One of the frequent laments heard since the Second Vatican Council is that Catholics have forgotten their centuries-old heritage, and as a result, that heritage has not been transmitted to new generations of the faithful. Things that Catholics took for granted in the 1950s and earlier, such as knowledge of basic doctrine, familiarity with forms of prayers, such as the Rosary, and with sacramentals such as the brown Scapular or the Miraculous Medal - so many younger Catholics know little or nothing of these and hence have been robbed of so much of their religious heritage. And this is a lament that I fully agree with. But there is another aspect of the Faith and its practice which we contemporary Catholics have also largely forgotten. This is the Church's commitment to the social apostolate, championed so boldly by the popes since Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum, but now, in the dreary culture war that afflicts the United States, either lost sight of or even labeled as socialistic. Our Catholic forebears were not socialists, but as supporters of the social doctrine of the Church they were often radicals, and we have forgotten just how radical they were.
As an example, consider the Knights of Columbus Crusade for the Preservation and Promotion of American Ideals, issued in 1946. Today the Knights are hardly known as an organization likely to be critical of American economic institutions. But the Knights 1946 Crusade included a sharp attack on contemporary capitalism, and
listed the rights of the workingman as including the right "to a job, to a family living wage, to collective bargaining, and to strike, to Joint-Management, enroute to Joint Ownership of Industry" and, until the latter condition is reached, the right to all forms of social security: unemployment compensation and disability and old-age insurance.…
Indeed, in its treatment of the causes of Communist ferment and social unrest, the plan listed the "Abuses of Unrestricted Capitalism":
(a) Unfair distribution of wealth.
(b) "Rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer."
(d) Oppression of the poor by the Four Capitalistic Dictators:
1. Over wages.
2. Over prices.
3. Over other people's money.
4. Over money, the medium of exchange itself.
And so on. I don't suppose any of my readers would look for the Knights of Columbus, or any mainstream Catholic organization, to issue anything remotely similar today. Its rhetoric would be seen as veering dangerously close to that of politicians such as Senator Bernie Sanders, who are often identified as socialists. But such talk was not uncommon in the past among Catholics. Readers might want to take a look at my review of Msgr. Fulton J. Sheen's 1938 book, Justice & Charity, to see more of such criticisms of capitalism instanced.
These criticisms of capitalist economic practices took their cues, of course, from the papal social encyclicals. Beginning with Leo XIII, who spoke of the workers as "given over, isolated and defenseless, to the callousness of employers and the greed of unrestrained competition" (Rerum Novarum, no. 3), to Pius XI, who condemned as a "polluted spring" the notion that the economy can be regulated simply by free competition (Quadragesimo Anno, no. 88), the popes identified the Church with a critical view of the economic doctrines that arose out of the Enlightenment. It is no wonder that Catholics of that time made efforts to publicize and promote the social doctrines taught by the supreme pontiffs.
Why did this sharp critique of capitalistic practices so largely disappear from the Catholic mainstream, even though the later popes by no means abandoned the social teachings of their predecessors? I think it is due largely to three things. First, because the subsequent anti-Communist crusades of the 1950s rarely included such criticisms of capitalism as could be found in the 1946 Knights of Columbus program and other Catholic efforts of that period. In time criticisms of capitalism were mostly forgotten and the focus shifted toward simple denunciations of Communism. Second, because of the increasing affluence of Catholics during the 1950s, who began moving away from traditional Catholic neighborhoods and in the process both lost their Catholic cultural roots and more and more imbibed the materialism characteristic of American Protestant culture. Probably the chief factor, however, was the loss of Catholic self-confidence and the breakdown in Catholic identity and discipline following the Second Vatican Council. As a result of this loss of identity, Catholics increasingly merged into one or the other of the cultural/political blocs existing in the United States, so that now most Catholics are, in effect, liberals or conservatives first, and Catholics second.
So when we lament our massive Catholic memory loss, let us recall that our heritage included a sharp critique of American capitalism. Laudable efforts to revive a sense of Catholic identity, if they are not to err by suppression of essential elements of the Faith, must include the Church's social doctrine. Catholics must learn not to think of this doctrine as either liberal or conservative, but simply as the Church's authentic interpretation of both the natural law and of revealed truth. If this does not happen, then any Catholic revival will be only partial, will be a revival shaped not by the contours of the Faith, but by the divisions and priorities of the Protestant and secular culture that dominates the United States.
 Christopher J. Kauffman, Faith and Fraternalism: the History of the Knights of Columbus, 1882-1982 (New York : Harper & Row, 1982), p. 361. Emphasis in source.
Title photograph by David W. Cooney. All Rights Reserved.