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The Truth’s Long, Hard Slog

May 21, 2024  |  1,685 words  |  Economics, Philosophy

The conservative Catholic commentator Christopher Manion has been around a long time, and is well into the eminence grise stage of his career.  Perhaps not as well-known as some other conservative Catholic thought-leaders who possess a somewhat higher public profile, Manion nevertheless has a reliable following in certain circles.

One such circle of support is Christendom College in Front Royal, Virginia, where Dr. Manion was invited in February to share his political expertise in a lecture sponsored by the school’s Political Science and Economics Department.

That expertise comes from his time long ago as staff director of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, under Senator Jesse Helms (R-N.C.).  Prior to that Manion earned his Ph.D in government at Notre Dame University.  After his brief stint in government Dr. Manion went on to teach politics, religion, and international relations at Boston University, Catholic University of America, and Christendom College.

He continues to be a contributing editor and critic for Saturday Review and High Fidelity magazines, and has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Journal of Economic Development, and The National Catholic Register with op-eds and book reviews.

I think it would be fair to say Dr. Manion is typical of the conservative Catholic intelligentsia that considers Pope Francis an abomination from a doctrinal point of view, someone who regularly contradicts two millennia of Church teaching on faith and morals.  Still, I was caught off guard by an essay Manion posted on April 13, entitled Tucho Fernandez Strikes Again.

The piece starts off innocently enough, with a rather standard-issue dismissive harumph in response to the latest pronouncement by one of Francis’ renegade apparatchiks (Cardinal Tucho Fernandez, in this instance).  But then the article takes an unexpected turn.  Out of the blue and for no apparent reason, Christopher Manion decides to cast aspersions on the Church’s well-documented economic teaching, under the subheading The Truth’s Long, Hard Slog.

To quote from Dr. Manion’s essay:

“For the past century and more, the Magisterium has had a tough ride.  When we look at Rerum Novarum (Leo XIII, 1891), and its introduction of ‘Social Justice’ (undefined) into the ‘magisterial’ realm, that vague assertion, plus the equally vague and new meaning of ‘magisterial,’ had a powerful impact on what became the Church’s ‘Social Teaching.’”

“’In 1931’, writes Thomas Patrick Burke, ‘Pope Pius X1 used the term social justice in his encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, giving it official recognition throughout the Roman Catholic Church.’”  

Manion then continues to quote Thomas Patrick Burke quoting from the encyclical:

The right ordering of economic life cannot be left to a free competition of forces.  For from this source, as from a poisoned spring, have originated and spread all the errors of individualist economic teaching.  (QA, 1931)  

Now back to Christopher Manion:

“Franklin D. Roosevelt didn’t lose any time wrapping himself in the authority of the Catholic Church.  In 1936, he quoted this encyclical in a speech before a large crowd in Detroit. ‘It is a declaration from one of the greatest forces of conservatism in the world, the Catholic Church,’ he said, and it is ‘just as radical as I am… one of the greatest documents of modern times.’”  

“He (meaning FDR) quoted from the Encyclical at length:

It is patent in our days that not alone is wealth accumulated, but immense power and despotic domination are concentrated in the hands of a few, and those few are frequently not the owners but only the trustees and directors of invested funds which they administer at their good pleasure…

The accumulation of power, the characteristic note of the modern economic order, is a natural result of limitless free competition, which permits the survival of those only who are the strongest, which often means those who fight most relentlessly, who pay least heed to the dictates on conscience.

This concentration of power has led to a three-fold struggle for domination:  First, there is a struggle for dictatorship in the economic sphere itself; then the fierce battle to acquire control of the Government, so that its resources and authority may be abused in the economic struggle, and, finally, the clash between the Governments themselves. (QA, 1931)

Manion continues:

“Counseled and cheered on by Msgr. John A. Ryan, author of the 1919 pastoral letter of the National Catholic Welfare Conference and its chief spokesman in the 1930s, Roosevelt and the American Democrat left have invoked ‘social justice’ to mean whatever they want it to mean.”

“That vague (and often vapid) use of ‘Social Justice’ – and its claim of Magisterial authority for whatever political opinion it is used to defend or assert – has caused untold confusion and real damage ever since.  Popes since 1849 have condemned socialism on grounds of fundamental principle – but since Rerum Novarum, the Catholic Left has opposed that absolute and objective denunciation by countering it with ‘Social Justice.’”

Okay, but I have a few questions.  Why does the Catholic Left’s alleged opposition to the Church’s clear rejection of socialism undermine the Church’s economic teaching?  Why does the Left’s use of the term “social justice” sully a pope’s use of that same term?  (If “confusion” is the concern, the answer is for thought-leaders to do a better job of explaining and instructing, not to abandon a valuable concept altogether.)  Why does Franklin D. Roosevelt’s praise for Quadragesimo Ano somehow make that encyclical less profound and any less pertinent?

Back to Dr. Manion’s essay:

“And we should not forget that in the time of Leo XIII, ‘Christian Socialism’ was a new thing that captivated intellectuals both cleric and lay.  95 percent of the world’s population was living in abject poverty in that era.  Today, that figure is no more than 10 percent, and most of those still suffering are living under socialism.”

“Pope Leo would be astounded at the abundance that the free market has allowed the world to achieve since the nineteenth century.  Today’s ‘Social Justice Warriors’ know it.  But they have to keep beating the same tiresome tune because they have nothing else to fill the vast abyss they have created by turning their back on the Church’s moral teaching in Humanae Vitae, Casti Connubi, and two thousand years of the Church’s teaching on sex, marriage, and children.”

Ah, here we arrive at what strikes me as the key to Dr. Manion’s consternation.  This last passage clearly shows his pre-occupation, and the pre-occupation of all other conservative Catholic commentors for that matter, with ‘violations’ of Church teaching on sex and marriage.  He (they) feels these violations have been perpetrated and even encouraged since the Second Vatican Council by the Catholic Left, who have casually thrown around the term social justice to obscure their calumny.  

And in a case of assigning guilt by association, he (they) feels a special antagonism toward the current pope in this regard, seeing Frances as persona non grata for being a ringleader of sorts for the sex and marriage dissidents.

Manion obviously has an axe to grind with what he sees as the disreputable Catholic Left, and this has apparently clouded his judgement regarding the elaborate teaching of the Catholic Church on economic behavior.  In this he seems to demonstrate a bad case of the virus known as “There are no good Democrats.”  (Perhaps you are familiar with the liberal strain of this same virus, “There are no good Republicans.”)  

I say this because in Christopher Manion’s analysis, the landmark encyclical Quadragesimo Anno should be held out as suspect for the simple reason FDR admired it and quoted from it extensively.

Because Dr. Manion sees today’s Catholic Left as ignoring the Church’s absolute and unquestioned denunciation of socialism, and countering it with cries for ‘Social Justice,’ apparently this means mention of the term social justice in any papal encyclical over the last 133 years should be understood as vague and often vapid.

Then there is what I can only describe as the chutzpah Manion displays in claiming Leo XIII would have no choice but to reconsider his pioneering encyclical Rerum Novarum (On the Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor), because now only 10% of the world’s population lives in abject poverty, versus 95% in Leo’s time.  

Allow me to say the observation ‘abject poverty is way down’ in the Third World, while blessedly and thankfully true, is rather glib and often serves as the plug-and-play conservative defense of the economic status quo in the First World.  This statistic is trotted out whenever anyone (like, say, the last ten popes) dares to point out unfettered capitalism’s rather obvious excesses and shortcomings – the routine violations of human dignity, the systemic failure to promote individual flourishing, to name just a few.  

As if all we are supposed to ask of our economic system is to lift more of the world’s destitute population out of abject poverty.

This April 13 essay really breaks new ground.  Dr. Manion is not simply repeating the same old complaints, blaming the ills in the present-day Catholic Church on the Catholic Left, the Second Vatican Council, and the current wayward pontiff, as conservative commentators are wont to do.  

Manion takes things a step further by making a surprise economic connection.  In the process he calls into question two of the most venerable documents in the Church’s catalogue of modern-day economic teaching – Rerum Novarum (1891) and Quadragesimo Anno (1931). 

That dog does not hunt, in my humble opinion.  

Not that I want this little critique to come across as uncharitable toward Christopher Manion.  I have always respected him and still do, even though I view the papacy of Francis through a much different lens than he does.

I trust Dr. Manion is operating in good faith when he tars and feathers the concept of “social justice” as it was first introduced by Leo XIII and then given official recognition by Pius XI.  This no doubt represents an honest attempt to uncover what he believes is a contributing cause of today’s drift from sexual morality.  I just happen to vehemently disagree with Christopher Manion on this point, and think he is barking up the wrong tree.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.

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