Truth & Charity

August 07, 2009

Truth & Charity

“€œPope calls for global government,”€ read the headlines in early July. Then, as night follows day, the Pope’s conservative supporters lined up to eviscerate the media for distorting the Pope’s meaning.  Those darn liberals”€”how dare they twist the Pontiff’s words like that.

This is not exactly the first time such a thing has taken place. The pattern, over the past couple of decades, runs as follows: the media more or less accurately portrays something the Pope said or did, and then his conservative supporters, anxious to explain away these unusual statements and activities, devise convoluted explanations as to what the Pope really meant.

It is worth reproducing the relevant passage of the Pope’s new encyclical, Caritas in Veritate:

In the face of the unrelenting growth of global interdependence, there is a strongly felt need, even in the midst of a global recession, for a reform of the United Nations Organization, and likewise of economic institutions and international finance, so that the concept of the family of nations can acquire real teeth. One also senses the urgent need to find innovative ways of implementing the principle of the responsibility to protect and of giving poorer nations an effective voice in shared decision-making. This seems necessary in order to arrive at a political, juridical and economic order which can increase and give direction to international cooperation for the development of all peoples in solidarity. To manage the global economy; to revive economies hit by the crisis; to avoid any deterioration of the present crisis and the greater imbalances that would result; to bring about integral and timely disarmament, food security and peace; to guarantee the protection of the environment and to regulate migration: for all this, there is urgent need of a true world political authority, as my predecessor Blessed John XXIII indicated some years ago. Such an authority would need to be regulated by law, to observe consistently the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity, to seek to establish the common good, and to make a commitment to securing authentic integral human development inspired by the values of charity in truth. Furthermore, such an authority would need to be universally recognized and to be vested with the effective power to ensure security for all, regard for justice, and respect for rights. Obviously it would have to have the authority to ensure compliance with its decisions from all parties, and also with the coordinated measures adopted in various international forums. Without this, despite the great progress accomplished in various sectors, international law would risk being conditioned by the balance of power among the strongest nations. The integral development of peoples and international cooperation require the establishment of a greater degree of international ordering, marked by subsidiarity, for the management of globalization. They also require the construction of a social order that at last conforms to the moral order, to the interconnection between moral and social spheres, and to the link between politics and the economic and civil spheres, as envisaged by the Charter of the United Nations. [emphases in original; internal endnotes removed]

Whatever we may say about this passage, was it really so unreasonable for reporters to have interpreted it as they did?

I actually didn”€™t want to write anything about the Pope’s encyclical.  In 2007, I wrote a book, Sacred Then and Sacred Now: The Return of the Old Latin Mass, in defense of the Pope’s restoration of the traditional Latin liturgy, an area in which Benedict XVI is quite knowledgeable and has much of value to say. I like this Pope. He is smart and serious, not frivolous or vain. He is in many ways a substantial improvement over his predecessor. (I cite as evidence the very fact that the media believes the opposite.) And having been viciously denounced and ridiculed by some pretty despicable people, he certainly has all the right enemies.

I have reluctantly yielded to the urging of quite a few correspondents and typed up a few thoughts. So here goes: Caritas in Veritate strikes me as at best a relatively unremarkable restatement of some familiar themes from previous social encyclicals. At worst, it is bewilderingly naïve, and its policy recommendations, while attracting no one to the Church, are certain to repel.

The response to the encyclical throughout the right-of-center Catholic world was drearily predictable: with few exceptions, it was a performance worthy of the Soviet Politburo, with unrestrained huzzahs everywhere.

It is one thing to receive a statement from the Pope with the respect that is due to the man and his office. It is quite another to treat his every missive as ipso facto brilliant, as if the Catholic faith depended on it. If his supporters are trying to live down to the Left’s portrayal of Catholicism as a billion-person cult, they could hardly do a better job.

The Pope Is Not an Absolute Monarch

My book The Church and the Market: A Catholic Defense of the Free Economymakes a distinction between those aspects of economics that fall within the Pope’s purview as a teacher of faith and morals and those that do not.  I”€™ll repeat that thesis here as a prelude to my comments.  (Anyone who already gets this can skip this section.)

The phenomena that economics touches upon, which include money, banking, exchange, prices, wages, monopoly theory, and many other topics, are replete with moral significance. But the positive, scientific statements about these phenomena that constitute the discipline of economics are necessarily value neutral. (By “€œscientific”€ I mean only that they involve causal relationships, not that economics is or should resemble one of the physical sciences.) Describing the workings of fractional-reserve banking is a positive task, not a normative one. Discussing whether such a system is desirable is a normative task, and qualitatively separate from explaining the mechanics of that system. One cannot make an intelligent comment about the former unless he understands the latter, and it is the latter with which economics, properly understood, concerns itself.

Likewise, economic policy may possess a moral dimension, but not a single proposition of economic theory involves a moral claim. For example, Frank Knight conceived of capital as a homogeneous unit whose individual processes occurred synchronously, and therefore could be understood without introducing time into capital theory. F.A. Hayek, as well as the Austrian School of economics to which Hayek belonged, conceives of capital as a series of time-consuming stages of higher and lower order, with the highest-order stages the ones most remote from consumers (mining and raw materials, for instance) and the lowest-order stage immediately preceding the sale of the finished product.

Nothing in the Deposit of Faith even comes close to deciding this and countless other important economic questions one way or the other. Not even the most uncomprehending or exaggerated rendering of papal infallibility would have the Pope adjudicating such disputes as these. Yet misunderstandings or ignorance regarding such seemingly abstruse points are so often at the heart of the policy recommendations that bishops”€™ conferences propose and papal encyclicals can seem to imply.

It is obviously not “€œdissent”€ merely to observe that the cause-and-effect relationships that constitute the theoretical edifice of economics are not a matter of faith and morals. They simply do not fall within the range of subjects on which a Catholic prelate is endowed with special insight or authority. Catholic laity cannot head up petition drives against them. They are facts of life. Facts cannot be protested, defied, or lectured to; they can only be learned and acted upon. There is no use in shaking our fists at the fact that price controls lead to shortages. All we can do is understand the phenomenon, and be sure to bear it and other economic truths in mind if we want to make statements about the economy that are rational and useful.

Moreover, those who posture as defenders of Catholic social teaching by and large do not acknowledge that the proposals they implicitly or explicitly advance could have anything but favorable consequences for all. No trade-offs (between higher wages and unemployment, for example) are considered. Naturally, no room for objections can exist when the very possibility of objection is foreclosed by the way the argument is framed: for example, if we want higher wages, we simply demand them. Anyone who does not join in this demand must not want higher wages. This begs the question, of course, since whether high wages can be produced by man’s ipse dixit, rather than through capital accumulation, is precisely the matter at issue.

For instance, the idea of a “€œliving wage”€ for heads of households is an example of a policy I would institute only if, (1) I did not understand what factors lead real wages to rise on their own, without the use or threat of violence; or (2) I wanted to hurt people by making them less employable. (Why not offer a living wage of $10,000,000 per hour, if it’s so easy to raise wages by fiat?) I lack the space to defend this claim here, so I refer interested readers to my chapter on the subject in a book called Catholic Social Teaching and the Market Economy, published by London’s Institute of Economic Affairs in 2007 and available for free download.

It is certainly possible, though very unlikely, for a Catholic to reply this way: the Church insists that the living wage and whatever else must be instituted because justice demands them, even though they will make people, particularly those they were designed to help, materially worse off. However, no ecclesiastical document I have ever seen has taken this position. These documents carry the assumption that their suggestions will accomplish their stated ends and increase people’s well-being. That assumption, in turn, implies that the only thing standing between today and a more prosperous future is sufficient political will rather than constraints imposed by the very nature of things. And that merely assumes the very thing that needs to be proven.

It begs the question yet again to declare that authority has spoken and the matter is closed”€”the very matter at issue is whether these subjects are of a qualitative nature to be susceptible of ecclesiastical resolution in the first place. If the law of returns, for instance, is an objective fact of nature (which it is), then the Pope himself cannot declare it to be false, or expect success from policy prescriptions that ignore it, any more than he can fashion a square circle. It is no insult to papal authority to exclude the possibility of square circles. (As a matter of fact, leaving aside the famous and oft-misunderstood dissent of St. Peter Damian, the consensus among the Scholastics before the triumph of nominalism was that God himself could not violate the law of non-contradiction”€”by, say, creating a square circle.)

It is one thing, for example, to identify the well-being of the family as an important ingredient of a healthy society. It is quite another to propose specific policy measures designed to help families, since whether these policies will have their intended effect involves causal analysis, which, it should be unnecessary to point out, is analytically separate from faith and morals. Surely some matters are to be left to the laity to discuss and determine among themselves.

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