Volume > Issue > The Catholic Bishops & the Political Theory of Philanthropy

The Catholic Bishops & the Political Theory of Philanthropy


By Dante Germino | April 1986
Dante Germino, an Episcopalian, is a professor in the Woodrow Wilson Department of Government and Foreign Affairs at the University of Virginia, where he teaches political theory. His books include The Italian Fascist Party in Power and Beyond Ideology: The Revival of Political Theory.

One of the effects of modern life’s extreme specialization is to make attempts to see things whole suspect to the cognoscenti, who stamp the seal of legitimacy on ideas currently in circulation. When non-practitioners of the academic specialty known as “economics” have the temerity to make judgments about “the economy,” they are in for a cool reception from the certifiers of “sound” thought in the media and universities.

It came as no surprise, then, that the nation’s Roman Catholic bishops were widely lambasted as economic quacks or religious authoritarians or both, for issuing their first draft of their pastoral letter on the American economy. Eleven months later, in October 1985, they issued a second draft, largely neglected by the media. (The final version is expected in November 1986.) The second draft is less inspiring than the first and reads in places more like a committee report than a challenge to metanoia (change of heart). Nonetheless, enough of the language and spirit of the remarkable first draft re­mains to make it possible to treat both drafts as a single document conveying a coherent political the­ory.

What is political theory? The same cogno­scenti referred to above, having absorbed the fact/value dichotomy regnant in the social sciences, tend to view political theory either as opinionated “ideology” (an “ism” of the “left” or “right”) or as a set of hypotheses to “guide” social scientific research. In the latter case, one can of course have “theories,” but they are more likely to be hypothe­ses testable according to the rules of abstract sche­matic methodologies than they are to be philo­sophical world views. “Theory” in this “scientific” sense is accepted and even commended by the cog­noscenti because it defines what is “relevant” in the language of the prevailing ethos. That ethos happens to extol acquisitiveness.

When I say that the Catholic bishops present a “coherent political theory,” I am using “theory” in its original sense. The Greek word theoria came from theorein meaning “to see.” With the develop­ment of philosophy, Plato and Aristotle meant by theory above all a form of “inward” seeing. In the Parable of the Cave in Plato’s Republic, the philos­opher-theorist “sees” the true Sun, the Idea of the Good, only after having acquired a new character by inwardly turning himself around. Plato contend­ed that only through metanoia, or a kind of intel­lectual and spiritual change of orientation, could a person recognize reality for what it is.

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