New Distributism 3 — Suggestions For A Praxis For The Church’s Social Doctrine

New Distributism 3 — Suggestions For A Praxis For The Church’s Social Doctrine April 1, 2014

I am writing a series of columns on Catholic social doctrine. Here’s all of them.

(Note: the series starts with criticism of the status quo, but it gets better, don’t worry.)

In my previous column, I pointed to what I see as a significant problem in much contemporary religious talk about economics, which I dubbed aestheticism: condemning or praising arrangements, neither on the basis of sound empirical judgement, nor on the basis of the Gospel, but simply on the basis of an aesthetic judgement.

This begs the question: how should the Church think of the praxis of its social doctrine? I would argue that if the Church were to recover its best traditions (and the best of Tradition), its social teaching would focus on two things: the use of what I’ll call the prophetic voice and, on the other hand, a relentless empiricism.

When, in a quote that echoed around the world, Pope Francis wrote “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?” in Evangelii Gaudium, he was, oh so rightly, using the Church’s prophetic voice.

When he said this, the Holy Father was not proposing any policy, nor making any judgement about the wisdom of such or such economic arrangement. Instead he was—again, rightly—calling out the egoism that is so pervasive in our society, which ultimately stems from our sinful nature. He was shining a light on a fact that Jesus himself endlessly called attention to: that God’s priorities are not our personal priorities, nor our society’s priorities. It is a call for personal conversion.

In this he follows in the footsteps of many of our greatest saints, like St Basil, who preached: “The bread which you hold back belongs to the hungry; the coat, which you guard in your locked storage-chests, belongs to the naked; the footwear mouldering in your closet belongs to those without shoes. The silver that you keep hidden in a safe place belongs to the one in need. Thus, however many are those whom you could have provided for, so many are those whom you wrong.”

Basil, just like Jesus when he condemned wealth, is not calling for a slightly higher rate of taxation to fund a worthy government program. Instead, he is calling for conversion to the Gospel of Love.

The paradox is that the Church’s all-too-necessary awareness of human finitude has, at times, blunted this prophetic voice. This may change under Francis, but too often the criticism of the world’s economic arrangements on the world’s terms has substituted for the prophetic voice, which critiques the world on God’s terms. Regardless of the merits if the Pope, say, criticizes Europe’s austerity policies, even if he is right (or, “right”) as a matter of economics, that cannot substitute for the holy call to personal conversion to Jesus Christ.

With this being said, a properly Catholic social gospel cannot be content with just this prophetic voice. Of all the Christian denominations, Catholic doctrine is the one that holds reason with the highest regard. Catholic Tradition holds, as has been supremely expressed by Thomas Aquinas, that God’s designs can be discerned by man using reason applied to the natural world. It shouldn’t have to bear saying that this is a tradition the Church can and must still live up to.

Thanks to the heightened Catholic awareness of our rational nature as part of our imago Dei, the Church has been mother to the world’s richest intellectual tradition, founding the great universities of Europe and nurturing brilliant scientists and philosophers too many to count.

In other words, even as it makes no bones in using the prophetic voice, the Catholic Church should, seeing no contradiction whatsoever—because there is not—dedicate itself to a relentless empiricism in its social doctrine. Facts are stubborn things, and any Catholic doctrine worthy of the name must deal with the world as it is in order to teach us things about the world as it should be.

The aestheticism that so often directs the Church’s social rhetoric tries to bridge the gap between the Gospel and the created world, but being properly rooted in neither, it ends up failing at describing both. At the risk of making a provocative analogy, one might say that just as Jesus Christ is both fully man and fully God, instead of being a demigod, the Church’s social doctrine must be unashamedly prophetic and relentlessly empirical, instead of being a little bit of both blended together.


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  • Is April Fools a holiday in France the way it is in the United States?

  • Razo Bravo

    Nice post. The question is: how do we bridge this gap between the prophetic and the empirical? We believe we have a very concrete proposal that can do just that: voluntary taxes.

    • Interesting! Thank you.

    • Paul S.

      The idea that democracy can still evolve is great. But what if the young would-be politician who volunteers 90% of his income is approached by those who would offer him those pleasures of life that money can buy? (he gave away almost all of his income to gain the maximum political power possible… so he can’t be living that comfortably)
      I’m more pessimistic that politics will always be a dirty business, but your presentation was thought-provoking.

      • Razo Bravo

        Thanks for watching, Paul. Yours is a very common and understandable objection that fails to grasp:

        1. The math behind the model (voluntary taxes are to be measured proportionally and compounded annually) and

        2. The force of competition.

        These two forces, together, make the scenario envisioned by your objection virutally impossible. Not because corrupt people don’t exist, but rather because of the mathematical nature of the model in conjunction with basic human praxeology.

        You don’t have to take my word for it, of course. We have very rigorous mathematical models to demonstrate the logic. I won’t burden you with those models here. Let me just compare your objection to worrying that, because humans tend to cheat, there is a risk that a very obese and out-of-shape runner will be less tan honest and win the Olympic marathon. It just isn’t going to happen.

  • Razo Bravo

    I’m sorry to have prematurely bombarded your blog. I have just taken a look at what your intention for this series and I will certainly be following. I am a professor of Public Economics in Spain. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  • Mike Blackadder

    Another great post! This is good advice for the whole body of the Catholic church (at least the part living on Earth ;)). The thing I feel uncertain about is the ‘relentless empiricism’ part. I agree with you from the point of view of how we think and how we apply judgement according to faith, but it seems problematic from the point of view of the authority of the magisterium. If, for example, the magisterium is to be ‘relentlessly empirical’ regarding an area like social doctrine how confident can we be that they are an appropriate authority for that purpose? Don’t get me wrong, I recognize that there is a tradition of great discipline, scholarship and even worldly wisdom that guides the Church, but what is our assurance that our religious leadership would be best equipped to discern what is factual based on empiricism?
    If the Church has no SPECIAL ability to discern what is empirically true then why would they contribute in a special authoritative way to that conversation?

  • This series should become an important book!

  • I am hoping to read your thoughts on social justice within Christianity, as opposed to as a governmental paradigm.

  • Beth Turner

    I have sometimes wondered whether the reason that the Church’s social teaching fails to reach and impact society in a broader way is that the scope of application gets too big in our national political debates. In particular, there are so many empirical data points to take into account within the massive entity that is our nation that anyone on either side of the debate, from either political party, can often find an example where a particular policy doesn’t obey the prophetic voice.

    For example, the same empirical data doesn’t apply in Virginia as it does in California. And sometimes, it doesn’t even apply in all of California or all of Virginia in the same way. It strikes me that personal conversion is so, so necessary for individuals well-acquainted with the data, so they can apply it as far as (but only as far as!) the data leads them to do.