A Debate on Catholic Social Teaching

A Debate on Catholic Social Teaching September 15, 2011
Stephen H. Webb, professor of religion and philosophy
Me, visiting asst. professor of philosophy and teacher ed.

About two weeks ago, the Wabash College Newman Center hosted a debate on Catholic Social Teaching between my dear friend Stephen Webb and yours truly. It was an exciting event, especially in terms of attendance—nearly 200 people showed up on a campus of around 900 students. The debate isn’t driven by a resolution, it is more of a conversation. While there is some humor that may be particular to Wabash, the general thrust of the debate covers many topics of interest to Vox Nova readers.

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  • Peter Paul Fuchs

    Well, that was entertaining. Rocha’s handsome presentation, if I may say so, won out. Even though he did not involve himself in historical reflection as much as Webb. That was probably a good thing, for Webb seems to have gotten just about every historical point wrong, if one takes mere academic history as a guide. Perhaps Webb consults Thomas Woods type history. I was especially amused about the “ten percent tax” that allegedly got “distributed to the poor” in pre-revolution France. That is an absolute howler, and shows Webb’s utter ignorance of the fact that may of the poor were also living and working in benefices (precursors of parishes) and thus already giving plenty in work and goods to the Church. That is why they stayed poor! Of course — as reactionaries want to do today as well — the clergy and rich people paid little or no tax at all. And the idea that these these funds somehow “went to the poor” is just ridiculous in light of the vast poverty of those connected with church benefices.

    Webb’s comments on Rerum Novarum are just incredible. He speaks as if it was some universally groundbreaking endeavor in the world. Far more trenchant thoughts about human social justice had been written before that; and many gave their lives even to put those ideas into effect in their own countries. Even within the Church itself these ideas were not groundbreaking, as Pio Nono endeavors and reflections very early in his reign were far ahead of that. That Pio Nono later became more reactionary is of course tragic, but that does not erase that for a time he entertained such thoughts and was even seen as a great hope for liberals around the world, but gave them up. Still, Rerum Novarum is impressive in its way in light of the Catholic tradition, and the fact that it was enunciated with such solemnity by a big world figure is surely a good thing. But Webb’s idea that this is in itself such an important document that even non-Catholics should be taught it shows a solipsism that is pretty strange. Though Rerum Novarum is well written for a papal document, it cannot hold a candle to many more persuasive texts on social justice, important as it is in Catholic circles.

    Lastly, I would like to see the “studies’ that Webb is referring to saying that conservative Christian give more charity. Let me guess, they were done by a right-wing think tank. Similarly, his defense of the term reactionary, and his historical misunderstanding of the fac that the right-wing’s revanchism (both clerical and otherwise) was itself towards an idealized-utopian notion of nostalgia, shows why he thinks reactionary is a nice word. In his treatment, it is a la-la land. not the dangerous and history-destroying thing it usually is.

  • brettsalkeld

    “I’m not a statist either, but really, who is? Who is”


    Webb attacks a “socialism” that does not exist.

  • brettsalkeld

    “A program to change others on your behalf.”

    Like the Iraq war?

    C’mon, everyone votes for a party that tries to change others on our behalf. That’s what parties are.

  • Mark Gordon

    Excellent, Sam. I thought your point about Webb reading the documents that define CST through the lens of his ideology and political affiliations was powerful. As you noted, we are instead called to evaluate secular ideologies through the lens of Church teaching, applying not only the letter of that teaching, but also the spirit.

    I did think you could have countered his representation of CST as being primarily concerned with charity by emphasizing the biblical and Catholic focus on justice. Webb is typical of many Evangelical converts (like myself), who still think of the faith in highly individualistic terms. Personal charity is surely a fruit of the changed individual heart, but justice is a corporate, social imperative; and in modern society, characterized as it is by the state as an important – even dominant – guardian of the common good, social justice is a proper end of government.

    Last, I think one of the best counterpoints to Webb might have been simply listing the key themes of CST, as summarized by the USCCB: the life and dignity of the human person; the call to family, community and participation; rights and responsibilities; an option for the poor and vulnerable; the dignity of work and the rights of workers; solidarity; and care for God’s creation. Just reading that list leads ineluctably to the conclusion that the Church sees CST more in terms of social justice than personal charity.

  • Mark Gordon

    I also thought it was rich for Webb to read the contemporary American conservative notion of “limited government” into CST. Isn’t he the fellow who wrote a book defending American imperialism, war, and the national security state?

  • Great debate…thank you! I’m going on retreat this weekend and your combined remarks will be something to reflect on. As a member of a Secular Franciscan fraternity I would love to share this with my group. I’ll put it on our fraternity blog, but in order to present it to the general membership in a formation setting, I would need some way to download the video. Is that possible?

    I hate to be a fence sitter but I actually found myself connecting with both of you. It seems that particular circumstances have a lot to do with how to interpret and implement CST. CST is so rich that just getting nearer the core can have a profound effect. In the final account, its about the Church moving all of us, collectively and individually, along the path of continual conversion.

  • Great job Sam! Very helpful! I’m going to share this around UD…

  • Where to begin? I’m astonished that a noted intellectual like Webb would speak on a topic about which he clearly knows very little–even to the point of attributing the principle of “subsidiarity” (the right wing’s favorite CST term) to Leo XIII. In fact, even though he was holding up a copy of the Compendium, he has evidently not read chapter 4 and knows nothing of “the universal distribution of goods,” much less “the preferential option for the poor.” His most fundamental mistake–as Rocha correctly pointed out–was his mischaracterization of “charity.” Caritas in Veritate makes the point very directly: “charity” is not just occasional philanthropy; it is the basis of all moral behavior. It begins–and must begin–with giving every person his/her just due, but it does not end there. In a humane society, it must infuse the economic system itself with gratuitousness. Only in this way will it be possible to eliminate the structural causes of underdevelopment. Of course, it does not seem that Webb recognizes the structural nature of poverty at all, a point on which Rocha might have further critiqued his position.

  • Kurt

    Lastly, I would like to see the “studies’ that Webb is referring to saying that conservative Christian give more charity. Let me guess, they were done by a right-wing think tank.

    The data is accurate, but it is how it is twisted. Yes, conservatives give more than liberals to charity. Charity is not the same as relief for the poor. The largest amount of charitable giving goes to maintain the donor’s house of worship, therefore the large number of secular liberals depress the numbers. Church going liberals give more than church going conservatives and secular liberals give more than secular conservatives.

    After maintaining one’s house of worship, relief for the poor often stands down for charity directed to the arts such as the opera and symphony, education like the donor’s college or prep school, and animal welfare for lost puppies and kitty-cats.

    And then further, charitable giving tends to be a phase of life practice. Most charitable giving is by people over the Social Security eligibility age. Again, when adjusted for age cohort, the differences disappear. The issue is that young people are more likely to call themselves liberals.

  • Peter Paul Fuchs


    Thank you for that. It is amazing how statistics can be twisted, and someone who has a handle on the details is invaluable. What is kinda depressing is that somehow types with your skills are always in short supply, it seems, and therefore mere polemicisists have at it. I am not against polemics, as they clearly serve a societal purpose. But the better part, for sure, is careful analysis. Somehow history just flushes the polemics, by all of us, down the toilet. The further trouble is that one needs special training to do various types of analysis, from the philosophical to the statistical. As someone who has always been math- challenged, the latter is beyond me. Still, one develops a nose for B.S. and that can help a person to get by. But to sum it up so succinctly as you have done shows a special ability, and I am sure glad you seem to be a liberal!