When Francis ascended the papal chair in 2013, some Catholics long dissatisfied with the unholy union of Catholic social teaching and liberal economics thought the winds of change were in the air. Despite teaching clearly against the tenets of neoliberalism, neither John Paul II nor Benedict XVI seemed all that interested in disabusing economic liberals of their false principles. Not so with Papa Frank. From his first official papal writing, Evangelii Gaudium, on through his numerous (sometimes problematic) sermons and interviews, Francis has never shied away from calling free-market ideology and greed on the carpet. Unfortunately, due in part to the fast-and-loose manner in which he handles other tenets of Catholic doctrine, many economic liberals have felt entitled to ignore the current Pontiff when it comes to things economic, arguing—with thin plausibility—that the Pope has no authority to instruct on economic matters and that liberal economics is a “science” like biology and physics, hence beyond questioning. Now that we are in the fifth year of Francis’s reign, it doesn’t seem like much has changed. Many conservative Catholics (not to mention more than a few traditionalists) are quite content to ignore him on economic issues, and the Acton Institute—one of the leading propagandists of Catholicism/liberalism fusion—is still going strong. In fact, just today Samuel Gregg, Acton’s Research Director, has an article up over at The Stream opining how to “make America great again” with no mention of Christ or the Church, but plenty to say on deregulation and “crony capitalism” (Acton’s favorite boogeyman).
And that is why enterprises such as Acton are so dangerous. For even though Gregg acknowledges that “[e]conomic growth isn’t the solution to all of humanity’s problems,” he and his cohorts seem to be perpetually blind to the truth that what people need above all else is Christ. Surely Gregg would acknowledge that even the best laid plans of liberal economists will not yield positive results across the board, and that unanticipated external shocks, ranging from famine to war, can quickly erode any potential economic gains made from deregulating specific industries or encouraging free trade. (It is a liberal myth that economic growth and integration leads to a cessation of crossborder hostilities.) Unfortunately, Gregg remains enthralled by the idea that a “rightly ordered” (read: liberal) economy will lead to social harmony, and this enthrallment seems to keep him from acknowledging widely that man’s final end is not two cars in the garage and a 4K Ultra HD TV but eternal beatitude with God. The Acton Institute likes to speak a great deal about “markets and morality” but has shockingly little to say on the latter. The market, in the Acton schema, stands above morality.
That this should be the dominant thinking of the Acton Institute is not at all surprising. Despite having a number of Catholics at the helm and directing a great deal of its resources toward Catholic audiences, Acton eschews publicly referring to itself as “Catholic,” no doubt to curry favor with donors and audiences who do not accept the Catholic Faith. Due to its “ecumenical” character, Acton cannot risk promoting the Church over-and-against material matters, the sort that brings in large grants from the Koch Brothers and the DeVos family. In the end, Acton is not concerned with the Christianization of society but rather with the promotion of a liberal economic agenda not at all dissimilar from what is advocated by quite secular think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute and the Cato Institute. While all three may have quibbles at the margins concerning certain policy prescriptions and theoretical concerns, they are tied together by a commitment to free-market capitalism secured by liberal ideology.
Although some pockets of resistance to the Acton Institute and other Catholic economic liberals have emerged over the years, they remain small, disorganized, and underfunded. (In a socio-economic environment where capitalism funnels lifeblood to the economic elites, who with wealth would dare oppose it?) The Church, which remains in the midst of a grave doctrinal and moral crisis, is not in a position to confront economic liberalism in a clear, coherent, and consistent manner; Pope Francis’s declarations, as noted, have been marginalized. As for the Church’s social magisterium as a whole, while the express words of Leo XIII and Pius XI indict the Actonite project through and through, that has not been enough to lead those Catholics associated with Acton to renounce their errors and work for the renewal of society in an authentically Catholic manner.
So what is to be done? If an organized counterweight to the Acton Institute and other liberal efforts is not immediately available, then those who are committed to promoting the Church’s full social magisterium, be they integralists, radical Catholics, or otherwise, should never sit idly by when they see economic errors enter into circulation. Do not ignore the Acton Institute as a harmless or distant problem; confront what it promotes and hold up for all to see that the liberalism it subscribes to has been condemned roundly by the Church for centuries. Do not fear when the liberals speak in economic jargon, for often they seek to drown reasoned disputation in a flood of terminology rather than engage arguments openly. Finally, do not give-in to malice or hatred; all correction should be carried forth with charity. Many who walk down the path of economic liberalism do so because they have not fully investigated the matter or have been told falsehoods by those who ought to know better. Talk to them; engage with them; and certainly, above all, pray for them. The errors of liberalism cannot be overcome on the natural plane alone.