A couple of weeks ago I wrote some remarks on Daniel Saudek’s debut piece at Ethika Politika (EP), “Faith, Reason, and the Two Camps.” Two days ago, another EP contributor, Ryan Shinkel, wrote a response to Saudek entitled “Two Catholic Camps Worth Debating.” I don’t want to get into the details of Saudek’s piece right now. Suffice to say, I am deeply skeptical about his overarching claim that neoliberal/libertarian Catholics and so-called “illiberal” or “radical” Catholics are “all in the same Catholic boat.” Yes, we are part of the same Church, but that does not mean that all of the “camps” within her walls are equally faithful in representing and promoting the Church’s social magisterium.
Catholic Social Teaching (CST) may be vague in parts and require theological development in others, but it is not nearly as open-ended and amorphous as the economic liberals claim. At the same time, CST is not a roadmap to socialism (whatever that means), nor does it provide doctrinal justification for an overinflated administrative state. (I have touched on this matter here and here.) Unfortunately, many young, well-educated Catholics who are understandably distressed by the neoliberal invasion of CST which has occurred over the past two decades fall into the error of trying to correct this real problem with ideas they yanked out of their Left-leaning social science and humanities courses. Most people on this blog know where I stand with respect to the socio-economic liberals; few seem to realize how vehemently I oppose the other end of the spectrum.
Of course there are good things to be found among those I will broadly, and somewhat inaccurately, label “socialist Catholics.” While many of them are overly preoccupied with advocating for centralized redistribution programs, a number recognize the importance of local institutions and labor organizations. Instead of expecting regulators and lawmakers to “tame capitalism,” they are genuinely concerned with empowering individuals—and, from there, communities—to set their own destinies rather than remain beholden to wage slavery. Where the socialist Catholics go wrong is in believing that CST is fundamentally egalitarian, and that income inequality is the greatest (or one of the greatest) social ills which needs to be corrected at all costs. There is, of course, an element of truth to that insofar as CST contemplates just wages, a wider distribution of property than what we’re accustomed to seeing in a capitalist society, and the responsibility of the state—through the most feasible local channels which are available—to ensure that the least well off in society are cared for. Even after these principles are put into practice, there will still be individuals in society with more money than others, along with firms that are more successful than others and, indeed, people who are taller than others, and so forth.
With that noted, it is understandable that neoliberal/libertarian Catholics are frustrated by the socialists using CST to promote policies which, by their lights, are both inefficient and unjust. Where the economic liberals go wrong, however, is to think that CST either provides an absolute bar to state intervention in the economy or that the circumstances for such intervention are so rare as to almost never happen. Granted, some of these economic liberals, cognizant of present political realities and rightly incredulous toward the idea that there is no such thing as a market failure, have taken their foot off the accelerator a bit when it comes to laissez-faire economic policies. That’s a good thing. It demonstrates, even if only faintly, an emerging recognition that the market needs to be subservient to society, not the other way around. In other words, a healthy and just social order cannot “spontaneously” emerge out of free and unfettered exchange; it must be built on principles drawn from both reason and revelation. The queen of the sciences, as any good Catholic should know, is theology, not economics.