The Conscience of a Traditionalist

Just over a month ago, the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace released a report entitled “Reforming the International Financial and Monetary Systems in the Context of Global Authority.” It’s a fascinating read, though arguably not as fascinating as some of the startling reactions it has elicited from American Catholics.

The report is a refreshing and honest take on our current economic woes and an insightful look at how we can both address our short-term problems and build effective institutions of global governance to safeguard our well-being in the long run. I call it “refreshing” because of the careful way in which it diagnoses the ideological and moral threats to the global economy without resorting to simplistic attacks on the straw men of secularism and religious diversity. Instead, the Council frames the problem in more widely resonant terms, and lays the blame at the feet of “neoliberalism,” “utilitarianism,” and other “-isms” that have been destructive of our attempts to build decent societies and that have “minimized the value of the choices made by the concrete human individual.”

The most controversial assertion of the report, at least from the point of view of those free-market apologists who fear that the Holy See may be lending undue moral weight to the case against laissez-faire, is that the governments of the world ought to work toward strengthening organizations like the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund, endowing them with more authority to coordinate global action on a scale sufficient to grapple with problems like environmental degradation, food scarcity, and human trafficking. Such a project would ideally culminate in the creation of a “central world bank” that could better stabilize the world’s monetary and financial systems, and prevent a repeat of the carnage we’ve seen in the past few years. Couple this with a modest proposal for a tax on financial transactions of dubious social value, and you’ve apparently got a recipe for radicalism.

In an editorial in the Wall Street Journal, Fr. Robert Sirico writes that there is “no question” this document will be used to “stir up political mischief… [and] to convince the Catholic faithful that big government solutions are morally justified.” That a Catholic priest writing in one of the nation’s preeminent newspapers would accuse the Vatican of attempting to incite “political mischief” should seem unthinkable in a church where ideological conformity is becoming ever more highly valued. Aware of this fact, those Catholics who wish to resist the call for more global cooperation have had to find excuses for why this advice ought to be disregarded.

George Weigel of the National Review insists that “the document’s specific recommendations do not necessarily reflect the settled views of the senior authorities of the Holy See… The document doesn’t speak for the Pope, it doesn’t speak for ‘the Vatican,’ and it doesn’t speak for the Catholic Church.” Tito Edwards of the National Catholic Register quotes Bishop Mario Toso, a member of the Council, as saying that the “note” merely “suggests possible paths to follow”, and then condescendingly admonishes us to “notice the word ‘suggest’; the Church always proposes, not ever imposes.” One wonders which Church he’s referring to.

Why should Catholics even want to resist this call? Why the quibbling about the authority of the Council issuing the report? I, for one, would love to see more open debate and collegiality within the Church, and so I don’t dismiss critics like Fr. Sirico for worrying out loud about the real-life consequences of trying to turn a utopian vision of world government into a reality. There could be real costs to asking nations to cede sovereignty to a centralized global bureaucracy, and I don’t mean to ignore or diminish them. But the forcefulness with which some have reacted to the release of this report is indicative of a deeper problem: the dearth of American Catholics advocating for economic justice in the name of Catholicism. Sadly, it seems that many Catholics have been persuaded by the conservative movement that unfettered markets are what their faith demands after all.

This problem reaches deep into the hierarchy. Instead of using its public platform to emphasize the ways in which both political parties fall short of the dictates of Catholic teachings (for better or for worse), the institutional Church in the United States has become nearly synonymous with American-style conservatism, despite the fact that the two are qualitatively distinct. We often hear the bishops criticize liberal Catholic politicians for their public positions on abortion and euthanasia, but we never hear of Republicans being denied communion for supporting the death penalty, or for opposing nuclear nonproliferation, or for routinely insisting that war is a higher budgetary priority than healthcare for the poor.

To a traditionalist, any mention of the primacy of conscience is taken as a euphemism for an attempt to normalize sin and discredit Catholic doctrine, and merely pointing out that there exist teachings that are noninfallible is seen to be a wholesale rejection of the Church’s authority. And yet when an arm of the Roman Curia “suggests” that it might be worthwhile to encourage more multilateral cooperation in the name of promoting economic justice, we are met with the truly remarkable spectacle of American Catholics insisting that the people doing the suggesting really have no power whatsoever, or aren’t the Pope, or don’t know what they’re talking about, or are actually just trying to “stir up political mischief.”

I respect the right of my fellow Catholics to listen to their consciences and do what they believe is right. But when someone asks us to “[abandon] all forms of petty selfishness… [embrace] the logic of the global common good.. [and share] the common dignity of all human beings,” I’d say we should listen. Even if it’s only a suggestion.

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About Matt Mazewski

Matt Mazewski is a PhD student in economics at Columbia University. He is a native New Jerseyan and a graduate of Haverford College in Haverford, PA. He previously worked as a research analyst at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

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