In her recent post, Jana Bennett engaged an op/ed piece on the Wall Street Journal’s website that critiqued those, especially the bishops, who failed to recognize the Catholic dimension of Ryan’s budget proposal.  Jana critiqued the authors for insinuating that the bishops should not engage politics, especially as it pertains to economic issues, and their failure to fully appreciate the role of the bishops and the state in economic affairs.

It was awkward moment when I read the original op/ed piece and realized that the authors, Antony Davies and Kristina Antolin, were both close friends of mine.  I have had conversations with both Ant and Kristina on campus, at my local parish, over meals, and even at the pool where our kids were swimming.

As I know them and their perspective, I thought I should respond to Jana’s critique.  My response is not primarily a defense of my friends (they are more than capable of defending themselves) but rather the ideas that they articulate.  Actually, it is more a defense of the ideas they presuppose in making their argument.

As I understand it, there are two main presuppositions to Ant and Kristina’s argument.   The first is that they are driven by a genuine concern for what helps the poor. Ant’s economic background and research have focused on what actually helps people.  He has concluded, as most economist have, that private industries are better at helping create jobs and lifting people out of poverty and that political institutions tend to do this less effectively and efficiently.  Ant does not believe that private industry solves everything perfectly but rather, if you genuinely want to help people, you should find out the best ways to do so. (In many ways it is a very Catholic perspective that reflects a trust in reason.)

This practical concern and the assumption that free markets address it well is part of Catholic social teaching.  Quoting Centesimus Annus, the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church states,

The free market is an institution of social importance because of its capacity to guarantee effective results in the production of goods and services. Historically, it has shown itself able to initiate and sustain economic development over long periods. There are good reasons to hold that, in many circumstances, “the free market is the most efficient instrument for utilizing resources and effectively responding to needs” (347).

Even the suspicion of the effectiveness of government in economic affairs is expressed in the Compendium.

 In any case, public intervention must be carried out with equity, rationality and effectiveness, and without replacing the action of individuals, which would be contrary to their right to the free exercise of economic initiative. In such cases, the State becomes detrimental to society: a direct intervention that is too extensive ends up depriving citizens of responsibility and creates excessive growth in public agencies guided more by bureaucratic logic than by the goal of satisfying the needs of the person. (354)

As Jana correctly notes, Catholic social thought does affirm a legitimate role for government in the economic sphere.  Yet, so often we seem too cavalier in assuming the state’s effectiveness in addressing poverty. We are readily (and rightfully) suspicious of government when it comes to war, but we seem to assume “the virtue of justice” when it comes to poverty. Megan Clark’s post on how governments tend to criminalize poverty should remind us of the need for some hermeneutics of suspicion when it comes to government efforts to relieve poverty.

The second presupposition of the argument is an anxiety over the coercive power of government, a claim that finds a ready home in recent moral theology that notes the monopoly the state has on violence (see, for example, Cavanaugh’s Myth of Religious Violence).

We in the United States have enjoyed such an absence of explicit religious persecution that we seem to forget the ways government can exert force to control people.  We also tend to forget that the Church’s attempt to align itself too closely with government have proved to be bad for the church.  Hence, the Declaration of Religious Freedom at Vatican II emerges from both natural law reasoning and the past experiences of the Church.

It should not surprise us that concerns over and principles about the use of coercive power by the state permeates the Compendium, from waging war (497-515), to the way it must conduct its penal system (402-405), to the necessity of ensuring the free enterprise of people (336-337, 351-352).

As I see it, Jana (and I as well) differ from Ant and Kristina in that Jana does not see all or most government power as coercive.  As Catholic social thought indicates, government is a natural institution (384) that emerges as people try to coordinate their activities.  Thus, while some actions of the government can be coercive, others express the will of the people that the government serves.   As I state this difference though, I can almost hear Ant (who I have had more conversation with) say, “Yes, but open and free market still do it better. They better express the people’s will and do so with less coercion.”

Perhaps, the heart of the disagreement is the answer to the question:  What institution(s) better meets the needs of the people, better reflects the will of the people, and are least likely to use coercion against people?  Notice though, this question emerges from the deep Catholic commitments on every side to respect the dignity of people, especially those that are on the fringes of society.  The difference is in the area of application.  This is no small matter, but it means that we should be trying to look at what will work, no matter whose perspective it is coming from.