Right-wing Catholics gone wild!

It’s been a while this I’ve seen such a fit of collective apoplexy among our friends on the Catholic right. They are incensed by a document on global financial reform put out by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.

Let’s look at some of the reactions.

George Weigel says basically “move along, nothing to see here” : “The document is a “Note” from a rather small office in the Roman Curia…The document doesn’t speak for the Pope, it doesn’t speak for “the Vatican,” and it doesn’t speak for the Catholic Church.”

Acton Institute spokesman Kishore Jayabalan calls is “schizophrenic”: “The Church has always taught that the problems are best solved at the lowest level so this is a strange remedy. This doesn’t even feel like a Catholic document.

The flame-throwing Fr. John Zuhlsdorf – who incoherently opposes individualism in the liturgy while idolizing it in the economy – is “trying to keep his blood pressure down”: “thanks be to God this “white paper” doesn’t form part of the Holy Father’s Ordinary Magisterium.”

Young  Thomas Peters, as always, tries to turn this into a Republican talking point: “the Church herself is always careful to make clear that her moral and religious teaching is dogmatic and binding while her social teaching –and particularly her economic teaching– is exhortative and prudential”.

And everybody’s favorite angry old man, Bill Donohue, rants: “the text is not an encyclical, nor is it the work of Pope Benedict XVI…The document released today also emphasizes the need to follow the Catholic principle of subsidiarity. This means that solutions to social and economic problems should begin at the most local level, not at the national, much less the international, level.” I thought the Catholic League’s job was to defend Catholicism from ill-formed criticism and attacks…ahem, like this one?

There are a number of objections here, all easy to refute.

First, the notion that there is somehow a distinction between moral teaching and economic teaching. I’ll let the magisterium refute this directly. The compendium of social teaching states clearly that “the Church’s social doctrine insists on the moral connotations of the economy”. And Pius XI in Quadragesimo Anno had this to say: “Even though economics and moral science employs each its own principles in its own sphere, it is, nevertheless, an error to say that the economic and moral orders are so distinct from and alien to each other that the former depends in no way on the latter”. “An error“, Mr. Peters.

Or take the point of Benedict XVI in Caritas in Veritate about creating false divisions in Catholic social teaching: “clarity is not served by certain abstract subdivisions of the Church’s social doctrine, which apply categories to Papal social teaching that are extraneous to it…there is a single teaching, consistent and at the same time ever new”.

Second, the notion that subsidiarity means that there is no role for a supranational authority. This reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of subsidiarity. Especially in America, subsidiarity is misunderstood as mere localism, or even worse, “small government”. In fact, it is predicated on a cohesive social order, where the different parts work together in harmony and help each together. As explained very well by Stephen Shneck, it is based on the notion of a “social order as a body-like whole, in which everyone has moral obligations vis-à-vis others in light of the common good” and where policies must be “performed by the most appropriate level of the social order to achieve results without too much overage or too much underage in the application of power or resources. Overage creates unwanted dependency. Underage fails to fully satisfy needs relative to the common good.”

If you look at this document, you will see it is underpinned by subsidiarity, a correct understanding of subsidiarity. Noting that globalization has made the world more interconnected than ever before, it notes that there is no effective governing authority directed toward the common good at the supranational level. To use Schneck’s language, one could say that subsidiarity is violated by imbalances of overage towards large financial players threatening economic stability and the common good. And subsidiarity is violated by imbalances of underage, as the private sector alone is unable to direct economic life toward the common good and inequality is on the rise. To quote the document itself, “According to the logic of subsidiarity, the higher Authority offers its subsidium, that is, its aid, only when individual, social or financial actors are intrinsically deficient in capacity, or cannot manage by themselves to do what is required of them”.

As Pius XI noted when he developed the theory of subsidiarity, economic life should be “subjected to and governed by a true and effective directing principle”. It “cannot be left to a free competition of forces” and cannot “be considered and treated as altogether free from and independent of public authority”. This is what lies behind the call for a supranational institution to safeguard financial stability in the current document. In our globalized world, the “subsidium” can no longer be provided by individual countries alone.  Thus the document calls for an entity to put itself at the services of its members by creating the “socio-economic, political and legal conditions” for the smooth functioning of the global economy. So, this is steeped in this tradition of subsidiarity. Sorry, Mr. Jayabalan, it is a very Catholic document.

Third, the idea that these ideas are not part of magisterial teaching. This is a little disingenuous. As the document notes, the notion of a world political authority is an old one in Catholic social teaching. It certainly goes back to John XXIII in Pacem in Terris. And it was stressed heavily by Benedict XVI in Caritas in Veritate, as a proper response to what he referred to as the “unrelenting growth of global interdependence”. As he notes: “In an increasingly globalized society, the common good and the effort to obtain it cannot fail to assume the dimensions of the whole human family, that is to say, the community of peoples and nations”

In this context, the encyclical talks about establishing a “political, juridical and economic order which can increase and give direction to international cooperation for the development of all peoples in solidarity”. And its aims would include managing the global economy, reviving economies hit by the crisis, and avoiding any deterioration of the present crisis and the greater imbalances that would result.

The new document merely fleshes this out. It teases out some implications. It makes it more specific. It asks questions such as: what would such an institution look like? What principles must underpin it? These are all very valid questions, and they flow naturally from clear magisterial teaching.

And while we are on the topic of magisterial teaching, there is no older, no more consistent emphasis in the entire corpus of Catholic social teaching than the denunciation of individualism, laissez-faire liberalism, libertarianism (call it what you like) in economic life.


At the end of the day, these arguments are all pretty weak. And deep down,  I think they know it. I suspect the tone of the criticism reflects some discomfort with the implications of this document for individualism and nationalism, the two great ideologies of modern America. There is a reason right-wing Catholics are a little jumpy today – they’ve been hit where they are most vulnerable.

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  • Peter Paul Fuchs

    If Kathryn Lopez flashes us by taking off her top I am retiring from all blogging!

  • Kurt

    I would truly like to read a conservative commentary on this document as sober and reflective as MM’s. If anyone can steer me there, I would appreciate it, as I sure have not found it on my own.

  • brian martin

    No offense, but what is to be uncomfortable about. This document outlines an ideal, something people should work toward. It is not something that is realistically going to be implemented anytime soon, so any discomfort is likely at the thought that the Pope and the Magisterium are not quite so in lock step as the Republican wing of the US Catholic Church as the Republican wing would like to think. They know, as you indicate, that they cannot claim that these statements are not teachings.

  • http://www.acitizenpayingattenton.blogspot.com Bruce Cole

    I can’t believe that neither Michael Novak, nor the Cornel West of the American Right (a.k.a. Robby George) has vomited forth a “response” yet…Get with it, guys; gotta keep up with the your modern-day breviary, the News Cycle.

  • Marissa

    I really didn’t think this really refuted anything. The church’s moral teaching applies mainly to believing individuals. This includes the economic teaching. No one can force their neighbor to tithe because “it’s the Catholic church economic teaching”. Also, church fathers in general are not economists….thank god. The problem in the country is not that one side wants to help the poor and the other side does not. If that were the problem, well, I think goodwill would win out. The problem is how to help as many people as possible while still keeping the country afloat and prepared to help in national disasters. Each side has a different theory. Right now the country runs(at the very least) 30 percent overbudget which is dangerous. Most priests don’t have degrees in calculus or economics….so I would say….why does the right side care? Because they know the left side is going to use this to say….”Look we’re the good guys!”

    • http://roadgoeseveron.wordpress.com Henry Karlson

      You do realize MM is an economist? And, more importantly, while one might ask how one deals with the principles (as one, for example, talks about the way Obamacare does or does not fund abortion — and economists say it doesn’t!), but the principles themselves are moral principles, which the Church has authority over. And here, the Church has consistently spoken out against individualism.

  • http://roadgoeseveron.wordpress.com Henry Karlson

    Now we see Thomas Peters complaining he didn’t get the document in advance: http://www.catholicvote.org/discuss/index.php?p=22071

    Well, forgive me if I don’t remember things correctly, but didn’t he get a copy of Jesus of Nazareth II before others?

    More importantly, he continues with the “orthodox” claim, though he ignores 1) the Papal support behind the document and 2) the traditional right which has called for the same body as this document calls for.

    It’s fine to disagree with the document, within reason, and to argue or question it. It’s another to treat it as so many do, which is to dismiss it. It’s even worse that one’s dismissal can be had on the notion “I I didn’t get an advance copy.”

    I know Thomas Peters. I can and do get along with him in person and I think he can be someone everyone can dialogue with, in person. He deserves dignity and respect as everyone else. However, I do question his commentary and the methodology he uses to engage it. Sorry, Thomas, this is too much. I mean, I didn’t get a copy of Jesus of Nazareth before everyone else, nor for free; nor did I get a copy of this. But this doesn’t mean I can’t find good in both!

  • http://renegadetrad.blogspot.com A Sinner

    There ARE distinctions to be made.

    “First, the notion that there is somehow a distinction between moral teaching and economic teaching.”

    Moral principles certainly must be applied to the economy. But specific concrete solutions/suggestions ARE debatable and a “prudential” teaching. Something like “no stealing,” or “render unto caesar,” or “no usury,” or “option for the poor,” are the principles which can be doctrinal, but how to best enact those principles in terms of CONCRETE proposals IS “merely” prudential and debatable.

    “Third, the idea that these ideas are not part of magisterial teaching. This is a little disingenuous. As the document notes, the notion of a world political authority is an old one in Catholic social teaching.”

    Perhaps, but the idea that “there should be a world political authority” is simply NOT an article in the Deposit of Faith in the way of a dogma.

    It is an attempt at a proposal of how certain moral principles of social teaching could be enacted best in the modern world, but it is “prudential” in the sense that there can be disagreement legitimately about what “enacted best” means or how to achieve things most feasibly to maximize various values in the contingencies of history. The Faith has no such “platform” or “program” even if the Vatican might proposed one “based on” the moral values the Church DOES hold.

    And I say all this as someone who entirely AGREES with the document for the most part, and who does not like the sorts of people you have rightly denounced here.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/voxnova Morning’s Minion

      On your first point: what you say is fair, but what Peters says is not. He distinguishes moral and social teaching, and says one is binding and one is not. In reality, prudence determines how we apply all binding pricnciples into practice, whether it is protecting the unborn or seeking economic justice. But with Peters, everything goes back to supporting every dumb Republican idea.

      On your second point: correct, but the deposit of faith is a pretty high bar!

      • Kurt

        Both “A Sinner” and MM’s comments are right on the mark. My only minor disagreement is when MM writes “But with Peters, everything goes back to supporting every dumb Republican idea.”

        Sadly, I think even that is kind to young Peters.

        I believe what the Holy See is getting at (and I believe they would be right) is nothing more than the equivalent in the finance sector of what the Madrid Protocol does for trademarks. In other words, nothing over the top radical or outlandish or to be feared and nothing the private sector has not found workable elsewhere.

        I think what young Peters and the others are most upset about is not any dumb policy idea the Holy See’s statement works against . They are upset that they may be losing a rhetorical cudgel for stirring up TEA Party types with the fear of imminent world government. This is a cousin to their campaign against Sharia law in USA.

        It is even more regretful they would throw the leaders of the Church “under the bus” to defend TEA Party talking points.

  • Julian Barkin

    So, em, Minion, since you are refuting these arguments in bold in classic, Hamburger paragraph, old school formal debating style (I love that aspect btw), this means that this document IS part of the magisterium of the Church and we must obey it? How is it then part of the Magisterium?

  • Anne

    What’s maddening is that so many U.S. Catholic conservatives have NO commitment to either traditional conservatism OR the social teachings of the Church. They all seem to think Reaganism is a subset of Catholicism. How did this happen? Somebody should write a book about it. Or has one been written?

    • Sean O

      St Ronald Reagan as he is viewed among many on the Catholic right absolved the well to do of all sin. Reagan gave his benediction to the end of the social contract. He removed the sense of responsibility we should have to others, to our community.

      Reagan replaced duty to others with fealty to the market. Essentially, ” Go forth and maximize shareholder value and thru the magic of the market, the beneficence of the invisible hand, the tide will lift all boats and all of society will profit and be served as well as possible in this best of all possible worlds.”. This call that you may best serve society by focusing on looking out for number one is the sweetest sounds the well to do ever heard. Greed was transformed into grace. A powerful message for someone inclined to hear it. On top of this Reagan SAID he was pro-life (as opposed to actually doing pro-life work). This siren call was too much to resist for many of means on the Catholic right. This gospel of Reagan was imbibed so deeply and distorted adherents thinking to the point they now have adopted the repulsive message of one so unhinged and anti-love as Ayn Rand.

      We have gotten to the point where a member of the criminally greedy and arrogant like the pres of Goldman Sachs can say with a straight face that his company was “doing God’s work”. Instead of jeers and howls of laughter, the ideologues nod in approval. As a society we are so lost.

  • Brian Martin

    I think the problem is this…in matters of say…life, family etc. the right view the statements through the lens of the Church, but teachings on social justice, especially economic justice, is viewed not through the lens of the Universal Church speaking to its body worldwide, but rather through the eyes of the economic system of the United States

  • Charles

    Hey, guys. This is the planning-to-convert Charles again. I don’t understand the difference in levels of Church teachings. Why are some teachings “moral” and have to be followed while some writers are describing this new document as “economic” and so not moral and not a required belief? I thought the point was that Catholics are supposed to live our lives as God wants us to and to work to a society that God would want. We inevitably fail at both, but we strive to those ends. Both are part of Catholic living. Please explain, and as always, comments and instruction are very welcome. I’ll be checking back and thank you for taking the time for helping me understand.

  • Kerberos

    “There are a number of objections here, all easy to refute.

    First, the notion that there is somehow a distinction between moral teaching and economic teaching…..”

    ## Surely all Catholics know that economic justice is a part of justice – not just as a virtue, but also as a reflection in society of God’s moral character. For the Church to be “kewl” with economic injustice amounts to saying that Jesus was not bothered about how people treated one another; and that whereas the Prophets frequently savage the wealthy and powerful for their callous and oppressive treatment of the poor, Jesus thought that kind of behaviour was OK wiith God. Dives in Luke 16 is the very likeness of the kind of man whose economic well-being blinds him to the poverty of others – are we to believe that Jesus was not opposed to such blindness ? If the Church is in any sense worth discussing a manifestation of the Reign of God that Jesus preached, it cannot have values that oppose the Reign of God – and these values include social justice in all its forms. As the Psalms make clear enough.

    Time for a hefty dose of Paul VI’s “Populorum Progressio”, perhaps. The documents people or cultures don’t like, may be the very ones they need to know & read and study.

  • http://roadgoeseveron.wordpress.com Henry Karlson

    Cue Michael Voris:


    Let’s see

    1 this is merely a “research paper”
    2 this is from those “Justice” people, people we know are evil
    3 the Pope didn’t say this (ignoring encyclicals)
    4 liberals to be blamed for making this important
    5 Church teachings on the poor is not “dogmatic”

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  • Kerberos

    Isn’t abortion an issue of J & P ? Call it an issue social righteousness w/in the Reign of God, and economic doctrine an issue of social righteousness, and that might clarify things. Perhaps the word “justice” confuses things.

  • Kerberos

    I thought “the cafeteria [was supposed to be] closed” LOL

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