Right-wing Catholics gone wild!

Right-wing Catholics gone wild! October 25, 2011

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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