David Mills continues to write thoughtfully on “the shift” in in contemporary Catholic thinking on capitalism and economics. His latest, “The New Catholic Economics,” is well worth reading, and not just because he gives mention to my modest efforts to both clarify Catholic Social Teaching (CST) and critique various attempts by socialist and libertarian ideologues to hijack that teaching. Although I had some minor quibbles with Mills’s earlier piece on this topic (see here), I wholeheartedly endorse his belief that the anti-capitalist turn is a real, though disaggregated and diverse, phenomenon. Still, it’s important to not forget that there still numerous Catholic/semi-Catholic institutes, publications, and forums dedicated to aligning CST with economic liberalism of various stripes. We are not out of the free-market woods yet.
A continuing concern of mine — one which Mills takes note of — is that the Church’s authentic social magisterium is being obscured by not only neoliberals/libertarians, but those I have broadly, though not polemically, referred to as “socialist Catholics.” Such Catholics appear to be far more impressed with the modern administrative state than CST allows, even though they have their instincts in the right place when it come to resisting capitalist ideology. (For the record, I believe a number of neoliberal/libertarian Catholics also have their instincts in the right place as well, at least with respect to subsidiarity.) Neither socialist nor neoliberal/libertarian Catholics seem very prepared to give each other a sympathetic hearing, which is unfortunate since both sides bring to light serious deficiencies in the other. While some see the socialist Catholics as heirs of the “Social Justice” movement which gained steam after the Second Vatican Council, I think it’s safer to see them as mostly a new breed borne from a larger dissatisfaction Christians and non-Christians now have with the unfulfilled promises of capitalism. That fact may go some length to explaining why socialist Catholics are partially disconnected from CST. Instead of starting with the Church’s magisterium as their foundation, they begin with principles, theories, and policy preferences drawn from a wide array of secular sources and then look to see whether or not what they hold comports with CST. When it does, fine; when it doesn’t, there are — as the neoliberal/libertarians well know — plenty of ways to do an end-run around the magisterium. That’s not as insidious as it sounds. In fact, I doubt that most socialist Catholics see themselves as consciously rejecting CST, though they may feel dissatisfied with certain elements.
A larger problem, one which has not been adequately addressed, is the general ignorance many Catholics — even well-educated Catholics — have of not only CST, but its theological and philosophical roots as well. There is often a temptation to “simplify” CST by focusing on certain iterations of the social magisterium while leaving the bulk of it to the side. Not only can this lead to what I have called a “hermeneutic of selectivity,” but it can also give disproportionate weight to certain encyclicals — or sections of encyclicals — over others. Anthony Esolen’s new book, Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching, falls victim to this temptation insofar as it absolutizes Pope Leo XIII’s doctrinal contributions while omitting later clarifications and developments. Economic liberals are often enamored with Leo’s Rerum Novarum for what it says (or appears to say) about property rights, but then have almost nothing to say — or nothing good to say — about Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno. I anxiously await the day when both socialist and neoliberal/libertarian Catholics pay serious mind to Blessed Pius IX’s Quanta Cura or St. Pius X’s Notre Charge Apostolique.