Craig PRENTISS, Debating God’s Economy: Social Justice in America on the Eve of Vatican II. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2008. Clothbound. ISBN-13: 978-0-271-03341-9.
Reviewed by Reviewed by Paul MISNER, Marquette University, Milwaukee WI 53201-1881.

This book’s title, highlighting “God’s economy,” raised my suspicions that it would be a caricature of Catholic social thought and teaching. Initially I was also somewhat put off by the emphasis given to the religious-studies categories of “ideology” and “myth” that here respectively designate the natural-law tradition of moral argumentation and the role that papal encyclicals (Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno, of course) played in the intra-Catholic debate of the 1950s.

The more descriptive subtitle, however, caught my attention. I am glad it did, for Prentiss has written a solid and insightful study of the topic that deserves to be incorporated into the history of what has been called “the Church’s best-kept secret:” Catholic social teaching. It is the case, as Prentiss persuasively documents, that in the period treated no Catholic spokesperson challenged the encyclicals or called into question the Church’s mission to pronounce on economic systems, though those engaged in the debate ably pulled the magisterial statements toward their preferred stance. (Al Smith’s alleged shrug, “What is this ‘enkicklical’?” is not mentioned, though the average Catholic’s lack of awareness of the popes’ claims in this field is acknowledged.) The notion that there was a “Christian social order” waiting to be realized more or less on the same plane as capitalism and socialism was hardly challenged by interested Catholics.

The limitation Pius XI himself noted in Quadragesimo Anno par. 41 also goes unmentioned, viz. that the Church is indeed duty-bound to “interpose her authority” where moral issues are concerned, but “not of course in matters of technique for which she is neither suitably equipped nor endowed by office.” It is most likely that this qualification was hardly ever cited by the participants in the debate in those years. This was also the case in the European scene after Quadragesimo Anno. As Stephen Pope puts it, “the ideal of a distinctive Catholic social order” (in M. Himes, ed., Modern Catholic Social Teaching, Georgetown University Press, 2005), 41-71, here 52) received at least lip service on this side of the Atlantic into the 1950s.

In the three central chapters, the author unearths the applications of Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno in the pertinent arenas. There were those who set out to bring (1) life on the land, (2) industrial labor, and (3) American Capitalism, into conformity with the design thought to be articulated in Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno, to “sanctify” economic endeavors. The agricultural chapter deals with the Distributist current, the National Catholic Rural Life Conference, and the Catholic Worker movement. The labor chapter focuses on the Association of Catholic Trade Unionists with John Cort, the Young Christian Workers with Msgr. Reynold Hillenbrand, and especially on the Social Action Department of the NCWC with Msgr. George Higgins, noting also the likes of George Meany in the AFL-CIO. The capitalism chapter is also a real contribution in bringing to light the alternative interpretations of the social encyclicals by some university professors and writers in the periodical Ave Maria.

These well documented chapters are followed by two concluding chapters on two much agitated issues of the time, namely right-to-work legislation and “industry council” plans. This research reveals much—not all—of the preconciliar worldview of American Catholic social thinkers and activists and of their divergent readings of the encyclical tradition. The critical distance maintained with the aid of an overall approach from religious studies is on balance a great boon to historical understanding.

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