On Saturday, the Wall Street Journal ran an op-ed defending Rep. Paul Ryan against critics of his budget plan — including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The authors — Antony Davies, identified as an economist, and his wife Kristina Antolin, identified as a theologian — lead with their chins.
Someone is twisting the Catholic Church’s teachings on caring for the poor, but it isn’t Paul Ryan. His controversial budgetary ideas demonstrate that he has a better grasp of Catholic social thought than do many of the American Catholic bishops.
The culmination of centuries of theological and philosophical thought, the church’s teachings cannot simply be satisfied by a government edict to “feed the poor.” Commanding “Let there be light!” works fine for God, but for mortal beings, edicts don’t carry the same punch.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has long supported government interference in the economy as a means to help the poor. But we suspect the bishops haven’t fully thought this through: If God really did favor a top-down approach to poverty reduction, why wouldn’t He establish a government with the power to wipe away poverty on demand instead of leaving things to chance and the possibility that someone like Mr. Ryan would come along and mess up His plans?
If only someone could come up with a way to reduce the poverty of thought on display in this op-ed, I’d subject myself to any form of government coercion. Where to begin? For starters, hop over to the Catholic Moral Theology blog, where Jana Bennett — a theology professor at the University of Dayton — offers several examples of papal teaching endorsing the role of government in addressing the needs of the poor. How long, O Lord, will we have to endure the ministrations of libertarian-leaning Catholics who won’t acknowledge the long-standing teaching of the church that charity is not simply a private matter?
While I suppose one shouldn’t expect too much theological subtlety from an economist, I can’t help asking: What kind of theologian would argue that God does not favor governmental action to relieve poverty on the basis of his failure to establish a political system that could eliminate suffering by fiat? That may be what passes for theological thought on the pages of the Journal, but it’s not the sort that ought to survive a serious theology program in the United States. God hasn’t established a top-down cure for cancer either. Does that mean he’s waiting for heroic self-starting job-creators to band together to ensure its defeat? Should the National Cancer Institute close up shop? (A more legitimate theological question would be: What kind of God would set the conditions of existence in such a way that allows me to come across such claptrap in a major newspaper, but let’s put a pin in theodicy for now.)
It’s always touching to see the Journal‘s op-ed page glow with compassion for the neediest among us, but not when it takes the form of brazen concern-trolling. “Perhaps we dehumanize the poor when we treat them as nothing more than problems to be solved, and we dehumanize the rich when we treat them as wallets to be picked.” Yes, let us pause for a moment, furrow our brows, and reflect on the deeply dehumanizing force of our kleptocratic system of taxation. And then let’s snap out of it and recognize something that’s even more degrading: going hungry.
Davies and Antolin fail to grasp another important point: poverty is a divider, not a uniter. Yet they claim that “wealth and poverty are catalysts for bringing the rich and the poor together in community, and community is the hallmark of the church’s mission on Earth.” Put that way, it sounds delightful. Like a family picnic — minus the food. Regrettably, the economist and the theologian fail to take up the question of how the wealthy can catalyze poverty.
They’re more concerned about the coercive power of government. ”Charity can only be charity when it is voluntary. Coerced acts, no matter how beneficial or well-intentioned, cannot be moral. If we force people to give to the poor, we have stripped away the moral component, reducing charity to mere income redistribution.” This is Catholic moral reasoning turned inside out. Actually, I’m not sure it even counts as secular moral reasoning. Or reasoning at all. Was there an editor at the Journal who asked herself, or the authors, whether traffic signals are immoral because they force people to stop for pedestrians? The community accepts coercive laws because we know that the common good requires them. Put another way, from a Christian point of view — one that might interest someone who identifies as a theologian — we tolerate and even welcome such coercion because we know we are fallen. And for Catholics, the morality of an act is not judged only by the means through which it is carried out. Intent and effect matter too. That’s why it’s not morally illicit for a poor, starving person to steal an apple to feed himself.
Davies and Antolin close where it seems all contemporary conservative Catholic opinion writing must: the contraception mandate. They’re confused about that too.
The bishops dance with the devil when they invite government to use its coercive power on their behalf, and there’s no clearer example than the Affordable Care Act. They happily joined their moral authority to the government’s legal authority by supporting mandatory health insurance. They should not have been surprised when the government used its reinforced power to require Catholic institutions to pay for insurance plans that cover abortions and birth control.
Where were Davies and Antolin when the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops repeatedly warned that the Affordable Care Act would result in federally funded elective abortions? (Indeed, they still make that claim.) Apparently they haven’t spent too much time on the USCCB website. If they had, they might have noticed that the U.S. Catholic bishops do not assert that the contraception mandate amounts to an abortion mandate (even while overplaying the scientific certainty of the endometrial effects of emergency contraception). Of course, that might distract Davies and Antolin from their overriding interest: big government.
To paraphrase J.R.R. Tolkien (a devoted Catholic), the government does not share power. Paul Ryan knows this. The bishops would be wise to listen to him.
As much as the bishops may appreciate Davies and Antolin’s willingness to share their advice, on this matter I suspect most will keep their own counsel. And shrug.