Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry (PEG), a neo-Catholic economic liberal, is taking umbrage with Patrick Deneen’s claim at Ethika Politika that those whom the latter refers to as “neoconservative Catholics” (see my brief thoughts on that here) “have tended, then, to read the Church’s teaching on sexual ethics to be inviolable, but Catholic social teaching regarding economics to be a set of broad and even vague guidelines.” PEG goes on to pitch a fit, claiming that the distinction Deneen attributes to neoconservative Catholics is the very distinction the Catholic Church herself maintains. To back up his claim, PEG lifts a passage from the Catechism that happens to be quoting a very small section of Pope John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus which, according to PEG, is “thoroughly platitudinous” as compared to the Catechism’s section on abortion. Even so, that hardly means the Church’s social magisterium, or what we commonly call Catholic Social Teaching (CST), is nothing but a set of platitudes and hortatory declarations with no binding force. Even if CST were comprised of nothing but vague and highly abstract guidelines, it wouldn’t mean that they are due less accord than the more apodictic statements the Church has made on topics such as abortion, fornication, and marriage. However, the Church’s social magisterium is not nearly as vague or abstract as PEG intimates, and the whole of it cannot be captured by appealing to a partial passage from a single encyclical.
Perhaps PEG does not take Pope-Emeritus Benedict XVI’s call for a hermeneutic of continuity seriously, but assuming that the rest of us do, let’s take a brief glance at what vagaries exist among previous papal pronouncements on CST. With respect to capitalism, an economic ordo PEG routinely defends, here is what St. Pius X had to say in his 1903 Motu Proprio Fin Dalla Prima Nostra:
VIII. The following are obligations of justice binding on capitalists: To pay just wages to their workingmen; not to injure their just savings by violence or fraud, or by overt or covert usuries; not to expose them to corrupting seductions and danger of scandal; not to alienate them from the spirit of family life and from love of economy; not to impose on them labor beyond their strength, or unsuitable for their age or sex.
IX. It is an obligation for the rich and those who own property to succor the poor and the indigent, according to the precepts of the Gospel. This obligation is so grave that on the Day of Judgment special account will be demanded of its fulfillment, as Christ Himself has said (Matthew 25).
. . . .
XI. For the settlement of the social question much can be done by the capitalists and workers themselves, by means of institutions designed to provide timely aid for the needy and to bring together and unite mutually the two classes. Among these institutions are mutual aid societies, various kinds of private insurance societies, orphanages for the young, and, above all, associations among the different trades and professions.
There is nothing obscure or ambiguous about these statements of principles. That St. Pius X did not go on to specify the exact mechanisms of how these principles are to be upheld and enforced in concrete societies does not mean they lack binding force. Given his love of markets and free trade, surely PEG knows that international trade pacts such as the World Trade Organization agreement or the recent, and controversial, Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement between Ukraine and the European Union are filled with principles which the separate state parties must implement prudently, but faithfully, in accordance with their own legal systems. States which practice treaty monism, for instance, simply graft their treaties onto their existing legal codes. The United States, on the other hand, typically passes implementing legislation through Congress or, in rarer instances, will give self-executing status to treaties through the procedures set forth in Article II of the Constitution. Either way, the fact that international agreements do not spell out to the finest detail the machinery for their implementation does not mean their terms can simply be declared rhetorical, platitudinous, or ancillary.
For more guidance on this issue, let us turn to paragraphs 41 and 42 of Pope Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno:
We lay down the principle long since clearly established by Leo XIII that it is Our right and Our duty to deal authoritatively with social and economic problems. It is not of course for the Church to lead men to transient and perishable happiness only, but to that which is eternal. Indeed ‘the Church believes that it would be wrong for her to interfere without just cause in such earthly concerns’; but she can never relinquish her God-given task of interposing her authority, not indeed in technical matters, for which she has neither the equipment nor the mission but in all those that have bearing on moral conduct. For the deposit of truth entrusted to Us by God, and Our weighty office of propagating, interpreting and urging in season and out of season the entire moral law, demand that both social and economic questions be brought within Our supreme jurisdiction, in so far as they refer to moral issues.
Even though economics and moral science employs each its own principles in its own sphere, it is, nevertheless, an error to say that the economic and moral orders are so distinct from and alien to each other that the former depends in no way on the latter. Certainly the laws of economics, as they are termed, being based on the very nature of material things and on the capacities of the human body and mind, determine the limits of what productive human effort cannot, and of what it can attain in the economic field and by what means. Yet it is reason itself that clearly shows, on the basis of the individual and social nature of things and of men, the purpose which God ordained for all economic life.
Here Pius XI is drawing an important distinction between economic and moral science without committing the grave errors of either radically separating the two or making morality the handmaid of economics. No, the Church will not pronounce on the validity of the so-called law of supply and demand, but she can and will speak forcefully that this “law” cannot legitimately be the sole criterion for determining wages. Catholics are not free to reinterpret the concept of the just wage—a concept which is maintained and reinforced throughout the whole of CST—as simply the prevailing market wage or a “nice idea” which we are free to ignore simply because no Pope has determined an exact numeric just wage that abides at all times, in all places, and across all economic sectors. To even take such a stance—which, sadly, some Catholics do—is to grossly, perhaps even willfully, misinterpret what a just wage is in the first place.
Granted, none of the papal claims here quoted are likely to have much impact on PEG. For though he condescendingly notes that “pro-market Catholics need to take an attitude of humility and receptiveness towards Papal statements on economics,” they also “should be willing to criticize” or, in other words, dissent from those tenets of CST that do not comfort to their economic-liberal Weltanschauung. The cafeteria is still open, folks.