David Cloutier is associate professor of theology at Mount St. Mary’s University and editor of catholicmoraltheology.com. He is the author of The Vice of Luxury (2015), Walking God's Earth: The Environment and Christian Ethics (2014), and Love, Reason, and God's Story: An Introduction to Catholic Sexual Ethics (2008). In fall 2016, he is starting a position at the Catholic University of America.
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The best reason for Commonweal readers to go out and purchase Douglas Rushkoff’s new book, Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus, is that the heroes at the end of the book turn out to be… the popes! The “new operating system” Rushkoff recommends turns out to be a variation on the fundamental vision of distributism – the wide, dispersed ownership and exchange of productive assets. He is quick to reassure his readers that “we don’t need to convert to Catholicism or even approve of Vatican doctrine” in order to appropriate their insights. Rather, the value in the papal social encyclicals is that “they remember”; that is, they retain “a memory of the wheels of commerce that preceded the engines of the industrial age.” Rushkoff’s book is particularly important for two reasons: first, he does not simply equate distributism with a back-to-the-land agrarianism, and second, he offers a way beyond the disturbing polarities that have emerged with Sanders, Trump, and Brexit.
This is because Rushkoff’s book, while accessible, is not simple. Too often, debates about any topic get forced into a simple pro- and anti- polarity, focused on a single magic bullet (and often enough, a single demon to be expelled). Worse, such debates too often “fight the last war” – and so Sanders’s solutions look like a Scandinavian playbook, while Trump’s yearn for a rebuilt manufacturing economy via protectionism and immigrant exclusion. These solutions are not all wrong, especially in their diagnoses of what has happened – the Sanders/Trump alliance against trade deals evidences this. There is a “tell it like it is” attraction here.
Rushkoff’s book, by contrast, insists on grappling with the present situation, which above all is one of massive technological change – higher minimum wages and barriers to foreign goods won’t create jobs if robots can do them. But this is not an anti-technology book; to borrow Pope Francis’s phrase from Laudato Si’, it’s an anti-technocratic-paradigm book. In his encyclical, Francis insists that technology itself is not bad, but that it becomes problematic when it becomes an end in itself – which, as he goes on to say, means an end for those who stand to profit from it. When Francis claims that “technology is not neutral,” he means that technological choices are in fact choices about “the kind of society we want.”
Rushkoff’s book is invaluable for fleshing out the technocratic paradigm problem, from the place of one who is extremely knowledgeable about technology. In essence, the book’s thesis can be boiled down into two key points. First, digital technologies can either promote wide, dispersed sharing or contribute to even more centralized power. The key is whether they are designed as “platform monopolies” or as peer-to-peer resources. And his second insight is that the digital economy has become more and more oriented to the development of platform monopolies because these are the form of businesses demanded by the returns needed to satisfy the “old operating system” of the existing economic system. Platform monopolies ultimately squeeze out small producers, first by casualizing their labor, and then by dispensing with it altogether. Uber is just a bridge, Rushkoff insists, to Google’s driverless cars. There is a kind of double reinforcing effect here, in narrowing ever more the labor market to those with highly-specialized operating skills, and then in narrowing capital return to fewer and fewer “winners.” In essence, he is summarizing what an economy looks like when labor ultimately serves capital, rather than capital serving labor. The goal is “removing humans from the equation.”
Pope Francis has made no secret of his feelings towards those whom he singles out as “doctors of the law.” He identifies them clearly with the Pharisees of the Gospel, as opponents of Jesus’s approach both to the law itself and to sinners as defined by that law. And he believes that this whole attitude constitutes one of the great barriers to the Church’s real task: to facilitate the fundamental encounter with God.
With Amoris Laetitia, the pot has now reached the boiling point. The document comes after a process of ecclesial conversation that, whatever its flaws, looked much more like the kind of collegiality that seems crucial to the Vatican II vision of the Church. The process had missteps, but even those missteps—a perhaps overly-biased mid-term report at the first synod, a spate of sometimes-uncharitable public conflicts—may have been learning experiences that ultimately benefitted the Church. The process was that of a Church that is alive.
But what about the outcome? The rich document contains much that is beautiful and powerful about the family, as well as admirably connecting the typical concerns of social ethics to the family. But on the point that received the most attention, the question of communion for the divorced and remarried, the outcome is… ambiguous. This ambiguity is appropriate in a number of ways: it is part of how the Church’s teaching does develop, and it is part of dealing with a complex, varied set of circumstances. It’s also challenging. It means that misunderstanding is inevitable, and such misunderstanding can and will produce hurt. It puts pastors in challenging positions. But I think most of all, it points us to a larger issue of how to understand what the Church is and how individual Catholics understand their relationship to the Body.
The final sentence of the New York Times op-ed published today contains what I think is an unintentional but telling problem:
Opposing sides will find ample evidence for their positions. But I don’t think Francis cares. I think he’s far more concerned with encouraging millions of Catholics to think again about what the church can offer them in their family life, and that starts with an honest appraisal of how much better the church can do.
Jesus is the leader who serves, the king who washes feet. So too the Church’s mission is service. But somehow that service must be distinguished from “customer service,” a notion of service with which we tend to be more familiar in our culture. There are many ways that the Church could provide “better customer service,” of course, in the day-to-day life of a parish… and many of these overlap with the kind of customer service standards that excellent businesses observe.
It’s obvious that our presidential campaigns too often focus on non-substantive issues. It is amazing that so little attention is paid to the explicit tax plans offered by the candidates, particularly the Republican candidates, since if they were to be elected, they would presumably have some chance of actually passing something.
In this regard, there is no doubt that Ted Cruz is an exceptional candidate. The conservative-leaning Tax Foundation has excellent and detailed account for all of the major Republican contenders' plans. And all of them amount largely to the same thing: a flat or two-tiered income tax rate, significant changes in corporate and capital taxation, a larger initial exemption, and (of course) abolition of the estate tax. There are minor differences, of course. But the Tax Foundation agrees on one thing: they’d all add massively to the deficit. For example, they estimate Donald Trump’s tax plan would cut revenues by over $10 trillion – yes, that’s over a $1 trillion deficit every year.
All of them, that is, except Ted Cruz’s. Cruz’s plan, with the generous assumptions about economic growth that the Tax Foundation gives to all the plans, only reduce revenues by $768 billion over 10 years. And yet at the center of Cruz’s proposal is a flat 10 percent income tax, abolishing all deductions except charity and home mortgage interest, and providing for an expansion of the exemption and child tax credits. Thus, Cruz is prepared to campaign on a 10-percent flat tax, and to promise that he is not going to explode the deficit doing it.
At their current meeting, the USCCB is considering a new version of their document "Faithful Citizenship." Michael Sean Winters at NCR has a good commentary on the problems with the new draft, especially its reconfiguration of the previous seven headings into four and its continued misleading use of the term “intrinsically evil.” I have commented elsewhere on why discussions of “intrinsic evil” are misleading w
On the eve of Pope Francis’s visit, there is much speculation about what he will say and to whom. One thing is sure: he will be talking about the importance of protecting the planet. And Francis’s bully pulpit on this issue is valuable. In the most recent New York Review of Books, perhaps the leading climate economist, William Nordhaus at Yale, has an extended piece analyzing the pope’s encyclical Laudato si’. And just today, Senate Democrats have unveiled an aggressive plan to address climate change that they hope will shape the debate of the 2016 election.
But what should be done? Amidst all the hoopla, I stopped yesterday evening to fill up my Honda Civic and paid $2.10 for a gallon of gas. I’m also flying home to Chicago during my fall break for $49. These low prices, even more than the papal visit, indicate that it’s time for a direct discussion of a carbon tax.
Comparing Nordhaus’s analysis of Laudato si’ and the Senate Democrat’s plan, what we see is the extent to which we avoid moving on this obvious solution. Nordhaus’s article is appreciative of the pope’s attention to the issue, but he suggests that the pope “does not recognize the fact that environmental problems are caused by market distortions rather than by markets per se.” The fundamental problem is that we are able to emit carbon into the atmospheric commons for free. If we don’t change this fact, Nordhaus argues, the pope’s “eloquent description of the natural world and its relationship to human socieities” may remain just that: beautiful words on a page. It seems that the pope’s preferred mode of action – individual rejection of an economy based on excessive consumption – simply won’t get us where we need to go.
As the visit of Pope Francis approaches, many groups are weighing in on what they hope he talks about. Certainly there are many pressing and deadlocked issues on which the pope’s voice might be seen as one above the political fray (although insofar as groups in the political fray try to use his message, that effect is diminished).
The overwhelming immediate importance of Laudato Si’ is to call both church and world to respond to the “urgent challenge to protect our common home” (13). As Tony Annett has already ably pointed out, Francis is not mincing words here, even if he is careful. Above all, the encyclical suggests we are home-wreckers, yet we also have a chance for a deeper conversion from our “internal deserts,” (217; one of the many quotes from Benedict XVI) to a more joyful and more challenging way of life: “Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start, despite their mental and social conditioning. We are able to take an honest look at ourselves, to acknowledge our deep dissatisfaction, and to embark on new paths to authentic freedom” (205). Such a response, the pope makes clear in chapters 1 & 5, requires international cooperation because of the nature of the problems. That Francis chose to highlight the atmosphere, water, and the diversity of species is telling – these are all problems where global cooperation is absolutely necessary. Your car, lawn, and hardwood flooring may very well be implicated, but “nevertheless, self-improvement on the part of individuals will not by itself remedy the extremely complex situation facing our world today” (219).
Chapters 1 & 5 contain a lot of the material that will grab attention in the larger media. But the heart of the encyclical theologically and spiritually is chapters 2-4. It is important to highlight that this document is firmly and clearly theological. If we contemplate the broad structure of these chapters, we can see an elegant scheme of creation, fall, and redemption. This fundamental pattern of the Christian narrative is so easy to forget – to sing “Canticle of the Sun” while forgetting the cross, or to offer the cross as an escape hatch from creation, rather than a tree of life that makes way for the Spirit’s renewal of creation. To read the encyclical as a whole – not always easy given its length and its incredible detail! – is to be reminded of this basic pattern: God’s gift, our human sinfulness, and the everlasting covenant sealed by the Spirit, promising a vision of renewal to the ends of the earth.
A recent survey indicated that Americans divide into three groups on the issue of climate change: believers, sympathizers, and skeptics. About half of Americans are “believers,” saying that the climate is warming and that this warming is caused by human activity, and another quarter are “sympathizers” who are less sure about causes, but who agree the climate in warming.
In his beautiful new book Finding and Seeking, Christian ethicist Oliver O’Donovan offers an extended critique of what he calls “anticipation” as a basis for moral deliberation. Anticipation is of a “middle-distance future” stemming from our actions, differing from the immediate “nearer future” of the specific purpose of our actions and the “further future” which, for Christianity, rests on the virtue of hope.
It’s not often a 74-year-old professor gets a standing ovation from a public audience for an hour-long lecture with many graphs. But Robert Putnam gave a barnburner of a speech last night at Georgetown University’s Strategic Summit of Catholics and Evangelicals on Poverty. John Carr, the Initiative’s director, called Putnam “an Old Testament prophet with charts,” and he certainly had the fervor, but appealingly, the lecture was more earnest exhortation than prophetic denunciation. In an age where prophetic denunciation gets more headlines, Putnam is trying to tell a story about poverty – and specifically kids in poverty – that can unite us as a society. Anger is not front and center; rather earnestness and clear vision are his hallmarks. And he can still get a standing ovation.
Putnam’s talk kicked off two days of meetings, which will today include the President, on how Catholics and Evangelicals together can address the “purple problem” of kids in poverty. As Michael Gerson on the panel after Putnam’s talk put it, Putnam “has given us an ideologically inclusive account of the problem.” Many of the panelists wrestled with precisely this conundrum: how much of this problem has to do with individual bad behavior, and how much of it has to do with structural problems (of many sorts).
The summit promises to move this conversation forward via the both/and on this question, which is frankly a really exciting prospect. In fact, Carr formulated an image of contemporary society as a table held up by four legs: individuals and families, civil society groups, market actors (businesses), and government actors. The problem, Carr says, is “in DC, everyone falls in love with one leg of the table.” Carr, and his Evangelical counterpart in organizing the Summit, Leith Anderson, want the churches to help break this impasse.
Putnam is helping in two key ways. First, his entire presentation (and book) frames the issue of inequality in a particular way. Americans, he says, are by and large comfortable with some significant degree of inequality of outcome, but that our comfort with this is based on the idea that everyone gets an equal shot. That is to say, we are much more committed to equality of opportunity – and our acceptance of inequality of outcome is based on this. An example? Nothing will get many of my male students more up in arms than sports stars who are “cheaters” – students almost uniformly think that baseball players like Barry Bonds have done something very wrong. Add to this the recent “Deflategate.” The problem in both cases is the same: the cheating meant that not everyone started in the same place. Some people got a head start. And we generally do not like that.
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