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Capitalism Condones Bad Behavior

Capitalism Condones Bad Behavior

April 25, 2023 | 1,357 words | Economics, Politics, Philosophy

My thesis this morning is how easily our version of capitalism condones behavior that is fundamentally inconsiderate of others.  And how this is not just a case of bad manners, but rises to the level of injustice.

We are all familiar with the many positive aspects of capitalism, how a free market unleashes creativity and innovation, generating an avalanche of economic activity that benefits everyone up and down the food chain.  It yields the proverbial rising tide that lifts all boats.  Older readers may recall “trickle down economics,” a pithy catch phrase from the 1980s that perfectly captured the “you have nothing to worry about” spirit of those boom years.
Given all the glowing press capitalism has received since then, many of us have trouble addressing the obvious negative aspects of capitalism with a clear eye.  Any such discussion is immediately derailed by ad hoc arguments about socialism being an intolerable alternative.
We have even more trouble seeing economics as being tied in an inextricable way to moral behavior.  Or with admitting that when economics is untethered from morality it becomes a free for all that leaves the social fabric in taters, while the rich get richer.

Things in this realm have devolved to the point where we no longer recognize the central role morality was designed to play in modern-day economics, and argue instead over how much government intervention is needed to balance the scales and create a safety net for those hurt most by predatory practices.  Or whether the market should be free to operate apart from such intervention, in the expectation all social ills and inequities will eventually be ameliorated. 

This belies a basic reality: social justice hinges on the moral behavior of individual economic actors.  On doing right by people you don’t know but who are nonetheless affected by your economic behavior.  The countless others who are not part of your inner circle, that cadre of trusted lieutenants who execute a business strategy and help maximize profitability.
Conservatives continue to insist their favorite form of economic exchange is “inherently moral,” despite all evidence to the contrary.  This dubious claim picked up steam in the early 1980s and provided much-needed cover for the greed is good era of junk bond, private equity take-overs that began in the late 1980s, and has been with us ever since.

Much has been written on how our style of capitalism has failed to provide a living wage for so many Americans.  But none of that commentary seems to make a dent in the conservatives’ leave-it-alone view of economic life.  Nor do the boom-and-bust cycles we can’t seem to avoid.  Or the pillaging of so many industries by private equity firms who buy up companies only to slash jobs and siphon off assets, raising prices and negatively impacting customer service in the process.
And why isn’t there more hue and cry heard from the general public about all this economic mayhem?  Maybe because it is being drowned out by or diverted to noisy debates over cultural issues. Like how many types of assigned public restrooms we should provide.  Or what pronouns we should employ when addressing our fellow citizens.

Not that adequate bathroom facilities and proper forms of address are not important.  But in the hierarchy of societal needs I do wonder why the fourth estate seems so lax in its evaluation of economically immoral behavior on the part of the most privileged Americans, while choosing instead to direct the majority of its ire at what all enlightened souls now take to be the anti-woke contingent of “deplorables” in our culture wars.

We have hit a few snags on the way to achieving the informed electorate said to be a pre-requisite for democracy.  Our liberal media prides itself on defending “individual freedom.”  While our conservative media is committed to protecting “economic freedom.”  What is lost in this liberal/conservative obsession with “freedom” is any consideration of the common good. 

Which brings me back to economic behavior that is fundamentally inconsiderate of others, and how capitalism too easily condones such behavior.
In addition to the big, splashy examples of injustice that do sometimes make the headlines, there are other, less prominent indignities that plague our economic life here in what we proudly assert is the greatest country on earth.  I would like to offer one small example from my own experience.


I own a contracting business that functions as part of the commercial construction industry.  By that I mean my company does work in office buildings and auditoriums and such.  Over the years the services we provide have morphed into a “sound proofing” specialty, primarily in the form of fabric-wrapped panels for walls and ceilings.  Though we’ve always been based in the western suburbs of Philadelphia, in the last decade much of our work has migrated to New York City, where our client list is a veritable who’s-who of Fortune 100 heavy-hitters.

When things started to take off for me back in the mid-1980s, I was working for developers who were creating some of the first suburban “office parks” outside of Philadelphia.  Those developers instructed us to invoice twice a month for work-in-place, and they would fund those invoices in 15 days, like clockwork.

Now, some 40 years later, we are forced to chase the large Construction Management firms we bill our work “through,” and navigate a labyrinth of paperwork to shake loose our payments.  The soonest we can expect to see any money is after our invoices have aged 90 days.  Though having to wait 120 or 150 days is also not uncommon.  The reply we frequently get when inquiring about payment is, “The client has not funded the invoice for that work yet.”

Which is to say, the Fortune 100 heavy-hitters who lease lavish space in some of the most exclusive office towers in North American have chosen not to pay their bills in a timely manner.  Why?  Because they don’t have to.  Somewhere along the line the movers and shakers realized they could drag out payment indefinitely and get away with it.  If you complain, they simply move on and hire a competitor, and force that company to wait for payment.

This is one of the sins of omission conservative academics and think-tank scholars never get around to talking about, when penning their hosannas to the free market.  The economic engine they celebrate is indeed a wonderful thing to behold.  But what is missing from the current formula is any sense of fair play.  Any sense of treating those who lack leverage as you would want to be treated, were you to find yourself without leverage.  Instead, the prevailing ethos has reverted back to “he who has the gold makes the rules.”

Private equity acquisitions siphon money from the bottom of the food chain.  The holding back of payment by the top of the food chain prevents that money from ever reaching the bottom to begin with.  It puts a crimp in the cash flow of the many different entities involved in the elaborate, multi-layered construction process.

This forces companies like mine to borrow money to cover payroll and pay suppliers.  It prevents us from adding staff to execute the work we have under contract more efficiently, or adding staff to possibly expand operations.  It also makes it difficult for us to increase the salaries of the over-worked people already in our employ. 

Competition, supply and demand, and self-interest can only bring an economic system so far, if the ultimate goal is social justice, rather just registering an uptick in the standard of living.  If you happen to be a big real estate developer erecting a skyscraper, or a major corporation building out a sleek office space in such a gleaming structure, you hold all the cards.  You can decide to pay the variety of contractors who bring your space to life as slowly as you want.

Because we in the construction industry are all scrambling for this elite work, we all want this prestige business.  Even though the terms we are forced to operate under have deteriorated dramatically over the course of the last 40 years.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.

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The Economics of Beauty

The Economics of Beauty

March 14, 2023 | 435 words | Economics, Politics, Philosophy

Now here is an angle Karl Marx and Fredrich Engels probably did not cover in their famous 1848 treatise on economics, “The Communist Manifesto”…  Namely, the impact beauty has on an economic system.  But it turns out a gentleman by the name of Daniel S. Hamermesh has given it a lot of thought.

To be clear, we are not referring to Beauty in the transcendental sense, the virtue seen as complimenting Truth, and thought by philosophers and poets to be an expression of the Good.  No, what we are talking about here is good, old-fashioned physical attractiveness.  The kind of thing randomly bestowed on certain men and women through a favorable combination of parental genes, making them easy on the eyes.

Driving to work the other day I caught part of an entertaining radio interview Hamermesh was doing for the BBC, describing how better-looking people experience undeniable benefits like having an easier time finding employment, earning more than their average-looking counterparts, receiving promotions sooner, etc.

It was fascinating stuff, and instead of coming off like a stuffy academic he sounded like a wry, good-natured observer of human nature.  I looked him up the first chance I got, and learned Daniel S. Hamermesh (b. 1943) is a tenured professor of economics at the University of Texas, who since the mid-nineties has done a series of studies on the role appearance plays in the workplace.  

The thread that run through his work is simple enough:  Attractive workers make more money.  These amounts vary by gender, and looks are valued differently based on profession.  In a bold assertion that will surprise absolutely no one, Professor Hamermesh’s data clearly shows that “pulchritude” is valuable in nearly all professions, not just where good looks would seem to be an obvious asset.

In one of his recent books, “Beauty Pays” (Princeton University Press, 2013), Hamermesh considers whether  extra pay for good-looking people represents discrimination, and whether government programs should aid the ugly.  

Oh, my.  In the quest for economic justice, I do believe government has a role to play in trying to balance the scales our free market often inadvertently leaves dangling precariously over a cliff.  But no, government aid for the less-than-good-looking is not an initiative we should be storming the castle over.  

To all the other obstacles we face in creating a world that provides fair treatment and equitable compensation in the work place, obstacles Marx and Engels and many others of varying political persuasions and religious convictions have tried to address over the years, Daniel Hamermesh’s work has added an unexpected twist: one’s relative lack of physical beauty.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.

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Julia Reichert, R.I.P.

Julia Reichert, R.I.P.

March 6, 2023 | 691 words | Movies, Economics, Philosophy

When Julia Reichert died a few months ago at the age of 76, she was eulogized as a “Documentarian of the Working Class.”  I knew of her only through the 2019 Academy award-winning “American Factory,” about the Chinese take-over of a shuttered automobile plant in Dayton, Ohio, which she directed with her second husband, Steven Bognar.

By reading her obituary I learned about Ms. Reichert’s extensive career, as both a filmmaker and educator.  A longtime professor of motion pictures at Wright State University in Dayton, Ms. Reichert “was in the forefront of a new generation of social documentarians who came out of the New Left and feminist movements of the early 1970s with a belief in film as an organizing tool with a social mission.”

“Although Ms. Reichert addressed a variety of social issues in the documentaries she directed and produced, her enduring interests were labor history and the lives of working women.”

Reichert’s resume as a filmmaker starts in 1971.  As an undergraduate at Antioch College in Ohio she made a pioneering feminist documentary, “Growing Up Female,” with a male classmate by the name of James Klein, who became a frequent collaborator and her first husband.  In 2011 “Growing Up Female” was selected for the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.  

Other stellar early works completed with Mr. Klein include “Union Maids” (1976), and “Seeing Red” (1983).  The critic Vincent Canby considered the latter “a fine, tough companion piece to ‘Union Maids.’”  Rather than trading in dogma, he told us, her subject was “American Idealism.”  

A few years ago the writer Barbara Ehrenreich (who herself died this past September) recalled how Ms. Reichert “defied every stereotype I’d had of independent filmmakers…  She wasn’t rich, and she wasn’t arrogant or egotistical.  The daughter of a butcher and a house cleaner turned registered nurse, she dressed and spoke plainly, usually beaming with enthusiasm, and never abandoned her Midwestern roots.”

It is her enthusiasm that really comes across in the interview she and Mr. Bognar did with Barack and Michelle Obama about the making of “American Factory.”  (Netflix released the film in conjunction with the Obamas’ Higher Ground Productions.)  This interview is packaged as a companion piece to the film, both of which are available for streaming.

What makes “American Factory” so engaging is the way it is “suffused in ambivalence.”  The New York Times called it “complex, stirring, timely and beautifully shaped, spanning continents as it surveys the past, present, and possible future of American labor.”  It centers on a Chinese billionaire who purchases a shuttered GM truck factory, and re-opens it as an automobile glass factory.  He is welcomed by the Ohio community as a hero who promises to restore lost jobs, only to become a villain by “confounding American workers with a new set of attitudes.”  And by chopping their previous wage and benefit package by more than half. 

Surprisingly that billionaire, Cao Dewang, is not portrayed as a one-dimensional scoundrel straight out of central casting, as one might expect from a Documentarian of the Working Class.  In many ways he is actually the film’s protagonist.

Though everybody in this documentary eventually gets their say.  We hear from union people, anti-union people, and an array of workers.  Both the native Americans and the exuberant Chinese who are brought in to show the sometimes-recalcitrant locals how to be more efficient and productive.

“Hearing from” is an accurate description of how this and Reichert’s other films typically unfold.  She avoids voice-over narration in favor of interviews with her mostly rank-and-file subjects who are allowed to speak for themselves on camera.  This lets us make up our own minds about what we are watching.

The obituary closes by describing Julia Reichert as a committed artist who was more interested in people than in ideology.  She “wore her politics so lightly that almost no one seemed to notice when she concluded her Oscar acceptance speech for ‘American Factory’ by cheerfully citing the best-known phrase from Karl Marx and Fredrich Engels’s ‘Communist Manifesto.’”

“We believe that things will get better,” she said, “when the workers of the world unite.”  And so do I.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.

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Ridiculing Catholicism

Ridiculing Catholicism

October 31, 2022  |  4,463 words | Religion, Philosophy, Economics, Politics   

Ridiculing Catholicism for being out-of-touch with the modern world is super easy, and it’s so much fun!  Okay, yes, that sentence is gratuitous, and designed to get your attention. 

You must admit, though, there does seem to be a thriving cottage industry that has grown up around trashing the Church’s track record.  As if this bloated, mean-spirited institution has done nothing but impede the overall progress of humanity, while keeping its followers depressed and guilt-ridden for the last two thousand years.

At least that seems to be the consensus among fashionable opinion-makers.  And I have noticed many practicing Catholics now taking up this line, actively participating in what has become a popular parlor game.  

Sure, some of them may be innocently-if-awkwardly expressing a wry sense of humor, or a good-natured anti-authoritarian streak.  But in the main I find such Catholics to be more than a little self-conscious and defensive about their faith.  Many have joined the chorus of complaint as if trying to establish their enlightened (or “woke”) bona fides for secular friends and co-workers.  These folks strike me as being a mite too ready-and-willing to distance themselves from their own narrative, without ever really spending time to learn the ins-and-outs of what went down.  Because, let’s face it, life has always been complicated, and history defies easy categorization.  Instead, they seem to be taking the accusers at their word, ready to assume the worst of their own forebearers.

I was reminded of this while reading an essay/book review by Timothy Egan that appears in the Sunday, October 2 edition of the New York Times (NYT)Mr. Egan’s reflections are prompted by a new “big book” about the Catholic Church’s last 250 years:  Catholicism: A Global History from the French Revolution to Pope Francis, by John T. McGreevey, a professor of history at Notre Dame and author of three previous books on Catholicism.

Not that I have any reason to think Mr. Egan himself falls into this slightly odorous category.  Though I am unfamiliar with his work beyond this one essay, the NYT identifies him as a winner of the National Book Award, with his most recent effort being A Pilgrimage to Eternity: From Canterbury to Rome in Search of a Faith.  At the very least, it would appear Egan takes this stuff seriously, which is always a good start.

But he does manage in this short piece to touch on what has become a familiar litany of Catholic faux pas of the recent past.  The very points of contention secularists use to scorn the Church’s claim to any sort of moral authority.  The same faux pas that make so many Catholics cringe, and compromise their participation in public discourse.

Which is to say, many Catholics are no longer comfortable bringing an authentically Catholic perspective to the discussion of contemporary social issues.  Or comfortable even trying to figure out what that perspective should be.  They have, to a large extent, adopted “accepted wisdom,” and think/speak in the current anti-Catholic vernacular.

In fact, when it comes to criticizing the Catholic Church, Catholics can often be found leading the way, so as not to be criticized themselves for being three steps behind the times.




Timothy Egan begins his October 2 essay/book review with an entertaining anecdote about his fear of authoritarian nuns who wielded a stiff ruler back in grade school, and his disappointment with the priest who, charged with explaining the intricacies of Church history and papal doctrines to 12-year-old charges, could muster nothing better than, “Well, it’s a mystery.”

Mr. Egan and I are the same age, and I am willing to bet our experiences in Catholic school were very similar, even though we grew up on opposite coasts.  I, too, used to comment for comedic effect on how tough the nuns were on us, but did so as a source of pride.  I stopped once I realized this fond memory was being used to tar-and-feather my old teachers as repressed, sadist virgins out for blood.  Go ahead and denigrate me as just another too-polite “good Catholic boy” if you will, but I have always harbored a deep respect for the nuns who taught us in grade school.  These determined, purposeful women really had their you-know-what together, as we used to say.  Even as a kid that level of focus impressed me no end, as did their vocation.  They were willingly giving themselves to a life of service.  In this case, that service was attempting to educate and civilize a room full of six dozen chirping little people, half of whom were young male hooligans.  A sturdy constitution was an absolute prerequisite for taming that crowd.

And what of the fact little Timmy found “all those monarchs and ministers, the papal edicts and parsing of purgatory, (and) the vast inexplicability of the doctrine of infallibility” a spiritual muddle?  Well, can even the brightest twelve-year-old be expected to grasp the intricacies and inner workings of the oldest institution in the Western world?  Can a teacher of such tadpoles really be blamed for keeping things simple and going a little light on the details?    


The two above examples constitute the easy stuff, of course, and Mr. Egan goes on to raise many more challenging concerns.   Catholicism may be vibrant and growing steadily outside of Europe and North America, but “that vibrancy is due in part to a legacy of spiritual imperialism – cross and sword at the head of armed colonizers.”  “Spiritual Imperialism”?  That seems a rather harsh, broad stroke assessment of the admonition we were given in Matthew 28:19, to “Go, and make disciples of all nations…”

Egan is not surprised “a top-down insular institution did not know what to make of government by the people,” and “took a more cautious view of the many democracies that sprouted between the American Revolution and the various revolts of the 19th century.”  This is undeniably true.  But he ascribes the caution to “a faith that had long relied on kings and despots as staunch allies.”  “Relied”?  Couldn’t this so-called reliance just as easily be interpreted as a simple case of judiciously working with what was in place at the time, for the spiritual and material well-being of the population at-large?

Mr. Egan then takes a couple of high-profile 19th century popes to task for being late to the party when it came to appreciating the advantages and benefits of the ascendant liberal democratic order, based on pluralism, that was sweeping over the West.

Exhibit A:  In an 1832 encyclical Pope Gregory XVI wrote that freedom of conscience was likely to “spread ruin,” and freedom of the press seemed “monstrous.”  Exhibit B:  In 1864, Pope Pius IX is said to have formally rejected the idea the Vatican should come to terms “with progress, liberalism, and modern civilization.”

These statements are so anachronistic The Times saw fit to feature them in its Page 3 above-the-fold feature, “Of Interest: Noteworthy Facts from Today’s Paper.”  Reading them, the natural reaction is to think:  Oh, my word, how can anyone with even a modicum of intelligence possibly take the Catholic Church seriously?

But if the reader can look at them in a broader historical context, they become more understandable as part of an intellectual and spiritual continuum that is still worth referencing, and yes, even preserving.

Take the hallowed concept known as freedom of conscience.  This, as we know, is a cornerstone of the modern age, which could be said to have kicked off with the Protestant Reformation (1517).  It then got super-charged by the Enlightenment, which became the ideological inspiration for the American Revolution (1776) and the soon-to-follow French Revolution (1791).  Our revolution, whatever its’ ideological flaws, did not result in the beheading of George III.  The king and queen of France were not so lucky.  Neither were French clergy and orders of women religious.  Somehow the rousing slogan “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” translated into lots and lots of officially sanctioned murder, with much of the bloody mayhem directly aimed at the Catholic Church.  

Under the circumstances, Catholics (and the pope) could be forgiven for continuing to believe in the year 1832 that the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment understanding of individual conscience was still rather problematic, and ran counter to “not my will, but your will be done.”  One might say this is where Catholicism has always differed from the Protestant/Enlightenment ethos.  And still does.

On a side note, getting in touch with God’s will for us is what the Catholic mystics – some of whom are referred to as “doctors” of the Church – are always taking about in their visions.  I would only add that seeking God’s will should not be an idle pastime, reserved for quiet moments of contemplation.  When making important decisions, in either our personal lives or our public, economic/political lives, we should always be appealing to something more objective than individual conscience.  “Conforming our will to God’s” is a phrase Catholics still hear at Sunday Mass on a regular basis.  I take that to mean trying to base our actions on something more than what we may feel is true, or what we may desire for ourselves at any given moment. 

Then there is the old-timey idea that freedom of the press, if unleased on the world, would prove to be monstrous.  But hasn’t that actually come to pass?  Doesn’t our current for-profit free press seem sort of monstrous?  Think Russian hacking of our elections, rampant hate speech on the internet, and political attack ads.  If I was Pope in 1832, I could see myself saying pretty much the same thing Greg XVI did on these two subjects, in pretty much the same way.  Not that he had the last, definitive word, by any means.  Or that we should not continue to adapt/develop the teaching to better embrace/respond to changing times.

 As for Pope Pius IX supposedly condemning “progress” in 1864, that seems an oversimplification designed to get a rise out of those already prone to look down their nose at pre-Vatican II Catholic thought.  As the Church’s shepherd-in-chief, Pius was trying to respond to the rise of capitalism, socialism, and industrialization, and address how these big new developments were damaging the social fabric, and denying average citizens their inherent dignity as human beings.  While he may not have hit the nail on the head in every sentence he penned, he was at least giving it his best shot.  And you may have noticed society is still grappling with these same issues now, in 2022.  “Progress,” you might say, has been a mixed blessing. 


Look, I realize liberal democracy based on pluralism is the form of government we must now work with, and I am not pining for the good old days of a confessional state.  But forgive me if I do not enthusiastically raise a glass and give a robust, revolutionary toast to “the people, the source of all legitimate power.”  Because, based on the two-hundred-year plus record with “the people” being in charge, I am not that impressed with the results.

There is no question these 19th century popes and their teaching are what todays’ reform-minded Catholics want no part of.  They would like nothing better than to see this stuff expunged from the permanent record, to use a contemporary legal phrase.   

I hope my seeing value in the entire two-thousand-year history of how Catholicism has been trying to figure out how best to apply the teaching of a man whose time on earth was short and seemingly inconsequential, does not make me out to be a traditionalist stick in the mud.

It has become commonplace to view the last 250 years of Catholicism’s history as an epic struggle between two opposing factions: reformists and traditionalists.  But I consider myself to be neither.  As an example of my lack of partisanship, I feel no need to play the “good pope, bad pope” game that most everyone I know seems to be caught up in.  Especially since the designations are subject to change depending on the season, and on who is doing the evaluating.

“Pope” strikes me as being a particularly thankless job, one I would not want for all the tea in China.  And the popes of the last few centuries I’ve read something about have all struck me as putting their best foot forward under some trying circumstances.  Even if none of them ever managed to get everything exactly right.


Timothy Egan continues his book review/essay by tackling The Jewish Question, and Catholicism does not fare very well in his estimation, as you may have gathered by now.  He writes that author John T. McGreevy, in the recently published Catholicism: A Global History under consideration, “is dutiful, and at times outraged, in sections that show how the contagion of antisemitism infected so many Vatican leaders.  Social justice attacks on the excesses of capitalism turned into ugly and undisguised tropes against Jews.”

While my academic prowess certainly cannot hold a candle to that of either Mr. Egan or Mr. McGreevey, I have been reading the Church’s social justice attacks on the excesses of capitalism for a few years now, and have yet to notice a particular ethnic group being called out.  The excesses of capitalism are to be found in certain behaviors, and are not the unique purview of any one ethnicity, as far as I can tell.

Mr. Egan continues: “It was the same story in criticism of the rise of communism.  Father Charles Coughlin, the most famous Catholic priest in the United States, promoted conspiracy theories of Jewish global cabals and defended the 1938 Nazi violence of Kristallnacht.”

I am keenly aware the Fr. Coughlin of 1930s fame is one of those lightning-rod figures any respectable Catholic is now supposed to shun out of hand.  And I am certainly not here to come to his defense or make his case.  For one thing, I confess to not knowing anything about the Nazi violence of Kristallnacht in 1938.  But Coughlin was far from a lone voice in drawing attention to what many at the time saw as the undue influence of international bankers that seemed to be driving world conflict.  And while not claiming to be an expert on the matter myself, the Catholic Church did apparently see communism as the greatest evil facing Christianity in the 1930s, before Hitler went nuts.   The record would also seem to demonstrate unequivocally that communism derived its intellectual firepower from a core group of Russian Jews that took the reins there in 1917.  

Then for some reason at this point in his review Mr. Egan drops in a note about how Pope Pius IX, in the middle of the 19th century, condoned the forced conversion and kidnapping of a Jewish boy from Bologna.  Again, pardon me for not knowing the details, but something tells me there is another side to this story, one that does not paint Pius IX in such an appalling, unforgiveable light.

Next, we read about “(a) pair of notorious Vatican agreements – one with Mussolini in 1929, the other with Hitler in 1933 – (that) were designed to protect Catholics.  They were quickly broken and gave the Nazis and Fascists cover for some of their crimes.”

This anecdote almost borders on being a crude exaggeration, not worthy of a serious scholar.   What are we to make of it?  That the Vatican, along with the rest of the civilized world, had yet to learn Mussolini and Hitler were, in fact, the worst possible bad actors?  That the Vatican was wrong to try to protect Catholics?  Or is it to simply show the Vatican was mis-guided in its perception of communism as the greatest threat to humanity?

Yes, that last sentence seems to be the main thrust of this section.  For Mr. Egan then tells his readers: “Thanks to the dogged scholarship of David Kertzer, we know much more now about the unholy alliance between fascism and the Catholic Church.”

On my goodness, an “unholy alliance”?  I certainly would not have wanted to be put in the position of having to choose between the fascists and the communists.  Would you?  Are we to hold the Church in contempt for trying to make some sort of accommodation with what it saw as the lesser of two evils? 

I am also not sure why Joseph Stalin’s massacre of some 20 million Christians in the Soviet Union during this same stretch never seems to make it into these accusatory overviews of the Vatican’s so-called reprehensible calumny with fascism.


Egan closes out his review with the same thing John McGreevey’s book apparently does – the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).  This is generally heralded by progressive Catholics as the singular event that wiped away the Church’s historical sins, and re-made Catholicism for the modern era.

Again, I am no expert, but after reading my fair share of the sixteen (16) documents of Vatican II, I’ve yet to come across anything that strikes me as a paradigm shift in the Church’s self-understanding, or what progressives enthusiastically refer to as “new” theology.  

Though we should give the hopeful progressives their due for the boatload of welcome changes ushered in by the Council which the more radical traditionalists still cannot bring themselves to acknowledge.  As author George Weigel shares in a new book, The Vital Legacy of Vatican II, a few of the highlights would include greater lay participation in all aspects of Church life: liturgical, educational, managerial, evangelical.  Along with fully realizing Catholicism’s claim as a global institution, as churchmen from outside its historic European core began to take prominent roles in shaping the Catholic future.  Then by formally recognizing the altar-and-throne alliances of the past were no longer possible under modern political conditions, the Church has been transformed from a supporter of the political status quo into one of the world’s foremost defenders of basic human rights, and a leading critic of the political status quo.  No matter what your preferred political status quo happens to be.  

Regarding those grouchy traditionalists that do nothing but bash the Council, Weigel, who most would consider a rather staunch traditionalist himself, has this to say:

“Thoughtful assessments of Vatican II and its legacy must acknowledge that the pre-conciliar Catholic past was more brittle and fragile after two world wars, and more vulnerable to the cultural tsunami of the 1960s, than some nostalgic traditionalists imagine.  Moreover, bunker Catholicism is a betrayal of the commission that was central to John XXIII’s original intention for Vatican II: ‘Go… and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them all that I have commanded you (Matthew 28:19-20).’”

Which is not to dismiss the critics of Vatican II altogether, since they have also managed to make a few valid points along the way.  Such as how the council decided to replace the Latin Mass, lock, stock, and barrel, with a Mass said completely in the local vernacular.  While intended to make this central act of Catholic worship more accessible, the effort has in many ways sort of back-fired.  By dispensing with any hint of Latin, Vatican II ushered in a liturgical era in which things have gone a little off the rails, where the Mass has “often been dumb-downed into banality, if not downright silliness,” in the words of Mr. Weigel.  As many a practicing Catholic can attest, you do not have to be a radical traditionalist to recognize a deficient modern liturgy when you encounter one.

So we now have a contentious situation in which hard-core traditionalists refuse to participate in the new “Novus Ordo” Mass, and go to great lengths to find an out-of-the-way Latin Mass.  While progressives accuse such people of causing schism, by failing to acknowledge the Novus Ordo rite that became the officially-sanctioned norm after Vatican II.

Which is a shame.  Both sides in this controversy have a legitimate perspective that deserves a fair hearing, as is so often the case.  There was (and is) an obvious middle ground when it comes to the Mass.  Why not preserve Latin in the major parts, such as the Sanctus, etc., and use vernacular in the other parts.  The traditionalist view that the world went to hell in a handbasket once Latin was thrown out is too extreme.  But so is the progressive view that all Latin should be done away with as a vestige of a claustrophobic, hierarchal past.


Getting back to Timothy Egan and his October 2 review/essay, he notes there is still much debate over whether Vatican II is responsible for the dramatic decline in the number of practicing Catholics across Europe and North America, and for the thousands of Catholic priests and religious sisters who abandoned their rectories and convents in the decade after the council, in the largest such exodus since the 16th century Reformations.

Because this decline and abandonment follows a corresponding trend in Protestant faiths, Mr. Egan theorizes it could be more than a strictly Catholic issue, and might mean much of the world “simply has little use for religion in modern life.”

Here Egan perfectly captures the spirit of our age, but I am disappointed at how easily he seems to acquiesce and even endorse it.  This runs counter to an earlier, more expansive view of Catholicism as “the only thing that frees a man from the degrading slavery of being a child of his age.”  Apparently, some really smart Catholics no longer see their faith in such liberating terms.  

The contemporary notion that we have intellectually evolved to the point of having outgrown the need for religious conviction and religious practice is highly presumptuous, in my view.  It implies we are each a god in our own right, and no longer require any guidance beyond what our own unerring conscience provides.  No need to reference any objective moral standard, or attend to the straight and narrow.  This sort of hubris makes me think maybe Gregory XVI was barking up the right tree back in 1832, after all.

Which leaves the sexual abuse scandal as the elephant in the room, accompanied by what Timothy Egan describes as “its ongoing waves of official hypocrisy.”  Many would say this is the biggest single reason one-time Catholics have stopped practicing their faith, and have started to criticize the institutional Church instead.  And who can blame them.  The perpetrators of this abuse have certainly earned their place in Dante’s eighth circle of hell.  But this appalling story might still have a redemptive Christian twist before all is said and done.   We are taught even such desperately troubled souls are worthy of mercy should they choose to repent with a contrite heart.

Although Mr. Egan does not touch on the following aspect of the scandal in his short piece, many critics think this tragic turn of events proves the Church’s all-male, celibate priesthood is a hopelessly unworkable policy.  But others have suggested what the scandal reveals more than anything else is a post-conciliar breakdown in seminary training and discipline of the clergy, both of which became major contributors to the crimes of clerical sexual abuse.

As George Weigel implies, one could view the scandal itself and our reaction to it as a window into how “the once-thriving Catholicism of Western Europe – countries whose theologians and bishops were the principal movers and shakers of Vatican II – has largely disappeared since the council, replaced by a Church of the Zeitgeist that seems far more liberal-Protestant and woke-progressive than Catholic.”


Timothy Egan closes his review by observing Mr. McGreevy’s 528-page history features “too much infighting among long-forgotten church gatekeepers wielding Latin encyclicals and proclamations on sex. And not enough on the simple spiritual philosophy at the center of the world’s largest faith.”  This easy-going, live-and-let-live refrain comes across as a Catholic-lite sort of remark, and does make it feel like many of the Church’s intramural critics are more woke-progressive these days than Catholic, to borrow Mr. Weigel’s formulation.  

The encyclicals Mr. Egan seems to dismiss as elitist are indeed always composed in Latin.  But left unsaid is how these documents are then routinely translated into a slew of different languages, and disseminated to the four corners of the earth.  Each one is readily available for download on the internet, and written in clear, concise language that is easily accessible to the lay man and woman in the street. 

Tim Egan is certainly not alone is wishing the Church’s simple spiritual philosophy could be imbibed and enjoyed without having to put up with what now strikes our emancipated sensibilities as a tangle of restrictive rules and regulations.  But wishing does not necessarily make a thing so, and experience continually reminds us doing what feels good in the moment does not always yield the best results.

Without wanting to get too preachy, the spiritual philosophy which appears to be so simple has proven itself devilishly hard for most of us to implement.  That may have something to do with our inherently fallen nature, despite what folks like Jean Jacques Rousseau have preached on the subject.  

You may have also noticed Christ’s message is rather deceptive in its apparent simplicity.  This should not be surprising, since we have it on good authority the messenger himself was the most radical and counter-cultural individual you could ever hope to meet.  Unsettling in the extreme, some have testified.

Attempting to discern the deeper meaning of Christ’s various parables, and apply that meaning to all manner of situations to be found in daily living, is what has taken humanity so long to figure out.  But we keep trying, despite our many fits and starts.


There are many things in my life for which I am grateful, but at the top of the list is being Catholic.  No doubt Timothy Egan feels the same way.  In my case, returning to the fold at age forty after an extended period of youthful rebellion was the best thing I could have hoped for.  I don’t regret my long sojourn sampling other intellectual traditions and spiritual disciplines, because it broadened my outlook and helped me develop a rich appreciation for fellow travelers who actively seek the truth.

It’s the extensive exploring I did in my twenties and thirties that has helped me “know the place where I started” in a much more comprehensive way. 

So then dear reader please allow me to end my brief defense/rebuttal with a tip of the cap to Timothy Egan, John McGreevey, George Weigel, and yes, even David Kertzer.  I feel a special kinship with anyone who takes things seriously and is trying to put their best foot forward.  Even when they disagree with me.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.

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Why Libertarian Catholics are Wrong on Economics Part 4

Why Libertarian Catholics are Wrong on Economics Part 4

September 27, 2022 | 1,694 words | Economics, Politics, Philosophy, Religion

A Brief History:  Part Four


As my little amateur history draws to a close, I will be offering two concrete suggestions for improving the economic status quo.  As a preface to making those suggestions allow me to state for the record I do not disagree with the libertarian premise about regulation stifling innovation and undermining incentives that drive capitalism.  Or that capitalism is the best economic system for “freeing” large masses of human beings from lives of misery and poverty.

I am also in lockstep with libertarians who lament government’s frequent blunders when it tries to referee the economic free-for-all.

But when complaining about regulation infringing on individual liberty, and pointing out government workers are often either incompetent or corrupt, libertarians never get around to acknowledging their own shortcomings.  With the most glaring being how their pursuit of self-interest frequently runs counter to the common good.  It never seems to occur to them if they would simply do a better job of chasing their economic dreams with more compassion and empathy, the social fabric would not be so tattered, and there would be no need for government to take such an outsized role in the economic affairs of the nation.

Then there is the libertarian shibboleth about taxes amounting to thievery committed against the most talented and productive citizens, by those who are not.  An egocentric refrain that found a ready audience in the 20th century via the likes of Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973), and the novelist Ayn Rand (1905-1982), among many others. 

The celebration of rugged individualism reminds us capitalism is a system of economic exchange that favors the clever and advantaged, while failing to take into account many people are neither.  Yes, welfare and other programs meant to lift up the poor often inadvertently trap them in a kind of permanent dependency and poverty.  Yet all we ever seem to get out of libertarians on this topic is an unlimited supply of cockeyed optimism that more “trickle down” will eventually solve our social ills.  

Shouldn’t the most talented and productive among us be expected to look out for those who are less-talented?  And figure out organizational systems and employment opportunities that can help them be more productive?  Isn’t that the definition of a humane society?


The best and brightest obviously thrive under James Madison’s legendary “absence of obstacles” approach to economic life.  But in many cases the average citizen is prevented from experiencing all that life has to offer by dire economic circumstances that define his or her existence, and over which he or she has no control.  You may not notice this unpleasant reality where you live or work, but drive a mile or two in the right direction and chances are you can’t miss it.  The closest many of our fellow citizens ever get to the American Dream is an unmanageable portfolio of soul-crushing consumer debt.

If no longer physically exploited as in the past, the average employee has certainly been marginalized by all the mergers and acquisitions, and by the excessive financialization (for lack of a better word) of today’s economy.  They have no way of entering the sophisticated networks of knowledge and communication that have come to dominate, so they are unable to participate in either an effective or dignified way.  They have, for all intents and purposes, been excluded from “the circle of exchange.”  The dazzling economic development we are witnessing is taking place over the heads.

These are not my words or my analysis.  It’s the insight of Pope John Paul II, writing in Centessimus Annus (no. 33 and 34) to describe the employment situation of the average worker.

There is a simple, straightforward way to improve the plight of non-managerial employees, and its effectiveness has already been established.  But we decided sometime during the Reagan administration this particular employment policy was getting in the way of maximizing investor return.  I am referring here to the concept known as collective bargaining.


Much has been written about the loss of manufacturing jobs that once enabled simple production line workers to buy a house, send their kids to college, and enjoy modest vacations.  But there was nothing magical about those jobs that yielded such positive results.  Rather it was the introduction of collective bargaining into the financial equation that created what became the dramatic post-WWII rise of the American middle class.

This golden age of employment was an anomaly in our nation’s history, by the way, the only period when those without an ownership stake in a business were treated as something more than replacement parts, and were allowed to share in the financial windfall their labor helped generate.

The very same concept could be applied to today’s service industry jobs and the entire gig economy, along with all those new fulfillment center jobs.  Taken together these represent the lion’s share of employment opportunities for regular folks.  We could achieve the same results we got after the Roosevelt administration passed the National Labor Relations Act in 1935.  Namely, widespread prosperity up and down the economic food chain.

The one thing standing in the way of re-introducing collective bargaining into the economic equation is the imperative to prioritize investor return.  Our country’s long-standing bias against unions was revived in the early 1960s, when Milton Friedman announced the only social responsibility of a corporation is to be profitable.  The final nail in the coffin came in the 1980s during Ronald Reagan’s second term as President.  That’s when hard-won anti-trust (anti-monopoly) legislation enacted during the first half of the 20th century was rendered null and void in the name of “lower consumer pricing.”

This turned out to be a ruse, a clever marketing ploy.  It gave corporations a new rationale to corner markets, keep a lid on wages, and increase profits.

Not that any of this is breaking news, mind you.  There has always been a tug of war between the interests of capital (return on investment), and those of labor (securing food and shelter).  The only difference these days is how the interests of capital have been granted an overlay of social responsibility for its role in “creating jobs.”   The rank-and-file are supposed to be eternally grateful, despite the fact many of the jobs being created are downright crummy and aren’t worth having.  

Sadly, the rise of the conservative/libertarian mindset in our time has made any discussion of organized labor verboten.


My second and last concrete suggestion to improve the economic status quo is much broader in scope and more philosophical in nature.  It involves movers and shakers being more compassionate and empathetic in chasing their economic dreams.  When it comes to tweaking the tone of our commerce to be more considerate of others, especially those others who toil for their daily bread, this is one reform that will have to start with the kingpins, rather than progressing through a more traditional from-the-ground-up grassroots movement.    

It is the swash-buckling entrepreneurs and daring disrupters, the senior executives and upper management at our corporate behemoths, the ivory tower money managers who decide which ideas will live and which ones will die, who must embrace an operating principle other than the limited distribution of short-term profit.

And believe it or not, there is already some positive development in this direction, so the proposition is not as hopelessly farfetched as it sounds.  In August 2019 an influential think tank known as the Business Roundtable (BRT) announced its new “Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation.”  It boldly redefines that purpose as “promoting an economy that serves all Americans.”

While you may not have heard of this group, since 1978 the BRT has periodically issued Principles of Corporate Governance.  Each version since 1997 has endorsed shareholder primacy, echoing Milton Freidman from 1962 in stating corporations exist primarily to serve investors.

Which makes their August 2019 Statement a real game-changer.  It was signed by 181 CEOs who are now committed to lead their organizations for the benefit of ALL stakeholders: customers, employees, suppliers, communities, and investors.  What a beautiful concept. 

Of course, 181 CEOs is a drop in the bucket and does not represent any sort of critical mass.  Many of our most powerful corporate masters of the universe have not yet gotten this particular memo.  But the BRT has made a good start, and the leaders of big-time operations like the Ford Foundation, Johnson & Johnson, JP Morgan Chase, Progressive Corporation, and Vanguard Investments have signed on.

The full list of signatories is available at


Needless to say, attempting to transform our economic model into one based on what Catholic social teaching refers to as “an economy of justice and charity” will be a long and arduous process.  No doubt the effort will find itself beset with well-intentioned missteps and outright mistakes.  If human beings are involved, you know it’s going to be messy.  

The drive toward avarice is hard-wired into our fallen nature and is not easily overcome.  Just as the road to hell has always been paved with good intentions.  This is where outside oversight can help keep things on track.  But so many of our regulatory agencies have been gutted, and legislation designed to rein in the worst excesses has either been repealed or shrewdly worked around.

Today’s battle in the courts to break up the tech giants and other monopoly enterprises, and Congress’ attempt to close tax loopholes and clamp down on widespread tax avoidance, are things that can help bring into being the Business Roundtable’s vision of an economy that serves all Americans.

If only the devout intellectuals at First Things magazine and the current crop of conservative/libertarian Catholics would consider the viability of such judicial and legislative activity.  If only they could envision a different sort of political paradigm than what they are wedded to now.

Infusing free-market capitalism with an ethos that prioritizes the common good is the key to restoring a sense of moral clarity among the general populace.  If our conservative Catholic brothers and sisters are to help with this restoration, the first step will be extricating themselves from the libertarian pipe dream they’ve been living in since the glory days of the 1980s.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr

September 27, 2022

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Why Libertarian Catholics are Wrong on Economics Part 3

Why Libertarian Catholics are Wrong on Economics Part 3

September 23, 2022  | 1,151 words | Economics, Politics, Philosophy, Religion   

A Brief History:  Part Three



My goal in assembling this very amateur and oh-so-brief history is three-fold.  To disabuse everyday conservative Catholics (my friends and neighbors) of the notion economics has nothing to do with morality.  To challenge the contention of intellectual conservative Catholics (the scholars I have been reading for the last thirty years) that free market capitalism is inherently moral.  And lastly to assure both groups (and any other readers who may wander in) that I am not suggesting any form of socialism as an alternative.


Let me also add that while I greatly admire the work of G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc from the first half of the 20th century, I am not recommending their pet economic project “Distributism” as an alternative to capitalism.  Mainly because I haven’t the faintest idea how that sort of do-it-yourself program would be applied in today’s world of multi-national conglomerates.


I hope this modest critique does not paint me as an anti-capitalist, since that would be biting the hand that feeds me.  Capitalism, my friends, has been very, very good to me.  But on those rare occasions when I do manage to lift my face out of the bowl of spaghetti, I can’t help but notice it hasn’t been especially good to many of the people around me who are not quite as clever or advantaged as I am.


The fatal flaw in our communal thought process seems to be the widely-held belief that economics is a “science,” with its inner workings guided by “immutable laws.”  Economics is therefore thought to be empirical, like any other science, operating outside the bounds of moral consideration.  But this is a bit of a misnomer when applied to economic behavior.  Any human action that is more than a simple reflex, such as combing one’s hair or shaving one’s beard, is an expression or function of will.  And any act of the will is naturally going to be subject to an evaluation of its impact on others, which constitutes its moral import.  That’s a rudimentary explanation of Thomas Aquinas’ (1225-1274) view of economic behavior.   


Adam Smith (1723-1790), a Scottish moral philosopher by trade, surely had the best of intentions in writing The Wealth of Nations (1776).  But his contention that pursuing self-interest always and everywhere results in societal benefit has proven to be overly optimistic.


It’s not that Smitty’s three basic laws of economics (supply and demand, self-interest, and competition) have been found wanting.  Far from it.  In the two hundred plus years since they’ve been unleased on the world these laws have succeeded in generating an avalanche of economic activity, and been responsible for an unprecedented improvement in the material circumstances of many.  But they don’t tell the whole story.  And libertarians have sort of hid behind these laws to cover their sometimes less-than-stellar behavior.  As Mort Zukerman, the billionaire real estate investor and editor of U.S. News and World Report, stated so blithely on a Sunday morning television panel show a few years back: “We don’t call it greed anymore, we call it self-interest.”


Well, Mort, some of us are still calling it greed.



From my perspective the challenge we face as a society is finding a way to infuse our late-stage version of free-market capitalism with a healthy dose of Christianity.  Or a healthy dose of whatever intellectual tradition you may wish to invoke, provided it has a comparably long history of concern for human dignity and social justice, as expressed in the realm of commerce.  And an equivalent track record of sticking its nose into economic affairs, where most of our movers-and-shakers think it doesn’t belong.


This is exactly what the Catholic popes have been doing non-stop, since 1891.  It’s worth noting their passionate advocacy and running commentary have never risen to the level of an outright condemnation of capitalism.  Instead, they’ve been patiently exploring how capitalism might be made to function more equitably for all concerned.  And they’ve been doing it in what might almost be called a bi-partisan fashion.


Of course, it’s not just popes who have been mining this particular vein. A wide range of thinkers from across the philosophical spectrum have been pondering this very subject for quite some time.   I suppose I am inclined to talk up the work of recent popes in this area for two reasons:  It is now the essence of my faith, the reason I became a Catholic again, at age forty.  And because so few Catholics are aware this extensive body of knowledge even exists.  It’s what might be called the final frontier.


Since it first emerged in 1891 as a response to the rise of capitalism, socialism, and industrialization, modern-day Catholic social teaching on economic justice has always had a broad application.  And it continues to develop as a rich body of doctrine that sets forth a truly Catholic response to modern conditions.  But before we can expect the secular world to pay any attention to what recent popes have written on the subject, Catholics themselves should be expected to tune in. 


Starting with my target audience for this essay:  conservative/libertarian Catholics.  Both the everyday 

parishioner and the ivory tower scholar.  Each are enamored of – or at least far too willing to accept at face value 

– the economic status quo.  These folks are in need of a serious conversion experience when it comes to how the 

economy should operate.


The thoughtful First Things people must cease and desist pretending our economic system is already living up to the demands of papal teaching.  The earnest souls who swear by The Wall Street Journal must get around to finally reading Centesimus Annus (1991) for themselves.  There they will find Pope John Paul II does not give unfettered free-market capitalism his unequivocal blessing, as they have been led to believe.


The humble Benedict Option folks, too, must open themselves up to this important component of papal teaching, and integrate economic behavior into their understanding of what constitutes the moral order.


There are any number of detailed academic accounts from across the philosophical spectrum that can introduce an interested reader to an alternative way of doing economics, while still operating within a capitalist framework.  If you happen to be Catholic, or curious about the Catholic take on the matter, you might want to check out An Economics of Justice & Charity: Catholic Social Teaching, It’s Development and Contemporary Relevance.  Written by Thomas Stork, it was published in 2017 by Angelico Press.  


This very useful book is intended to give readers who have little or no acquaintance with modern-day Catholic social teaching a general overview of its basic documents.  Those include the chief papal social encyclicals and other related works, as well as the social teaching of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).



It’s the kind of comprehensive reference work that can help educate our conservative/libertarian brothers and sisters about authentic Catholic thought as it relates to economic behavior.  



Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr

September 23, 2022

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