E.J. Dionne and the Straw Man Massacre

Published October 27, 2011

National Review Online

In today's column, E.J. Dionne insists that “Catholic social teaching is, by any measure, ‘progressive.'” While I have no doubts that Mr. Dionne believes this to be true, he is wrong. Catholic social teaching is no more “progressive” that it is “conservative.”

Dionne's distorted understanding of Catholic social teaching, I suspect, comes from the close wedding of his Catholic faith to his left-of-center politics; so much so that he seems to attribute every divergence from his preferred political orthodoxy to theological malfeasance (rather than the much simpler explanation of honest differences in prudential political judgment.) Thus, when a fellow Catholic pooh-poohs – as my colleague George Weigel recently did here on NRO- the ridiculous notion that the Pope has endorsed Occupy Wall Street, Dionne launches a gleeful attack against Catholics who “oppose government economic regulation” insisting that conservative “Cafeteria Catholics” have a tendency to “skip the parts of the moral buffet involving peace, social justice and what Pope John Paul II called the ‘idolatry of the market.'”

I would challenge Dionne to name one prominent Catholic not made of straw who thinks that “peace and social justice” are none of the government's business. Can Dionne name one Catholic who thinks that the market should be “idolized” or who denies that such idolization is gravely problematic, even sinful? Does Dionne know of any Catholics who oppose, in principle, all “government regulation of markets”? If Dionne can name even one such Catholic, I'd be happy to join him in encouraging our wayward brother to return on-side.

Ironically, Dionne commits the same error as those on the fringe right who blindly imagine everyone to their political left to be either stupid or socialist. In a previous column, Dionne favorably cited a letter from certain Catholic academics to Speaker John Boehner. That letter criticized Boehner's vote for the Paul Ryan Budget as a failure “to recognize (whether out of a lack of awareness or dissent) important aspects of Catholic teaching.”

Of course Dionne is free to pan Ryan's budget if he wishes. Certainly from a Catholic point of view, there is nothing in the Church's social teaching that would require a Catholic to support the Ryan budget. Many Catholics, including some bishops at the USCCB, have come to the conclusion that the plan is unjustified. But to suggest, as Dionne and Co. do, that the Ryan Plan – which would spend almost $20 trillion on Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security over the next decade, and increase such spending over current levels – constitutes an “anti-life” assault on the poor and elderly is sloppy and disingenuous at best, calumnious at worst.

There are millions of Catholics in this country – and I'm one of them – who differ with Dionne on how much regulation is best, or which anti-poverty policy is most effective, or which tax system is most just. #more#Millions of these same American Catholics, even folks with a certain affinity for the Tea Party, agree entirely with Dionne on the moral principles set out by Catholic social teaching, yet prefer conservative policies precisely on the prudential grounds that out-of-control debt and government expansion can, in fact, be detrimental to “social justice and peace.” Just ask the Greeks.

Simply because E.J. Dionne can follow the principles of Catholic social teaching to a particular conclusion – e.g., we can do better than the Ryan Plan – it does not follow that that is the only legitimate conclusion. And that's the problem: Dionne refuses to admit that Catholic social teaching permits men and women of good will to hold policy preferences significantly at odds with his. This despite the fact that the Church has time and time again insisted that it “does not have technical solutions to offer” and that the implementation of policies in line with Catholic social teaching is primarily the task of those – especially among the laity – who are competent to exercise prudent judgment in their respective fields of politics, economics, etc.

Here's Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, the current president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, in a letter to Congressman Ryan:

Within the given parameters of such [Catholic social] principles, people of good will might offer and emphasize various policy proposals that reflect their experience and expertise. The principles of Catholic social teaching contain truths that need to be applied. Thus, one must always exercise prudential judgment in applying these principles while never contradicting the intrinsic values that they protect.

Archbishop Dolan, of course, did not endorse the Ryan Plan. Nor did he oppose it. He did not compare it to other proposals. He simply commended it for striving earnestly to develop prudent policies that respect the dignity of the individual, encourage solidarity, defend subsidiarity, and promote the common good. These four permanent principles “constitute the very heart of Catholic social teaching.” But does that, as one colleague recently asked me, mean that it is somehow the case that Catholic social teaching requires an 8.2 percent growth rate rather than a 5.3 percent growth rate in Medicaid funding? The question answers itself.

The Church justifies its competence to speak on social issues by insisting it is an “expert in humanity.” What the Church means is this: a truly just society must be founded upon a true understanding of man. The Church believes that such an understanding of man is most fully revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. The mystery of the Incarnation in turn gives full meaning to the claim of Genesis – that God created man in His own image and likeness – and thus to the true source of human dignity. Catholic social teaching flows from this truth, and is presented to the world in language and terms accessible to all people of good will.

To take as axiomatic, as Dionne does, that “Catholic social teaching is progressive,” is to distort the very foundations of that teaching. The distortion arises, not because Dionne and Co. deny the Church's teachings, but because they insist that those teachings can only legitimately be enacted in a particular, i.e., “progressive,” way. Such a cramped view of the Church's teachings runs the grave risk of placing the things of God on the altar of Caesar and so lessening the strength of the Church's public moral witness.

– Stephen P. White is a fellow in the Catholic Studies Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and the coordinator of the Tertio Millennio Seminar on the Free Society.

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