Sunday, September 07, 2014

Zmirak's "myth" of Catholic social teaching

Some readers may remember earlier discussions of Zmirak, such as "Integralism vs Liberty ('the god that failed')" (Musings, February 12, 2014), which referenced his piece on "Illiberal Catholicism" (Aleteia, December 31. 2013).

Whether you agree with him or not (I don't), Zmirak's articles are often "arresting," as one of my readers put it; and in relation to this piece, he added: "Of course, you do wonder where one line stops and another starts. Witness capital punishment, inerrancy, missions...."

John Zmirak, "The Myth of Catholic Social Teaching" (The Catholic Thing, August 30, 2014) [Advisory: Rules 7-9]:
Self-styled Catholic critics of the free market and “Americanism” have adopted the term “social Magisterium” to suggest that there is a coherent and morally binding body of papal teaching on politics and economics, from which we can derive specific policy initiatives and firmly condemn alternatives as “un-Catholic” or even (that dreaded word) “dissenting.”

Hence defenders of market economics, or opponents of mass immigration, can be tarred with the same brush as those who favor women’s ordination or homosexuality. Indeed, if we accept the premise of a “social magisterium,” we are led to believe that we can actually build up a detailed Catholic political economy that is a “third way” between capitalism and socialism, which bravely “cuts across” the lines dividing Left and Right, and between America’s political parties.

We can start, of course, with Belloc and Chesterton, who laid the groundwork for an officially Catholic system of economics, distributism. We can move forward bravely by reading the fruits of bishops’ conferences and statements by the Vatican’s various social justice officers. As we proceed, compiling divinely approved answers to each burning current question, we can fill in the empty spaces of politics and economics, then present it to a rudderless world like a completed crossword puzzle.

I won’t spend time here talking about the practical effects of such talk in Catholic circles. My hope is that it has none – that patriotic, prolife Catholics simply ignore the posturing that fills the blogosphere, the tortured statements that emerge from bishops’ conferences, the rants of leftist, anti-Semitic cardinals, and the questionably translated fruits of interviews with the pope.

I hope this not simply because I want people to vote against the persecutors of the Church, to whom the rise of illiberal Catholicism gives active aid and comfort, but for a much more important reason: the explosion of irrational and false political statements that carry some vague imprimatur of Church authority will undermine people’s faith: “If I have to believe that nonsense to really be Catholic….”

But there are smart, sincere people out there who struggle seriously with the idea that the papacy is a 2,000-year-old Delphic oracle, that a “spirit-led Magisterium” inspires and guards from error the statements of popes about economics and politics. Even if such statements are not infallible, we are obliged to grant them a docile “religious submission,” as we are to other non- ex cathedra assertions of Catholic teaching. Or so people say.

... But is it true? Is there a “spirit-led” “social Magisterium” that works by accretion over the centuries, gradually building up a coherent, defensible program of economics and politics, which can be drawn by simply reading what popes have said and fitting those statements together like Lego blocks, to construct a Catholic city? Is that what Jesus intended to give us when He founded the papacy?

If we really believe that, and expect every Catholic to form his views accordingly, then we should be able to survey papal statements over the centuries on economics and politics, and find in them the same exquisite consistency we see in papal teachings about the natures of Jesus Christ and the sacraments – the slow, organic unfolding of that divine revelation which ended with the death of St. John the Apostle.

If we found that this was not true, that papal social teaching did not exhibit the same crystalline integrity, we might be tempted to leave the Church – or else to descend into cognitive dissonance, in bad faith blocking out or distorting the inconvenient facts of history, to cling to a “faith” that has morphed into a modern-style ideology. I am not sure which of those two temptations would be more deadly, to abandon faith or to corrupt it.

But those are not the only choices. A third way is to see Catholic social teaching not as analogous to Eucharistic doctrine and Marian dogmas, but as something much more akin to the Catholic literary tradition – a treasure trove of often-brilliant insights and deep investigations into the best ways for men to live which claims our respectful attention.

... I will not catalog every assertion by any pope that makes modern Catholics cringe. Some quite liberal Catholics did compile a book like that: Rome Has Spoken. Its authors intended to minimize papal authority to a vanishing point, to remove it from faith and morals as well. Their case is overstated. But the statements they collected on politics and economics ought to give pause to anyone who asserts that Jesus meant to make the popes political and economic oracles. In attempting to discern God’s will from the evidence of history, these cases demand our candid reflection, not tortured, last-ditch defenses of preconceived ideas.

Here is a short (and non-exhaustive) list of issues on which, over the course of time, papal positions have made what can only be honestly called a 180-degree reversal. Entire scholarly books have been written to explain how and why – and sometimes to suggest that “development of doctrine” can be stretched to accommodate such reversals.

I do not have space here to argue why such rationalizations are unconvincing. Suffice it to say that the plain meaning of “development” suggests something organic, not a Hegelian dialectical leap from “A” to “the opposite of A,” not even one that happens gradually over centuries. When a tadpole turns into a Steinway grand piano, that’s not an organic development.
Zmirak procedes to itemize "reversals" of papal positions on lending at interest, slavery, religious liberty, and torture, and concludes by stating that our Lord "never meant to leave behind an oracle. When we invent one for our convenience, we are forging a golden calf."

Of course, in his own case, all of this just happens to be jolly convenient.

[Hat tip to JM]


Charles said...

"If we found that ... papal social teaching did not exhibit the same crystalline integrity, we might be tempted to ... descend into cognitive dissonance, in bad faith blocking out or distorting the inconvenient facts of history, to cling to a “faith” that has morphed into a modern-style ideology."

Sounds like an apt description of Zmirak's rationale for elsewhere rejecting Pope Leo XIII's cautions about the dangers of (Koch brothers-style) unfettered capitalism.

Unknown said...

Odd to find this negative spin on Zimiak's piece when an excellent review of Hitchcock's book was just posted. I found the two somewhat complementary.

First, do the Koch brothers (and their stylish associates) actually believe in "unfettered capitalism". Unfettered capitalism, whatever the current definition is; and however one would compare that with unfettered state corporatism.

I read Zimiak's piece. My first thought was does one explain the changes he runs through. Leo XIII's "cautions" have not escaped my attention, yet how does one (the Church) set those cautions in concrete so that one is assured (know with absolute certainty) that those cautions and injunctions will hold, will never change - when one can look back on Church history and see that the Church has dropped certain social stances or prohibitions - such as slavery.

The historical experience of Catholicism in France (especially in the 19th Century) is an excellent example of how not to go about taking absolute stands on certain economic and political issues. If I were plopped down in late 19th Century Paris I would be a fervent supporter of Captain Dreyfus, knowing that "official" French Catholicism set its blood, sweat and tears against the man. I would allied myself with Zola, and felt no conflict with being an orthodox Catholic (though not very much a French one, I suppose).

Mighty Joe Young said...

In several lengthy exchanges between Michael Hoffman (who accused the Church of changing its teachings on Usury) Anthony Santerelli laboriously decimated the false accusations of Mr. Hoffman.

Mr. Zmirak is wrong about there being no social doctrine that is binding but how many have heard a reasoned defense against these free market charges made so many times by Thomas Woods and the Acton Institute?

"Culture Wars" magazine has consistently refuted these absurd claims but its readership is tiny compared to the audience available to Woods, Sirico, Rockwell etc.

I have no idea what'n'hell has happened to Zmirak to cause him to champion the enlightenment and capitalism but I do know he can't hold a candle to the late catholic economist Rupert Ederer who translated the work of Heinrich Pesch, S.J. whose studies directly led to the creation of Papal Encyclicals whereas the free Market claims by the jewish agnostics so beloved by Woods, Sirico, Rockwell can not be found to be cited in any Papal Encyclical ever promulgated.