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The Welfare State

September 12, 2019 (3,585 words)

The idea of a “Green New Deal” has recently been floated by certain members of the Democratic Party’s progressive wing, which has received an infusion of new blood via the November 2018 election.

One of the most outspoken proponents of this audacious concept is a young woman by the name of Alexandria Ocasio Cortez. A political novice, Ms. Cortez was elected to Congress in a surprise upset, from a district that includes parts of two different New York City boroughs (Bronx and Queens), and has made quite a splash since taking office this past January.

Her instant reputation has been fueled by, among other things, her social media presence. It seems AOC tweets almost as frequently as the current Republican occupant of the White House.

Anyway, this bold proposal is obviously meant to invoke the original New Deal of the 1930s, which was rolled out during the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. You may recall it as the federal government’s coherent response to the Great Depression that engulfed the country in the wake of the infamous Wall Street crash of October 1929.

For younger readers, FDR was a wealthy patrician who nevertheless developed a level of empathy for the hard-scrabble proletariat. This endeared him to the common folk, who to this day willingly overlook his unfortunate foreign policy proclivities.

Those proclivities ultimately drove us into WWII, in large part to bail out Winston Churchill and the mess he helped create with the vindictive treatment of Germany that was negotiated into the Versailles Treaty at the end of WWI.

But before our gallant, storied entry into that conflict, FDR made a concerted effort to address some very large, systemic domestic problems. We have all but forgotten what those problems were.


the need to address large, systemic problems…


Instead, the entire period has been reduced in the minds of most of us to a simplistic deification of an unalloyed humanitarian. Or the equally simplistic demonization of one man’s colossal governmental overreach, that laid the foundation for the loss of freedoms we are suffering through today.

On the four-hour drive to visit our grandchildren recently, I came across a radio interview with a professor at a California university who the host identified as an expert on the New Deal.

I wasn’t able to hear all that much before driving through the area and losing reception, but the gentleman prof was underscoring how so much of the good we take for granted in contemporary society is a direct result of this long-ago legislative package.

I didn’t get the man’s name, or the title of his most recent book, and I don’t want to sell him short with my next comment.

While I think there is great value in exploring the systemic economic problems the New Deal sought to address, I believe there is even greater value in recognizing this was the Roosevelt administration’s attempt to implement the principles espoused in Quadragesimo Anno, the social encyclical promulgated by Pope Pius Xi in 1931.


ethical implications of the social and economic order…


That encyclical, in turn, was based on Pope Leo XIII’s groundbreaking effort of forty years earlier, Rerum Novarum (1891).

The subtitle of Rerum Novarum is “On the Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor,” and it delves into the plight of the working classes. The English translation of Quadragesimo Anno is “The Fortieth Year.” It elaborates on Leo’s themes, continuing to stress the big-picture ethical implication of the social and economic order.

I mention this now because I believe conservative Catholics who dismiss the likes of AOC as a loose cannon with wacky ideas, while somehow bringing themselves to defend our wacky President as a principled – if slightly unorthodox – statesman, have gotten themselves completely turned around on the all-important subject of economic behavior.

How this happened is an interesting little story. In hindsight, these good-hearted people of a Catholic persuasion appear to be among the primary victims of the great paradigm shift that occurred some fifty years ago.

It all started when the Democratic Party first went rogue, and assumed the full emancipation of the individual in private sexual matters as its new mantle, equal in importance to its old, established concern over economic injustice. Once this happened, many practicing Catholics found themselves without a political home.

So by default they took up with that other party, the one that eventually got around to saying it was “pro-life.” Without fully realizing what this meant, these good-hearted Catholics adopted that other party’s core, long-held belief in the full emancipation of the individual in public, economic matters.


free markets as the magic formula for solving all social problems…


This full emancipation in economic matters translates into an unwavering support of “free markets.” Laissez-faire rules, with an “absence of obstacles” that allows the chips to fall where they may. It’s a fairy-tale world where supply and demand replaces right and wrong, and where every economic actor pursing his or her self-interest results in the best of all possible worlds. Trickle-down will take care of the little people.

Swallowing this nonsense is how pro-life Catholics voluntarily fall head-first into the Republican quagmire.

These earnest people continue to yearn for the repeal of Roe v. Wade, the startling Supreme Court decision of 1973. As they bide their time, they find solace in the odd legislative initiative limiting abortion access here or there. Along with a smattering of favorable judicial appointments that are occasionally announced, both on the high court and various federal courts of appeal around the country. Meanwhile, they are content to let everything else slid.

While they patiently await our national day of atonement on abortion, this breed of Catholic really only clamors for one thing: the “religious freedom” to practice their faith without undue government interference.

In return, they inadvertently cede the larger, public square economic issue to our “principled, conservative” leaders, the ones who eventually get around to asserting a pro-life inclination at election time. So they acquiesce to the one-size-fits-all Republican approach to domestic policy: Any economic problem can be solved by cutting taxes and rolling back regulations.

To their credit, the crafty Republicans have stayed true to their calling and haven’t wavered one little bit in their resolve. Not since they first emerged from the ashes of the old Whig party, in the middle of the 19th century. Not since our Founding Whigs sought to limit the voting franchise to those who own property.


protecting the interests of well-off white guys…


Let’s face it, this gang has always been about protecting the interests of well-off white guys, rather than promoting the common good.

It was when some Catholics switched sides in the 1970s, and allowed themselves to be divided into opposing political factions, that our economy took what amounts to its latest predatory turn for the worst.

As in the past, the profound understanding of economics as an essentially moral enterprise – the heart of Catholic social teaching – has once again been marginalized by the cognoscenti.

In the midst of this dramatic paradigm shifting – this 20th century version of the dividing of Christendom – stands the legacy of The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).

Whether you are a (liberal) fan of that Council’s theological recasting of the Catholic imagination, or a (conservative) critic of the unfortunate ambiguity its documents – or at least the application of those documents – introduced into the belief and practice of the bourgeoisie, there is one thing both sides should be able to agree on.

Vatican II effectively cut Catholics off from their intellectual heritage.

With their minds distracted by the post WWII economic boom, and by the relaxation in sexual mores that usually accompanies any such burst of prosperity, liberal and conservative Catholics fully embraced the egalitarian American mindset.


becoming embarrassed by easy-to-understand concepts…


A sign of that embrace was how both sides simultaneously became embarrassed by beautifully articulated and easy-to-understand concepts like the formidable “error has no rights.”

Catholics of all stripes also became embarrassed by the social (I.e. economic) teaching of the pre-conciliar Popes, such as Leo XII and Pius XI. It was discarded as obsolete, since the post WWII boom and the modern consumer economy were on the way to solving all those large, systemic domestic problems.

And ever since, the efforts of all post-conciliar Popes to reference and re-affirm this economic teaching have, sadly, fallen on deaf ears.

Agreeing with the Republican-libertarian construct of the economy as a thriving, self-contained engine that can deliver prosperity to all, if allowed to function without interference, has had dire consequences for a specific segment of the Catholic population.

It has been the undoing of pro-life Catholics. It is the reason this group now finds itself wandering in the political desert.

Unfortunately, aiding and abetting this Catholic dysphoria is a polished posse of conservative Catholic spokespeople – who tend to be employed by prestigious foundations that are funded by private wealth.


downplaying all papal challenges to the economic status quo…


Well-meaning as they may be, these opinion-makers are positively hell-bent on down-playing any challenge to the economic status quo made by John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and yes, most especially Francis.

This loosely associated group of respected men and women seem to have a shared objective in mind when they show up for work each day: convincing the rest of us that our current brand of unfettered capitalism is perfectly aligned with Catholic social teaching.

But, oh my, it most certainly is not.

We should be wary of anyone who helps maintain the illusion that Catholics can support the standard Republican economic proscription with a clear conscience. In this such people are obviously counting on our not bothering to read for ourselves what all these Popes – every single one of them – are saying

if rank-and-file, highly committed pro-life Catholics – among the finest people one could ever hope to meet, by the way – are serious about restoring the “culture of life,” they must first give themselves a good talking to, and start recognizing all the signposts, not just some of them.

One cannot calmly ignore immorality in public, economic matters, only to then vociferously chastise the same level of immorality in private, sexual matters. Locating the source of our sexual depravity in things like the “scholarship” of Alfred Kinsey, and the “sophistication” of Hugh Hefner, makes perfect sense.

But you must also be prepared to call out our predatory economy as an equivalent depravity, and identify its source in the buttoned-down “business acumen” of Milton Freidman and his many acolytes.


finding a way out of the pro-life desert…


Finding a way out of the pro-life desert will not be a simple matter of identifying and throwing political support behind the next Moses, because no such champion will ever emerge from our adversarial system.

We must resign ourselves to the fact there is not now, nor will there ever be, a perfect candidate. Neither political party will ever produce such a leader, because neither one is pre-occupied with promoting public virtue, and leading the citizenry to eternal salvation.

This is why Catholics always end up selling themselves short whenever they invest too heavily in one of these deficient parties.

Instead of waiting for a modern-day Moses, though, Catholics could affect their own political liberation. This challenging DIY project would have to start with an ideological awakening.

Step one in this grueling process of political liberation would be to realize that what passes for conservative economic policy is not the embodiment of Christian ideals.

And to confront an awkward fact that looms so large it’s easy to miss: Our country’s founding was not a grand re-statement of traditional religious conviction for the modern age. It was, in fact, the West’s first official, state-sponsored rejection of Christianity as the basic operating system for society.

Step two would be to see the deepening level of economic injustice we are currently experiencing as a natural by-product of the personal autonomy and rugged individualism embedded in the American DNA.

And that the relatively recent decision to legalize abortion in this country represents not a “wrong turn,” but the logical extension of that same DNA.


a slow and steady contamination…


There is no question abortion is the greater evil, but pro-life Catholics may want to consider how we got here. The mainstream acceptance of this abomination was the result of a slow and steady contamination of the general public. It took place over many years, out in the open. It was not the sudden, incendiary work of a handful of radical judges and legislators who operated under the cover of darkness.

The deplorable court rulings and legislation merely acknowledge a change in the zeitgeist, as these things usually do in a pluralist democracy.

Therefore pro-life strategy should not be limited to its current laser-focus on judicial and legislative action, like repealing Roe v. Wade and shutting off federal funding to Planned Parenthood, worthy as those objectives surely are.

This has always been a hearts-and-minds issue, more than anything else.

The pro-life movement would do well to enlarge the scope of its mission, and try speaking in a much more overt way to the underlying problem: In the United States personal autonomy and the pursuit of individual happiness take precedence over every other consideration.

While it may be unrealistic to expect a politician or political candidate to argue against a founding principle such as the pursuit of individual happiness, Catholics can help guide them – and the entire country – in the right direction, by supporting whatever economic policy initiatives bring us closer to a Christian worldview that promotes the common good.

That worldview, by the way, directly contradicts the secular vision we in America have chosen to live by. It is based on the unity of faith and reason, and a moral tradition, and an understanding of human flourishing that extends beyond merely improving the material circumstances of the clever or advantaged.

The political/economic results yielded by such Catholic influence on a stubbornly secular electorate will more than likely be a piecemeal effort. Catholic fortunes may appear to rise or fall from one election cycle to the next. But if these believers have faith in what they have been taught, and the courage of their convictions, they should be able to soldier through to a more satisfactory result.


what really drives most abortions?…


Regarding the dreaded abortion issue, it would help if pro-life Catholics could come to terms with reality: many abortions are not merely a “lifestyle” decision, the choice of ambitious women who don’t want their education or career interrupted.

The fact is many abortions – the majority of abortions? – have a strong economic component. The pregnant woman cannot see how she or her husband or her significant other can possibly afford to bring another baby into this world.

So while it’s not something that immediately occurs to the run-of-the-mill, conservative pro-life Catholic, addressing economic injustice would be an invaluable step in saving countless women from the abortion option now viewed as the only viable solution to their economic predicament.

Restoring a level of economic justice to our society – as FDR attempted to do back in the 1930s – may prompt even the clever and advantaged to re-think their me-first, aren’t-I-great approach to life. This infusion of empathy may well lead to a conversion of heart on the part of women who do currently abort for lifestyle reasons.

Pro-life Catholics who are serious about restoring the culture will have to abandon their libertarian alliances, and get with the Catholic program of real human flourishing, which can only begin when the humbles have a living wage, decent benefits, and safe working conditions.

If the politicians or political candidates who espouse such life-affirming economic ideas also support a woman’s right to choose, and marriage equality, Catholics should not necessarily discount the economic advocacy of these politicians out of hand. After all, such people are only modeling the zeitgeist regarding sexual mores, based on the time-honored American tradition of personal autonomy and rugged individualism.


yes, pro-life Catholics face a conundrum…


What a minute, you may be asking yourself at this point: How can a pro-life Catholic possibly square this suggested approach with the stern advice dispensed each election season by our prelates and priests and the pro-life leadership? Yes, I admit, this approach does create a conundrum for the principled Catholic.

But I guess my point is this conundrum has existed since the 1970s, when the Democratic Party first went rogue. Pro-life Catholics have simply chosen to ignore it. Or have done a poor job of properly examining all sides of it. Or have allowed their own prosperity to blind them to the larger societal problem.

It is the broad ideology of personal autonomy and rugged individualism behind the American Experiment that has painted our culture into this corner. Our two political parties each carry a strain of the virus known as “individual emancipation from authority, law, and tradition.”

The Republicans excel in rebelling against the moral tradition in the way they practice economics. The Democrats now revel in rebelling against the same moral tradition when it comes to sexual behavior.

If a Catholic wants to support a Republican candidate on the basis of a stated pro-life inclination, I say that Catholic should only do so while protesting vehemently against the Republican Party’s decidedly anti-Catholic economic policies. And to keep in mind that no Republican can stop a women from wanting to have an abortion, or any two people of the same gender from wanting to marry each other.

Similarly, if a Catholic decides to support a Democratic candidate who advances life-affirming economic ideas, such a Catholic should be very noisy about that party’s regrettable support for what amounts to licentiousness. But again, no Democrat can force a woman to abort her unborn child, or force two people of the same gender to marry each other.


being far more pro-active in turning things around…


I am suggesting here that Catholics can be far more pro-active in turning things around than they are currently allowing themselves to be. The way pro-lifers offer uncritical support to Republicans just makes endemic economic injustice that much worse. This leads more people to feel financially overwhelmed and unable to bring children into the world, which then leads to more abortions.

When pro-life Catholics completely dismiss any and all Democrats out of hand, it gives free rein to the worst predatory aspects of unfettered capitalism, which in large measure is responsible for fueling the very thing – abortion – these principled Catholics most want to see addressed, above all else.

Here’s a thought: Let’s not give ANY politician a pass on ANY issue. Catholics should stop giving Republicans a pass on economics. And they should by all means continue to give Democrats a hard time about abortion. But once more for emphasis, support for an idea is not an automatic government mandate. No one is being forced to abort their unborn child, or to marry someone of their own gender.

If Catholics are going to be more pro-active, they will have to do a better job of grasping the complexity of the situation. This extends to our prelates, priests, and the pro-life leadership. Banging away at election time like a one-note-Johnny that we can’t vote for any politician who dutifully models the zeitgeist on abortion, is NOT an example of grasping the complexities.

I honestly think this comes down to having confidence and a determination that the truth will eventually win out. Anyone who sincerely wants a more just and equitable society – such as a Democrat who may be momentarily misguided on reproductive rights and marriage equality – can’t help but arrive at the same conclusion the Roosevelt administration did, back in the 1930s.

It is only in applying Catholic social teaching – in all its many facets – that real human progress can be made.

(Of course the Republican Party – with many an observant Catholic in tow – claims a more just and equitable society as its end game, too. But it clings to the fanciful notion an unrestricted market and trickle-down economics will someday get us there.)

Or to quote Pius XI on the subject, “There can be no social progress outside the moral order.”

To be sure, if these wayward souls are to come around, everyday Catholics with a feel for the Church’s social teaching as it applies to economics will have to show the way. And their demeanor in this effort should display above all else a love and compassion for the ones who are presently operating under a false (American) impression of what true freedom is, and what real progress looks like.

If our country is one day able to regain a sense of economic justice, all the other seemingly intractable social problems that vex us will become more manageable. Not only will economic justice help lead men back to honor a commitment to the women who bear their children.

This same overriding sense of justice will also help lead our entire culture back to a respect for all human life, not just the life and happiness and personal fulfillment of the mother.

The reason this restoration must begin with revising our approach to the basic economic questions is quite simple. In the modern era, economics always dictates culture, not the other way around.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.
September 12, 2019

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