A lot of brainpower is being directed toward making sure that when Catholics hear the expression “Catholic Social Teaching” (CST) they hear “economic liberalism.” Sure, a humane face is put on the project, with calls on the periphery for “ethical entrepreneurship” and a business culture where “the person” is taken into account; but by day’s end the principle that government should stay out of the market is upheld. Gerald J. Russello surveys, and apparently approves of, this re-orientation of CST in his recent Crisis article, “The Latest Debate Over Catholic Social Thought.” And who does Russello hold up as “rich interpreters” of the Catholic social tradition? John Zmirak and Anthony Esolen.
Zmirak, as most know by now, is a committed libertarian with little-to-no regard for any “brand” of Catholicism which does not genuflect before the altar of Americanism. Esolen, on the other hand, is a well respected translator and author who recently penned an interesting, though problematic and incomplete, book on CST. (For an overview of some of the problems with Esolen’s book, see Elias Crim’s piece, “How Not to Reclaim Catholic Social Teaching.”) Neither, however, are considered authoritative expositors of the Church’s social magisterium by the wider body of Catholic thinkers who routinely write on the topic. But Russello, for his own reasons, doesn’t want to give those writers much, if any, credence. Relying on Zmirak, Russello quickly dismisses “Catholics who confuse socialism with Christianity” (which is fine) and
reactionary Catholics of the last century or so who have advocated an amalgam of “third way” alternatives, which tends to elevate the noble and peasant over the shopkeeper and entrepreneur, even though—when faced with the alternatives—people prefer bourgeois civilization, which has created unsurpassed material advantages.
Is that so? Although I can think of a few Catholic writers who held onto something remotely similar to what Russello is describing, most of them have parted company with this world, and none had ill words for shopkeepers and entrepreneurs (so long as they were upright and honest). It’s a pity Russello doesn’t name names. It’s also a pity that Russello dismisses some of Esolen’s better points by making them out to be something other than what they actually are. For instance, on the question of building a just economic order on Catholic social principles, Russello — again leaning on Zmirak — finds that it “smacks of a weird sort of absolutism,” which is entirely untrue. The fact that so much Catholic thinking on these questions has remained focused on principles rather than a one-size-fits-all application is a testament to the consistent, though not always explicit, belief that these principles must be enacted with prudence. Even comprehensive treatments of CST, such as Fr. Edward Cahill’s classic The Framework of a Christian State, are, at most, suggestive of what a right social order might look like; they do not dwell in the particulars because the particulars will, almost invariably, shift from nation to nation, culture to culture, and even from decade to decade. Belittling CST and its defenders for senseless, even hopeless, rigidity is, to say the least, out of alignment with reality.
On two of the most often discussed principles of CST — subsidiarity and the just wage — Russello does a bit better. With respect to the former, Russello rightly notes “that social problems should be addressed at the lowest level of government possible” and, further, questions whether libertarians like Zmirak can be comfortable with localized strictures on certain transactions given the libertarian preference for an unfettered market where the consumer, not government, is sovereign. According to that line of thinking, even when placed in Catholic hands, the government should not outlaw pornography and prostitution; rather, it is up for the individuals to decide whether they demand those services, and if so the market will supply them. Libertarians, including Catholic libertarians, argue that individuals, or the Church, should dissuade people from demanding such things rather than try and prohibit them altogether. That, they say, is a more “sensible” and “economically sound” approach rather than top-down prohibition. Of course, the libertarian approach can find no justification in CST or Catholic moral tradition, but that fact doesn’t seem to be producing much brow sweat these days.
As for the just wage, Russello finds it a vexing question for both Esolen and Zmirak. After making clear that the just wage is not a mathematical formula that can be applied across the board, he goes off the rails a bit by musing whether or not an employer can licitly lower wages past a just threshold in order to hire more workers, thus saving them from destitution. The simple answer, in the light of CST, is, “No.” There is no “hire more workers” escape clause in any papal encyclical which discusses just wages. An additional problem with Russello’s explication of the just wage question is that he appears ignorant of the work which has already been done defining what a just wage is and, further, what factors need to be taken into account when establishing it in the concrete. Neo-Distributist John Medaille, in his article “Natural Law, Marginal Productivity, and the Just Wage,” argues that the just wage “is not so much a number as a criterion” which “is fulfilled under the following four conditions” (all of which are drawn from CST):
One, that working families, as a rule, appear to live in the dignity appropriate for that society; two, that they can do so without putting wives and children to work; three, that they have some security against periods of enforced unemployment, such as sickness, layoffs, and old age; and, four, that these conditions are accomplished without undue reliance on welfare payments and usury.
In closing, Russello states that “Esolen and Zmirak both have the right targets: a secular culture that treats citizens as pawns of the state, and church leaders who mistake the tax collector for a charity.” This is a strange formulation, at least in Zmirak’s case, given that he also has in his sights those orthodox Catholics who read and defend the Church’s social magisterium with a hermeneutic of continuity, not selectivity and rupture. No, the tax collector is not charity, but the taxing (and regulatory) mechanism can be used to address socio-economic problems without running afoul of CST. And while citizens are never “pawns of the state,” the state does have a legitimate role to play in the economy. Granted, that role is not nearly as expansive and centralized as we currently see, but it is not the de minimis role assigned by libertarians and other economic liberals.