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.
Thanks for this. I agree with the line you are taking here – both as a point where discussions can and should happen and elements to push on D’s 3 points.
I would just briefly add (while side stepping that it reminds me I need to write something on subsidiarity and solidarity because his take also misses the crux of solidarity…)
On 1 – part of the problem about sweeping claims about global capitalism is that they also tend to assume all “good things” are a matter of “global capitalism” (ie Michael Novak claiming Medicare is a good example of capitalism working in his debate with my father). We need to be attentive to the places where poverty alleviation are a matter of concerted efforts to make up for what the markets will not take care of and who they leave out.
On3- Europe is more complicated —the question of secularization of catholic countries like Spain, Italy, and France must be looked at aside from questions of the “welfare state.” Local communities and group identities are very important and those countries do not represent the “highly centralized welfare state” and there are many active charities—- compared to the Scandinavian where private groups and local involvement have been shown to be crowded out but if we are making a point about Catholicism, those are also not historically Catholic nations/populations/cultures. And their populations are very small – thus it is a question of personal volunteering but not really a matter of subsidiarity (a question of social virtue I’d say)
They are also not part of the EU which for its many faults – also has at least nominal attention to subsidiarity and active debates about proper levels of decision making on a regular basis. And Kevin Ahern’s personal reflections about the social capital and response to children in church in France and here in the US would add to this discussion as well (don’t know he’s ever blogged on that – but he should 🙂 )
Just some thoughts. Meg
For the record, as evidenced by people like Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, as well, of course, Pope Francis, the definition of liberal and conservative above is problematic essentially BECAUSE left-leaning Catholics tend to adhere to Church teaching more than right-leaning Catholics. That is, those committed to social justice issues tend to be quite orthodox in their theology, Dorothy Day being a prime example. So, I see this distinction between liberal and conservative as simply another attempt by conservatives to possess the language of the discussion to favor their side and disparage those who, not only hold to Catholic doctrine more honestly, but are focused on social justice.
I’m sure, of course, that the Pharisees and the Sadduccees tried the same run-round on Jesus.
Thanks for this, David! It seems to me that one of the most crucial aspects of the article is the the intersection between the two highlighted aspects of conservatism: “1) a loyalty to teaching authority, and 2) a preference for individual and market-based economic systems over state bureaucracies.”
As long as 1) supports 2) through subsidiarity, there’s no problem; the problem is when 1) challenges 2) . That’s the point, at least to me, where the resultant cognitive dissonance reveals what Rahner called the “global pre-scientific convictions,” i.e., the root paradigm that fundamentally inspires someone’s worldview. When 1) challenges 2), does a person honestly attempt to employ the type of open-minded obsequium religiosum that LG 25 encourages, or does someone automatically invoke prudential judgment in order to discount what the church has said and unquestioningly hold on to 2)?
If someone does the former and thoughtfully concludes that 2) is still most appropriate for a situation, then I don’t have a problem with their methodology. If, however, a person takes the latter approach, then I think that’s when I question whether their fundamental value is CST or some other ideology. Judging by how quickly Catholic League President Bill Donohue and the Acton Institute dismissed Francis’ economic analysis, I tend to think that they took the latter approach.
A terrific post, David. Francis is demonstrating the freedom and flexibility of Catholic social thought to respond to the contingencies of socio-political life in a way that leaves room for genuinely fresh and creative solutions. The basis of this freedom, as I see it, is the theological claim that the true guide of human progress is the Holy Spirit.
Conservatives often consider the invisible hand of the market to be the only true guide, while liberals often presume progress comes only through the state’s embodiment of the collective Ideal. These presumptions inform worldviews that not only produce depressingly predictable solutions to concrete problems, but also keep those who hold them from perceiving the intelligibility of any other point of view, since for the most part both parties deny that their positions are ultimately rooted in metaphysical premises.
Francis’ arguments may effectively flush out those conservatives who appeal to CST at the rhetorical level, but nevertheless operate according to metaphysical claims at odds with the Christian faith. (Such was certainly the case for some liberals during the time of John Paul II!)
First, it’s nice to see Douthat’s writing on Francis getting some press. He has written some really insightful pieces in the last few weeks, & I haven’t seen any much attention given to them, as would be interlocutors have opted for the more extreme reactions.
Regarding Point #3 (social capital), Douthat writes quite frequently about this (as you may know); he thinks there is a great social “un-gluing” happening, & one of the factors in the decreased social mobility/inequality is decline of marriage, divorce, etc. among “downscale” whites. Thus, his take would probably be that the “blue” areas you mention as having higher social capital probably do not have the rates of divorce, etc. as others. Nonetheless, I think it’s an interesting discussion point because his views on social capital are what (in my reading) lead him precisely to reject the libertarian strain on the right, & advocate economic policies aimed at shoring up middle class families (like tax reform aimed at easing their tax burden), as well as proposals like entitlement reform which try to maximize federal dollars for programs aimed at helping poor, young families over richer older people (ergo, his “crowding out argument).