The reliably liberal Jesuit theologian, Thomas J. Reese, has issued a knee-jerk reaction to the Encyclical Letter Caritas in veritate of Pope Benedict XVI.
Fr. Reese does not treat the Encyclical, so much as he proof texts it, or almost: he says what the Pope is “for”, and on Fr. Reese’s view of things, the Pope is for everything that Fr. Reese is for.
Par for the course.
Catholics to the right of the political spectrum do the same thing – it is simply part of the game.
But there is a point beyond which rhetorical selectiveness becomes disingenuous, and before which it were simply sloppy.
While Fr. Reese is not disingenuous in his proof-texting, he is sloppy.
His mistake is one that many on the left make, and that too few on the right ever notice or seek to correct.
Specifically, Fr. Reese takes the Pope’s condemnation of any economic practice based on the theory that the economy itself is essentially amoral, and either confuses or conflates it with a more or less critical embrace of government regulation.
By way of illustration, consider the following remark from Fr. Reese:
The pope disagrees with those who believe that the economy should be free of government regulation. “The conviction that the economy must be autonomous, that it must be shielded from ‘influences’ of a moral character, has led man to abuse the economic process in a thoroughly destructive way,” he writes. “In the long term, these convictions have led to economic, social and political systems that trample upon personal and social freedom, and are therefore unable to deliver the justice that they promise.”
Fr. Reese sets up his quotation by noting the Pope’s disagreement with an imaginary policy stance that is a gross mischaracterization of a classically conservative position (I mean his caricature of conservatives’ wariness of regulation - don’t I?).
So, we would expect the Holy Father to criticize the conservative understanding of the market – right?
When Pope Benedict writes about the deleterious effects of the conviction that, “[T]he economy must be autonomous, that it must be shielded from ‘influences’ of a moral character,” he is writing about the theoretical underpinnings of scientific socialism.
Let's see how this breaks down:
Fr. Reese makes his statement - entirely unobjectionable, although of the "Sun rises in the East" variety, to the effect that the Pope disagrees with opponents of all regulation.
Then he offers this quote from the encyclical:
The conviction that the economy must be autonomous, that it must be shielded from “influences” of a moral character, has led man to abuse the economic process in a thoroughly destructive way.
But listen to what Benedict says right before that (the sentence Reese does not quote):
The conviction that man is self-sufficient and can successfully eliminate the evil present in history by his own action alone has led him to confuse happiness and salvation with immanent forms of material prosperity and social action.
Reese even omits a very telling, "Then" from the front of his 1st quotation.
Reese's second quote is:
In the long term, these convictions have led to economic, social and political systems that trample upon personal and social freedom, and are therefore unable to deliver the justice that they promise.This sentence immediately and directly follows the first quoted sentence from the passage, so that "these convictions" are the convictions of scientific socialists, not radical free marketers.
In fact, the first radical free market thinkers thought the only necessary (or at any rate viable) correctors for the market were the restraints common morality placed on actors in the marketplace.
If you doubt this reading of things, look to the second sentence, which traces a direct correlation, indeed a causal link between the exclusion of morality from the conduct of economic life, and the rise of economic, social and political systems that are inimical to and destructive of personal and social freedom.
Recall the central tenet of Marxism: man is entirely conditioned by his economic circumstances. According to the scientific socialist, the very language of classical morality is an instrument of oppression, and liberation from the constraints of morality is the first step in the creation of class warriors.
The point is not that all those who favor heavier government regulation of the economy are secret Marxist revolutionaries. The point is that the more government is involved in economic life, the more government tends to be involved in economic life. As government involvement increases, so must the government’s strength increase, and so must the scope of its power expand, until every aspect of our life is regulated – not as a matter of design, but, as the inevitable result of the great leviathan’s natural growth.
In any case, Fr. Reese, while there are some dyed in the wool opponents of any and all government regulation, the majority of market conservatives believe there should be as little regulation as is absolutely necessary to ensure the market does not behave in a way that is destructive of the end it serves, which is human flourishing.
They have this in common with Pope Benedict, who explicitly bases his own reflections on the understanding of authentic progress as integral human development, which Paul VI articulated in Populorum progressio. “Paul VI,” writes Pope Benedict, “had a keen sense of the importance of economic structures and institutions, but he had an equally clear sense of their nature as instruments of human freedom.” Only when development is free, “can development be integrally human; only in a climate of responsible freedom can it grow in a satisfactory manner.”
There is certainly room for discussion of the important questions as to what constitutes responsible freedom, and whether enacting regulations is an exercise in it.
Though She can help us think through these questions, “The Church does not have technical solutions to offer, and does not claim ‘to interfere in any way in the politics of states.’ (Cv i.9.)”