The “poisoned spring” of the “evil individualistic spirit”

The “poisoned spring” of the “evil individualistic spirit” September 8, 2010

“Just as the unity of human society cannot be founded on an opposition of classes, so also the right ordering of economic life cannot be left to a free competition of forces. For from this source, as from a poisoned spring, have originated and spread all the errors of individualist economic teaching. Destroying through forgetfulness or ignorance the social and moral character of economic life, it held that economic life must be considered and treated as altogether free from and independent of public authority, because in the market, i.e., in the free struggle of competitors, it would have a principle of self direction which governs it much more perfectly than would the intervention of any created intellect. But free competition, while justified and certainly useful provided it is kept within certain limits, clearly cannot direct economic life – a truth which the outcome of the application in practice of the tenets of this evil individualistic spirit has more than sufficiently demonstrated.

Therefore, it is most necessary that economic life be again subjected to and governed by a true and effective directing principle. This function is one that the economic dictatorship which has recently displaced free competition can still less perform, since it is a headstrong power and a violent energy that, to benefit people, needs to be strongly curbed and wisely ruled. But it cannot curb and rule itself. Loftier and nobler principles – social justice and social charity – must, therefore, be sought whereby this dictatorship may be governed firmly and fully. Hence, the institutions themselves of peoples and, particularly those of all social life, ought to be penetrated with this justice, and it is most necessary that it be truly effective, that is, establish a juridical and social order which will, as it were, give form and shape to all economic life. Social charity, moreover, ought to be as the soul of this order, an order which public authority ought to be ever ready effectively to protect and defend. It will be able to do this the more easily as it rids itself of those burdens which, as We have stated above, are not properly its own.”

– Pope Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno.

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  • Frank

    Typical European Socialist blather.


  • Austin Ruse

    I wonder what country you are alluding to here? Certainly not the United States where we are loaded with the heavy hand of government. Where then? Where is this dream land where there is an untrammeled, unrestrained free market?

  • Austin Ruse


    I am sorry to be a pest on this question and to be a johnny-one-note but I do wonder if you idealize Europe vis a vis Catholic social teaching a little too much and also denigrate Protestant America to much in the opposite way…

    Your pal,


  • Austin, I admire the advent of Christian/ social democracy, which was not confined to Europe – the New Deal was built on the same principles. My main point is that the backsliding since the Reagan era has been lamentable.

  • When was social democracy actually practiced, and if it was practiced, how did it decay into modern day Europe, that moral, cultural, political and economic wasteland?

  • Europe is no more a “moral, cultural, political, and economic wasteland” than the United States, and far less so on some dimensions, including political and economic. Don’t buy into George Weigel’s biases.

  • Austin Ruse

    I ask a different question, Minion. How is it that Europe is your paradigm of Catholic social justice when only a tiny minority of European Catholics actually go to Mass, hardly any of them support the Church financially, and Europeans have no tradition of individual charitable giving? How is this the paradigm?

  • grega

    Amen to that MM.
    As long as even folks who could know better regurgitate the “typical European Socialist blather” meme ‘socialist’ countries like Holland and Germany will continue to gain in market share and economic strength.
    My fellow Germans can live quite nicely with the utterances of deliberately ignorant Americans who obviously have no glue what is happening right now under their noses. America will reinvent itself – it always has – but the verbal chest pounding will not get the job done.

  • R. Rockliff

    Mr. Ruse,

    I think that one could make a list of things that Europe does better than the United States. One could also make a list of things that the United States does better than Europe. Most intelligent informed people probably know what these things are, so I do not feel the need to list them here. The question, I suppose, is philosophical. How does one prioritize these things. Without presuming to speak for Minion, I think it is reasonable to infer that he believes that the things that Europe tends to get right are more important than the things that the United States tends to get right. It would be edifying to see a concise statement that carefully compares these goods.

  • Austin Ruse


    We are not talking about market share. We are talking about Catholic social teaching. I wonder if Protestant America doesn’t get it better than Catholic Europe. There is no name calling here. I LOVE Europe. i go there as much as i can, six+ times every year. All straw men are hereby rejected.

  • I think MM’s point here is not so much descriptive, but normative.

    In other words, this (highly emphasized) quote points to a normative teaching, not to a merely anecdotal set of descriptive issues.

    Whether America or Europe — who often seem like mirror images of what is meant by “Western” — are better or worse at making these normative teaching the case is not, in principal, the issue.

    The issue is the truth of this normative teaching, which, of course, is what makes it normative to begin with.

  • Austin Ruse

    Well, Sam, this is not isolated to this quote. Minion seems to make the case a lot that there is something wrong (Protestant) about America and that Catholic Europe is better at being Catholic. I am not so sure about that…would like to see the case made…

  • Fair enough, Austin, insofar as that is the case.

    Where I might quibble with both Minion and yourself is in the very idea that West is religious at all. It seems more committed as a whole to secularism and individualism — the pillars of liberalism old and new.

    If this is the case — in other words, if the US and Europe are more secular than Protestant or Catholic — then I would say we must look into their genealogies.

    On this point it very clear that the US has Protestant roots and Europe has Catholic ones. Both seem to have moved on towards values and identities that are deeply problematic from both Christian points of view.

    Therefore, this quote seems to call the West and the rest of the world to a move beyond the secular and individualistic vices of modernity and be faithful to the truth as a normative principle for a just — and holy! — social order.

  • Austin Ruse

    I look at the current strike in France. The unions have closed down the country because the Parliament wants to raise the retirement age to 62 from 60. This though people routinely live into their 80s. So they will be sucking on the public teat for almost as long as they worked. This even though the country is going broke. Does this demonstrate concern for teh common good or the dangerous individualistic spirit spoken of by Benedict. And this in the heart of CAtholic social justice-land.

  • grega

    Austin it is a constant push and pull – yes if one pushes too hard one might end up flat one ones behind. Companies push – Countries push -Citizens and Workers push back – all fair and square – it is a never ending game of adjusting to the new reality that we call tomorrow.

  • Austin, it most certainly true that unions can be, and many time are, very oppressive. I think teacher’s unions are ruining what little education there is left in public schooling, for instance. I find your account of France to be a compelling case too. But this only proves the point: the individualist spirit is evil and poisons all kinds of political things, unions included.

    However, insofar as a union is not infected by this, then, it seems plausible that it might be able to seek the common good in converse ways that an infected union could not.

    This all goes to show that — regardless of anecdotes and descriptions — the normative basis for this quote is sound and true.

    If you take my point that sees your America and Minion’s Europe as largely alike in their secular individualism, then, I think the bare truth of this can be swallowed without worry that it is a political ideology sneaking-in on the back of truth.

  • Micha Elyi

    I doubt Pope Pius XI is saying what Morning’s Minion supposses him to be saying. Let’s review this sentence (which MM chose to highlight): “Social charity, moreover, ought to be as the soul of this order, an order which public authority ought to be ever ready effectively to protect and defend.”

    Notice that “protect and defend” does not mean “impose.”

    Case closed.

  • Austin Ruse


    My question is whether the United States is better than Europe vis a vis CAtholic socail teaching. First, American Catholics still attend Mass in large numbers, American CAtholics still financially support their church. Both of these are it seems to me the basis for CAtholic Socail teaching. And then, American Catholics, like most Protestants, are actively involved in PERSONAL giving and PERSONAL commitments to helping the needy. Most of this does not exist in Europe. Perhaps all are poisoned by individualism but who is poisoned more?

    finally, put aside unions. This was not an attack on unions. It was a question about teh mindset of a people who would shut down a country over raising the retirement age two years to the incredibly young age of 62.

  • Austin,

    Per a point I have made a few times now, descriptive and anecdotal questions do very little to affirm or deny normative truths.

    Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that both and Minion and I are wrong and you are right about the descriptive question. Minion is mistaken about the relative superiority of Europe and my view that see them as equals in their shared status as “the West” is also off the mark.

    You win, we both lose in our different ways of seeing things descriptively.

    Setting that aside, the normative issue still remains to be seen. If it is true that “the right ordering of economic life cannot be left to a free competition of forces. For from this source, as from a poisoned spring, have originated and spread all the errors of individualist economic teaching” then it seems fairly obvious that all sources of social order via economics and politics must be held to this normative standard of truth, regardless of their descriptive differences.

    Now, I happen to think that Europe and the US are both equally wretched in different descriptive ways. I tend to sometimes wax Catholic about Europe in ways that I do not in the US for genealogical reasons, but I think that even those lapses are unwise on my part.

    Truth be told, the economics of Europe and the US are guided by the same modern principles that oscillate between capitalism and socialism — and both of these approaches are misguided from the normative view of Catholic Social Teaching.

    I am about to hit the road and won’t be online, but I would hope that you would see the distinction between descriptive and normative issues and, in doing so, comment on the normative aspects of this quote and CST in general.

    Peace and good,


  • David Raber

    Austin et al.–

    Christian values–such as those supporting European social democracy–can be operative in a society where Christian belief and church membership are at low levels. Why not? People don’t have to go to mass every Sunday but they do have to have some moral principles guiding their actions–or at least family and social pressures encourage us to have them a lot more strongly than they encourage holding to certain doctrines or religious practices, and then there is that thing called conscience. So where else can Europeans go for their values outside of the Judeo-Christian tradition, be they ever so skeptical or atheistic in relation to religion? (And Maybe I’m indicating here what Pope John XXIII had in mind when he encouraged Catholics to see what was good in the modern world.)

    Bottom line: Social democracy is a system much more in line with Christian values–what Jesus taught!–than a system more “free” in economic terms, as the popes for more than a century have seen and said.

  • Austin Ruse

    But…I dont buy that a “Catholic” society that has a stronger system of state financial support but 1) no one going to Mass, 2) no one supporting the Church, and 3) no one personally donating their time and treasure to helping the poor is a better example of Catholic social teaching. The good Samaratin did not rely on government to take care of the man suffering in the road. He did it personally and then provisioned another neighbor to help. What we see now in Catholic Europe is something quite different, hardly anyone personally helping, and what we see in America is a much greater commitment to the personal help of neighbor, more along the lines of the Good Samaratin.

  • Austin Ruse

    I would also think that “social justice” carried out without love — as evidenced by attending the sacraments and by a personal commitment to Church and a personal commitment to neighbor — is no more than a clanging symbol. Certainly, as least for Catholics, prayer, the sacraments, and personal commitment, must precede social justice. One of the most common complaints i hear from my friends and colleagues from most European countries is that no one is going to Mass, and no one personally supports charitable endeavors.

  • Austin Ruse

    Sorry to prattle on….

    Look at markers of generosity like adoption. America dwarfs the world in domestic and foreign adoptions. American generally has to fight the world in order to adopt.

    Look at overseas assistance. While Europe leads the US in official, that is, government assistance, in real terms, that is when you include private giving, the US leads Europe.

    I think American Catholics owe a great debt of gratitude to our Protestant brothers and sisters and to the individualistic spirit that says we first owe our personal support to those in need.

  • Austin:

    Back from my little trip and disappointed that you have not answered/understood my question/clarification. Is there any way I can be more clear and communicate better?


  • Austin Ruse

    I would ask, Sam, where in teh world is economic life left to a free competition of forces? Where? Even a single place where this happens? I wonder if this is more of a papal straw man. But, i digress. Back to the question. Where is this a reality?

  • Austin, were I playing a more cut-throat game of blog commentary, I would insist that you answer my objection/question first.

    But I am no cut-throat and your question leads me back to my own point of clarification.

    At the descriptive level, my answer is “no where” — every country hedges its best with some sectors being mostly free and others being tightly regulated and/or taxed.

    But the pope is speaking about the spirit of individualism which is something different than a literal place where anarchy might exist in its most vulgar form. This brings us to the normative discussion where individualism is seen as normative, as a principle that is true or untrue. The pope here says that individualism is a poor principle and a false norm.

    Perhaps, the fact that no places carry-out this principle in toto is proof that the norm cannot fit itself into meaningful into descriptions.

    I have no fetish for a “what country is better” argument. I owe no fidelity to anything but the Truth. And normative claims are either true or untrue, regardless of the description we might want to argue about.

    I get the sense that you (and many leftist friends, too) of mine are more preoccupied defending a home turf, or a particular pet way of thinking, than digging into the truth at stake, come what may.

    So, now, here is my question:

    Putting aside the descriptive questions of who is better or worse, the USA or Europe, on what normative and principled basis do you object to the quotation MM posted here?

  • Austin Ruse

    Who said I object? I’m getting at the reason Minion put it up; as a stick to whomp the States. We all, including me, have our hobby- horses.

  • Just to be clear:

    I asked: “Putting aside the descriptive questions of who is better or worse, the USA or Europe, on what normative and principled basis do you object to the quotation MM posted here?”

    And you replied: “Who said I object?”

    So, I guess I made a false assumption — mea culpa. Let me ask a more basic question then. Please reply to this one:

    Putting aside the descriptive questions of who is better or worse, the USA or Europe, on what normative and principled basis do find the quotation MM posted here to be true or untrue?

  • Austin Ruse


    You mistake me for one of your students….

  • Austin,

    I don’t understand what you mean by that. Does that mean that since you are not one of my students that you do not have to reply to my question? Or are you saying that since I am not your professor that I am not allowed to ask you questions? (Neither one of those interpretations seem very persuasive to me)

    I would grant, of course, that you are not one of my students, but I am unsure on why that makes any difference in having the courtesy to reply to my delayed and amended question that goes as follows:

    Putting aside the descriptive questions of who is better or worse, the USA or Europe, on what normative and principled basis do find the quotation MM posted here to be true or untrue?

    As someone who has entered in this dialogue with goodwill, could you answer that question please?

    Thanks in advance!

  • Austin Ruse

    It is not a question that interests me, Sam.

  • Austin Ruse

    What i meant was you sounded like I was one of your students and you just assigned me an essay question.

  • Your refusal to reply to the question is very provocative, Austin.

    It is curious for you to have an extended exchange and then end by saying that one of the key components of the exchange disinterests you. Plus, it is also poor manners to ask questions to someone and then refuse to reply to that person’s own questions when they ask a question of their own — after they themselves have replied in good faith to your own question.

    On the point about (not) being my student: I have never brought up your day job and I find it disappointing that would bring up mine as some kind of a way to score points and evade a straightforward question.

    I’ll give you one more chance here to redeem yourself. Please, Austin, since you have clearly invested some time into this thread that only features one quotation, would you kindly reply to this question:

    Putting aside the descriptive questions of who is better or worse, the USA or Europe, on what normative and principled basis do find the quotation MM posted here to be true or untrue?

    Thanks again, in advance.


  • Austin Ruse


    I promise you i am not trying to be provocative. Really. The question just does not interest me.

    I was actually trying to get an answer out of Minion myself, about his usual assertions that the Catholic Europeans are better at Catholic social teaching than the Protestant Americans which is the subtext of this proof text from Pius XI. He hasn’t answered and that’s cool. I will get him to answer one day! And i will likely learn something.

    You have brought up a topic i am just not interested in. I am truly sorry if this upsets you. You are good guy and i do not want that to happen. Perhaps one day i will study the question — though the Acton Institute! (that’s a joke! Not really, but is still meant to amuse and not anger) — and then we can reengage.

    All the best,


  • Fair enough, Austin.

    I accept that you won’t answer. And I am not mad. I am concerned though. Let me say a bit about why.

    As I put it earlier: “I get the sense that you (and many leftist friends, too) are more preoccupied about defending a home turf, or a particular pet way of thinking, than digging into the truth at stake, come what may.”

    This discussion proves my sense.

    The fact that this quote is merely a way to measure-out who’s country or ideology or sports team or whatever is better or worse shows that Catholic teachings are being treated as mere instruments and not as directives towards truth.

    In politics, as I see it, the truth is at stake. For that reason I have little patience for rooting for this team or the other, unless the ‘team’ is truth itself.

    The fact that you have no interest in discussing what is true or untrue in this quote concerns me deeply. It shows that you are only interested in comparing descriptions and not in digging-in to the normative question of what is true or untrue about what descriptions reveal or conceal.

    When conservatism abandons truth and picks up political gamesmenship is when I get mad that I cannot call myself what I want to be in my heart of hearts: a (real) conservative — someone passionate about seeking and preserving what is true.

    So I am calling you out, in charity. Either be a true conservative or admit to being just another liberal.

    (That sounds awfully nasty and confrontational, but I take you to be the kind of person who can take that sort of language and reply with the presumption of civility that it is based on.)

    Best to you too,


  • Austin Ruse

    Somehow, Sam, I will try to live with myself.

  • grega

    🙂 Sam you must be itching for a fight calling Mr. Ruse ‘just another liberal’
    And you can be assured that the ‘true conservatives’ in this country will not let you steal their luster and most precious position by allowing you to call yourself a ‘true conservative’. Besides in case you have not noticed ‘true’ implies that you are a bit better than them (what would that make them ‘fake conservatives?”) .
    This liberal leaning catholic enjoys your musings – in my view your positions are all over the place – which is not a bad place to be.

  • Austin Ruse

    It is heartening to me that so many are fighting over what is a true conservative. Everyone wants to be one! Not many fighting over “liberal”.

  • grega

    “Not many fighting over “liberal”.”
    A interesting point – rest assured that will change in the coming decades.

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