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American Catholicism, American Power

February 9, 2019 (1,367 words)

Arthur Brooks and Andrew Cuomo are the same type of Catholics. This may come as a surprise to most readers, since each man operates from opposite ends of the political spectrum. But then it’s my job to point these things out to you.

Mr. Cuomo enjoys a much higher level of name recognition among the general public, as the current governor of New York. Mr. Brooks, on the other hand, is known mostly to the cognoscenti, as the president and public face of a wealthy and influential Washington, D. C. think tank, the American Enterprise Institute.

Despite their opposing political orientations, both men share an abiding belief in the big-picture concept known as the American Experiment, and the limited role Catholicism should play within that experiment.

Most conservative American Catholics have come to view Andrew Cuomo as the proto-typical “bad” Catholic, for his support of abortion rights. Many such Catholics believe Mr. Cuomo, along with a roster of other, high-profile politicians, should be ex-communicated from the Church for standing up for “a women’s right to choose.”

Arthur Brooks, meanwhile, enjoys a sterling reputation as a “devout” Catholic among those same conservative Americans, despite his allegiance to and promotion of libertarian economic policies that are equally opposed to Church teaching.

… drawing from the same poisoned well

While I will grant Mr. Cuomo’s transgressions are easier to spot, both men draw inspiration from the same poisoned well. That well is classical liberalism, an ideology that subverts authority and law, custom and tradition, in favor of an unencumbered emancipation of the individual. The United States represents the world’s leading example of this ideology, in both areas of public life: economics and politics.

In a New York Times op-ed that appeared just the other day (February 7), Governor Cuomo offers a brief tutorial on how this all works in the political realm. “Our country is founded on pluralism… While governments may very well enact laws that are consistent with religious teaching, governments do not pass laws to be consistent with what any particular religion dictates…”

He continues: “Thanks to the nation’s founders, no elected official is empowered to make personal religious beliefs the law of the land. My oath of office is to the Constitution of the United States and the State of New York – not to the Catholic Church. My religion cannot demand favoritism as I execute my public duties….”

The governor then concludes as follows: “We cannot have true freedom of religion without separation of church and state. And the country cannot function if religious officials are dictating policy to public officials. Only by separating constitutional duties from religious beliefs can we have a country that allows all people the ability to pursue their own theological and moral principles in a nation true to its founding premise of religious freedom.”

…pointing out the flaws in such reasoning

In case you haven’t noticed, I am devoting my modest, late-in-life avocation as a writer to pointing out the flaws in such reasoning. It starts with my challenging the idea that we all get to have our “own theological and moral principles,” in the words of Andrew Cuomo. One thing then leads to another, and before you know it I find myself having no choice but to call into question the entire big-picture concept known as the American Experiment.

I realize I am swimming upstream on this, with no aid or comfort offered from my former compatriots. Conservatives who decry cultural abominations such as legalized abortion think of it as an unfortunate departure from our nation’s Christian roots. They don’t see that our nation was founded on a rejection of such roots.

Those well-meaning conservatives also cannot bring themselves to question the economic expression of the same rebellious, anti-Christian principles. This is where our friend Arthur Brooks comes back into the picture.

In an March 2018 interview I just happened to come across this week, Hugo Gordon of The Washington Examiner asks Mr. Brooks straight away about the difference between classical liberalism, which holds individual freedom as the apex of political thought and social policy-making, and what Mr. Gordon refers to as a “Burkean” conservativism, which believes custom and tradition should temper individual freedom.

…operating in the middle of the continuum

Brooks replies to the question by describing himself as operating in the middle of that continuum, by virtue of his being a “progressive conservative,” a free enterprise enthusiast, and a Roman Catholic. But it is the distinctively American version of Catholicism from which he takes his cue: “The Church of the Empire in Europe that became the Church of the outcast in America.”

This coda fits his clever analysis of the United States being “a country founded by gentry for ambitious riff-raff.” According to Arthur Brooks, there is a moral consensus at the heart of our Founding, and that consensus centers around “creating opportunity and pushing it out to the margins of society.”

Since its inception in 1938, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) has been known for its work in economics and foreign policy. Mr. Brooks can be positively inspirational when he describes AEI as a “morally based organization” focused on “the radical equality of human dignity,” and “the limitlessness of human potential.”

In this same March 2018 interview, he continues: “We’re known for spreading the idea of free enterprise and democratic capitalism around the world, but promoting those concepts is just how you get to human dignity and limitless potential. What sets our hearts on fire around here is addressing the challenge of people who still lack dignity and need to be set free.”

How to bring this uplifting vision to life? “We need systems and American power, a determination and a moral force coming out of this country…”

…applying an “outcast” version of Catholicism

Brooks sees the “outcast” version of Catholicism, which he believes functions best within the context of American conservativism, as fueling the unique moral force that we have an obligation to share with the rest of the world.

One can agree with Arthur Brooks on the subject of human dignity and people being set free, but one must part company with him over which “version” of Catholicism can do the most good in the world.

By limiting himself to an ideological choice between “free enterprise” and “more government initiatives,” he and his army of now-almost three hundred associates are missing the big picture. In order to better exemplify a “morally based organization,” Mr. Brooks and at least of few his many colleagues would benefit from a close reading of the papal encyclicals that focus on the very themes he claims set their hearts on fire.

A professed Catholic like Arthur Brooks is in need of at least one more epiphany in his professional life, prompting him to allow Catholic anthropology to enter the economic discussion. Scholars such as those employed by AEI would do well to parse the modern-day socio-economic encyclicals of the Catholic Church, and figure out how best to implement the general principles contained therein.

Under no circumstances should we let our national commitment to a slap-dash, poorly conceived premise like “separation of church and state” stand in the way of true and abiding progress in the social realm.

…not enough to get the job done

Haven’t we already learned, and haven’t our Popes already pointed out, that free enterprise and democratic capitalism on their own are not enough to get the job done, when “human dignity” and “fulfilling human potential” are the objectives?

Because free enterprise enthusiasts assume all economic actors conduct themselves in an inherently moral fashion, their altruistic designs are too often sabotaged by expressions of fallen human nature such as corruption and greed. Their empirical data doesn’t tell nearly the whole story.

We can soldier on, continuing the same echo chamber arguments between “free enterprise” and “more government initiatives.”

Or we could consider a radical return to a Christian model of economic behavior. Such a move would put shaky concepts like “enlightened self-interest” under the microscope, and create an imperative for moral considerations to once again guide all things “economic.”

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.
February 9, 2019

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