Ross Douthat offers a tight and concise treatment of how “conservative” Catholics should respond to the latest from Pope Francis. He also suggests how they should NOT respond: by criticizing the lazy “Benedict/Francis binary,” by “depoliticizing” it and making just “about greed,” and by drawing a strong line between authoritative teaching “on faith and morals” and the Church’s social teaching. Douthat’s column is worth reading because he realizes these responses are “insufficient.”

So he’s doing a much better job getting a constructive conversation going. The term “conservative” here remains useful if identified carefully. Douthat essentially takes “conservative” to mean two identifiable things: 1) a loyalty to teaching authority, and 2) a preference for individual and market-based economic systems over state bureaucracies. “Liberal” would mean the opposite: that is, a selectivity in submitting to the teaching authority and a preference for state-driven solutions to economic problems. The problem for conservatives, which can’t be escaped via the previously-mentioned escape hatches, is that a loyalty to Francis (1) seems to imply a heavy criticism of the preference for markets (2). Douthat states:

It’s true that there is far more continuity between Francis and Benedict than media accounts suggest. But the new pope clearly intends to foreground the church’s social teaching in new ways, and probably seeks roughly the press coverage he’s getting. It’s also true that Francis’s framework is pastoral rather than political. But his plain language tilts leftward in ways that no serious reader can deny.

That is, Douthat acknowledges that Francis’ intention is clear – he assumes rightly that papal allegiance is not about how to “spin” the latest papal writing, but about taking seriously the pope as an authoritative teacher and pastor. Thus, Douthat steers toward a different path: “for Catholics who pride themselves on fidelity to Rome, the burden is on them — on us — to explain why a worldview that inspires left-leaning papal rhetoric also allows for right-of-center conclusions.”

How does he make this case? He offers three claims: (1) that global capitalism is “for all its faults” the best system for eliminating poverty, (2) that solidarity must be paired with subsidiarity so that “local efforts” and “voluntarism” are preferred to “national” ones and “bureaucracies,” and (3) that

on recent evidence, the most expansive welfare states can crowd out what Christianity considers the most basic human goods — by lowering birthrates, discouraging private charity and restricting the church’s freedom to minister in subtle but increasingly consequential ways.

It should also be noted that he sharply distinguishes these claims from what he calls “the Ayn Randian temptation,” suggesting that what conservatives really need to do is not become Democrats, but rather become genuine Catholics in properly shaping “conservative” economics in non-libertarian ways.

Hurrah. Game on. This is a framework for the kind of discussion that is constructive. Let’s take the Randian rhetoric and practice off the table (and concede that it is on the table among many Republicans, and that should be a problem for Catholics), and then let’s consider how Douthat’s case represents or does not represent the kind of prudential judgment that Catholics ought to bring to economic discussions.

I would suggest, in brief response, the need to consider the following issues with regard to Douthat’s three claims:

Claim #1 is in some ways the centerpiece claim. It seems to me the claim would be more accurate (i.e. more prudent) if it was more along the lines of: markets, trade, and secure property rights seem to contribute better to overcoming chronic poverty than government control, isolation, and insecure property rights. That is a far more modest claim that an endorsement of “global capitalism” as a system for overcoming poverty. Importantly, the broader claim tends to ignore critical issues like current global imbalances in favor of simple aggregate measurements, to say nothing of the environmental difficulties (prominent in papal teaching as well!) of rapidly-developing countries. That is, the present order surely does circulate wealth in better ways, but its financial and environmental sustainability is at issue. Moreover, if the order requires (as seems likely) the entry of more and more persons into the lifestyle of “consumerism” and “waste” (also condemned by the popes), it is an evil means to a good end.

Claim #2 really requires a better discussion of subsidiarity, which I have undertaken previously, as has Meg Clark. In short, Douthat is not wrong to talk about the importance of the local, but he leaves out the need to identify proper scale. For example, one could argue that the problems accompanying the rollout of the Affordable Care Act are the result of too much subsidiarity, not too little. The system is a complicated mess; Medicare for all would be much simpler. The point is to figure out a proper scaling for addressing particular problems, rather than always assume smaller is better.

Claim #3 is, I think, the most complex one. It cannot be denied that, in general, “liberal” solutions to economic problems tend to assume that the US should “work more like Europe.” I think the correlations Douthat is describing are extremely difficult to map in any direct way, but in general he is expressing a concern that extensive state welfare systems “crowd out” other communal groups that provide comparable economic services – specifically, family, neighborhood volunteer groups, and church. In general, as I have been deeply influenced by David McCarthy’s and Julie Hanlon Rubio’s work on family life, I would tend to agree that when you remove real economic responsibilities from families, the outcome is not good for families, despite the good intention to protect families (and especially children) from harmful economic outcomes. On the other hand, using US states as an example, there does not seem to be a correlation among states that are “high-service” and the erosion of social capital – indeed, some of the worst social capital scores are in Southern low-service, low-tax states, as well as some of the worst family outcomes, whereas among the highest states (New England and the upper Midwest) progressive government policies and social capital seem to be mutually enhancing. Or maybe it is the winters! Again, causation here is complex – Catholics probably need to do a better job on both sides of the economic spectrum in understanding how and why “intermediate organizations” flourish or fail.

In all these areas, Catholic Democrats and Republicans could actually engage in constructive conversations about fidelity to Pope Francis’ teachings… and perhaps could even move their political parties away from the default extremes.