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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.

www.robertjcavanaughjr.com

bobcavjr@gmail.com

Use the contact form below to email me.

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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

X.

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?

XI.

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.

XII.

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.

XIII.

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 https://opportunity.businessroundtable.org/ourcommittment.

XIV.

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

 

VIII.

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.

 

IX.

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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Why Libertarian Catholics are Wrong on Economics Part 2

Why Libertarian Catholics are Wrong on Economics Part 2

September 16, 2022  |  1,925 words | Economics, Politics, Philosophy, Religion   

A Brief History:  Part Two

IV.

In analyzing the ideological schism that plagues present-day Catholicism, we tend to focus on the fall-out from the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) and the sexual revolution of the 1960s that surrounded it.  With good reason, since both did indeed play a large role in splintering Catholics into the current opposing camps of “liberal” and “conservative.”

 

But our pre-occupation with sexual liberation and what some think of as the new theology of Vatican II has obscured what I consider to be the other revolution that was taking place in American Catholicism at the very same time.   

 

Just to recap the sexual aspect of this discussion as it pertains to my designated audience, the conservatives, it goes something like this:  These folks have ear-marked Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) as a pernicious piece of social engineering.  That’s the Supreme Court decision based on a case brought by the wife of the President of Yale University that made the sale of artificial contraception legal.  And they swell with pride at the mention of Humanae Vitae, the famous 1968 encyclical promulgated by Pope Paul VI that is subtitled “On the Regulation of Birth.”  It reiterates what liberals consider to be outdated Church teaching on family planning and other reproductive issues.  Paul did this in the face of heavy pressure from a blue-ribbon committee headed by John D. Rockefeller that recommended the Catholic Church bring its policy on birth control in line with what the Anglican Church decreed at its Lambeth Conference of 1930.

 

I offer this background only to point out how these self-styled cultural warriors overlook the conservative intelligentsia’s negative reaction to an important encyclical from a few years earlier.  Mater et Magistra (1961) is Pope John XXIII’s take on social and economic justice.  I find the oversight odd, since this is what greased the skids in the first place, if you ask me.  That negative reaction to Church teaching on economics gave Catholics in the pew a mixed message, and opened the door to what some might call our present-day schism.

 

The subtitle of this 1961 papal encyclical is “Christianity and Social Progress.”  It was intentionally promulgated on the anniversary of Quadragesimo Anno (1931) and Rerum Novarum (1891), the two big papal encyclicals that heralded modern-era Catholic teaching on the economic question.  In it, John XXIII has the audacity to re-iterate how the state must sometimes intervene in matters of health care, education, and housing, in order to promote human dignity and achieve authentic community.

 

This did not sit well with the conservative Catholic establishment at the time.  William F. Buckley, Jr. (1925– 2008), another likable soul, directed his flagship publication, National Review, to announce how the Catholic Magisterium was no longer the boss when it comes to economic behavior.  The phrase employed to describe this cavalier dismissal was “Mater si, Magistra, no”, penned by a young Gary Wills (1934- ).  Mr. Wills has since gone on to enjoy a long and illustrious career as, among other things, a reliably staunch critic of papal teaching. 

 

I believe the rejection of what I refer to as economic morality on the part of conservative/libertarian Catholics is the very thing that paved the way for what those conservatives see as the revolution in sexual standards on the part of liberal Catholics.  At the very least, both developments unfolded simultaneously, and were mutually supportive.

 

V.

The 1960s may have been when all this erupted into public view, but of course each movement had much deeper roots.  Staying with the apparently less-well-known economic revolution for a moment, we find that Mr. Buckley’s outburst in the early 1960s was proceeded by two decades’ worth of behind-the-scenes agitating on the part of policy wonks and political operatives.  In the late 1930s a conservative contingent was expressing frustration with the comprehensive legislative package known as the “New Deal,” on the grounds that allowing the federal government to play such an outsized role in economic affairs was un-American.

 

Prior to that, as a presidential candidate on the campaign trail in 1932, the politician who was to bring us that ground-breaking legislation was already going public with his admiration for Quadragesimo Anno (1931).  Franklin Delano Roosevelt described the author of that encyclical, Pope Pius XI, as being “just as radical as I am.”  FDR’s conservative Catholic critics were not amused, and by the middle of his second term those critics were positively climbing the walls.

 

Which is not to suggest every piece of legislation enacted by FDR during his three plus terms in office was worthy of the Pius XI seal of approval.  Only that his Catholic critics should have based their complaints on something other than a libertarian appeal to limited government and economic freedom.

 

This tendency to compromise Church teaching when it comes to economics – sacrificing the common good in favor of a rugged pursuit of individual advancement – is nothing new.  It’s the very same battle noted American intellectual, activist, one-time Universalist preacher, labor organizer, and Catholic covert Orestes Brownson (1803-1876) was waging in the 1860s and 1870s with the Catholic politicians of his day, who cleverly justified not allowing religious beliefs to inform their actions while in public office.

 

The genesis of this compromise can probably be traced all the way back to 1802, when the idea of separation of church and state first entered the American lexicon.  Though not formally established by either the Declaration of Independence (1776) or the Constitution (1787), Thomas Jefferson was able to insert it after the fact, and it has since become an accepted principle of our pluralist nation.

 

Rome, for its part, has been consistently trying to clarify things for its upstart American followers.  The Syllabus of Errors (1864), though not directed specifically at us, still spoke to the American version of the popular modernist trend sweeping over the West in the wake of the Enlightenment.   On Americanism (1899), a papal encyclical penned by Pope Leo XIII, was indeed aimed directly at us, and at our leading prelate at the time, James Cardinal Gibbons.  Cardinal Gibbons, you may recall, became a major proponent of the American Experiment.  By the time he appeared on the scene in the 1880s the Church in the United States was flourishing.  New parishes were being established left and right, beautiful cathedrals were getting built, convents and seminaries were full to bursting.  

 

Gibbons concluded America’s new form of government – a pluralist, liberal democracy – was good for the propagation of Catholicism.  But his rosy assessment didn’t account for the exploitation of the working class being perpetrated at the time by the Robber Barons of the Gilded Age.  Good thing Leo XIII was on hand to address the problem in his formidable 1891 encyclical, Rerum Novarum, sub-titled “On Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor.”

 

This special encyclical kicked off Catholic social teaching as it pertains to modern-day economic behavior. And this aspect of the Church’s Magisterium has been going strong ever since.  Every pope since Leo, in every single papal encyclical, has made reference to this economic teaching, to one degree or another.  And the conservative/libertarian Catholic brain trust in this country has been ignoring that teaching for just as long.

 

VI.

Well-meaning people on both sides of the aisle can disagree as to the underlying source of our present cultural stalemate.  Though I would think we can all agree the contentious nature of our politics has indeed brought us to a bit of a stalemate, since fights are likely to break out among friends and neighbors at the drop of a hat, over the average day’s headlines.  What can be done to improve the cultural climate, moving forward?

 

Well, most successful conservative Catholics I know think “righting the ship” will be as simple as reversing Roe v. Wade, and electing another Republican to the White House.  Then we can all sit back as the culture magically heals itself, and the familiar trickle-down economic policy prescriptions are once again put in play to solve all our economic woes.  

 

Whereas the more thoughtful (and typically less successful) conservative Catholics I know are given to a sense of despair.  They see the dissolution of Western civilization as being so pronounced, conventional political alternatives offer them little hope for improvement.  Such folks are busy implementing their own version of what’s been dubbed “The Benedict Option.”  The only reasonable way to address their overwhelming sense of spiritual ennui is to pull back from mainstream culture altogether.  These stout souls are out to build a new sense of community that strikes them as being more authentic than the consumer-oriented one we have now.  They are usually happy to live far from the madding crowd.

 

This latter approach certainly has a lot to recommend it, since good things usually happen when birds of a feather flock together.

VII.

The romantic appeal of the Benedict Option, as put forth by author Rod Dreher in his best-selling 2017 book of the same name, is undeniable to a solitary soul like me.  But romance aside, there is another strategy available to faithful believers in this secular world of ours.  To access it, though, we must hedge a bit on that ancient admonition to be in the world, but not of it.  If we seek a cultural restoration, we should not be so quick to exile ourselves from the mainstream.

My suggestion on how to alter the course of Western civilization for the better will not be easy for either brand of conservative Catholic to swallow.  Not for the Wall Street Journal crowd, who has the world by the tail and is enamored of Republican fiscal policy.  And not for the more modest Benedict Option types who distrust all political machinations, and harbor a special disdain for what they see as the openly immoral nature of certain aspects of Democrat social policy.

But my plan has an upside:  Achieving cultural restoration will not require any sort of dramatic about-face, or anything as drastic as a re-invention of the wheel.  We do not need to come up with an entirely new system of economic exchange, nor must we foment a political revolution that will result in a return to what some fondly remember as the confessional state of bygone days.  

Yes, it’s true, all of modernity has been fraught with problems.  But there is a reason the smart set sought the overthrow of the Christian ethos at the beginning of the modern era, all those hundreds of years ago.  Everyone was ready to try something new for a simple reason:  Christians were not doing Christianity very well.  So here we Christians now find ourselves, in the land of pluralism and liberal democracy based on majority rule.  And it’s our job as people of faith to make it work.

Contrary to conventional conservative wisdom on the subject, the fastest way to restore a semblance of moral clarity to contemporary secular culture is not to try and re-legislate morality back into the system by repealing Roe v. Wade, or rescinding the legalization of gay marriage.  Because in a nation dedicated to the proposition of individual liberty in the pursuit of one’s own definition of happiness, taking away choice in any area of personal behavior is not a winning strategy.

 

Instead of taking something away from people, better to provide something they currently lack.  In this case that something is dignity and a sense of authentic community.  Recasting our existing capitalist model from one based solely on supply and demand, to one that can work justice and charity into the picture, could provide both.  

 

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr

September 16, 2022

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Why Libertarian Catholics are Wrong on Economics Part 1

Why Libertarian Catholics are Wrong on Economics 1

September 12, 2022  |  1,571 words | Economics, Politics, Philosophy, Religion   

A Brief History:  Part One

I.

First Things has always been a classy journal featuring quality contributions from orthodox scholars and academics.  Father Richard John Neuhaus (1936-2009), the founding editor and famous Lutheran convert to Catholicism, was a prose stylist par excellence.  Anything he chose to write about in his monthly dairy entries was a pleasure to read.

 

But I stopped checking him out once I realized the magazine was another assembly of devout intellectuals who can’t seem to connect the dots between what they think of as our amoral culture, and what I consider to be our ethically-challenged economic way of life.  Another battalion of thoughtful writers who believe there is essentially nothing wrong with the economic status quo. 

 

At dinner recently a friend described a faithful Catholic of his acquaintance who attends Mass and goes to Confession weekly, yet is of the opinion, “economics has nothing to do with morals.”

 

Sadly, every conservative Catholic I know holds this view.  They have bought the libertarian line that self-interest is the best way for a free society to operate.  They have come to believe this harsh philosophy honors foundational Catholic concepts such as human dignity and free will.  They reach this conclusion by focusing their attention on the American version of individual liberty, which just happens to be at odds with the all-important Catholic formulation that we are all relational creatures by nature.

 

High-brow media outlets like First Things contribute mightily to what I would describe as a misdirection, since its influence far exceeds its limited subscription base.   Its editorial slant on economics represents accepted wisdom among all conservative Catholic commentators.  The faulty messaging is constantly being repeated on a variety of popular media platforms, and becomes the only one an orthodox believer takes seriously.

 

Father Neuhaus thought capitalism could be a reliable embodiment of Christianity.  With the operative word in that sentence being “could.”  Unfortunately, like all conservative intellectuals with a notable public profile, he was unable to grasp just how far capitalism has strayed from anything even remotely associated with the Christian ethos.

 

II.

Many respectable, law-abiding citizens assume we have arrived at our contentious cultural crossroads through a misreading of the moral law as it pertains to human sexuality.  But there is another important piece to this puzzle that has escaped their notice.  It’s the misreading on the part of conservative/libertarian Catholics (and other conservative/libertarians of goodwill) as to what the proper rules of economic engagement should be.  In fact, I would contend our free-wheeling economic system is far more responsible for where we find ourselves today culturally than any perceived deviation in sexual mores.

 

Like their secular counterparts, many practicing Catholics now believe the individual should be allowed to pursue his or her economic advancement without outside interference, and completely unencumbered by what the Founders describe as “outside affiliations.”  James Madison refers to this ideal condition as “an absence of obstacles” in one of the Federalist Papers.

 

But being left alone to do your own thing, which is a fundamental tenet of Americanism, is not exactly compatible with being your brother’s keeper, a fundamental tenet of Christianity.  Conservatives who are quick to revere our Founders as Christian stalwarts, and attribute today’s problems to the gradual abandonment of our Christian roots, are nostalgic for a thing that never was.  Since America was founded on the Enlightenment, and only ever possessed residual traces of Christianity.  

 

This is the misunderstanding that leads conservatives to mistakenly lay blame for what they don’t like in contemporary society at the feet of secularists, or secular humanists, in the form of liberal policy makers, big government, a radical judiciary that has legislated a new morality from the bench, etc., etc.  They absolve present-day Republicans of any complicity in the matter.  In fact, they see Republicans as their one, true ally in a noble crusade to “restore the culture.”

 

I agree the state has worked to undermine/redefine cultural norms.  But now, after reading Patrick Deneen’s snappy little masterpiece, Why Liberalism Failed (2018), I also see the state’s actions over the entire course of our nation’s history as having been executed in the name of Enlightenment principles such as expanding individual freedom and economic opportunity.  Both of which just happen to be cornerstones of the American Experiment, and central elements of the Republican Party’s (and before that, the Whig Party’s) “conservative” agenda.  

 

In a paradox few conservative and libertarians appreciate, the cultural trends today’s various traditional/orthodox populations bemoan ad nauseum have actually drawn their inspiration from and been driven by long-held Republican/Whig principles.

 

This is the underlying theme of Mr. Deneen’s (1964 -) book.  The unexpected conclusion is slowly revealed, page-by-page.  A professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame, Deneen offers up a broad historical overview.  He takes his time and provides lots of supporting argument in locating the source of our present day cultural/political divisiveness in a place where most readers would least expect to find it.

 

Mr. Deneen’s greatest gift to our public discourse is to calmly point out how both warring factions in our contentious political divide – liberals and conservatives – are in reality two sides of the same ideological coin.  He introduces the reader to what he describes as two forms of American liberalism.  First there is “classical liberalism,” whose followers are now called “libertarians.”  And then there is “progressive/modern liberalism,” championed by people we simply refer to today as “liberals.”  Both these forms of American liberalism implement the same flawed thought process, though under slightly different guises.  With individual emancipation superseding concern for the common good.  

 

My introduction to “classical liberalism” and the libertarian push for economic freedom came late in 2013.  It was the boisterous conservative backlash to those eight infamous “economic” paragraphs in Pope Francis’ first apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (November 2013) that got my attention.  The same conservative influencers who had praised Francis to the skies when first elevated/elected to the papacy in March 2013, for his modest ways and man-of-the-people street cred, were now clamoring for his head over the impertinence he displayed by ever-so-briefly questioning the efficacy of unfettered capitalism.  

 

When Mr. Deneen’s book finally came along in 2018, it proved to be the cultural/economic/political Rosetta Stone I had been waiting for.

  

III.

The best thing one can say about First Things magazine is its editors and contributors are simply unable to see the big picture on economics.  The worst one can say is First Things is just another respectable tome that keeps conservative-leaning citizens in the dark about the true nature of Catholic social teaching on economics.

 

For some observers the big question is whether Father Neuhaus was duped, or if he actively participated in the deception.  But that line of inquiry does not particularly interest me.  I do know Neuhaus drew inspiration for his rosy view of the economic status quo from the work of Michael Novak (1933-2017), who first published his seminal book, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, in 1982.  Novak’s premise, that free enterprise is inherently moral, has been subsequently championed by a new generation of high-profile Catholics who proudly identify as politically conservative.

 

Among the most prominent of this next generation is Arthur Brooks (1964- ), who recently finished a ten-year stint as president of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI).  Though his tenure at that organization is no longer part of his official bio.  Mr. Brooks was paid one million dollars annually to function as “rainmaker-in-chief” for this privately-funded think tank.  That meant convincing wealthy donors to shift some of their spare cash to AEI’s coffers, to underwrite a variety of worthy causes.  There are literally hundreds of “scholars” operating out of AEI’s gleaming new headquarters building in Washington, D.C., and no doubt some of them are busy doing really good work.  But AEI is also known for giving Republican legislators their talking points on economic issues of the day.  Such as arguing against a raise in the federally-mandated minimum wage.

 

Over the years Mr. Brooks has made his case in a number of non-fiction books that have been certified as New York Times best-sellers, such as The Conservative Heart (2015).  His final act upon leaving AEI was to produce and star in a documentary film, The Pursuit (2019)In it, Mr. Brooks is seen visiting a variety of exotic locales around the world, while talking his way through many of his favorite themes.  In the end, his economic message boils down to a simplistic, decidedly non-Catholic view that laissez-faire free enterprise is always preferable to government interference in the economy.

 

And that’s my beef with otherwise likable souls such as Arthur Brooks, Michael Novak, and Richard John Neuhaus.  They ignore all pre-Vatican II (1962-1965) papal teaching on economics, which clearly and forcefully speaks of the occasional need for government intervention to protect the social fabric and honor the common good.  Then they cleverly crib select citations from the two main post-conciliar popes – John Paul II and Benedict XVI – to bolster their case.  

 

Pope Francis, in works such as Evangelii Gaudium (2013) and Laudato Si (2015), is either subtly passed over or outright disparaged by this contingent.  I guess that’s because Francis has a tendency to use unambiguous – and sometimes even a bit salty – language in reaffirming long held Church teaching on what ethical economic behavior should look like in a free market environment. Apparently, the libertarian Catholic (Republican) establishment doesn’t like being reminded of these inconvenient economic truths.

 

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr

September 12, 2022

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Catholics and Collective Bargaining

Catholics and Collective Bargaining

May 13, 2022 | 2,564 words | Economics, Politics, Religion

It always fascinates me when successful, fiscally conservative Catholics express an unbridled distain for organized labor on ideological grounds. To hear them tell it, unions are nothing but an affront to individual liberty and self-determination, two hallmarks of the American lexicon.

These folks hold fast to an unshakeable belief in the effectiveness of an unregulated free market to determine appropriate wage rates and compensation packages. If someone is unhappy with the terms of their employment, such as what they are being paid, they are free to seek work elsewhere. This is the conventional wisdom espoused by libertarians. And all successful, fiscally-conservative Catholics are libertarian at heart.

Because our free-wheeling economy generates so much opportunity, freedom of movement is all a libertarian asks of an economic system. Since they enjoy considerable leverage on the job, and have attractive options should they choose to leave, “freedom” is the only other ingredient required to ensure their continued prosperity. They don’t need or want a third party in the picture, as that would only impede their ambition.

But not everyone who works for a living has such options. In fact, most people who toil for their daily bread lack anything even remotely resembling leverage at their place of employment. They experience a dearth of alternatives should they decide to leave, or be unceremoniously let go.

*

Economists are fond of touting the steady increase in living standards enjoyed by average citizens since 1800, offering this as proof we live in the best of all possible worlds. But access to a wide array of cheap consumer goods doesn’t guarantee happiness or provide meaning. Nor has it changed the basic rules of economic engagement, which remain an ethical free-for-all. The Darwinian nature of our economic life favors the clever and the advantaged. And let’s give those go-getters credit, for they have made the most of the opportunity.

But all those who are not quite as clever, and not so advantaged, are left to go begging when it comes to receiving equitable compensation for their efforts. To say nothing of having a voice in how business policies are developed and implemented. The run-of-the-mill employee is given very little consideration at work. Being passed over in this way tends to negatively impact one’s inherent sense of dignity.

The struggle for dignity and a decent wage is as old as time. It’s a puzzle we as a society have not yet fully solved, despite the dramatic uptick in living standards since 1800. And we’ve fallen into the familiar habit of discussing the problem in strictly binary terms, as either a liberal or conservative issue. This is not bringing us any closer to a satisfactory resolution.

*

Not all successful Catholics are fiscally conservative, and not all who oppose organized labor do so on ideological grounds. Some have first-hand experience with labor unions, and have grown weary of their influence based on up-close, personal interaction.

When such friends hear me support the concept of collective bargaining, they frequently assume their rough-and-tumble exchanges with union types trumps what they take to be my naïve, pie-in-the-sky assumptions. But my position on this subject is based on much more than assumptions. I have been a union-affiliated contractor in the construction trades for going on 25 years now.

I agree with critics who say there is a lot not to like about the current state of organized labor. Union leadership often comes into negotiations with a huge chip on its shoulder, wanting to fight over every stupid little line item in the contract. They almost seem to disagree just to be disagreeable.

To which I say: If you had your head kicked in for the last one hundred and fifty years, you might be a little combative entering a negotiation, too.

And one also can’t help noticing how union leadership often lacks any semblance of real leadership ability. They’ve usually risen through the ranks, which is generally a good thing. But even the most enthusiastic line worker or local organizer needs to be coached up at some point, to avoid finding himself or herself in over their heads.

On the other hand, critics of organized labor should be willing to admit unions are not solely responsible for the “us-versus- them” mentality that seems to hang over every labor negotiation like a death pall. Ownership too often enters these negotiations with one overriding objective in mind: to give their lower tier production people as little as possible.

Today’s labor unions can be faulted for all of the above. But their obvious flaws should not disqualify them from consideration. Unions still have the potential to serve as a much-needed counter-balance. They can help our free-market society take major strides in the direction of economic justice.

*

My point here is simply this: The theory behind collective bargaining and organized labor is still sound, even if the actual practice of today’s unions leaves a lot to be desired. Rather than continuing to criticize union leadership as being stuck in the Dark Ages, may I suggest an alternative to the successful Catholic business advocate?

Ownership and management could be a lot more transparent with the rank-and-file, and take a more collaborative approach in its planning and execution. Making people feel they are more than interchangeable parts might go a long way toward easing tensions at contract time. This will require a major re-think, along with a serious re-allocation of resources, in order to change a given corporation’s culture. Just referring to employees as “associates” and hanging a few inspirational posters in hallways and break rooms will not get it done.

Ownership should also be prepared to extend profit-sharing to its line workers, instead of treating them as an afterthought who should be content with crumbs from the table. This, too, will require buy-in on the part of upper management and investors.

And consider this: What if a wave of successful, fiscally conservative Catholics were to switch sides, so to speak. What if a few of these die-hard libertarians were to dedicate themselves to the cause of economic justice and join the union movement. Their management savvy could help union regulars steer things in a more enlightened and collaborative direction.

*

How today’s “conservative” or “traditional” or “orthodox” Catholics became outspoken critics of organized labor on ideological grounds, when their parents or grandparents were once staunch union supporters, is tale that’s been told many times.

The popular scenario has the conversion starting with the Democratic embrace of legalized abortion after the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision of 1973. A generation of devout working-class Catholics, along with their now upwardly-mobile cousins, signed on as “Regan Democrats” in the presidential election of 1980. The Republicans had staked their claim to being “the party of life” as a strategic demographic move, just in the nick of time.

This is the conventional narrative we are all familiar with. But the corruption of the Catholic mind, away from economic justice in favor of economic freedom, was in the works long before Ronald Regan became president, or the Supreme Court issued its landmark ruling on abortion.

For a deeper dive we should go back to the 1930s, and not settle for the familiar 1980s version. In trying to mop up the mess left by the infamous stock market crash of October 1929, Pius X promulgated his papal encyclical Quadragessimo Anno (QA) in 1931. The following year, Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt won the presidency in a landslide over Republican incumbent Herbert Hoover.

QA was a continuation of the Catholic Church’s critique of the built-in inequities to be found in free-market capitalism. This formal analysis was first begun in 1891 by Leo XIII, when he addressed the excesses of the Gilded Age and the Robber Barons in his encyclical Rerum Novarum (RN). Both works contain a prescription for how economics might be done differently, to more effectively promote the common good.

FDR, for his part, entered the White House as a life-long devotee of what his Episcopalian and Methodist brethren refer to as the Social Gospel. He was first exposed at age 14, when he left home to attend the prestigious Groton School in Massachusetts.

His inner circle of advisors felt the same way. Consider Frances Perkins, a long-time friend and the first woman to ever serve in a presidential cabinet. She was Secretary of Labor from 1933-1945, and is widely acknowledged as the chief architect behind Social Security. Along with being a major contributor to many other ground-breaking pieces of “safety net” legislation.

It was FDR’s unique intellectual pedigree that allowed him to immediately recognize a kindred spirit in Pius X, whom he described as being “just as radical as I am” when it came to looking out for the little guy.

Conservatives at the time did not much care for FDR’s proclivities in this area of public policy. They vehemently protested his administration’s attempt to revive the economy and help millions of forgotten fellow citizens, attempts they derided as a decent into socialism.

*

The irony is that while the Episcopalians and Methodists in the Roosevelt administration were channeling Catholic social teaching on economics, many of its fiercest critics were Catholic intellectuals who based their opposition to the New Deal on strictly constitutional grounds.

One such intellectual was Clarence Manion, who published Lessons in Liberty in 1939, when he was teaching law at the University of Notre Dame. He made a powerful argument for the Christian origins of the United States, citing the Founders insistence on individual liberty as the embodiment of Catholic teaching on the dignity of every human being.

Manion established what would become a favorite talking point for conservative Catholics in the decades to follow: “Never before had a new government been formed for the sole and only purpose of protecting the God-given rights of the individual person.”

By invoking this logic to specifically attack FDR’s domestic agenda, Professor Manion helped tar and feather that agenda as not only un-American, but also anti-Catholic. The specter of socialism helped to underscore this, as the Church had already gone on record as condemning socialism as a God-less system of social organization. Manion gave cover to successive generations of Catholic academics and public intellectuals who would either challenge or creatively interpret Catholic social teaching on economics, throughout the remainder of the 20th century, and into the 21st.

After the wonky Clarence Manion in the 1930s and 1940s came the swash-buckling aristocrat William F. Buckley, Jr., who burst on the scene with his book God and Man at Yale, published in 1955. The magazine he went on to found, National Review, became required reading for educated Catholics of a conservative bent who sought to reconcile their upward mobility with the faith of their fathers.

Around the same time, Brent Bozel (Buckley’s brother-in-law and fellow Catholic) was busy ghost-writing The Conservative Mind (1960) for Arizona senator and soon-to-be presidential hopeful Barry Goldwater. Following Clarence Manion’s lead, Mr. Bozel set out to show that Goldwater’s version of American Exceptionalism was perfectly aligned with Catholic teaching. Rank-and-file Catholics weren’t buying, however, as Goldwater was defeated handily in the presidential election of 1964.

Determined to maintain this awkward charade of compatibility between American individualism and basic Catholicism, the high-profile Buckley was quick to lampoon the latest Catholic commentary on social justice as soon as it appeared. Mater et Magistra was promulgated by John XXIII in 1961, on the anniversary of both Rerum Novarum and Quadragissimo Ano. Buckley’s withering response to this Pope’s effort was a dismissive “Mother yes, Teacher no.”

*

When Ronald Reagan first ran for public office in the mid-1960s, after starting to build his political brand in the 1950s, he found a ready ally in laissez-faire Catholic like William F. Buckley, Jr. When the abortion issue went from backburner to front and center in 1973, it merely sealed the deal. Reagan winning the presidency in 1980 was a dream come true for a wide swatch of the now-mainstream Catholic demographic. Not only was the Gipper “solidly pro-life,” but his trickle-down theory of economic health was music to the ears of libertarian Catholics across the country.

In the years since then the conservative intelligentsia has continued to work hard to cement this special Republican bond with people in the pews. One-time liberal theologian Michael Novak (1933-2017) published his career-defining book, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, in 1982. It made him the darling of conservative Catholic entrepreneurs everywhere. Father Richard John Neuhaus (1936-2009) joined the posse in 1990 as founder and editor of the erudite monthly First Things. This was (and still is) an ecumenical journal “whose purpose is to advance a religiously informed public philosophy for the ordering of society.”

While I support that high-minded agenda wholeheartedly, I believe First Things often undermines itself when it vouches for – either explicitly or implicitly – a built-in compatibility between free-wheeling capitalism and Christianity. And more specifically, with the nuts-and-bolts of modern-day Catholic social teaching on economics.

Exhibit “A” would be how the Novak/Neuhaus crowd tutored the Catholic faithful in what it saw as a proper understanding of Centessimus Annus (CA). This was the landmark encyclical promulgated by John Paul II in 1991, the anniversary of Mater et Magistra, Quadragissmio Anno, and Rerum Novarum. That’s right, JPII took this historic occasion to chime in on economic behavior and its impact on the social fabric, re-iterating for our time what his forgotten predecessors had clearly stated.

Neo-cons, however, took a novel approach to interpreting the Polish Pope who helped end the Cold War. They adopted CA as the long-awaited grand re-imagining of Catholic teaching on economics, claiming it offered an unequivocal defense of the free market. But this comprehensive, nuanced document did no such thing.

Instead of ignoring Catholic teaching on economic life as Clarence Manion did in 1939, or pejoratively dismissing it as William F. Buckley, Jr. did in 1961, what the current generation of conservative Catholic intellectuals seem to specialize in is a sort of sophisticated game of bait-and-switch.

Their modus operandi is to selectively crib statements from Centessimus Annus out of context, and present them to average lay men and women as whole cloth. They have succeeded in having this blatant mis-representation accepted as the definitive take-away, while somehow maintaining their sterling reputation for orthodoxy. If only everyday Catholics would bother to read the source material for themselves, they’d see through this ruse in a New York minute.

As dire as I think this situation has become, I do not ascribe nefarious motives to those conservative Catholics who have effectively rejected the Church’s social teaching on economics. Nor am I overly worked up about the way these folks profess to be “traditional” and “orthodox” in their beliefs, while displaying such a tin ear on this important topic. I see no point in going out of my way to condemn anyone for this sort of mistake. Better to try and offer fraternal correction.

THE TAKE-AWAY:
If only conservative Catholics could be weaned off their embrace of the American myth of rugged individualism and every man for himself and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, they might one day become more sympathetic to the idea of collective bargaining having a positive impact on the common good in a capitalist economic system.

Then they might also see that Catholics are not supposed to be libertarian in their outlook, no matter how successful they are.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr

May 13, 2022

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