Work, the Social Question, Progress and the Common Good?


In Recovering Self-Evident Truths: Catholic Perspectives on American Law, editors Michael A. Scaperlanda and Teresa Stanton Collett offer a collection of essays that revive the connections between faith and reason and between truth and hope as the foundation for progress. Given the importance of papal encyclicals, work, and the increasing demands of the regulatory state, this article concentrates on three central and related themes that surface throughout the book: the difficulty, in America’s current epoch, of acknowledging any shared truths, the question of labor and employment policy in a pluralistic society, and the relative balance needed between state intervention on the one hand and voluntary associations, properly-formed communities and individual autonomy, on the other. Ultimately, these themes give rise to a fundamental question: can liberalism be coherently conceived within parameters provided by Catholic social thought?



Scaperlanda and Collett’s enterprise, featuring more than a dozen authors, is held together by the authors’ persistence in pursuing objective truth as the criterion of judgment.  Objective truth may be in conflict with the concept of pluralism, which declines to concede that rights necessarily have a moral footing rooted in truth. Moreover, government officials, who wield state power, ostensibly to achieve the common good and to secure moral and economic progress, may have an interest in denying the truth. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal illustrates this possibility. Seeking moral and social progress, the book concentrates on Catholic anthropology, “which should equip Catholic legal thought for dialogue with secular disciplines and secular culture by opening up a space of truth in what is common to all.” Regardless of how attractive this move may be, complications surface.



It is not clear whether or not the United States can provide an environment, where society can move toward a shared understanding of justice, progress and the common good. If not, can self-evident truths receive an adequate hearing in a society in which individuals are disoriented by endless possibilities offered by postmodernism? I argue that the book, Recovering Self-Evident Truths: Catholic Perspective on American Law can be a source of progress toward a proper account of the common good if American society accepts two observations: (1) law, as a coercive force, cannot fully fashion change within the human person, and (2) the correctness of Pope John Paul II’s assertion that structural transformation of society is secondary to moral renovation.