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UPDATED Melinda Henneberger to speak on Pope and Politics (Fordham)

UPDATE: event to be rescheduled due to weather and campus closing on February 3.

In the past month, several major news outlets have raised the question of whether Pope Francis is having an effect on political figures in the United States. Kathleen Hennessey's A1 story in the Los Angeles Times reported on how and why President Obama, for example, had come to quote the Pope.

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On the homepage: Minimal wages; Kaveny on ACLU & bishops

Two new items featured on the homepage today. First, the editors on working for less than a living wage:

Contrary to popular misconceptions nourished by some in the media, most of the low-wage workers who would benefit from a higher minimum wage are not teenagers earning a little pocket money and learning some basic job skills. More than 90 percent of them are adults and almost a third are parents. The federal government spends around $7 billion a year on public assistance just for the families of fast-food workers. If conservative lawmakers are serious about streamlining entitlement programs and promoting self-reliance, they should be lining up behind proposals to raise the minimum wage.

So why aren’t they? It isn’t for lack of public support. A large majority of voters from both parties are in favor of raising the minimum wage. Whatever their opinions about welfare, most Americans agree with Adam Smith that those who work for a living should actually make one. Opponents of a higher minimum wage say it will only hurt the poor by reducing the number of jobs: when labor costs are higher, they warn, employers will hire fewer workers. This argument has a certain intuitive force, but several recent studies suggest that modest minimum-wage increases have no significant effect on employment levels. Lobbyists for retailers and fast-food restaurants also argue that higher wages will drive up business costs, which will be passed along to consumers as higher prices. But research suggests that a $10.10 minimum wage would add only a few pennies to the price of a hamburger. The lobbyists don’t mention that the big corporations they represent could also absorb some of the higher labor costs by accepting lower profit margins.

Read the whole thing here.

Also, Cathleen Kaveny looks deeper into the ACLU's complaint against the USCCB in the case of Tamesha Means, who allegedly received medically negligent treatment in the course of her pregnancy and miscarriage at a Catholic health facility:

The alleged negligent act: promulgating the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services.

According to the complaint, the USCCB is responsible because it “directed the course of care Plaintiff received.” ... According to the plaintiff, Directive 27 does not require Catholic hospitals to disclose the option of a “previability pregnancy termination,” because (she claims) the church does not see it as morally legitimate. The plaintiff also blames Directive 45, which prohibits abortion. That directive reads: “Every procedure whose sole immediate effect is the termination of pregnancy before viability is an abortion, which, in its moral context, includes the interval between conception and implantation of the embryo.” The plaintiff contends that Directive 45 prevented [the hospital] from either completing the miscarriage or referring her to a place that would do so.

But has Means identified the right defendants? Contrary to popular belief, the USCCB does not have the power to tell individual bishops—or Catholic health-care systems—what to do and what not to do.

Read the whole thing here.

Is Catholicism compatible with libertarianism?

It's hard to believe that question is still being debated, isn't it? For over 100 years, the definitive answer is No. Pope after pope after pope, right up to Benedict XVI, has explained this in the most magisterial ways.

But perhaps it has taken Pope Francis's singular history, style, and gift for communication to break through the noise of American-style capitalism. Or perhaps the underbelly of globalization has finally come to light, through a combination of the explosion of financial capital, the worldwide recession, and the opportunities afforded by the Information Age for learning about the distant effects of almost-unregulated markets.

Whatever the reason, Pope Francis is getting through. He is obviously not a Marxist or socialist. But he is leveling strong critiques of the current state of global capitalism -- as it is actually being employed.  And to my mind, one of the best interpreters of his message (especially for those reading from the right-wing) has been Michael Gerson.

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On the exhortation

Posted to our homepage, two pieces on Francis’s Evangelii Gaudium. First, from our editors, who in “Out of the Tomb” write:

Francis wants to remind us that the church derives its whole identity from its mission to preach the gospel and to do so joyfully. This means that all Catholics, whatever their particular vocations, should understand themselves as missionaries. Most important, in order to share God’s mercy with a suffering world, Catholics must not allow their own sufferings to rob them of joy or apostolic vigor. Despite Francis’s characteristically upbeat tone, there is a suggestion of exasperation with those he describes, in the English translation, as “sourpusses.” He cautions against a “tomb psychology” that “slowly transforms Christians into mummies in a museum.” He does not quote St. Francis de Sales’s famous maxim “A sad saint is a sorry saint,” but he might have. If Christians really are people who have been liberated by God’s mercy, then, Francis insists, they should act as though they have been liberated.

You can read the whole thing here.

E. J. Dionne Jr. also writes on Francis’s exhortation:

Pope Francis has surprised the world because he embraces the Christian calling to destabilize and to challenge. As the first leader of the Catholic Church from the Southern Hemisphere, he is especially mindful of the ways in which unregulated capitalism has failed the poor and left them “waiting.”

His apostolic exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel,” is drawing wide and deserved attention for its denunciation of “trickle-down” economics as a system that “expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power.” It’s a view that “has never been confirmed by the facts” and has created “a globalization of indifference.” Will conservatives among American Catholics who have long championed tax cutting for the wealthy acknowledge the moral conundrum that Francis has put before them?

But American liberals and conservatives alike might be discomfited by the pope’s criticism of “the individualism of our postmodern and globalized era,” since each side defends its own favorite forms of individualism. Francis mourns “a vacuum left by secularist rationalism,” not a phrase that will sit well with all on the left.

Read it all here

Back to Lampedusa

Of the many painful details in reports on the capsizing of an overloaded refugee boat a half-mile off Lampedusa last week (the captain setting fire to a blanket to signal shore; the resulting panic of the passengers; the chaos that ensued as the Eritrean migrants—mainly women and children—were pitched into the water), maybe the hardest to bear is that the cries of the drowning were first mistaken for seagulls.

According to some reports, it was “local yachters” who first heard the sounds of the unfolding disaster, which if true provides not just apt symbolism but a literal picture of the divide between, in plain terms, those who have and those who do not. (The New Yorker pointed out that “if [before the accident] you searched the Web for ‘Lampedusa,’ you’d have found tourist sites touting a small Sicilian island with ‘the best bays and beaches.… Welcome to Paradise!’”). Divers were still searching for victims yesterday, with the toll passing three hundred and thirty, even as yet another vessel crowded with refugees capsized off Lampedusa, with twenty-seven dead at last count.

Pope Francis won justifiable attention during his visit to Lampedusa last July for use of the resonant “globalization of indifference” to characterize a dynamic that accommodates such tragedies and the underlying causes from which they arise. Lampedusa is the first destination for many Africans coming to Europe, lying just seventy miles across the Mediterranean from Tunisia. At the time of the pope’s visit, about fifty people in 2013 had died making the journey; that’s changed now, of course, with the total approaching 2012’s total of five hundred. World Bank economist Branko Milanovic estimates that since 1988, twenty thousand to twenty-five thousand people have died crossing from Africa to Europe, though he adds that no one really knows for sure. What’s behind the numbers, Milanovic says, is:

[a basic] issue to which there's no easy answer or easy solution, and that's the question of freedom of movement. We live in a world that is much more globalized, in which capital, knowledge, ideas and so on can travel much more easily. At the same time, it's a world in which people cannot move from country to country. … [It raises] an uncomfortable issue because all the other components of production are mobile, with the exception of one.

Milanovic does not view people merely as “components of production,” however, noting that “in an unequal world where income differences between countries are large, and information about these income differences is widespread, migration ... is simply a rational response to the large differences in the standard of living.” He also decries what he calls the “conspiracy of silence … that envelops” those who die in fleeing poor countries for richer ones. Though lightly clothed in the jargon of economics, his assessment doesn’t sound all that different from the construct Francis offered in July, at which time the pope also called the recurring deaths of migrants seeking better lives “a thorn in the heart.” Speaking after last week’s disaster, though, Francis employed more impassioned rhetoric to describe the migration crisis. “The word disgrace comes to me. It’s a disgrace!”

Long on Lament, Short on Solutions? Dealing with Economic Inequality

Increasing inequality in the United States is a big problem. One recent analysis shows a disturbing graph, which displays not only that, in 2012, the top 1% captured 20% of income, but that the top 10% captured over 50% of income, a number that is higher than at any time in the last century, surpassing even the 1920’s. The graphs show this is not merely a matter of all the rewards of the recent recovery going to the top. As Eduardo Porter outlines it in brief, we are enduring a 30-plus-year stagnation of the middle-class. Bishops are speaking out on this. For many, a long lament on our “new Gilded Age” leads to a hope for a revival of Catholic social teaching. Even Catholic conservatives are taking note that “trickle-down” theories of dealing with poverty are failing. Michael Peppard and Michael Sean Winters have both recently commented that taking this problem seriously is both urgent and yet very difficult. (It is being made much more difficult by our absurd politics. But that would be a different post.)

It’s a difficult problem because we are long on lament, but really short on solutions that pay attention to the specific dynamics of our economy as it exists now. It is a truism that military leaders often “fight the last war” rather than the present one – so too, Catholics and their allies in fighting poverty can fall into talking about solutions that sound like “fighting the last economic war” – namely, that of the early 20th century.

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Income inequality isn't going away

A few months ago, there was some good discussion on the blog about the persistently large gap in income inequality. And though the Occupy movement no longer garners headlines, the problem of income inequality remains a core moral issue for many Americans. It is widely thought that Bill de Blasio's focus on the topic has aided his rise in the New York City mayoral race. Andrew Sullivan's influential blog continues its coverage of the data, which shows that just since 2009, top 1% income has grown by 31.4% and everyone else's has been basically flat. Our own E. J. Dionne continues to cover the politics of inequality, and the U.S.C.C.B. has not shied away from it in its advocacy.

Last time we talked about it on this blog, we focused on ratios of CEO-to-worker pay in a given year, and David Cloutier followed up with a longer analysis at Catholic Moral Theology. But the problem is about more than a given year -- it's about the long-term trend from the late 1970's to the present. Timothy Noah has called this period The Great Divergence, in a multifaceted analysis of the possible causes of the growing gap. To my mind, the long-term story offers a compelling moral problem for our time, and one without an easy solution.

A quick way to capture the "great divergence" is this summary of the Economic Policy Institute's report from last year, about which Jena McGregor at the Washington Post wrote:

Average CEO compensation, according to EPI’s calculations, rose 726.7 percent between the years of 1978 and 2011 — more than double the percentage increase in the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index. Meanwhile, pay for the average private-sector nonsupervisory worker rose a startlingly meager 5.7 percent. ...

My guess is that it’s this inequality that really erodes worker satisfaction and guts employee morale far more than the discrepancy between the top and bottom in any one year’s pay.

I think she's right. Everyone expects annual ratios of 20-to-1 or even 200-to-1 in our form of capitalism. But the fact that purchasing power has not trickled down in the long run -- over my whole lifetime -- is what drains energy and optimism.

One feature of Pope Francis's pontificate has been a renewed emphasis on moral issues that had been thought of as peripheral for many Catholics. He has expanded the core of what counts as a central moral issue. But it's worth remembering that his predecessor had strong words on growing inequality, such as those quoted in the U.S.C.C.B.'s letter from Labor Day:

The dignity of the individual and the demands of justice require, particularly today, that economic choices do not cause disparities in wealth to increase in an excessive and morally unacceptable manner, and that we continue to prioritize the goal of access to steady employment for everyone. . . . Through the systemic increase of social inequality . . . not only does social cohesion suffer, thereby placing democracy at risk, but so too does the economy, through the progressive erosion of "social capital" . . . indispensable for any form of civil coexistence. (Caritas in Veritate no. 32)

Evangelical leader Jim Wallis is famous for saying, "The federal budget is a moral document." I agree. But every budget is a moral document -- from that of Wal-Mart down to that of each family's breakfast table. In a democracy, the problem of income inequality is everyone's problem. And it's not going away.

When ‘allegedly prolife’ groups attack.

Over the past few years, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has been steadily criticized by a few prolife groups claiming the bishops’ domestic-poverty program has been funding organizations that promote abortion and artificial contraception. We’ve written about this before. The critics’ stock-and-trade is guilt by association (you know, Jesus’ M.O.). From time to time they may discover a grant that violates the bishops’ own guidelines—which were recently revised to respond to these ceaseless complaints. But mostly it's your basic smear job. They comb coalitions for members who have taken public stances antithetical to church teaching on sex and abortion, then tie them to recipients of Catholic funding. (Protip: If someone on the board of your charity has ever had lunch with someone who publicly disagrees with Catholic teaching on sex or abortion, don’t expect to pass muster with the magisterium of the American Life League.)

Having apparently exhausted their domestic targets, these critics have set their sights on Catholic Relief Services, the bishops’ foreign-poverty organization. The latest salvo was delivered by the Population Research Institute, a $1.4 million operation based in Virginia. According to PRI, Catholic Relief Services has been “using funding from American Catholics to distribute contraceptive and abortifacient drugs and devices” in Madagascar. PRI claims that a representative spoke with CRS workers and local clergy who confirmed that the organization had been “directly involved in the promotion and distribution of contraceptive and abortifacient drugs and devices.”

That sounds bad, and it would be, if PRI’s reporting seemed reliable. But does it? 

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Defending the One Percent? Mankiw on Inequality and Just Deserts

Harvard economist Greg Mankiw has written a forthcoming article, titled “Defending the One Percent,” that should be required reading for anyone interested in economic justice and inequality – perhaps especially for those like myself who will dispute Mankiw’s conclusions. As a WaPo opinion piece rightly suggests, Mankiw’s anecdotal affirmation of equality of opportunity is problematic. However, it would be wrong to dismiss the piece because of this, for it is a remarkable (and remarkably candid) laying-out of the fundamental challenges from mainstream economics to Catholic concerns about inequality.

Mankiw’s overall argument suggests that we have three possible ways of deeming whether wealth inequality is wrong: a strictly utilitarian perspective, a “veil of ignorance” perspective, and his preferred alternative, what he calls the “just-deserts” perspective, in which “people should receive compensation congruent with their contributions.” In defending the latter perspective, Mankiw makes a number of provocative claims:

He disputes the claim about inequality-of-opportunity partly on grounds that genetic inheritance plays a role in various traits that correlate with high income. He rejects claims that most high-income individuals are compensated beyond their productivity, and (rather carefully) refutes the standard arguments against such compensation. He instead argues that high compensation at the top is the result of increasing demand for high-skilled workers relative to low-skilled, and technological change which allows some of these high-skilled individuals to leverage their talents across enormously large fields of demand. If the best possible doctor could be seen by as many people as Twins catcher Joe Mauer, he would probably make more than Joe Mauer. He accepts that the wealthy benefit not only from government infrastructure and research but also from transfer payments, but suggests that the 1% already contribute disproportionately to public funds through progressive taxation, and that over time, government spending has increasingly shifted from infrastructure investment toward transfer payments.

Mankiw is a worthy conversation partner, largely because he is not a doctrinaire conservative. He actively supports Pigovian taxes on negative externalities (e.g. higher gas taxes), and is far more careful to accept the existence of distorting, “rent-seeking” problems in present systems. He accepts, for example, the claim that some activity in the financial sector is excessive not because of its primary work of efficient allocation of investment capital, but because of opportunistic use of split-second information and the like. So Mankiw is not blind to our problems. But he does want to fundamentally defend the present system as largely just and effective. I want to call attention to three underlying tenets of his argument, because I think these – and not the empirical issues above – are what should be disputed by Catholic social thought:

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"Catholic McCarthyism" and the CCHD

Conservative opposition to the bishops' signature anti-poverty initiative, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, has been denounced by bishops and defenders of the church's social justice mission for years. But a new report released today by the progressive lobby Faith in Public Life does a comprehensive job of tallying the efforts of rightwing groups to hamstring the CCHD's mission through what it calls a "Catholic McCarthyism" that relies on guilt by association.

The report points to the emergence of the old neo-Donatism that ignores Catholic teaching on cooperation with evil in favor of a purist approach -- which often dovetails nicely with the right's more libertarian economic views.

The report is here in full -- it's 24 pages but is very readable with lots of solid research and quotable quotes. My Religion News Service story is here, and provides the Reader's Digest (does that still exist?) version.

What seems most significant to me is that this isn't just a blast from the Religious Left against the Religious Right. Rather, the FPL report has been endorsed by dozens of leading Catholic officials and activisits -- many of whom will be recognizable to Commonweal readers -- but also by two former heads of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Archbishop Joseph Fiorenza of Galveston-Houston and Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane.

As Fiorenza says in the report, the Catholic Church has always worked with groups that it may not agree with completely, but as long as the church wasn't directly supporting or endorsing that group's objectionable goal, there wasn't a problem. He fears that is changing, to the detriment of the church and the country:

"At a time when poverty is growing and people are hurting we should not withdraw from our commitment to helping the poor. Catholic identity is far broader than opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage. Catholic identity is a commitment to living the Gospel as Jesus proclaimed it, and this must include a commitment to those in poverty."

When I spoke to Fiorenza, he was just heading off to the bishops' closed-door meeting in San Diego -- the first since the election of Pope Francis -- and he was hopeful that Francis' priority on identifying the church with the poor would make an impression of some of the bishops who have bought into the criticisms of the CCHD.

“I’m confident that if Pope Francis knew about the CCHD program he would say, ‘God bless the American bishops!’ for doing what they can to help the poor,” Fiorenza told me.

I wonder if this report and the public support it has drawn from so many Catholic leaders may be a sign of the "Francis Effect" on the wider church.

I recommend reading the FPL report as well as Francis' daily homilies. It seems he doesn't go a day without preaching about social justice. Gay marriage and our favorite American topics, not so much.