Faithful Catholics owe John Zmirak a debt of gratitude. Not only did he put the term “illiberal Catholicism” into circulation, thus giving folks such as myself a convenient self-descriptor, he continues to serve as a shining example of what happens when you blend a superficial understanding of Catholicism and Christian history with an unabashed love for liberalism and all of its works. His latest, “The Myth of Catholic Social Teaching,” attempts no nuances nor dabbles in distinctions when it comes to rejecting Catholic Social Teaching (CST). He just does it. Unfortunately Zmirak’s “reasoning” is old hat. Starting from the (correct) premise that not everything a pope says or writes carries magisterial force, he then moves to the erroneous conclusion that nothing (or practically nothing) in CST requires assent — absolute, religious, or otherwise. CST is nothing more than the private opinions of certain popes which are subject to change over time. To help bolster his claim, Zmirak points to apparent shifts in papal teachings on usury, torture, and slavery without reflecting on the context from which those teachings — or changes in teaching — emerged. Indeed, Zmirak goes so far as to claim that Dignitatis Humanae overturned the Church’s previous teaching on religious liberty, thus demonstrating — whether he knows it or not — his acceptance of the “hermeneutic of rupture” thesis. I doubt that would bother Zmirak much. He, like most Catholic liberals, depends on rupture to give his socio-political ideology a jumpstart without being inconvenienced by any incongruities which might exist between it and the Church’s teachings on faith and morals.
There is a lot that could be said about the dubious claims that litter Zmirak’s piece, but I am not convinced faithful Catholics should invest a lot of resources into rebuking what amounts to an inflated act of trolling. Had Zmirak done a wee bit of due diligence, he would have discovered that other thoughtful writers, such as Tom Storck, has already discussed the sort of “evasion strategies” which Zmirak (and others) take up when it comes to CST. Moreover, Storck has written on the magisterial authority of CST, particular as it relates to “economic science.” Zmirak doesn’t deal with that stuff, perhaps because he can’t deal with it. For Zmirak and other liberals, Catholicism itself is a private set of beliefs which the individual, through an act of personal choice, can choose to adopt (or not). So long as this adherence doesn’t interfere with said individuals larger set of socio-political commitments ranging from reveling in “free markets” (whatever those are) to aligning with ideologues then there is no issue. Where an issue arises is when adherence to Catholicism and the belief that the Church has been entrusted by God to speak on matters of morals, then the problems begin. It’s not surprising, then, that Zmirak erects a concrete wall between infallible ex cathedra papal declarations and, well, everything else. According to that misaligned worldview, so long as a pope doesn’t exercise his authority to define infallibly, then everything else he says is just a matter of opinion.
Of course Zmirak could figure all of this out if he wanted to. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s 1998 commentary on Professio Fidei spells out the different “levels” of the magisterium. While there is ample room to debate which (if any) propositions of CST are infallibly taught under the Church’s ordinary and universal magisterium, it would seem that, at the very least, CST requires “a religious submission of will and intellect” in accordance with Lumen Gentium, paragraph 25. Such submission is decidedly absent from Zmirak’s dissent.