Saturday, December 7, 2013

Conservative "cafeteria Catholicism" on parade

I thought that it was impossible for me to respect Rush Limbaugh less; I thought that needle was buried at zero for some years. However, there must have been a little morsel — perhaps a hidden affection for his term "femi-nazi" — sneaking around in a dusty, little-used corner of my mind. That little booger died quickly yet screaming in agony when Limbaugh decided to take issue with Pope Francis' apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (which is back online in HTML format, although you can also download it in PDF format for perusing on your tablet or e-reader).

What, specifically, did Limbaugh take issue with? Why, Paragraph 54, which has turned out to be a stumbling block to free-market apologists, both Catholic and non-Catholic:

... [S]ome people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably [in Spanish, por si’ mismo, which Fr. John Zuhlsdorf argues is better translated as "by itself"] succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting. To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own. The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase. In the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us.


So okay, Limbaugh is merely demonstrating his ignorance, as he does quite frequently, as well as his penchant for black-and-white fallacies (if you're not 100% behind the free market, you must be some kind of pinko commie; no third option is conceivable). Robert Ellsberg (son of Daniel Ellsberg of "Pentagon Papers" fame) wrote an excellent takedown of Limbaugh on CNN.com pointing out that, contrary to Limbaugh's assertion that "this would have been unthinkable for a pope to believe or say just a few years ago," "[b]oth Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI were explicit in their warnings against liberal capitalism and the dictatorship of the marketplace, producing encyclicals which, for their emphasis on social justice and the 'option for the poor,' would surely qualify for Rush Limbaugh as the very elixir of 'Marxism.'" Concern for the poor has always been part of Catholic doctrine since the first Pentecost; in the last 120 years, many popes beginning with Leo XIII have written encyclicals and exhortations which have contributed to the development of Catholic social doctrine.

But Limbaugh — who is not a Catholic — is not alone in his condemnation of EG's strident rejection of Austrian-school economic theory. He is joined by a number of conservative commentators, many of whom are orthodox Catholics ... at least when it comes to gonadal issues.

In The American Conservative, Patrick J. Deneen subtly needles Hadley Arkes for an article which essentially counsels the Pope, "[B]e as brief as the Gettysburg Address in matters pertaining to economics, and loquacious as Edward Everett when it comes to erotics" [Deneen's words, not Arkes']. Somebody — I wish I could remember who, so I could link the comment here — predicted not long after EG came out that the Acton Institute, which pretty much exists to square free-market capitalism with Catholic doctrine, would quickly have a refutation published; sure enough, Kishore Jalabayan produced just such a post almost on cue. And Father Z stopped just shy of giving Limbaugh full endorsement of the latter's ignorant screed; ever respectful of the pope, having counseled often that we can and should "read Francis through Benedict", Fr. Zuhlsdorf suggests that the relevant passages were influenced by a statist on the Pope's staff, and that "we need to drill into Peronism" as a possible source of "Francis' hermeneutic for economics."

One trenchant observation, which comes from distributism apologist John C. Médaille's Facebook page:

I must have read the term "unfettered capitalism" in dozens of right-wing attacks on Evangelii Gaudium. The odd thing is, neither the word "capitalism," nor the word "unfettered" appears in the document, much less the phrase. So where did the phrase come from, that it should appear as a standard feature in so many attacks? [From Limbaugh's jeremiad, which implies that he wields a disturbing level of influence.] I can only assume that the critics have not actually read the document; instead, the term gained life inside the right-wing echo chamber where one critic created a straw man, and the rest dutifully repeated it.

The absolute worst of the lot comes from Adam Shaw, whose bilious, meretricious hit piece on FOXNews.com calling Francis "the Catholic Church's Obama" inspired The Blogger Who Must Not Be Named to great vitriolic heights (or depths, depending on your perspective and your appreciation of The Blogger).

In essence, Shaw has bought into the MSM's myth of "Francis the Progressive Pope", thundering that Francis has "insulted, and severely damaged the work of, pro-life and pro-marriage groups with his comments" and "gone on the attack, dismissing Catholics who attend the older rites in Latin as 'ideologizing' and being guilty of 'exploitation'" — favored lines of argument among the Francis-bashers of the right. So EG 54 is of a piece: "Apart from the fact that there is no major nation practicing unfettered capitalism (like Obama, Francis loves attacking straw men) [that's your irony supplement for the day], there is more real tyranny in socialist cesspools like Francis’ home of Argentina than in places where capitalism is predominant."

Here it is, then: Many conservative Western Catholics are orthodox, even traditionalist, in their beliefs about most Catholic teaching. When it comes to Catholic social doctrine, however, their feet are pointed towards the cafeteria line. French entrepreneur and writer Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, writing in First Things, admits
I don’t know how many pro-free market Catholics there are, but I sure know a lot of them, and when the Pope speaks on economics, we (and I [Gobry] very much include myself in this 'we') tend to either plug our ears and ignore it, or else confidently and even irreverently dismiss it .... 
Neither of those approaches can suffice.
For if we are faithful Catholics, we do believe in the Spirit-led authority of the magisterium. Now this is usually the point when all of us suddenly become canon lawyers and note that the Church’s social doctrine is not endowed with ex cathedra infallibility and Catholics are allowed to dissent—and may even have a duty to do so. Sure. But is this the most Gospel-driven way to relate to our "Mother and Teacher"?

Quoth The Blogger Who Must Not Be Named:

In the American Church, the Left invokes "primacy of conscience" and the Right invokes "prudential judgment" as the preferred fig leaves for blowing off the Church's teaching. But, in fact, cases where the Church really puts us in a position of violating our conscience or attempting something totally impossible and immoral are very rare. Meanwhile, "prudential judgment" actually means trying your best to prudently obey the Church's teaching — including the parts you don't like. It does not mean "feel free to ignore everything but the dogmatic bits."

Convert Joe Carter, reflecting on Gobry's essay, also reminds us of a post written by M.J. Andrew in Evangelical Catholicism back in 2009 about Benedict XVI's Caritas in Veritate, in which Andrew tells us that the assent of faith is not an "option" where the social doctrine of the Church is concerned. Citing Leo XIII's Graves de Communi Rei, St. Pius X's Singulari Quadam, and Bl. John Paul's Sollicitudo Rei Socialis and Veritatis Splendor, Andrew wrote:

... [W]e still encounter the stubbornly persistant opinion among Cathoilcs that the Church's social doctrine is not binding—and if it is authoritative, then it is not as important or consequential as doctrines of faith. But this position is certianly not to be found in Catholic teaching. Indeed, it is simply a pernicious prejudice. Consider the bounds of the Church's teaching authority. The Church instructs us to be stalwart in our belief that the Church is our authority in matters of faith and morals. The Second Vatican Council [!!], for instance, affirms this:
The bishops, teaching in communion with the Roman Pontiff, are to be respected by all as witnesses to divine and Catholic truth. In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent. This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking. (Lumen Gentium, 25)

Is it possible to criticize the pope's grasp of fact, or of economic theory? Certainly. But as Gobry points out, "... [E]conomists actually know very, very little, and that a lot of what we thought we knew turned out to be wrong." Neoclassical economics is highly criticizable, especially in its approach of "successive approximations", which Dante Urbina, echoing the late Edgar R. Fiedler, says "ends up turning [] the real world in[to] a sort of 'special case' of theory!"  (Fiedler, an economist who served as assistant secretary of the treasury in the Ford Administration, originated the quote, "For economists the real world is often a special case.") 

Gobry tells us, in another post on Forbes, that economists are willing to admit they're biased by their class values — largely "egalitarian" and "cosmopolitan", which are different ways to say liberal — but are unwilling to follow that admission to its logical conclusion:

In my view, the fact that so many economists praise [economist/blogger Tyler] Cowen’s finding which undermines economics’ claim to scientific knowledge highlights that many of these economists think their value system is, well, right. Their cri de coeur endorses a view of economics-as-it-is-practiced as not just a science but also a political ideology. "We are good", economists hear this op-ed as telling them, not "We are biased." [Bold font mine.—TL]

That Gobry can toss that ramifying, damning clause into the paragraph without pause for examination shows that, although he claims the financial crisis was "an eye-opening moment", he too is unwilling to examine whether neoclassicists are trying to explain a round world from a body of flat-earth theory. Nevertheless, "[g]iven this hard-to-swallow fact [i.e., that economists and the conventional version of free-market economics are fallible], the prophetic voice of the Church that reminds us of what must be the ends of economic activity is very salutary."

This post has gone on long enough, so let me tie a bow on it:

Pope Francis' economic comments may be inaccurate and inflammatory in detail, but in general outlines he has said nothing that other popes haven't been saying for the last century, including Francis' two most recent predecessors. At no point has any pope denied a right to be rich or to own more than one needs to survive; therefore, there's no need to defend free-market systems insofar as they efficiently create wealth. 

The problem, though, is not so much in how efficiently wealth is created but in how widely it's distributed. Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein said it best: "This country does a great job of creating wealth, but not a good [job] of distributing it." In fact, the economy is great for creating wealth — but only for the top quartile, many if not most of whom were wealthy to begin with. And as the wealth gap increases, the lower quartiles become less upwardly mobile and more downwardly mobile.

At the very least, free-market Catholics owe the pope a quiet, open-minded hearing, understanding that the right to economic success is not in question; as I've said elsewhere, nothing in Church teaching requires Catholics to be poor. It would be better, though, if they put their collective intelligences together to create a system consistent with their economic doctrine which would do a better job of ameliorating poverty than statist solutions. At least one Catholic conservative — Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal — understands that we don't need to defend the wealthy nearly as much as we need to rebuild the middle class; this gives us a potential direction for a conservative domestic policy that is not only practical but electable, and which would have the merit of actually doing something about the poor other than waiting for the tide to raise them up.

Above all, Catholic conservatives need to stop patting themselves on their backs for their orthodoxy and read the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. All of it. Without the attitude that "if it ain't de fide, then fuhgeddaboudit!" Because it just ain't so, folks; the Church's teaching magisterium backs it just as much as it backs the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Code of Canon Law. 

"He who hears you hears me; and he that rejects you rejects me; and he that rejects me rejects Him who sent me" (Luke 10:16).

FURTHER READING:
Leo XII: Rerum Novarum (On Capital and Labor, 1891)
St. Pius X: Singulari Quadam (On Labor Organizations, 1912)
Pius XI: Quadragesimo Anno (On Reconstruction of the Social Order, 1931), Divini Redemptoris (On Atheistic Communism, 1932)
Ven. Pius XII:  Summi Pontificatus (On the Unity of Human Society, 1939)
Bl. John XXIII: Mater et Magistra (Mother and Teacher, 1961), Pacem in Terris (On Establishing Universal Peace in Truth, Justice, Charity and Liberty, 1963)
Paul VI: Populorum Progressio (On the Development of Peoples, 1967), Octagesima Adveniens (On the Occasion of the Eightieth Anniversary of Rerum Novarum — A Call to Action, 1971)
Bl. John Paul II: Laborem Exercens (On Human Work, 1981), Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (On the Twentieth Anniversary of Populorum Progressio, 1987), Centesimus Annus (On the hundredth Anniversary of Rerum Novarum, 1991)
Benedict XVI: Caritas in Veritate (On Integral Human Development in Charity and Truth, 2009)

This is not an exhaustively complete record of all the relevant papal documents of the last 122 years that form the spine of Catholic social doctrine; for good measure we could have added, for examples, Humanae Vitae, Evangelium Vitae and Mulieris Dignitatem. And it's unfortunate that Benedict XV produced nothing of such prophetic nature. Nevertheless, these are the documents most often cited.