National Catholic Register


Catholic and Protestant Scholars Speculate On Task of Bringing Social Teaching to Life

BY Jim Cosgrove

November 22-28, 1998 Issue | Posted 11/22/98 at 2:00 PM


GRAND RAPIDS, Mich.—A landmark conference brought together Catholic and Protestant thinkers Oct. 30-31 to reflect on the past century of Christian social teaching, focusing on the remarkable achievements of Pope Leo XIII (1810-1903) and Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920), a Calvinist theologian and Dutch politician.

The conference underscored the basic compatibility of Christian social teaching with liberal institutions—democracy, free markets, cultural pluralism—but also raised unanswered questions about the practical difficulties of living the Christian faith in contemporary free societies.

The conference, entitled “A Century of Christian Social Teaching: The Legacy of Leo XIII and Abraham Kuyper,” was sponsored by the Acton Institute and Calvin College, a Protestant theological college and seminary. It was held in Grand Rapids, Mich., where both institutions are based.

The conference boasted influential figures from both the Catholic and Protestant world, including Templeton Prize winners Chuck Colson and Michael Novak, Mark Noll, Fr. Avery Dulles, and Archbishop F.X. NguyÍn Van Thu‚n, President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. It was held this year to mark the centenary of Kuyper's 1898 Stone Lectures at Princeton, a series in which he outlined his vision of a Christian social order.

Pope Leo XIII began modern Catholic social teaching – theological reflection on the political, economic, and cultural ordering of society – with his famous 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum. In the same year, Kuyper delivered a major address on poverty that paid tribute to Leo's work. Yet conference participants judged that Kuyper's achievement, based on a Calvinist framework, eventually reached many of the same conclusions and principles as Leo XIII. Reflecting on the degree of agreement gave hope that contemporary Christians will find areas of common witness in the field of social teaching.

In fact, the areas of general agreement for the conference participants will not surprise those who have followed the work of the Acton Institute, which works to advance the compatibility between Christian social teaching and classical liberalism, as understood to mean political liberty and free-market economics.

Speakers of both traditions emphasized the centrality of human dignity and human freedom, and the need for the state to leave room for human creativity and solidarity.

Mark Noll, author of the widely acclaimed book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, focused on the the human person as key. “Much of the power of Kuyper and Leo's work derives from their attractive picture of the ways that a Church-anchored social policy preserved the dignity of God and the well-being of humans in ways that neither the varieties of socialism nor the plans of individualistic liberalism could.”

Noll was one of several speakers who raised the thorny question of whether free—and often prosperous—societies are hospitable environments for the development of virtue. He asserted, “It is clearer now in 1998 than it was in 1989, at the point of collapse of state communist regimes, that mere markets and freedom by themselves cannot revive economic life and restore societies. A wide range of commentators seem now to agree that for these goals to be reached it will take markets with morality, enterprise with ethics, and opportunity with responsibility to nurture an improved economic and social life.”

Professor Bob Goudzwaard of Amsterdam took the question further: “Now the greatest threat comes from a far too dominant economic sphere and the corresponding business activities, which tend to commercialize almost all elements of human culture, infringing deeply (think of aggressive advertising campaigns) in the sphere of family life, making it very difficult to educate young children in a non-materialistic way.”

Reflecting on more than 100 years of Catholic and Protestant teaching, in the end the conference clarified perhaps the most fundamental challenge for the future: how to strengthen free markets and democracy without allowing them to dominate every aspect of society and the lives of its individual members. (Raymond de Souza)