Select Page

Just Trying to Help (part two)

April 15, 2020 (3,352 words)

My ire has often been directed at prominent conservative Catholics, many of whom are highly-compensated commentators working for lavishly funded private foundations, who I believe avoid or willfully misinterpret the Church’s social doctrine on economic justice.

Now the time has come for me to acknowledge there is yet another more humble group of Catholics who also identify as conservative, but who are not prominent spokespeople with big reputations or big paychecks.

This latter group is indeed aware of the Church’s reservations about capitalism. They are up to speed on what the pertinent papal encyclicals have to say on the subject of economic justice, and are not in denial about it.

To their credit, they continue to grapple with the breadth of the teaching. Especially with what someone like John Paul II, for instance, is clearly telling us in Centesimus Annus (CA), his big, important encyclical of 1991.

They just don’t know what to do about it, how to integrate what they are reading into their everyday lives.

JPII is as good a reference as any to use in this discussion, since after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989 it was generally assumed he would clear up any confusion over the Church’s position on the heated subject of “capitalism versus socialism.”

Here in the West we took for granted he would enthusiastically endorse capitalism as the preferred economic model for countries to follow.

Then along came CA, strategically promulgated on the hundredth anniversary of Leo XIII’s ground-breaking encyclical on social justice, Rerum Novarum (1891).

While JPII did unequivocally restate the Church’s long-standing condemnation of socialism, he threw us all a curve when what he had to say regarding capitalism was conditional and highly guarded, at best.

The first thing he did, in his characteristically erudite and scholarly manner, was to define what he meant by the term “capitalism.”

He makes an important distinction, describing the requisite characteristics of any morally acceptable form of capitalism.

a morally acceptable form of capitalism…

His name for this morally acceptable capitalism is a “market economy” (CA, n.42), and he goes on to articulate how it fundamentally differs from a morally unacceptable economic ideology, which he calls “liberal capitalism.”

At this point the casual reader might understandably draw the conclusion we here in the United States are in the clear, since what we practice is “free market capitalism,” which sounds an awful lot like John Paul II’s “market economy.”

And besides, what on Earth is “liberal capitalism,” anyway?

Ah my friends, this is where we confront a simple truth: to be considered even a run-of-the-mill practicing Catholic, one has to be a willing student of history.

An earlier Pope, Paul VI, already went to the trouble of defining “liberal capitalism” as the product of “unbridled (classical) liberalism.” In his 1967 encyclical Populorium Progressio (PP), he describes “liberal capitalism” this way:

“It has profit has its only motive, puts no limits on the absolute private ownership of the means of production, and holds that unhindered free competition must guide the economic system”. (PP, n. 26)

Paul VI says materialism pervades the basic philosophy of liberal capitalism, in the way temporal goods such as wealth and power take precedence over – or even deny – spiritual goods such as friendship and wisdom.

Getting back to JPII and Centesimus Annus, we read that liberal capitalism is no less materialistic than socialism, which of course is the very reason the Church has always bitterly opposed socialism. Liberal capitalism, he tells us, is materialistic:

“insofar as it denies an autonomous existence and value to morality, law, culture, and religion… in the sense that it totally reduces man to the sphere of economics and the satisfaction of material needs” (CA, n. 18)

Liberal capitalism fails to understand that man, by his very nature, cannot be fulfilled outside “his final destiny, which is God.” (CA, n. 41)

To boil this down for those of us who are not scholars, JPII is saying that while the basic necessities of life, such as food, clothing, shelter, etc., are certainly components of man’s happiness on Earth, they are secondary in importance when compared to his transcendental spiritual needs.

This is why John Paul II refuses (refuses!) to endorse a capitalist system “in which freedom in the economic sector is not circumscribed within a strong judicial framework which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality” (CA, n. 42).

Ah yes, human freedom in its totality. Which means our revered concept of “economic freedom” is not automatically synonymous with human freedom.

government as an important counterbalance…

As upwardly mobile Americans, committed to pluralism and liberal democracy, I’m afraid even Catholics have forgotten that society must be ordered and grounded in “the Christian vision of the human person.” (CA, n. 13).

The economic implications of all this are not hard to grasp: To be morally acceptable a “market economy” must serve human freedom in its entirety. It can only do that when it functions within the confines of a strong institutional, jurisdictional, or political framework. (CA, n. 48)

In other words, a morally acceptable version of capitalism cannot exist without a governmental entity capable of enforcing some rules. This contingency runs counter to the inbred notion of “individual liberty” and “rugged individualism” we Americans take such pride in.

According to Catholic social doctrine, the presence of “free market mechanisms” is but one necessary element required in a morally just and economically thriving society. (CA, n. 19)

This is where things really get complicated for conservative Catholics who pay attention to papal encyclicals.

Ever since Roe v. Wade, this group has been assured by their prominent spokespeople the “limited government” version of liberal capitalism promoted by the Republican Party is morally acceptable, despite all evidence to the contrary.

What is needed at this juncture is no less than a major reconsideration of recent political history, which is admittedly a lot to ask of people who are pre-occupied with paying the mortgage and getting their kids through school.

we are stuck with limited political options…

We are stuck with only two political options, and the first thing Catholics should do is acknowledge loud and clear the neither of these options embody the fullness of Church teaching.

The second thing I propose Catholics do is admit Roe v. Wade does not represent a betrayal of our Christian founding, but is rather a natural by-product of our Enlightenment founding.

When our Popes talk of “liberal capitalism” and “unbridled liberalism” they are making a broad reference to “classical liberalism,” an ideology that defines the modern era. This “liberalism” celebrates individual emancipation at the expense of the common good, by rejecting all previously held authority, custom, and tradition.

It started with the Renaissance, helped fuel the Protestant Reformation, and then formed the basis of the Enlightenment philosophy that animated the thoughts of our most influential Founders.

Sadly, rank-and-file Catholics are not savvy enough to see how this overarching “liberalism” expresses itself in what passes for “conservative” economic theory. And conservative Catholic commentators are oblivious to the heterodox origins of their preferred economic stratagems.

The institutional Church, on the other hand, has been hip to the problem from the start. Our Popes have been wrestling with this radical ideology for centuries now, even if their stellar work hasn’t yet filtered down to street level and received mainstream acceptance.

Then along came the infamous Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, which took all the guesswork out of who faithful Catholics could vote for.

Any prelate who challenged the new Catholic-Republican alliance, by promoting a “seamless garment” argument that placed abortion in a broader context with other social justice issues, was condemned by conservative Catholics as failing to properly defend the sanctity of life in the womb.

Which is pretty much where things stand now: if you vote for a Democrat, you are guilty of a mortal sin.

This leaves the small minority of conservative Catholics who are aware of the Church’s reservations about capitalism in the lurch. Those few who are up-to-speed on what the pertinent papal encyclicals have to say on the subject of economic justice, and are not in denial about it.

But they are at a loss as to how to implement what they read when it comes time to vote.

seeing abortion and economic justice as intertwined….

While there is no such thing as a moral equivalency between abortion and economic justice, I think anyone interested in eliminating the former and promoting the latter should be willing to entertain a discussion on how best to achieve both objectives.

What’s more, I believe the only way to reorder our society and restore the “Christian vision of the human person,” as John Paul II would have it, is to realize that abortion and economics are inextricably linked.

In order to see this connection, conservative Catholics must embark on an intellectual journey, the first step of which is to dis-engage from the popular libertarian notion that government is nothing but the despised enemy of the individual liberty and personal freedom we in this country hold so dear.

According to JPII: Government can rein in “selfishness and the desire for excessive profit and power.” (Sollicitudo ReI Socialis, 1987, n. 47)

While a government consisting of flawed human beings will never be immune to grave inefficiencies and potential corruption among its officials and administrators, such an imperfect institution can nevertheless:

…serve to combat the spread of improper sources of growing rich, and of easy profits deriving from illegal or purely speculative activities, “as these constitute one of the chief obstacles to (human) development, and to the economic order.” (CA, n. 48)

This means, in practical terms, that what Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are talking about when it comes to economics should have great resonance for any Catholic with even a passing awareness of the Church’s teaching on this subject.

The obvious conundrum is that these two politicians openly affirm the Democratic Party’s well-known support of “reproductive rights.”

And every Pope I can cite in support of economic justice is clear in his condemnation of abortion. While we have been instructed that economics falls under the heading of prudential matters we can have different opinions about, abortion is non-negotiable.


The current pro-life paradigm has very familiar contours. It used to cast its critical eye on “blue-collar Catholics,” who maintained a visceral loyalty to the Democratic Party that was seen as “obscuring the demands of their faith.”

To that group has been added a breed of “bad Catholic” who considers the Church’s stance on things like women’s ordination and artificial contraception as being hopelessly “behind the times.”

What I am calling for is a different way of assessing one’s political options, apart from the usual categories we have all grown so comfortable with. This new strategy should not be dismissed as a misapplication of prudential judgement in matters of fundamental moral doctrine.

I am not suggesting a compromise in moral absolutes. I am recommending conservative Catholics extend their definition of morality to include economics.

A Catholic who considers supporting a Democratic politician because of that Democrat’s promotion of economically just policies is not living in a fog of moral ambiguity, or inadvertently endorsing heresy.

Critics should review the political calculus in which they condemn these voters for allowing “party loyalty” to take precedence over “moral duty.”

Conservative Catholics who still see the answer as “straight talk from the pulpit” on abortion should sharpen their political IQ. Of course we need straight talk from the pulpit. It’s how we apply that straight talk to the political process that needs a major re-think.

Voting for a Republican who “stands for life” may make some of us feel better, but our elections are not up-or-down votes on abortion. Wouldn’t it be grand if fixing this mess were that simple? Voting for a culture of life, instead of a culture of death – what a no-brainer that would be.

it’s always been about changing hearts and minds…

While it grieves me that our country has made infanticide legal, and deems Planned Parenthood worthy of boatloads in federal funding, I have also come to realize that legislative measures will not really solve the problem.

Neither will continuing to denigrate prominent politicians like Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden as “bad Catholics,” since a politician’s stated support for a woman’s right to choose does not translate into making abortion a mandatory medical procedure.

Pro-choice Democrats are not roaming the streets, kidnapping pregnant women and delivering them to the nearest abortion clinic, forcing them to terminate their pregnancy.

Women are choosing to have abortions of their own free will. Sometimes it seems this obvious fact gets lost amid all the earnest hand-wringing and elaborate strategizing of the pro-life community.

There is nothing more righteous than the pro-life cause. But its advocates don’t seem to appreciate that even after access is restricted, and God-willing the noxious laws are reversed, until they are able to affect a fundamental change in the hearts and minds of women who are electing to abort, the ultimate objective will not be achieved.

Why do pregnant women choose abortion?

Dire economic conditions that prompt so many financially-strapped women (and their families) to feel they simply cannot afford to carry a pregnancy to term.

A “me-first” mindset on the part of privileged women who decide a pregnancy should not interfere with their pursuit of happiness.

It is the “liberal capitalism” and the “unbridled (classical) liberalism” the Popes have continued to warn us about that is responsible for both “types” of abortion – even if no Pope has quite gotten around to connecting these particular dots.

liberal capitalism is at the root of our cultural malaise…

Seeking an end to abortion will require our society to turn away from the “liberal capitalism” that is currently in play, and adopt the morally acceptable ideology of a “market economy.”

In the present political context, that means faithful Catholics who are pro-life should not continue to automatically vote Republican, in hopes of favorable Supreme Court nominees and the appointment of federal judges across the country who will chip away at abortion access, and one day claim the big prize – the repeal of Roe v. Wade.

At least not until those Republicans stop passing huge tax cuts that benefit the wealthiest strata of society, justified by their unshakable belief in trickle-down economics.

Or refuse to enact carbon taxes on the fossil fuel industry, and ignore the need for stricter anti-trust legislation on our tech giants. To say nothing of consistently opposing universal healthcare, and failing to address the exorbitant prices we pay for prescription medication.

Because without a serious tilt of the scales in the direction of a more economically just society, the legal remedies currently being sought will not do the trick. They will not eliminate the scourge of abortion from our midst.

In fact, if by some magic twist of fate abortion were to be severely restricted or suddenly outlawed, without an overhaul of the economic order, all we would be left with is civil war.


Okay, fine. But in the final analysis how can a pro-life Catholic with a conscience properly attuned to the economic question be expected to endorse a principled crusader for economic justice like Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, when such people unabashedly claim support for abortion “is an absolutely essential part of being a Democrat”?

When every priest and bishop one respects continues to say we must recognize our solemn obligation to defend the unborn when approaching the voting booth? That we must carry out our civic duty in accord with our Catholic faith.

These consecrated men are known not to mince words:

“You can never vote for someone who favors the right of a woman to destroy human life in the womb, the right to a procured abortion.”

No question, this is a tough nut to crack folks, and I’m not making light of that fact.

These same upstanding clerics are highly dismissive of Catholics who offer support to a known pro-abort politician on the basis of other agenda items like “the environment” or “immigration reform.”

A pro-abort Catholic politician is derided as someone who has “betrayed their Catholic faith,” and willingly “creates scandal,” which is defined by our clergy as “doing or omitting to do something that leads others into confusion about the moral good.”

making myself crystal clear…

I hope I am making myself clear: Abortion is not okay. Catholic politicians who support access to abortion are, indeed, betraying their faith.

But I don’t get the “potential for confusion” tag that so many of our earnest priests and bishops charge such politicians with. There is no way anyone’s support for abortion should confuse the rest of us into thinking it is ever okay, regardless of the circumstance.

I also hope I have made myself equally clear that “economic justice” is not a silly little sidebar policy issue, to be waived off and given short shrift.

It’s just our bad luck that for the time being the only political alternative favoring economically just policies also happens to believe abortion is a vital human right. We Catholics who seek economic justice have to work on converting such politicians, and show them the error of their ways when it comes to “reproductive choice.”

Having said that, it’s important to remember a politician who agrees to abortion access has no authority to force a woman to procure such a procedure.

As previously noted, that happens as a matter of free will. The choice takes place in the heart and mind of each pregnant woman, not in any building where politicians gather to conduct their business, or at any podium where they instinctively appease and seek approval.

In short, making real headway comes down to faithful priests and bishops also needing to deepen their understanding of the problem, right along with the rest of us. They, too, need to extend their definition of morality to include economics.

Our Popes have been saying all the right things on the subject. But they are not responsible for crafting public policy, as we all know.

It is lay men and women who must make prudential decisions in the social realm to achieve temporal solutions. This is where the new political paradigm I am talking about comes into play. There are people much smarter than I am who should be able to figure out how to make this new paradigm work.

Here are a few starter ideas, though, off the top of my head:

Let these politicians know all their new-found Catholic supporters do not cotton to the approval of abortion. Catholic women should make it plain they don’t intend to have an abortion despite their Democratic vote, and express the view that no woman should find herself in a position to choose that option.

Bring a sign to a Democratic rally that reads “Morality Demands Economic Justice,” by way of explaining one’s support of a particular candidate’s economic agenda. The thought being that injecting the concept of morality into the economic discussion would be a good place to start.

And then there’s this: All through the recently-completed primary season we were treated to TV presentations of countless folksy town hall meetings which featured questions from the audience, followed by intimate one-on-one selfie sessions with the candidate.

What’s wrong with telling the person to his or her face: “I am a Catholic who agrees with your economic policies, and I hope one day you will reconsider your position on abortion.”

Keeping in mind how so many of these pro-choice Democrats were once pro-life, and not that long ago, either.

You are certainly welcome to try doing the same thing in reverse with your favorite Republican candidate, but I doubt you will make a dent. Because Republicans are convinced their economic agenda – which so obviously contradicts Church teaching – is the perfect embodiment of Christian principles.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr
April 15, 2020

Use the contact form below to email me.

11 + 15 =