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First Things

June 8, 2021 (4,090 words)

First Things has always been a classy journal featuring quality contributions from orthodox scholars and academics. Father Richard John Neuhaus (1936-2009), the famous Lutheran convert and founding editor, 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 in once I realized the magazine was another assembly of devout intellectuals who just can’t seem to connect the dots between our free-wheeling, amoral culture and our equally free-wheeling and equally amoral 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 not only attends Mass regularly but 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. Somehow my friends think this harsh philosophy honors human dignity and free will. They’ve been bamboozled into concentrating their attention on the American version of individual liberty, even though it’s at odds with the Catholic notion we are all relational creatures by nature.

High-brow media outlets like First Things contribute mightily to this confusion, 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 in more popular venues, and becomes the only one an orthodox believer ever gets to hear.

It’s been said Father Neuhaus thought capitalism could be a reliable embodiment of Christianity. Unfortunately, like all other conservative intellectuals he was unable to grasp just how far it’s been allowed to stray from anything even remotely associated with the Christian ethos.

Most respectable folks I know assume we have arrived at our current cultural nadir through a misunderstanding of the moral law as it pertains to human sexuality. But there is another important piece to this puzzle that has so far gone undetected. It’s the misunderstanding on the part of faithful Catholics as to what the proper rules of economic engagement should be. This second misunderstanding is just as responsible for where we find ourselves today as is the first.

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

This explains why salt-of-the-earth Catholics are convinced the problems with today’s culture are the result of our nation’s dramatic turn away from what they still nostalgically think of as our Christian roots. They lay blame for all the mess at the feet of liberal policy makers, big government, a radical judiciary that has legislated a new morality from the bench, etc., etc. They absolve Republicans of any complicity in the matter. In fact, they see Republicans as their one, true ally in the crusade to restore the culture.

I agree the state has worked to undermine our cultural norms. But I also see how the state’s actions in this regard have been executed in the name of expanding individual freedom and economic opportunity. Both of which just happen to be central elements of the Republican Party’s “conservative” agenda. The shameful cultural trends today’s orthodox Catholics bemoan have actually drawn their inspiration from and been driven by long-held Republican principles.

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

So then, was Father Neuhaus duped, or part of the deception? That debate does not particularly interest me. I do know that Neuhaus based his rosy view of the economic status quo on 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 famous of this next generation is Arthur Brooks (1964- ), who recently finished a ten-year stint as president of the American Enterprise Institute. Mr. Brooks was paid one million dollars a year to function as “rainmaker-in-chief” for this privately-funded think tank – convincing wealthy donors to shift some of their spare cash to AEI’s coffers, to underwrite a variety of worthy causes. There are hundreds of “scholars” working 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. His final act upon leaving AEI was to produce and star in a documentary film, The Pursuit. Mr. Brooks is seen visiting a variety of exotic locales, while he talks his way through many of his favorite themes. In the end, it boils down to a simplistic, decidedly non-Catholic view that unfettered free enterprise is always superior to government interference in the economy.

And that’s my only beef with likable souls such as Arthur Brooks, Michael Novak, and Richard John Neuhaus. They ignore all pre-conciliar papal teaching on economics (led by the comprehensive work of Leo XIII and Pius XI), and they crib select citations from the two main post-conciliar popes (John Paul II and Benedict XVI) to bolster their case. (Francis is either subtly passed over or outright disparaged by the current generation of conservative Catholic commentators, for his use of unambiguous – and sometimes a bit salty – language in re-affirming long held Church teaching on the matter.)

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

But our pre-occupation with this radical shift in sexual mores has obscured the other revolution that was taking place in American Catholicism at the very same time.

Conservative Catholics have rightly ear-marked Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) as a pernicious piece of social engineering. And they all swell with pride at the mention of Humanae Vitae (1967), the Church’s heroic response. But these days nobody recalls the conservative intelligentsia’s negative reaction to Mater et Magistra (1961), which is what prompted things to go off the rails in the first place. It gave Catholics in the pew a mixed message.

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). In it, Pope 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 the Catholic Magisterium was no longer the boss when it comes to economic behavior. The phrase employed to describe this development was “Mater si, Magistra, no”, penned by a young Gary Wills (1934- ), who 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 rebellion against economic morality on the part of conservative Catholics paved the way for the rebellion against sexual morality by liberal Catholics. At the very least, both rebellions unfolded simultaneously, and were mutually supportive.

The 1960s may have been when all this erupted into public view, but of course each rebellion had much deeper roots. Staying with the apparently less-well-known economic rebellion for a moment, we find that 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 New Deal, on the grounds that allowing the federal government to play such an outsized role in economic affairs was un-American.

Let’s not forget that as a presidential candidate in 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt went public with his admiration for Quadragesimo Anno (1931), calling its author, Pius XI, “just as radical as I am.” His conservative Catholic critics were not impressed, and by the middle of Roosevelt’s second term those critics were positively climbing the walls.

Which is not to suggest every piece of legislation enacted by FDR 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 on the economic nature of the common good, in favor of a rugged pursuit of individual advancement, is nothing new. It’s the very same battle Orestes Brownson 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 betrayal 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 wayward American followers. The Syllabus of Errors (1864), though not directed specifically at us, still spoke to the American version of the modernist heresy sweeping over the West. On Americanism (1899) 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, since by the 1880s the Church in the United States was thriving – new parishes being established left and right, new cathedrals being built, convents and seminaries full to bursting. But Gibbons didn’t account for the exploitation of the working class perpetrated by the Robber Barons of the Gilded Age. Good thing we had Leo XIII on hand to address the overriding economic issue in his 1891 encyclical, Rerum Novarum.

This big 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 XIII, in every single papal encyclical, has made reference to this economic teaching, to one degree or another. And the conservative Catholic brain trust in this country has been ignoring that teaching for just as long.

People of goodwill can disagree as to the underlying source of our present degradation. Even though its crystal clear to me. But what about a solution? What can we do to improve the cultural climate, moving forward?

Well, the most successful of my conservative Catholic friends believe righting the ship will be as simple as electing another Republican to the White House. Then we can all sit back as that individual implements the familiar trickle-down economic policy prescriptions favored by First Things, American Enterprise Institute and the Wall Street Journal.

My more thoughtful (and typically somewhat less successful) conservative Catholic friends believe the dissolution of Western civilization is now so pronounced, conventional political alternatives offer little hope for improvement. They are busy implementing their own version of The Benedict Option. For them, the only responsible way to address the overwhelming spiritual crisis we find ourselves in is to pull back from mainstream culture. Turning inward, these stout souls are seeking to build a sense of community that is more authentic, wherever they can find it.

This approach has a lot to recommend it, since good things always seem to happen when birds of a feather are allowed to flock together.

I will admit to the obvious romantic appeal of the Benedict Option, as put forth by author Rod Dreher in his best-selling 2017 book. But romance aside, there is another strategy available to faithful believers in this post-Christian world of ours. To access it, though, we must be prepared to 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 mainstream culture.

What I have in mind will not be easy for either brand of conservative Catholic to swallow. Not for the First Things, American Enterprise Institute, Wall Street Journal types who have the world by the tail, and swear by the sanctity of free enterprise and the wisdom of Republican fiscal policy. And not for the salt-of-the-earth Benedict Option types who distrust all political machinations at this point, and have therefore decided to check out and go their own way. It should also be noted this latter group harbors a special disdain for the openly immoral nature of certain aspects of Democrat social policy.

The good news is achieving cultural restoration will not require a re-invention of the wheel. We do not need to come up with a entirely new system of economic exchange, and we don’t need to foment a political revolution that will result in a return to the confessional state. Yes, all of modernity has been fraught with problems. But there is a reason the smart set sought the overthrow of the Christian ethos all those hundreds of years ago, and wanted to try something new. Christians were not doing Christianity very well. So here we now find ourselves, in the land of pluralism and liberal democracy based on majority rule, and it’s our job to make it work.

According to certain seminal thinkers, the surest 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 on supply and demand, into one based on justice and charity, could provide both.

The challenge we face is finding a way to infuse free market capitalism with a healthy dose of Christianity. This is what the Catholic popes have been talking about, non-stop, since 1891. The First Things people must cease and desist pretending our economic system as it is currently allowed to function is already living up to the demands of papal teaching. The Benedict Option folks must open themselves up to this important component aspect of papal teaching, and integrate it into their understanding of what constitutes the moral order.

On a side note, one need not be a scholar or an academic to bone up on this topic. Don’t let your status as a mere lay person stop you from digging in to the pertinent literature. Take hope from the fact good writing is always easy to read. And papal encyclicals are always well-written.

Once we stop letting the First Things, American Enterprise Institute, and Wall Street Journal crowd convince us that John Paul II in Centesimus Annus (1991) is saying unfettered free-market capitalism is an unequivocal good, we are in for a rude awakening.

It turns out all those Catholic Voter Guides we are inundated with every election season, insisting we must vote Republican because those candidates are pro-life, are woefully inadequate when it comes to Catholic social teaching as it pertains to economics. And all those Democrat candidates we have been told to dismiss out of hand, over their support of a woman’s right to choose and marriage equality, are the only ones articulating anything resembling the Church’s teaching as it pertains to economic justice.

We live in a big world full of beauty and wonder. But not everyone gets to experience its beauty or its wonders. Sometimes our own actions keep us from a first-hand encounter with the beatific nature of human existence. When we make a point to act in a way that contradicts the truth written in our hearts, those actions cloud the mind.

If we falter in this way, we have it on good authority forgiveness and redemption are close at hand, no matter how egregious the transgression. One only need seek it with a sincere and contrite heart.

But in many cases people are prevented from experiencing life’s beauty and wonder by dire economic circumstances they can do nothing about. You might not notice this where you live, 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 consumers debt.

Our free-wheeling economic system can be a wonderous thing to behold, generating a wealth of opportunity. Over the years many have been able to climb aboard the gravy train. Since 1800 or so, unprecedented numbers have been lifted out of a hand-to-mouth existence, with capitalism and free enterprise responsible for the improvement in material circumstances.

But James Madison’s “absence of obstacles” approach favors the clever and the advantaged, and a majority of regular folks are neither.

If no longer outright exploited as in the days of old, 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 has taken place over their heads. This is the language John Paul II uses in Centesimus Annus (no. 33 and 34) to describe the employment situation of the average worker.

A lot has been said and written about the loss of manufacturing jobs that enabled simple production line people to buy a house, send their kids to college, and enjoy modest vacations. But there was nothing magical about those jobs, or those industries, that yielded such positive results. It was the introduction of collective bargaining into the equation that resulted in the dramatic post WWII rise of the American middle class.

This was an anomaly, by the way, the only period in our nation’s history when those with no ownership stake were treated as something more than just replaceable parts, and were allowed to share in the bounty their labor helped create.

(Collective bargaining just happens to be a pillar of Catholic social teaching on economics – see Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno – and something FDR took to heart when his administration passed the National Labor Relations Act in 1935.)

There is no reason we could not apply the same idea to today’s service industry and gig economy, and all those new fulfillment center jobs – which taken together represent the lion’s share of employment opportunities for regular folks – and achieve the very same results. Namely, widespread prosperity, up and down the entire economic food chain.

The only thing standing in the way of re-introducing collective bargaining into the equation is the imperative to maximize investor return. There has always been a tug of war between the interests of capital (return on investment), and those of labor (securing food and shelter). But the rise of the conservative/libertarian mindset in our time has made any discussion of organized labor verboten.

The current anti-union trend started 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 occurred in the latter part of the 1980s during the Reagan administration, when all our hard-won anti-trust legislation was rendered null and void in the name of “lower consumer pricing.”

Here’s the only glitch: When prices continue to go down, wages eventually also go down. Because the other element in this formula – owners and investors – still expects the highest possible return on their investment.

A grassroots movement can be a powerful force for social change. But when it comes to tweaking the tone of our commerce to be more considerate of others, especially those others with absolutely no leverage, this is one grassroots movement that will have to start at the top.

It is the entrepreneurial class and the daring market disrupters, the 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 short-term profit.

Believe it or not, there is already some movement in this direction, so the proposition is not as hopelessly far-fetched as you might imagine. In August 2019 an influential think tank known as the Business Roundtable announced the release of a new “Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation.” It boldly redefined 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 – that corporations exists primarily to serve investors.

So the August 2019 Statement is a real game-changer. It supersedes all previous statements and outlines a modern standard for corporate responsibility. It was signed by 181 CEOs who are now committed to lead their companies 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 quorum. Many of our most powerful masters of the universe have not yet gotten the memo. But the BRT has made a good start, and the CEOs of big-time operations like the Ford Foundation, Johnson & Johnson, JPMorgan Chase, Progressive Corporation, and Vanguard have signed on.

(The full list of signatories is available at hhtps://

Needless to say, attempting to transform our economic model into one based on justice and charity will be a long and arduous process. No doubt the effort will find itself beset by 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. This is where outside oversight can help keep things on course. But so many of our regulatory agencies have been gutted, and the 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’ attempts to close tax loopholes and clamp down on widespread tax avoidance, are things that can help bring into being the Business Roundtable’s new vision of an economy that serves all Americans.

If only the devout intellectuals at First Things and the current crop of conservative Catholics would consider the viability of such judicial and legislative activity. If only they could bring themselves to help build a different sort of political paradigm.

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

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr
June 8, 2021

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