Daniel Saudek, making his debut over at Ethika Politika (EP), has a piece worth reading: “Faith, Reason, and the Two Camps.” Of course, not every piece worth reading is worth agreeing with on all points. While Saudek does a commendable job surveying the tensions that exist between Catholic Social Teaching (CST) and contemporary political conservatism (“free-market conservatism”), be brings in concepts and documents which aren’t particularly helpful. For instance, when discussing a living wage, Saudek points to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a shopworn charter that is more hortatory than substantive. Most countries around the world ignore part or all of it. It seems to me that if one is going to talk about a living wage (or, rather, a just wage), then the place to begin is the Church’s social magisterium, starting with Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum and Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno.
This, I think, is the heart of the problem. Though Saudek makes a compelling case that our weak intellectual climate shoulders some of the blame for conservative Catholics (or, if one prefers, neoliberal or libertarian Catholics) ignoring CST, I think he bypasses the willful ignorance and selective hermeneutics that is often at work among Catholics who have no compunction about claiming to be pro-family, anti-abortion, and doctrinally orthodox while committed to unchecked capitalism and the mythical construct often referred to as “the free market.” This is partially motived by the fact that these conservatives do not believe CST has any doctrinal value because it deals with matters the Church is not competent to speak on authoritatively, or so the conservatives claim. Moreover, there is the money factor as well. Think tanks and publications which promote capitalism and markets draw donors; those which argue for the contrary don’t (at least not at the rate the pro-capitalist ones do). Whether the money factor makes the pro-capitalist wing intellectually dishonest or not would have to be judged on a case by case basis. The matter isn’t out of the question, however.
Where Saudek seems to be on firmer ground is with respect to denigration and/or distortion of natural law and reason. While certain elements of CST have a strong Scriptural foundation, most of its principles are rooted in a thick conception of natural justice and the right organization of society. This is why, for example, Distributists argue that even though their position is grounded in CST, it does not require a mainly Catholic society to implement (though that may make things easier). A large contingent of human beings today, including Catholic and non-Catholic Christians, reject natural reason or have downgraded its importance in favor of arguments rooted in aesthetics and hermeneutics. And a good number of conservative Catholics who pay lip service to natural law and reason tend to do so with either the so-called “New Natural Law Theory” in mind, or some sort of conflation of classic and modern (Enlightenment) natural-law thinking.
As a final quibble with Saudek’s thought-provoking article, let me say this. The claim that CST “is not competent to give answers to technical questions” is one that has to be made with caution. Catholics wedded to economic liberalism commonly invoke that claim to shelve almost all of CST’s tenets without distinction. Shifting socio-economic circumstances, along with variability in culture, resources, and adopted legal systems, militate against a “one size fits all” approach to applying CST. However, the technical questions policymakers are typically faced with, ranging from taxation to regulation to property rights, have been contemplated by the Church’s social magisterium. Deleterious taxation, for instance, is impermissible, but discriminatory taxing schemes which take into account the concrete earnings of those individuals and entities which are subject to it, are not. Similarly, while CST does not foreordain the number and type of regulatory agencies a polity ought to have, it clearly supports the use of regulation to protect disadvantaged and politically weak classes in society.