent churchmen including Cardinal
Ratzinger have said that the interpretation of the truths of the
faith were, in some circles, watered down during the late 1960s and
early 1970s. The social doctrine suffered a similar fate.
Even though the council documents suggest that the Catholic layman has
the duty of implementing Catholic principles in social life, some
reinterpreted those principles in a worldly context.
On the Left were the liberation theologians and Marxist priests who lost
all sense of the otherworldly destiny of man and thought that Christian
social action consisted in initiating a material paradise on earth. On
the Right there was and still is, in a bad way a tendency to shy
away from criticizing capitalism for fear of seeming reactionary.
So, the Church's clear stance against economic liberalism was and is
watered down into a kind of Catholic capitalism that doesn't square with
If in some circles Vatican II was used to try to appease the modern
world by meeting it on its own terms that, too, undercut any attempt
to conform the world to the faith according to Catholic principles.
Everyone now admits that the effects of Vatican II weren't all
marvelous. That, along with the realization that the post-World War II
triumph of liberalism and capitalism weren't unmitigated blessings,
provides the opportunity for a restatement, re-appreciation and
implementation of the integral social doctrine.
Q: Why does your press highlight the writings of thinkers who call
Sharpe: The Distributist School was the main group of English thinkers
from the 1930s who enunciated the vision of Catholic social doctrine
with the most clarity and vigor. They wrote in English and are
accessible to us. G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, both famous in
their own right, were among their numbers.
Most important, though, is their clear articulation of the Catholic
position in the face of the twin evils confronting it capitalism and
socialism. They understood that position fully, enunciated it in
excellent prose and acted upon it by founding leagues, movements and
journals that attempted to conduct an effective propaganda for the
social doctrine and to make it a reality in the world.
One example is a book by Harold Robbins, a leader of both the Catholic
Land Movement and the Distributist League, called "The Sun of
Justice An Essay on the Social Teaching of the Church." That
book is one of the best on the Distributist case for the social
The Distributists are a very good place to start in beginning to
reconstruct and re-popularize the social doctrine, and in attempting to
implement the solutions it offers to the manifold problems facing the
modern world. ZE03091126