Debate continues to rage between conservative and progressive Catholics over the meaning of a papal encyclical, “Charity in Truth,” that is yet to be released. (Perhaps early next week, according to most reports). Hat tip to my colleague Jim LaGrand for passing along this piece from Fr. Robert Sirico which appeared today on the National Review Online. Fr. Sirico, who is the president and co-founder of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religious Liberty, issues a very reasonable message of “let’s wait and see” to progressives eager to use the encyclical to gain political points in the battle to define the Catholic church in America:
Will the document draw attention to the weaknesses of Western-style capitalist systems? One hopes so. We might expect the pope to call on market forces to be regulated by moral concerns, within a strong juridical framework, and an exogenous apparatus of standards to curb excesses. But here is the operative question: In what sense would such a call be a blow against the idea of free economic institutions? The short answer is that it will not be.
I think Sirico is probably correct here. At least this is what one Italian newspaper is reporting. But who knows? I guess bloggers like me who continue to write about this encyclical need to take Sirico’s advice and be patient.
On the one hand (doctrine, liturgy, and sexual morality), progressives tend to take dissenting positions from defined and binding Church teaching. On the other hand (economic and social policy), they want to boast of the Church’s “best kept secret,” especially to the extent that they think it coheres with any number of secular-left platforms, while ignoring those aspects of Catholic social teaching that clearly don’t fit the leftist nostrums.
It is quite a spectacle to see Catholic progressives — who in other circumstances contort themselves into exegetical pretzels when they want to undermine clear, emphatic, authoritative, and repeated magisterial prohibitions on same-sex relations, female “priests,” and contraceptive acts — morph into virtual Ultramontanists on prudential matters such as the precise level of a minimum wage.
I wonder if when it comes to ignoring those aspects of Catholic social teaching that don’t fit its agenda the Catholic right is just as guilty as the left. There does seem to be a side to Catholic social teaching, especially as it relates to workers, that we might legitimately call “progressive.” I subscribe to First Things, but I do not see much of this side of Catholic social thought being defended on its pages. (I am more than willing to be corrected on this).
I should also give kudos here to one of my readers, Tim Lacy, for his prophetic insight. In response to my last post on this subject, Lacy wrote:
I can tell already that I’m going to be amused by the gymnastics of pro-market theory, hard-right U.S. Catholics who try to dismiss this as the pope merely speculating, as is his right as the leader of the Church (i.e. an encyclical is not ex cathedra, so not binding teaching). They will say that Catholics are free to agree-disagree here. It’s their modus operandi.
Compare Lacy’s comment to Sirico’s words:
Let us be clear: The Church explicitly makes no such claims of infallibility on those policy matters that it considers a matter for prudential judgment (i.e., most policy issues) but allows for Catholics to hold a variety of viewpoints on such questions such as the exact size of the state’s share of the economy. Clearly no Catholic can be an anarchist or a communist — but there is a lot of room for prudential disagreement within these parameters. Benedict XVI has followed the model of John Paul II in saying that the Church has no infallible model of political economy to impose on the world.
Good job, Tim. You called it.
Finally, Sirico warns about getting too loose with the way we use the term capitalism:
I am not sure who such conservative defenders of “unbridled capitalism based on greed” are supposed to be. I think it is a fair prediction to say that any pope would come out against any system “based on greed.”
But again I wonder if the entire system of capitalism is not inherently based on greed. Isn’t it redundant to use the term “greedy capitalism?” I appeal again to my last post where I questioned Michael Novak’s assertion that the great American capitalists of the nineteenth and twenty centuries were driven less by greed than the “sheer romance of conquering the deserts and the Rockies.” I remind you of the words of “Chris,” one of the commentators on Novak’s original blog post: “The radically self interested individual, rationally seeking his own material comfort; scarcity; unlimited desire for consumption. None of these are things that Catholics can believe in if we take seriously the church’s teachings, and yet every economic model is premised on their being true as a matter of fact.” (I think Chris would be pleased to learn that I just picked up a copy of William T. Cavanaugh’s Being Consumed. I hope to read it, and perhaps blog on it, soon).
I remain a capitalist for many of the same reasons that Michael Novak remains a capitalist. It seems to be the only economic system that celebrates the creativity and dignity of the human person. But I also agree with John Paul II when he wrote in the encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (On Social Concern) that “The Church’s social doctrine adopts a critical attitude towards both liberal capitalism and Marxist collectivism.” (BTW, I just found a 1988 piece from the New York Times where William Safire blasts this encyclical). The kind of corporate, consumer-driven capitalism that we currently have today in the United States tends to undermine many things that Christians (and many non-Christians) hold dear, not the least of which are family and community. I hope that this is something we can all agree upon.
If you have managed to read this far, please let me know where I have gone wrong.