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Catholic Social Thought: The Reboot

John Kelleher

This is a site proclaimed to be scrupulously loyal to the living Magisterium of the Most Holy Catholic Church. Yet there are two kinds of "cafeteria Catholics." One is the kind who picks and chooses what teaching he will follow. But another is the kind who simply goes through the cafeteria line and accepts whatever is ladled onto his plate.

If one looks at the Catholic social encyclicals from Rerum Novarum on, we might just laugh. Like any child, we would observe, to our astonishment and distress, that there are no clothes on this particular emperor. We would plainly see the social encyclicals parading themselves dressed in invisible finery, while insisting that we, as a matter of conscience, take their wearing of it seriously. And we would further observe all the adults in our ken copiously complimenting the social encyclicals on their choice of attire, and vowing to imitate it, humbly, in their own simple garb; though perhaps we might also hear some very few adults, coupled with loud protestations of complete loyalty, discreetly offering one or two modest suggestions for improvement.

Yet it would not do to laugh. First, if our laughter became loud enough, the adults would become annoyed. Second, yes, there are trivialities that would seem to call for nothing else but laughter. To pick two examples: trying to discern any meaning whatever to a continual papal distinction between a 'just wage' and a 'market wage' within an unhampered market process; or puzzling over how pontiff after pontiff can blithely assume that state interventions into economic life will be Pareto optimal, even if only for workers (that is, even aside from other possible untoward effects on the well-being of the polity, the intervention would not hurt other, 'invisible' workers at the expense of those 'helped'), without their being able to recognize a Pareto optimum if one bit them in the leg. But these are trivialities, and this is not a laughing matter. At all.

Unfortunately, actual, living, breathing poor people exist. So the social encyclicals also possess a meta-moral content, if you will. For it is not a laughing matter when the full weight of papal authority is placed behind recommendations, no doubt sincere, that, when followed, do absolutely nothing for poor people, or even harm them.

In Populorum Progressio and Octogesima Adveniens, Pope Paul VI strenuously recommended methods to help the poor, such as large-scale official aid, that were, in the words of Thomas Woods, Jr., "proven ineffective and in some cases even calamitous in practice." [Thomas E. Woods Jr. The Church and the Market: A Catholic Defense of the Free Economy. Lanham, MD. Lexington Books, 2005. p. 4]

What then, is the moral and sacramental standing of Populorum Progressio, if following its recommendations did not help, and in some cases, severely harmed, actual, living, breathing poor people? The problem is that there is nothing about Populorum Progressio that might prompt us to argue that it was not considered to be, and was not in reality, one of the "real" social encyclicals.

The Sacred Pontiff, Paul VI, put the moral weight of his papacy behind recommendations that, when carried out, did not help, and sometimes grievously hurt, actual, living, breathing poor people.

Did the Pope take full moral responsibility for the possibility that his recommendations might in fact hurt, not help, the poor? As Thomas Woods points out, at least some development experts at the time, such as Peter Bauer, warned that carrying out the Pope's recommendations would be disastrous for the poor.

This is the nub of the question for loyal Catholics, as well as for all men, regarding the moral and sacramental authority of the social encyclicals. Have the Sacred Pontiffs made what they claimed vigorously to be moral arguments, with full knowledge of the sometimes untoward, even disastrous, consequences toward the poor of following their recommendations?

Which is to say, a resulting human good, such as material well-being, can never be used to justify an immoral act. If in fact the Popes have foreseen the sometimes untoward, even disastrous, consequences toward the poor of following their recommendations, taken full moral responsibility for them, and nonetheless put the full moral weight of their papacies behind the recommendations of the social encyclicals, then not only every Catholic, but all men, should follow those recommendations. For that means that choosing the path that leads to greater material good for the poor is inevitably the result of an intrinsically immoral act, and such acts can not be performed under any circumstances.

Leo XIII wrote:

We have designedly made mention here of virtue and religion. For, it is the opinion of some, and the error is already very common, that the social question is merely an economic one, whereas in point of fact it is, above all, a moral and religious matter, and for that reason must be settled by the principles of morality and according to the dictates of religion. For, even though wages are doubled and the hours of labor are shortened and food is cheapened, yet, if the working man hearkens to the doctrines that are taught on this subject, as he is prone to do, and is prompted by the examples set before him to throw off respect for God and to enter upon a life of immorality, his labors and his gain will avail him nothing. [Graves de Communi Re, 11]

Of course, a resulting human good, such as material well-being, can never be used to justify immoral acts. But Leo elsewhere defined paying (my term) a 'naked' market wage (a wage paid without regard to the principle of a "just wage") as immoral. In context, the Pope's remarks can certainly be read as saying that even increases in material well-being for everyone do not negate the immorality of a 'naked' market wage.

St. Pius X wrote:

The social question and its associated controversies, such as the nature and duration of labor, the wages to be paid, and workingmen's strikes, are not simply economic in character. Therefore they cannot be numbered among those which can be settled apart from ecclesiastical authority. The precise opposite is the truth. It is first of all moral and religious, and for that reason its solution is to be expected mainly from the moral law and the pronouncements of religion.[Singulari Quadam, 3]

Again, this can certainly be read as saying that acts pre-defined as immoral by the Sacred Pontiffs, such as the paying of a 'naked' market wage without regard to the principle of a "just wage," cannot be engaged in, even if it results in material benefits.

In a scathing dismissal of Thomas Woods' previously cited book, Rupert J. Ederer, economics professor emeritus at the State University of New York College at Buffalo, in a review published in the December, 2005 issue of the periodical Culture Wars, puts the matter plainly:

To be sure, this does not mean that everything in an encyclical is of its nature an infallible pronouncement. However, the mandate, for example, about the just wage to which each adult worker is entitled is another matter. It involves precisely the Seventh Commandment and the cardinal virtue of justice. And when a pope writes in an encyclical, as Pius XI did in Quadragesimo Anno, about the just wage: "If in the present state of society this is not always feasible, social justice demands that reforms be introduced without delay which will guarantee every adult workingman just such a wage"(71) -- that seems to me to be pretty serious, if not solemn, use of the papal teaching authority with regard to morals. It entails also the Church's competence in interpreting the natural law as Blessed John XXIII reaffirmed in Mater et Magistra.

Thus, a very strong authority is attached to papal proclamation about the "just wage." It is thus critically important, particularly for loyal Catholics, to understand this idea of a "just wage." But what if a loyal Catholic has no way of understanding the idea? Which is to say, what is the moral principle behind a "just wage" (a wage price enforced by the state that is higher than a market wage), when such a wage is known to automatically increase unemployment among other workers, or even to decrease the profitability of firms to the extent that even the workers receiving the "just wage" may ultimately become unemployed?

In a work cited below, in referring to the "minimum wage", which is closely related in its manner of moral argumentation to a just wage, John Mueller says that "[t]he minimum wage makes it illegal, in effect, to hire unskilled workers at what their skills are currently worth, and thus improve their skills and earn a higher wage. So they remain unemployed and unskilled. By removing the unskilled from the labor market, the minimum wage may raise the wages of skilled workers (which is probably why it is championed by labor unions) but reduces the income of all workers as a group." [Mueller JD. How does fiscal policy affect the American worker? p. 589]

Is it moral to demand the setting of 'minimum wages' without regard for the possibility that the income of all workers as a group will suffer? And what is the moral weight of such a demand when it is known to a moral certainty that "the minimum wage makes it illegal, in effect, to hire unskilled workers at what their skills are currently worth"?

Over and over the pontiffs have dismissed "purely economic" argument and said that, in effect, there is a moral obligation to pay workers more than their skills are currently worth, if that is necessary to pay a "just wage." And they have repeatedly put the full moral and sacramental weight of their pontificates in support of this teaching. As noted above, many passages in social encyclicals certainly can be read as saying that a pontifically-defined "just wage" must be paid, even when it results in economic losses.

But the loyal Catholic must still ask, who actually is offending the Seventh Commandment and the cardinal virtue of justice when a "just wage" is paid? Isn't it in fact the privileged group of workers who are paid this "just" wage at the expense of the wages and the jobs of others? For these are the real effects of a "just wage," when put into practice.

Whatever the claims of Catholic apologists, or of the pontiffs themselves, there would seem to be a heavy moral burden attached to requiring actual poor people to become more poor, in the interests of justice and morality, defined as the necessity to pay a "just wage", to take one example. Unless and until, if and only if, the Sacred Pontiffs take full responsibility for this actual result -- and even the possibility of it -- and then solemnly state that, nevertheless, it is the moral responsibility of all men to do what the pontiffs recommend, there is no responsibility of any loyal Catholic to take any part of any of the social encyclicals as morally binding.

Rather, until the Sacred Pontiffs take full notice of, and full moral and sacramental responsibility for, the possible violations of the Seventh Commandment and of the cardinal virtue of justice resulting from following their recommendations in the social encyclicals, it becomes the responsibility of Catholics to use their own judgment to weigh each and every sentence of all of the social encyclicals against the facts, and against the opinions of others.

That is not "cafeteria Catholicism." That is defending the solemnity of papal moral argumentation. As a Catholic, I cannot and will not support policies and legislation that I know for a fact will hurt, not help, poor people, simply because several pontiffs and a long line of Catholic apologists have assured me, but not convinced me by reasoned argument and fact, that that is the "moral" course, especially when there has never been explicit pontifical responsibility for the consequences to the poor if following papal recommendations hurt, not help, actual, living, breathing poor people.

When I have strong reason to think that certain policies and legislation will hurt actual poor people, I need more. I need the pontiffs to tell me, straight out, that the great harm I would be doing actual poor people by supporting or carrying out these policies and legislation is real, but is an evil that must nonetheless be tolerated, because following the course that would not hurt the poor is inherently immoral. If and when they tell me that, I will do exactly what they say. Until they do, I will be bound in conscience to be severely skeptical of all the recommendations in all the social encyclicals.

Beyond learning the lesson that the bulk, or even all, of modern Catholic Social Thought might, for many sound reasons, be more justifiably carried out entirely by the laity, within a normal human realm where everybody agrees that mistakes are made all the time, might there be anything else to suggest? Fortunately, there are two ideas already in place that might enable a reboot, as it were, of Catholic Social Thought. One is from a very smart economist. The other is from a guy so smart that he's not an economist.

The first idea is from the late economist Mancur Olson, who was profound on many topics, including the logic behind economic political interest groups, which kill us by a thousand cuts, each too slight for us to bother with. But beyond profound is the insight in his last work, Power and Prosperity: the necessity for any economic order to be founded on violence, and the control of it.

This means that power is prior to price. The wealth of information that a free market price provides is not free. Rather, a free market price is possible only within free markets, which, Dr. Olson showed, are economically possible only after at least local monopolies on violence begin to arise.

Dr. Olson merely establishes the facts. For example, he shows how it is that people are better off even under a local thugocracy than under anarchy, and therefore commonly prefer thugocracy to anarchy. I wish to go a little further.

Thus (I propose), a certain kind of genuine violence: violence whose end is to suppress other violence and thereby to allow (among other goods) market information free from corruption (which is to say, a true market price) should be considered, in John Mueller's terms (more from him anon), part of the "common wealth":

There are two kinds of justice: justice in exchange, which concerns private personal wealth, and distributive justice, which concerns common wealth. In general, libertarians attempt to shrink justice to justice in exchange alone--as if all goods were private goods--while liberals or collectivists attempt to shrink all justice to distributive justice alone--as if all goods were common goods. In reality, the choice is never either/or, but always both/and, by virtue of the fact that both private and common goods exist.

I submit that the Catholic Church has kept in her heart, though forgetful at times, the good of something like the kind of purposeful violence I describe. For all its terror, there is a perennial necessity for the capacity for violence, used in a 'manly' way: violence that is severe and strong enough to capably suppress most other violence, and is used not to induce a subservience or for the private good of those who use it, but is instead deployed to protect all those common goods (like a free market) which otherwise are jeopardized or may not even be possible.

For there is not even the possibility of any "Just Social Order" of whatever kind in the world of men, minus a polity with the ready capacity to inflict overmatching destruction, violence, and ultimately, death, in the service of that Just Order. To fail to grasp this nettle is to fail to focus sufficiently rigorously on the nature and number of those common goods that truly merit this terrible protection.

Therefore, I submit, the thoroughgoing methodological inclusion, into all Catholic discussion of economy and society, of this sort of violent power, seen as a deep part of the "common wealth" of the polity, is one of the fundaments of a 'rebooted' Catholic Social Thought.

And to further renew her economic instincts, the Catholic Church need look no further, again, than her own deep heart. At least, it would seem so from examining the work of Mr. John Mueller, who is proud, he says, to be merely a highly successful financial analyst, with no advanced degree in economics as now practiced.

I stumbled on Mr. Mueller's astonishing work in the middle of research I was doing on the causes and cures of the current worldwide decline in fertility rates (sometimes called 'demographic winter'). His paper [Mueller JD. How does fiscal policy affect the American worker? Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics & Public Policy Vol. 20, 2006: 563-619.] contains a simple logistic regression equation that accounts for tremendously more of the variance in fertility decline worldwide than any other model, including those of Nobel Prize winning economists.

You can read the paper yourself. Go to this link, then find 'View as pdf' at the top right, click on that, follow the directions that pop up and download the pdf of the paper, and read the whole thing.

Simply put, Mr. Mueller lays out an empirically grounded, simple, but comprehensive framework for analyzing how fiscal policy affects employment and fertility. Fertility, right? We're all interested in that? Especially (ahem) Catholics? And that framework proves to be massively more effective at exploring these issues than anybody else's, ever.

But the reason to include Mr. Mueller's ideas along with Dr. Olson's in the present exercise is the even more astonishing method he used to develop his manifestly more effective and comprehensive framework for studying these huge, and hugely important, human and economic issues. He found his framework by re-founding (and he understands this) the entire science of economics, to once again include Augustine's theory of personal love and Aristotle's theory of distributive justice, which were originally integrated within economic analysis, but were both discarded by modern economics.


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