Correctly Political: “Corner”ing the Market in Catholic teaching
I. Now and Then and Now
Pope Benedict XVI issued an encyclical this week expressing Church doctrine with respect to the global political economy. I knew it would be described in the mainstream media as “left wing” (I knew it would be described in the mainstream media as “left wing” because I knew it would be left wing).
I therefore expected right-wing opinion outlets to either accept that description and criticize the document on those grounds, or, if those outlets were deluded or dishonest (as most of them are), to reject that description altogether and cry about media bias (like they do every time an event occurs that provokes in them cognitive dissonance) or to somehow try to argue that Benedict’s teaching was only superficially left-wing–that a close and deep reading by certain acolytes of a syncretic sect combining Libertarianism with Catholicism would reveal the gnosis that the New Testament (or the Old Testament, for that matter) and Atlas Shrugged are ideologically and textually compatible in each and every respect save the irrelevant detail of the existence of God.
In search of this latter category of right-wing opinion, my first stop was naturally National Review’s group blog The Corner. And boy did I strike gold. The commentary there ran the gamut from deluded through incoherent all the way to staggeringly dishonest. Most amusing. But to understand the depth of depravity of those readings requires, as one would expect, familiarity with Church documents. To save you all from the reading the 450 pages of Papal writing from the three most significant encyclicals on political economy in the last century or so, I’ll excerpt a few bits from each of them.
The first, Of New Things, was written by Pope Leo XIII and issued in 1891. It is in some cases anachronistic (in one portion he talks about the workplace evil of the “mixing of the sexes”); although he spends much of the first part of the encyclical defending the notion of private property from the socialist credo that “property is theft,” the entire second half amounts to nothing less than a full-throated defense of the trades union movement and the need for the State to compel Capital to accept collective bargaining on the part of Labor. Here he analyzes his contemporary political economy:
Public institutions and the laws set aside the ancient religion. Hence, by degrees it has come to pass that working men have been surrendered, isolated and helpless, to the hardheartedness of employers and the greed of unchecked competition. The mischief has been increased by rapacious usury, which, although more than once condemned by the Church, is nevertheless, under a different guise, but with like injustice, still practiced by covetous and grasping men. To this must be added that the hiring of labor and the conduct of trade are concentrated in the hands of comparatively few; so that a small number of very rich men have been able to lay upon the teeming masses of the laboring poor a yoke little better than that of slavery itself.
In 1991, on the Hundredth Anniversary of Leo’s encyclical, Pope John Paul II issued an encyclical called “On the Hundredth Anniversary.” Writing in the still shimmering burst of the collapse of Soviet Socialism, again, like Leo, he spent a great deal of time summarizing those events and re-articulation his and the Church’s rejection of Marxist-Leninism. But then, like Leo, he bespoke his contemporary political economy:
Here we find a new limit on the market: there are collective and qualitative needs which cannot be satisfied by market mechanisms. There are important human needs which escape its logic. There are goods which by their very nature cannot and must not be bought or sold. Certainly the mechanisms of the market offer secure advantages: they help to utilize resources better; they promote the exchange of products; above all they give central place to the person’s desires and preferences, which, in a contract, meet the desires and preferences of another person. Nevertheless, these mechanisms carry the risk of an “idolatry” of the market, an idolatry which ignores the existence of goods which by their nature are not and cannot be mere commodities.
A hundred and thirty years counting as “recent” in the manner the Church keeps time, let us conclude this quick thumbnail of the Church’s recent teachings on political economy by quoting Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical issued this week, “Charity in Truth.”
It should be remembered that the reduction of cultures to the technological dimension, even if it favours short-term profits, in the long term impedes reciprocal enrichment and the dynamics of cooperation. It is important to distinguish between short- and long-term economic or sociological considerations. Lowering the level of protection accorded to the rights of workers, or abandoning mechanisms of wealth redistribution in order to increase the country’s international competitiveness, hinder the achievement of lasting development. . . .
Economic activity cannot solve all social problems through the simple application of . This needs to be, for which the political community in particular must also take responsibility. Therefore, it must be borne in mind that grave imbalances are produced when economic action, conceived merely as an engine for wealth creation, is detached from political action, conceived as a means for pursuing justice through redistribution. [emphasis in original]
II. So Now Then
I anticipate objections claiming I ripped all those quotes out of context. “The Devil can cite Scripture,” and so forth. Yeah, well: Go read that 450 pages of context. But secondly, that’s not the point. The point is, those excerpts are positively, absolutely, undeniably and reliably left-wing. It’s dispositive. Definitive. If “left wing” means anything at all, it means what those Pontiffs said in those places. The worldview articulated there with respect to political economy cannot be wished away, ignored, diminished or altered by exegesis.
So what, pray tell, do the supposedly Catholic apologists for Capital have to say about all that? Kathryn Lopez at National Review started off by interviewing Kishore Jayabalan of the Acton Institute shortly after the Vatican released Benedict’s teaching. He quoted some passage or other and drew this conclusion as his first judgment:
I take this to mean that [the Pope] is against the politicization of unions and especially against “closed” shops.
Are you kidding me? Jayabalan reads that encyclical and thinks the most important thing is that it means the Pope is a supporter of Section 14(b) of the Taft-Hartley Act? Is he deluded or dishonest, I wondered? So I clicked on the provided link and discovered to my astonishment that the Acton Institute is a think that that basically argues that the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church and Ayn Rand’s philosophy are perfectly compatible, well, except for a few details, as mentioned previously.
Okay. Deluded certainly. Insane, possibly.
So then I poked around some more and came across this reading of Benedict’s encyclical by George Wiegel. He of course misread both the Then and the Now, claiming of John Paul II”s doctrine that he had argued:
. . . [P]overty in the Third World and within developed countries today is a matter of exclusion from global networks of exchange in a dynamic economy (which put the moral emphasis on strategies of wealth creation, empowerment of the poor, and inclusion), rather than a matter of First World greed in a static economy (which would put the moral emphasis on redistribution of wealth).
But such ridiculousness of a right-winger is to be expected. If there were a substantive difference between excluding the poor from wealth creation and redistribution of wealth he might have a point. But there isn’t, so he doesn’t. What was shocking, however, was the main thrust of his argument, which is the claim that Benedict didn’t really write this new encyclical in full and that he doesn’t really believe it all.
By some strange coincidence, according to Weigel, all the left-wing stuff in there is the responsibility of the The Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace:
Indeed, those with advanced degrees in Vaticanology could easily go through the text of [“Charity in Truth”], highlighting those passages that are obviously Benedictine with a gold marker and those that reflect current Justice and Peace default positions with a red marker. The net result is, with respect, an encyclical that resembles a duck-billed platypus.
and all the right-wing stuff is the work of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI.
Again. Are you kidding me? That argument reduces to the claim that Benedict is either incapable of exercising his authority over doctrine, or that he’s dishonestly applying his insignia to doctrine which he in truth rejects. Weigel’s argument is nothing less than an assault on Benedict’s magisterium. Incredible. And for what? Just so Weigel can delay trying to resolve the cognitive dissonance between The Wall Street Journal’s editorial stance and the teaching of the Church to which he claims adherence and obedience?
This cannot possibly be delusion. It must be dishonesty. Weigel is too smart, too educated, too steeped in Churchly thinking not to have deliberately offered a proposition that he himself knows is unsustainable except in the minds of the semi-educated semi-sophisticates of his National Review readership.
Kathryn Lopez seemed to have some trouble reading or digesting it all, because she spent most of the week quoting others’ comments about it. The two men quoted here are especially ignorant, but what else would you expect from a couple of Republican members of the United States House of Representatives, including the Minority Leader John Boehner. (the other is Thaddeus McCotter of Michigan). This is the part that’s most amusingly idiotic:
is not a political document, but rather a complex work that warrants careful and thoughtful contemplation by American Catholics and non-Catholics alike at this time of economic anxiety.
How stupid, deluded or dishonest can you get? Pope Benedict says himself it’s political in part:
. . . States are called to founded on marriage between a man and a woman, the primary vital cell of society and to assume responsibility for its economic and fiscal needs, while respecting its essentially relational character. [emphasis in original]
Glory Be, in the most-quoted passage of the encyclical, Benedict calls for a new global political institution, in effect, a regime of global capital controls. You can say a lot of things about that, argue for or against or whatever, but the one thing you cannot say is that it’s not “political.” Of course it’s political. The problem the House Republicans face, though, is that it’s not House Republican politics.
III. Then Now What?
To be fair, though God knows why anyone should be fair, there seems to be some walking back of this right-wing exegesis in the last few days. When Kathryn Lopez herself finally commented, she lamely suggested that maybe “Charity in Truth” wasn’t as left-wing as left-wingers thought. Yeah. Okay. We knew that. It’s not important that it wasn’t as left-wing as we left-wingers thought. What’s significant is that it wasn’t as right-wing as the loud and ideologically blinded right-wing Catholics thought.
And to be even fairer, occasional National Review contributor Raymond Arroyo discussed the new Encyclical on “The World Over,” his EWTN news program on Friday night. His two guests were Father Robert Sirico, President of the aforementioned Acton Institute, and Father David O’Connell, President of the Catholic University of America. Strikingly, in response to a live caller asking about Weigel’s article in National Review (I wish it was me but it wasn’t) Father Sirico, quite explicitly and unambiguously condemned Weigel’s argument. Two “Our Fathers” and five “Hail Marys” for Weigel, I guess! And I’ll give due credit to Sirico for being honest there; it must have killed him to smackdown his pal Weigel in public.
On balance, then, I’ll judge Sirico deluded rather than dishonest, although it seems as if the reality of the text is seeping in to him, so the veil of delusion is perhaps lifting. We did hear variations of the same “it’s not political” case made by Boehner and McCotter. And the Catholic right seems to be clutching desperately to those passages in the encyclical in which Benedict directly connects the life and family issues of abortion and marriage to the political economy envisioned elsewhere in the text.
Whatever gets you through the night, I guess, but I don’t know what the Catholic right-wingers expected left-wingers to expect from a document bearing the imprimatur of the Holy See. Did they think we’d think the Pope wasn’t against abortion anymore? Or that he’d change his mind about gay marriage? We know the Pope is against abortion and gay marriage. Is the Pope Catholic? Does a bear …?
It’s not left-wingers having to wrap their minds around the Church’s traditional teaching on life and family that’s the hard part. That’s easy. We get that. We’ve been hearing it for decades now. It’s right-wingers having to wrap their minds around the Church’s new teaching on political economy that seems to be the hard part.
They don’t have a monopoly on Church doctrine anymore.