Friday, December 20, 2013

Locutus Roma ... sed non Latine

Pope Francis has provoked a great deal of discussion with his Apostolic Exhortation entitled Evangeliii Gaudium.

We were amused to learn recently that, despite its Latin title, the document has not yet been translated into the Latin language.  Apparently popes no longer write in the official language of their kingdom, which is a disappointment but certainly no shock.  We assume that this exhortation was composed in Spanish, making its "real" title La alegria del Evangelio.

We should point out that, thanks to the late Alex Comfort, the English title -- The Joy of the Gospel -- invites a certain adolescent giggle.  (Specifically, it makes us think of naked people with lots and lots of hair.  We wish it were otherwise, but there you are.)

That's every thing we have to say about Evangeliii Gaudium today.  But while we're on the subject ....

We notice that the exhortation has, with its mild criticism of trickle-down economics, aroused the ire both of Rush Limbaugh and Peggy Noonan, with Anne Coulter no doubt waiting in the wings.

The first thing one must say, of course, is that conservative critics expressing shock at Catholic social teaching are simply ignorant.  They don't know what they are talking about.  One takes this for granted, of course, in a buffoon like Limbaugh; Noonan is a special case.  She is not so much ignorant as wilfully blind.

So impressed was she, and so impressed were many of her contemporaries, with what they perceived as John Paul II's spiritual support for Saint Ronald's Holy War on Communism -- not to mention the whole abortion thing! -- that they decided that the Roman magisterium must be on their own side in all matters political.  Crazy, right?  Yet the history of the Neoconservative movement, when it is written competently, will doubtless list the many Roman Catholics who switched their allegiance from the Democratic Party to the Republican one; it will also show a modest number of politically conservative converts to Catholicism.

Such was the enthusiasm for Rome among 80s-era conservatives that they seem to have skipped the drudgery of actually, well, reading things.  Had they read just a little bit, they would have discovered the strangely dichotomous presence of Roman Catholicism in 19th- and 20th-century public affairs

On one hand, it retained the instinctive royalism of the preceding eras, and so was happy enough to align itself not only with actual kings but also with rightist strongmen like Francisco Franco.  And, like Franco, Rome certainly did not care for Communism, with its materialistic and atheistic bent.

But on the other hand, Catholicism felt just as threatened by the emerging democratic and capitalist order of the West.  Until very late in the day, it routinely expressed doubts about democracy and religious freedom, and it is still no real friend of sexual egalitarianism.  Rightly or wrongly, the magisterium assumed that movements like this undermined its own authority, and led inexorably to the establishment of a materialism no less toxic than the Marxist-Stalinist-Maoist variety.

And why not?  Capitalism, when you think about it, emerged in the Renaissance -- just like Protestantism and, for that matter, modern forms of democracy.  They aren't the same thing, but they share a certain constituency, and nowhere (around 1900) was that constituency so concentrated as in the United States.  Thus we get Leo XIII warning about the supposed heresy of "Americanism."

But here's the money point:  for all its panicked fear of modernity, the Roman Catholic church never lost sight of the needs of the poor.  In fact, it seems to have believed that both the emerging economic regimes -- Communism and capitalism -- would hurt the poor.  (Not that the church had anything better to offer, mind you; nostalgia for the Middle Ages wasn't going to bring them back, and in any case the Middle Ages hadn't been a notoriously good time for the peasants.)

The key fact, though, is that in 1891, Leo issued one of the most important papal documents of the modern age.  Rerum novarum served as a thoughtful Christian response to the industrial age, and especially to the cutthroat capitalism of the Gilded Age.  While supporting the rights of property owners to use their belongings as they saw fit, it also said:
Let the working man and the employer make free agreements, and in particular let them agree freely as to the wages; nevertheless, there underlies a dictate of natural justice more imperious and ancient than any bargain between man and man, namely, that wages ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage-earner. 
If through necessity or fear of a worse evil the workman accept harder conditions because an employer or contractor will afford him no better, he is made the victim of force and injustice.
In other words, living wages are a matter of natural law -- the very idea that, even today, Wal-Mart and the service economy in general are trying to argue against.  More than that, employers who do not offer a living wage are abusing their workers, subjecting them to "force and injustice."  Although Leo does not like strikes and wants to avoid them for the sake of the common good, he supports labor unions, worker safety, collective bargaining, and other causes then labeled "progressive."

A century later, celebrating the downfall of the Soviet Union and its satellites, John Paul II reflected on Rerum novarum in his encyclical Centesimus annus.  It's a comparatively conservative document.  The Peggy Noonans of the world no doubt read it and hear the strong condemnation of Communism and, in particular, atheism.  But we hope they also catch this:
[I]t is unacceptable to say that the defeat of [socialism] leaves capitalism as the only model of economic organization.
And this:
[P]rofitability is not the only indicator of a firm's condition. It is possible for the financial accounts to be in order, and yet for the people — who make up the firm's most valuable asset — to be humiliated and their dignity offended. Besides being morally inadmissible, this will eventually have negative repercussions on the firm's economic efficiency. 
In fact, the purpose of a business firm is not simply to make a profit, but is to be found in its very existence as a community of persons who in various ways are endeavouring to satisfy their basic needs, and who form a particular group at the service of the whole of society.
Get it?  A company's job isn't just to generate shareholder value; it is to provide for the basic needs of its employees, and to serve society.  If it isn't doing all those things, it is a failure.

Centesiums annus displays a particular concern for the people of the Third World -- the encyclical's own, now somewhat old-fashioned phrase.  John Paul is concerned that people in these nations are excluded from the material benefits of the more developed economies.  This concern informs the broader "economics of exclusion" of which Francis writes.

John Paul goes on to warn against the "irrational destruction of the natural environment," a form of "tyranny" which leads to destruction.  This doesn't necessarily mean he would have opposed pipelines, offshore oil rigs or fracking, but it certainly does raise the question of whether those things are compatible with the Catholic social vision.

It is obvious that the most debated sections of Evangeliii gaudium (parapgraphs 53-60) are in line with these two predecessor documents.  Like Leo and John Paul, Francis has his doubts about capitalism; like Leo and John Paul, Francis is concerned that some people are excluded from the benefit of the emerging global economy.  Like them both, he is concerned that a purely materialistic economic theory damages the social fabric and leads, ultimately, to violence.  We defy anyone to argue convincingly that all three of these men are mistaken.

And we ask that political conservatives, especially those who make much of their own Roman Catholic faith, would pay more attention to their church's now-long-standing critique of their pet economic theories.

1 comment:

Geoff said...

Yes what was it about all the hair? Was there something in the water in the 70s (other than the fluoride which my great-grandmother the RC convert was convinced was a Communist plot to poison our children)?