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Just Trying to Help

March 28, 2020 (1,753 words)

Many fine people of my acquaintance, and many worthwhile social commentators, continue to strut and fret over what they see as a dire trend in society today: a rising segment of the American population who consider “socialism in some form” to be a good thing.

As I’ve mentioned before, this is really a linguistic issue, rather than a debate over divergent ideology.

The people who are now expressing their approval of socialism to pollsters are in fact merely registering their complaint with how capitalism has come to be practiced.

To prove my point, how many Americans do you know who are running around clamoring for the formal mechanisms by which socialism sets out to achieve its grand promises: government ownership of the economy and the abolishment of private property?

This seems obvious to me. But apparently it’s not so obvious to my many fine friends and all those worthy social commentators. I continue to read overwrought diatribes that feel compelled to remind us “history has shown decisively that socialism, practically and economically, is a failed system.”

It’s bad enough when conservative Republicans muddy the waters with this historically accurate but unrelated observation, stubbornly insisting a “complaint with capitalism” is the same as an “approval of socialism.” They can be excused for playing dirty to win or retain political power.

But when earnest, well-intentioned Catholic people get tangled up in the same specious argument, it truly pains me.

I am saddened that the issue of economic justice, which is at the heart of the social doctrine of the Church, starting with the Gospels and elaborated upon by every Pope since Leo XIII in the late 1880s, has now been determined to fall under the heading of “socialism.”

How did this happen? When did the call for a living wage, a bedrock Catholic concept as articulated in papal encyclical after papal encyclical, get confused with the socialist promise of an abundance of material goods for everyone, and of a utopian condition for all mankind?

tripping over themselves to avoid the truth…

Conservative Catholic commentators are now tripping over themselves, selectively quoting a variety of reliable sources, to show that socialism is unequivocally condemned by the Church – a fact no one disputes, by the way.

But they cleverly avoid – or willfully misinterpret – the sections from those same sources that call out the dangers and pitfalls of unfettered capitalism.

Mind you, this is nothing new. It’s been going on since at least the 1980s, when folks like Michael Novak made a big splash by giving a Catholic imprimatur to the Reagan Revolution.

The phenomenon was repeated after John Paul II promulgated his encyclical Centesimus Annus in 1991, on the hundredth anniversary of Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum.

The same conservative Catholic intelligentsia quickly mobilized to cover over what JPII had to say about free-market capitalism in the age of “greed is good.” His observations, of course, were simply a contemporary re-boot of what our old friend Leo XIII said about the Robber Barons in The Gilded Age.

This current propaganda campaign being waged against the phantom specter of “socialism” is no doubt inspired by the presence of a couple of Democrats in this year’s primary race who’ve had the audacity to promote Catholic social teaching on economics. Even though they never quite get around to acknowledging their favorite “give us our daily bread” causes as such.

being tarred and feathered with an unfortunate sobriquet…

Besides not bothering to properly identify as Catholic sympathizers when it comes to economic justice, one of our inadvertent proponents, as we know, left himself open to being tarred and feathered with the unfortunate sobriquet of “socialist,” by continuing to insist he is a “democratic socialist.”

In the end, though, I don’t blame this incorrigible-yet-principled older gentleman for the awkward formulation, since he too, is limited by the existing linguistic options at his disposal.

Yes, folks, this is a very serious issue that is being butchered by our leading commentators, and we all need to do a much better job of teasing out the truth.

The first step to improving our understanding is to set aside the iron-clad belief that conservative Republican fiscal policy is the perfect embodiment of Christian principles. It most decidedly is not. Neither is liberal Democratic policy, it should go without saying. But we have to stop thinking we’ve correctly identified who the good guys are, and who the bad guys are. It’s not that simple.

If we can do that, maybe we can stop twisting Catholic teaching to fit a particular political ideology.

My remarks today are being directed at many people I know and like, and many writers I read with interest. In some cases I don’t just like the people I am disagreeing with, I admire them. Take Father George Rutler, who has this to say in a recent weekly column in the parish bulletin at the Church of Saint Michael in New York City, where he is the pastor:

“Materialism, fantasy, and false worship were temptations Satan thrust at Christ, and he is tempting our nation the same way. These seductions are a formula for Socialism, which Winston Churchill in 1948 defined as ‘the philosophy failure, the creed of ignorance, and the gospel of envy.’

“A poorly educated generation succumbs to adolescent ideology, bereft of history, unaware that a cult of state has been a consistent failure, costing countless millions of lives in modern times.”

Here again we are being treated to historically accurate but non-pertinent observations, this time by the otherwise admirable Fr. Rutler.

(Editor’s Note: There are those who say our clerics should steer clear of politics. Not me. I welcome such involvement, and such commentary, with open arms. But then again, if you’re going to weigh in, let’s try to get it right, shall we?)

To review, then: The concept of universal healthcare does not violate the Catholic principle of subsidiarity, it validates it.

There are some decisions that should be made at the local level, as close as possible to the people being affected by those decisions. While there are other concerns that need to be taken up and carried out by a higher authority. Healthcare falls into the latter category.

subsidiarity is not a defacto argument against government…

Generally speaking, how we organize society for the benefit of the common good doesn’t have to be this pitched battle between government and the market, between government and individual freedom.

In the expansive view of the Catholic Church, government and business should be working together to achieve a shared goal of a just and equitable (NOT equal) society.

Cooperation is the mantra of the Church. Competition, on the other hand, is the rallying cry of pluralism and liberal democracy. It is only in our modern age that we have decided, with the help of many astute and persuasive thinkers, that government is the sworn enemy of human flourishing.

I would suggest a major reconsideration is in order. And that everything any of us need to know on this subject can be found in Catholic social doctrine.

That doctrine “is a branch of moral theology that comprises an organic development of the truth of the Gospel about the dignity of the human person and his social dimension offering principles for reflection, criteria for judgement, and norms and guidance for action.”

The above is taken from the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 509. And what a clean and concise summation it is, don’t you think?

One might also say this doctrine is rooted in the natural law and Scripture, and is an ever-evolving element of morality that deals with current issues within the social structure of society: political, economic, and cultural.

Allow me to close with a few words from Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J. (1914-2000). Father Hardon remains an orthodox hero to many. Known for his academic rigor, as applied in the over forty books he wrote on religion and theology. He expresses the norms of the Church’s social doctrine as follows:

“Any social system governed by economic factors alone is morally wrong; any theory or ideology in which profit is the exclusive standard in business is morally unjustified; and any system which reduces persons to mere instruments for procuring financial gain leads to idolatry of money and the spread of atheism.”

That’s from Hardon’s “The Faith: A Popular Guide Based on the Catechism of the Catholic Church,” pp 214-15. Yet another beautifully short and sweet summation of what we need to know. (This is the kind of straightforward, no-nonsense stuff that brought me back to the faith at age forty, after a twenty year hiatus.)

Is it not glaringly obvious that Father Hardon is describing our current version of capitalism? At least as it has been functioning since 1962, when Milton Friedman gave us the new commandment of commerce: The only social responsibility any business has is to turn a profit.

If you don’t think our society idolizes money, and that this idolatry has undermined the belief and practice of Catholics and other Christians over the last half-century – despite what pious, conservative Republicans have had to say on the subject – well then, you and I just disagree.

It’s the blatant excesses of capitalism that all those Americans who are now suddenly professing an interest in some vague notion of socialism are complaining about.

obstinately ignoring the break-through message…

What of that reliable chorus of conservative Catholic commentators who seem immune to such consultation? When confronted with irrefutable evidence of capitalism’s flaws, they don’t just duck and weave, they outright bail on the situation.

Credit them with always maintaining their composure, though. With feathers never ruffled and not a hair out of place, they invariably invoke their favorite fallback position:

“The Church does not propose temporal solutions, she offers moral and spiritual principles to guide man in making prudential decisions in the social realm.”

To employ such statements, which are true enough on their face, in order to dismiss any concern with capitalism, or to suggest a forthright discussion of the economic status-quo is somehow outside the realm of legitimate concern for Catholic lay people, is nothing less than an irresponsible cop-out.

One might even describe it as a despicable dereliction of duty.

Orthodox Catholics should stop trying to find ways of denouncing and undermining the message of economic justice that has finally broken through and hit the mainstream in this current election cycle, just because they don’t happen to like the (Democratic) messengers.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.
March 28, 2020

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