Three Fallacies about Catholic Social Teaching

Three Fallacies about Catholic Social Teaching October 4, 2012

1. The Church has no expertise in economics, which is a technical area best left to experts.

In fact, Church teaching on economics, and Catholic social teaching in general, is firmly rooted in moral theology. As Pius XI put it in Quadragesimo Anno, it is “an error to say that the economic and moral orders are so distinct from each other that the former depends in no way on the latter”. That error is rather common in today.

John Paul II is equally clear. In Centesimus Annus, he notes that “social doctrine, by its concern for man and by its interest in him and in the way he conducts himself in the world belongs to the field of theology and particularly of moral theology”. In Sollicitudo Rei Socialis he says that social teaching is part of the doctrinal corpus, and that “with the development of peoples”, the Church “cannot be accused of going outside her own specific field of competence and, still less, outside the mandate received from the Lord”. The Church, after all, is an “expert in humanity”.

2. We should emphasize private charity over state action.

Catholic social teaching is quite clear on the two pillars of charity – the private path and the institutional path. As Benedict XVI says explicitly in Caritas in Veritate, the institutional path of charity is “no less effective than the kind of charity which encounters the neighbor directly”. There is simply no way that justice can be attained in modern society through private initiative alone.

Benedict also notes that charity goes beyond justice, but never lacks justice: “I cannot give what is mine to the other without first giving him what pertains to him in justice”. Pope Paul VI says we should make sure that “the demands of justice be satisfied lest the giving of what is due in justice be represented as the offering of a charitable gift”. Or as St. Augustine said so simply, “charity is no substitute for justice withheld”.

Of course, this is all related to how to the Church sees the role of the state, which is quite different from the contemporary fad on the American right to define its role in minimal terms – securing public order and basic rules of the road for private freedom to flourish. This approach – which sees individual liberty and freedom from coercion as the bedrock of the social order – is totally at odds with Catholic social teaching. After all, we are the children of Aristotle, not John Locke. And so Pope Leo XIII could confidently declare in Immortale Dei that “Man’s natural instinct moves him to live in civil society…no society can hold together unless someone be over all, directing all to strive earnestly for the common good…every body politic must have a ruling authority, and this authority, no less than society itself, has its source in nature, and has, consequently, God for its Author”.

Clearly, then, it is the duty of the state to support the common good – this is a constant refrain throughout Catholic social teaching. As Pope Benedict puts it in Deus Caritas Est, “the just ordering of society and the State is a central responsibility of politics”. Pope John XXIII in Mater et Magistra is even more direct: “As for the State, its whole raison d’être is the realization of the common good in the temporal order. It cannot, therefore, hold aloof from economic matters”. So it has a role in distributive justice, in protecting the poor and the wage earner, and in creating favorable conditions for all members of society to flourish. In the modern era, the state’s role is likely to increase, not diminish – this was a point made by Benedict XVI in Caritas in Veritate.

3. We should draw a hard line between non-negotiable teachings and prudential judgments.

Catholic social teaching stems from a single source – the innate dignity of every human person made in the image and likeness of God, defined not by autonomy but by interpersonal relationships, made not for himself but for gift. As Pope Benedict says clearly in Caritas in Veritate, “Clarity is not served by certain abstract subdivisions of the Church’s social doctrine … a single teaching, consistent and at the same time ever new”. The book of nature is one and indivisible, he says.

Of course, this fallacy, like all errors, contains a kernel of truth. There are general moral principles that must always be accepted, including the sacredness of life, solidarity with the poor, the pursuit of peace etc. But translating these principles into concrete action means taking a few steps down the ladder of certainty. We are applying universal principles to specific facts and circumstances. We make prudential judgments. We are often fumbling in the dark.

This applies pretty much across the board. Just look at abortion, for example, often seen as the ultimate “non-negotiable” issue. And indeed it is. But when we look at how policy effects abortion, we are delving into prudential judgment. For example, you might be asked to choose between a “pro-life” candidate whose main contribution would be to appoint justices who might overturn Roe v. Wade, while doing all kinds of other harm to the social order at the same time, or a “pro-choice” candidate who fights all attempts to restrict the availability of abortion, but nonetheless supports the kinds of economic and healthcare policies that will reduce the incidence of abortion. Such a choice involves a prudential judgement, one we are required to make.

It is exactly same with the principles of economic justice – solidarity, subsidiarity, the preferential option for the poor. We make imperfect assessments of how various policy proposals will affect the common good.

So far so good. But it is here that people go wrong. They use the badge of “prudential judgment” as a kind of “get out of jail free” card. They wave their hands in the air, and say opinions differ, and so we must leave it at that. Here’s the problem: if we do this, we are not properly applying practical reason to the task at hand – we are showing little interest in “truth”. Just consider the Romney-Ryan economic plan. The evidence is clear: the poor would suffer disproportionately, as two-thirds of their spending cuts are focused on programs that benefit the poor, while about 50 million extra people (from the Obama status quo) lose health insurance. The rich benefit disproportionately. And debt rises beyond the baseline, given the extent of the upper-income tax cuts.

How can this be aligned with Catholic social teaching? It cannot, unless you make crazy assumptions that defy reason and logic. I think the only way to actually defend it is to assume that it has no chance of ever being implemented!

I believe what we are seeing is the cloak of “prudential judgment” being used to disguise deviation from the underlying principles of Catholic social teaching themselves. And we have evidence for this – both Romney and Ryan are on record defending the individualism associated with Ayn Rand, and the liberalism of autonomy and self-determination where you “define happiness for yourself”, as Paul Ryan put it in his convention speech.

People in this camp also seem to be in the habit of defining reality for themselves! It goes back to Elizabeth Anscombe’s seminal criticism of Cartesian psychology, where “an intention was an interior act of the mind which could be produced at will”.  Anscombe goes on: “if intention is all important – as it is – in determining the goodness or badness of an action, then, on this theory of what intention is, a marvellous way offered itself of making any action lawful. You only had to ‘direct your intention’ in a suitable way. In practice this means making a little speech to yourself: “What I mean to be doing is…”

Anscombe was talking about the targeting of innocents in war. But we could say the same thing about economic policies. If “I have no intention of hurting the poor, the unemployed, or the uninsured”, then anything goes. But it doesn’t. And therein lies the problem.


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  • Amy

    I’m sorry, but I cannot find room in my conscious to vote for a candidate that supports a platform which denies not only human rights, but the basic recognition that they *are* human beings, to a specific group of people. Which part of the social order is more important than defining which people get full-human and which get sub-human status? Be as prudential as you like; I’m not willing to throw my lot in with someone who refuses another group of people–not only money, not only access and opportunity and every basic need–but HUMANITY itself.

    Also, on the subject of “institutional charity,” I would have to disagree with the author’s emphasis on one line from Benedict’s encyclical, that “institutional charity is… no less excellent and effective than the kind of charity which encounters the neighbour directly.” Because the very next sentence in Charitas in Veritate clarifies and narrows his meaning: “*When animated by charity,* commitment to the common good has greater worth than a merely secular and political stand would have.”

    Have you ever applied for some “institutional charity”? I have, and let me tell you, it is by no means necessarily “animated by charity.” In practice, it is humiliating and condescending and handed out (or withheld on a technicality) by people who have no inclination to see you as anything other than the biggest waste of five minutes they’ve had all day. When a person is struggling and suffering and has no community or resources to help them, “institutional charity” is there to make them feel like not even a cog in the machine can bring itself to care about them. You think you are helping people by perpetuating a system that requires them to depend upon this bureaucratic nightmare for basic sustenance? Before you break out people’s pocketbooks to pay some governmental institution to dole out food and housing and condescension to people who, most of all, need to know that there is ONE PERSON out there who thinks it would be a good idea that they, PERSONALLY, continued to exist–before you put your money and your vote into a system that CANNOT EVER tell them this, why don’t you donate to a local shelter or support organization? Better yet, look a homeless man in the eye next time you pass him, and volunteer to actually help people yourself. But don’t tell me that the government is going to be the catch-all charity organization that gathers up all the least of these into the bosom of its bounteous love, or lovely bounty (as the case my be). The present system we have, largely supported by the democratic party, merely perpetuates dependence by the poor and the wage-earner on institutions that are much more cold and heartless than any blue-blooded politician–and certainly more so than the taxpayers that are depending on them to distribute necessities to those who need them–and allows comfortable people to remain comfortable in the fact that they hardly, if ever, reach out their own, physical hand to someone in need. The government is NEVER a replacement for you. If you want to help, do it. Be brave, get dirty, and look somebody who’s struggling in the eye. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that the government is going to be your charity for you. The government does not have charity. It has food, and shelter. But not one ounce of caritas.

    • I live in India, Madam, where some people actually ARE starving, and, to prevent themselves and their families from dying, they do not ask in what “spirit” their food is being donated. In such situations as the one prevalent here, to claim that “private” charity can prevent disaster must seem a vicious joke.

      • Paul O.

        Is the following a more nuanced position that both you and Amy can agree on?

        1. Private, personal charity is the best charity as it admits the real value and the need to be loved inherent in its recipient.
        2. Public, communal charity is the least form of charity and at its worst when it exhibits the tendency to treat its recipients as problems to be solved rather than beings to be loved.
        3. Performing a lesser good is better than doing nothing in the face of a problem when the best option is not available.
        5. There has never been enough private charity in the USA (much less India!) to meet the basic needs of our poor, sick, and disabled citizens.
        6. When there do not exist enough local, private resources to provide basic care to the less fortunate in real need, subsidiarity demands that a higher level of society step in to fill the gap until the gap is closed.
        7. Therefore taxation to aid the poor can sometimes fulfill the requirements of subsidiarity until a better solution is reached.

      • Paul Matthews

        Fair enough about India, but her point is made in reference to the American situation which has almost no resemblance to the American situation. Your point is a non-sequitor which I find to draw away attention from a very good point made.

        • Most of the world resembles India, not the United States; the Catholic Church, American Catholics tend to forget, has almost no roots in American culture, and must address the problems of the MAJORITY of her “parish,” which ARE the world’s poor, mostly. And I DO agree emphatically with Paul O’s comment above. It’s the position of the Community of Sant’Egidio, which is, in my opinion, the best of new Catholic lay movements.

    • @Amy — Private charity never has, and never will, even begin to address the size and scope of want and need in this world. Conversely, public charity, through social programs, has. It’s that simple. If you are not willing to have your government feed, clothe and house the needy, then you had damn well better be ready and able to feed, clothe and house every single one of those people who are taken off the public dole by your high-minded ideals. Every single one.

    • I’m sorry to see–but not at all surprised to see–that the first response to Amy’s heartfelt comments was so snide and condescending. That’s exactly the issue we face in trying to define the proper role of government vis-a-vis the institutions of civil society in addressing the needs of the marginalized: the elites assume that ANY objection whatever to government-run projects or preference for private assistance is mean-spirited. However, rarely do those same elites seek help from the government bureaucracies they create and champion as salvific for others. Rather, they distance themselves as far as they can from such impersonal and inefficient agencies and pay instead to be treated in a more humane fashion by private businesses.

      • Kurt

        Being a Democrat and a union member, I really don’t travel in the elite social circles Ron seems familiar with. I don’t even have a dancing horse. So I defer to Ron about the opinions of elites.

        I can tell you from spending yesterday with a group of lower middle class Ohioans with uncertain job security and with family members in even more unstable situations, they care deeply about access to the pillars of our American social insurance system — Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, Unemployment benefits, Workers Compensation, Trade Adjustment Assistance, SNAP, Disability Insurance, School lunches, Meals on Wheels for the elderly and disabled, etc.

  • Actually, the Romney-Ryan “austerity” plan COULD be justified by Catholic voters under the broad aegis of “prudential judgment,” if the whole polity were being told the truth about its impact, and the whole polity were asked to bear the burden of the sacrifices necessary to implement it in a proportionately equal measure. The fact that it’s being LIED about by the interests groups seeking to implement it, however, should automatically qualify it to as an ATTACK on Catholic social justice teachings.

    Hopefully, however, some day a “conservative” candidate will arise who will ask the people to sacfifice equally, for the sake of the common good. Unfortunately, however, judging by the current cultural climate, it will only happen when a crisis equivalent to the American Civil War is imminent. At that time, the “conservative” political candidate whose thinking is in tune with Catholic “social justice teachings” should, in all decency, blame the snake-oil salesmen of the American political right, such as Romney and Ryan, as being equally responsible with the “godless” Democratic Party.

  • Julia Smucker

    MM, I’d say you’re halfway to a good Catholic both/and. The first fallacy sort of illustrates my assessment that the Church could in some sense be called “conservative” on sexual ethics and “liberal” on social ethics. Tellingly, the right claims the Church has no expertise to speak on economics, and the left claims the Church has no expertise to speak on sexuality. And yet Church teaching in either case is indeed rooted in moral theology, and furthermore these areas of the human experience are deeply integrated in the holistic anthropology of CST.

  • Tim

    Thank you, Amy, for your comments. It IS grave matter to facilitate an Obama victory…Read the Priests for Life information, SBA List information, information, information, etc. They all agree that Obama must not get re-elected, which means voting for Romney/ Ryan!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    • Dan

      >They all agree that Obama must not get re-elected, which means voting for Romney/ Ryan!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      There are no other candidates? There’s no option to not vote? To write in a candidate? I must support evil?

    • Julian Klee

      1994 – Mitt Romney’s Debate with Sen. Ted Kennedy

      “I believe that abortion should be safe and legal in this country,” Romney said at the time. “I have since the time my mom took that position since she ran in 1970 as a U.S. Senate candidate. I believe that since Roe vs. Wade has been the law for 20 years that we should sustain and support it and I sustain and support that law and the right of a woman to make that choice. And my personal beliefs, like the personal beliefs of other people, should not be brought into a political campaign.”

      Kennedy responded, “I am pro-choice, my opponent is multiple choice.”

    • Tim –

      Romney is not pro-life. Read virtually [edit: everything] he said before he ran for president and needed to win Republican primaries.

      Here’s the thing, Tim. Neither party has any institutional commitment to the legality of abortion – either way – except as a shiny thing to dangle before the rubes and get votes.

      Judging by their actions – as opposed to pious noisemaking – both parties really exist only to serve different factions of the plutocracy. Neither gives a rat’s tail about anyone incapable of financing campaigns.

      • Dante Aligheri

        This is, unfortunately, true. I think the only way to end abortion is a cultural reformation. Our binary politics is incapable of taking decisive action regarding of any the key issues which are really plaguing the nation and the world because the immoderate policies necessary to fix them will always anger some key interest group necessary to garner votes. This is true for abortion, climate change, environmental degradation, health care and social security, poverty, etc.

  • Reblogged this on Dover Beach and commented:
    This is a very good post from another blog concerning Catholic social teaching in light of the current political debate. I highly recommend it to you.

  • dominic1955

    1. It is both right to say that the Church has no expertise in economics and also to say the Church has every right to judge the morality of economic policies. Economics (science or pseudo-science as it may be seen) is not exactly high on the priority list at the seminary. It should come as no surprise that the bishops or priests will have no expertise in this field of study other than what they might have picked up on their own. Same applies to laymen, they might be economists but probably aren’t. So in the actual field of economics, all the calculations and whatnot are best left to the expertise of those trained in the field. However, the Church can certainly judge the morality of economic theories. For instance, both Marxism and laissez-faire capitalism have been properly condemned by the Church, and one of the main reasons is that both of them consider people to materialistically be akin to cogs in a system-disrespecting their innate dignity. One doesn’t need to know how to do the bookwork calculations and such to judge principles on top of which someone is doing their calculations.

    2. Of course the State (a perfect society in its own right, cf. Leo XIII) has a duty to uphold the common good in temporal matters. However, while Church and State have their own sphere’s, its also the constant teaching of the Church that the Church has the duty to be the State’s “conscience”. The ideal is for a State to be properly Catholic because then, and only then, can it truly and fully attend to the true common good. Recognizing the realities of the world and that such a state doesn’t exist now (and certainly never has in the U.S.), we also recognize that the State is going to fulfill its duty (if at all) imperfectly. We should rightly support the legitimate efforts of the State to improve the welfare of the poor and disadvantaged. However, we also rightly stand aloof from their efforts that do not seek to truly improve the welfare of the poor and disadvantaged merely because it is touted as some sort of “social justice” endeavor. In a State with a high level of liberal secularist influence, I think the best option is to curtail their authority and power wherever justly possible. Rat poison is mostly grain. It does no good to go after their social justice carrots knowing that the stick of moral deviancy and rampant secularism will be right their along with it. So, in principal, the State has a very legitimate role in distributive justice. In practice, failing in their duty to uphold the true common good, first and foremost being the creation of a cultural environment that is absolutely supportive of the citizenry attaining their heavenly homeland, we need to be very careful in how and what we support.

    3. This is also a very true statement. There cannot be an absolute wall built between prudential judgement and non-negotiable. However, the non-negotiable has to be the deciding factor on how that judgment is excercised. In your example of the pro-life/pro-choice candidate, the pro-choice candidate fails utterly in principle. Supporting such a morally repugnant cause explicitly in principle and practice, as part of their party’s official platform, should exclude them absolutely from any believing Catholic’s voting choice. That is akin to wanting to vote for Hitler because the Autobahn and Germany’s rise from the ashes of their horrible economic collapse was great-let’s just ignore that whole systematic murder of groups of people, violent subjugation of other countries, hatred of traditional religion, etc. thing. There would be a much better correspondence between moral norms if one group didn’t officially support morally evil policies and then one could measure their economic or social plans without having the albatross of objective evil that taints any good their policies might possibly do.

    Social economic policies cannot be said to certainly affect people in a positive or negative way. After Obamacare was passed and after four years of the glorious reign of the Wun, are we in a magically perfect world? Are people still starving? Are there still extremely serious social justice issues out there, meaning real people with real needs and problems. You bet there is. The poor we will always have with us. One might want to say the Ryan economic plan is going to hurt the poor. How do you even know what of it is going to be implemented and even if it was that people are going to be really harmed by it? I do not recall the plan making arrangements for Republican einsatzgruppen going around offing welfare recipients, is there? Intention is a red herring. No one is proferring any sort of plans that they think are going to hurt anyone-intentionally or unintentionally. So, unless you are omniscient and know just exactly how all of these would pan out, reasonable people can disagree without being said to be heartless plutocrats or their sycophants.

    I remember a time not that long ago when one could pretty much vote for candidates from either party in my locale based on more objective economic/political rationales without having to be dichotomized into a choice by the Democrat’s explicit support of the insanities of abortion or gay “marriage”. How much could we get done if we didn’t have to fight about such ridiculously wrong things!

  • Thales

    ..the liberalism of autonomy and self-determination where you “define happiness for yourself”…

    Morning’s Minion,

    It was interesting you noting “the defining happiness for yourself” idea with the “anti-ecomomic justice” side (if I can call it that). It made me think of the other “defining happiness for yourself” idea that is the foundation of the other side you talk about in the post: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” (It’s the legal principle supporting our abortion law, from the Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision.)

    Anyways, I was thinking about your last point #3, and what I think is the similarity between the two sides you identify: the “pro-life/anti-economic justice side” and the “pro-economic justice/anti-life side”. Now both sides are imperfect, and both sides have good things about them. I can see how a reasonable Catholic voter might say “I’m making a prudential decision that Obama is better for the common good, because his administration would further economic justice for thousands of people and that outweighs any negative effect he has on life justice.” Do you think it’s possible for a reasonable Catholic voter to say “I’m making a prudential decision that Romney is better for the common good, because his administration would further life justice for thousands of people and that outweighs any negative effect he has on economic justice.” I’m not saying that the last voter with whom you surely disagree is correct — I’m just curious whether you think a reasonable Catholic voter could have a different opinion from you.

  • Rick Garnett

    Thanks, MM, for this. I have a post with what (I think are some) friendly amendments, at MOJ, and I wonder what you think:

    I’m not getting into the specifics of your conclusions regarding the “Romney-Ryan economic plan”, though again, I agree that it’s not enough to simply say, “these proposals are prudential and so they need not be morally evaluated.” My disagreement with you has more to do with my belief — which I’m confident is not based on “crazy assumptions” — that what would likely emerge under a Romney administration (assuming a Republican House and closely divided Senate) is more likely to be sustainable than what we are doing now. But, I don’t expect us to agree on that.