This Goes Way Beyond Free Markets
On June 17, an article by well-known exponent of Catholic social teaching Thomas Storck was posted on the Chronicles website. In this article, Storck calmly and patiently critiqued the errors of would-be traditionalist champion Thomas Woods, Jr., an ardent free-marketeer in the Lew Rockwell orbit, who makes neoconservatives seem vibrantly pink by comparison. Woods “responded” to Storck with a brief, hectic, and non-philosophical note, which promised to explain everything later on: “Wait for my big book to appear; there you will find out why the popes have been wrong." Commenting on this piece of impertinence, Scott Richert of Chronicles unmasks the feebleness of Woods’ debating strategy and makes a number of important points with which I entirely agree. And as any visitor to the Chronicles website will find out, a quite vigorous conversation has been going on now for about a week concerning the Storck-Woods debate and, underlying it, the real significance of Catholic social teaching. In my essay, I want to get at the ultimate roots of the disagreement, which I think is this: whether the liberalism bequeathed to us from the Enlightenment and its manifold social manifestations are somehow fundamentally skewed or not. As the popes have seen it, this is a Yes or No question.
Though he is not, to my knowledge, an expert in any branch of experimental science, Mr. Thomas Woods, Jr., exhibits the peculiar behavioral trait of most modern scientists: an exquisite attentiveness to small things, and a total blindness to big ones. The average evolutionary biologist can tell you more about the purposeful design of animals than you could ever wish to hear, even in your best National Geographic mood; yet he will as readily, and often with considerable vehemence, assure you that it all came about by accident, that nature doesn’t act for the sake of an end, and a God has no place in the universe. In such cases, one is confronted with a blindness to the obvious that defies explanation. It is much as if a man were standing in the middle of a street, noticing and counting ants on the ground, but failing to notice a truck bounding toward him. The disagreement between Woods and Storck is not ultimately about economic policies, though this is part of it; the disagreement is over first principles.
The Catholic Church has battled relentlessly against liberalism in all its forms, including economic liberalism, or liberal capitalism—an attentive study of Catholic social teaching from Leo XIII to John Paul II makes this transparently clear. In fact, a good case can be made that this is the central “negative” theme of the modern social magisterium: that liberalism is a disintegrating, destructive force, that it has no means to heal its self-inflicted wounds and provokes extreme reactions that only exacerbate those wounds. (I say “negative” theme because the social magisterium does not merely condemn or criticize, it also proposes a fuller, authentically humanist (that is to say, Christian) vision, and offers examples or guidelines for implementing it. The “positive” themes include human dignity, human rights, and the common good. On liberalism in its three successive phases, economic, political, and personal, see Thomas Storck, “Liberalism’s Three Assaults,” Homiletic & Pastoral Review 100.4 (January 2000): 8–16. Among other things, Storck quotes some choice remarks of Ludwig von Mises, no friend of Catholic truth or, seemingly, any transcendent truth.) Though she has reserved her most solemn condemnations for atheistic communism, she has used language no less unambiguous to proscribe the system (not to mention unmask the pretensions) of capitalism as its European inventors understood it, and as their American descendents continue to understand it. In short, there can be not the slightest doubt that the Church, with her full teaching authority, has excluded both liberal capitalism and all varieties of statism or communism as genuine possibilities for a just social order. Unfortunately, because most Americans cannot think of any other possibilities, it is a temptation to think either that the Church has simply condemned everything and thrown up her hands in despair, or that she has, as it were, handed over the messy business to men like Mr. Woods, Mr. Novak, Mr. Weigel, Fr. Neuhaus, or other American “conservatives” who might seem to be more qualified to handle “policy issues.” ( I am sure Woods shudders to see his name listed alongside outspoken supporters of the Iraq “war of liberation,” but thoughtful people can see that the principles they share far outnumber the disagreements that divide them. ) In reality, of course, there have been long-standing alternatives in human history, there will always be alternatives, and saying that there aren’t or can’t be is as mindless a procedure as name-calling. (See the valuable article by Thomas Storck, “Capitalism and Distributism: Definitions and Contrasts,” in Faith & Reason 27 [special triple issue] (2002), 157–94.)
I find it most interesting that while Woods accuses Storck of failing to respond to his “arguments,” Woods himself fails to acknowledge a crucial methodological objection Storck raised against his position. Perhaps he felt it too feeble to merit attention, but I don’t think many other intelligent observers of the accelerating cultural decadence of the modern Western world would be so dismissive. Storck objects that Woods claims for economics—and in particular, for a certain school of economics—a scientific status that it does not necessarily enjoy even among practitioners of the discipline itself. Moreover, it does not matter what percentage of economists hold this or that position; truth is not arrived at by majority consensus, but by valid discourse anchored in valid first principles. (The first principles that drive much of contemporary economics are notoriously narrow and philosophically indefensible. See Thomas Storck’s essay-review of Why Economists Disagree: An Introduction to the Alternative Schools of Thought (ed. David L. Prychitko, New York: SUNY Press, 1998), in The Chesterton Review 25.3 (August 1999): 356–67. Mainstream varieties of both “hard” and “soft” sciences—physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, sociology, political theory, etc.—are all characterized by reductionism, a revolt against metaphysical and divine wisdom.) If intelligent objections can be raised against Darwinian evolutionism, when 99.9% of supposedly “expert” scientists hold it to be proved beyond doubt and the very guarantee of “value-free” science, all the more can objections be raised against a discipline to which not a few are unwilling even to extend the honorable name of ‘science’. Storck grants that economics can be viewed as a sort of science, but one that deals with realities deeply shaped and colored by human freedom—cultural assumptions and expectations, predominant ways of life, government legislation. In making this claim Storck has mountains of common sense behind him. There can be no doubt whatsoever that basic economic concepts vary from culture to culture depending on many factors; there are no “Platonic ideas” of capital, property, privacy, market, wage, price, contract, etc. Storck reasonably questions Woods’ excessive confidence in economic dogmas which are far from obviously true, such as the neoclassical view of market price. Indeed, some of the concepts bandied about in mainstream Western economics are arguably fabrications, in both senses of the word: artificial constructs as well as imaginary entities. (On these and related issues I highly recommend a paper by Garrick Small, “Contemporary Problems in Property in Light of the Economic Thought of St. Thomas Aquinas,” delivered at the International Thomistic Congress in Rome, 21-25 September 2003, and available in PDF format here.)
Such arguments could be spun out as long as the midnight oil burned, and surely they would not be lacking in interest. However, I want to return to a larger and much more fundamental point that touches on Catholic identity and obedience. No one versed in cultural history can be unaware that liberal capitalism is a perfect social embodiment of the philosophical liberalism which originated in the salons and parlors of the 18th century and became an ever more dominant feature of European intellectual and political life during the course of the 19th century. (I do not speak here of the remote origins of capitalism but of the more proximate origins of industrial, commerical, international capitalism such as Leo XIII attacked in Rerum Novarum and Pius XI in Quadragesimo Anno.) This connection, incidentally, is also made by the popes in their encyclicals; but happily for doubting Thomases, it can be established by a secular discipline. What no secular discipline can do or wishes to do is, however, exactly what the popes have unanimously done for over a century: to sound the alarm against this massive intellectual and political aberration, and to condemn its principles as doctrinal and moral errors (and thus, as pertaining to the papal competency to pass judgment upon matters of faith and morals). It is therefore a most urgent matter for Catholics who wish to be faithful to the teaching Church (ecclesia docens) to be aware of her judgment on liberalism. (Passages could be cited ad libitum, but some representative ones include Leo XIII, Libertas Praestantissimum 15; Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno 14, 25, 54, 103–110; idem, Divini Redemptoris 15–16, 29, 32, 38, Paul VI, Populorum Progressio 26; idem, Octogesima Adveniens 26, 35; John Paul II, Laborem Exercens 8, 11, 13; idem, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis 21; Centesimus Annus 10.) When I spoke at the start of Woods showing an uncanny ability to focus on narrow issues and neglect bigger ones, this is what I had in mind. The papal critique of capitalism is not merely a critique of policies. It is a critique of an ideology, a Weltanschauung, a philosophy and way of life, so pervasive in certain modern societies (an ever-growing number), and so subtly interwoven into all our daily dealings, that we fail to notice the poison we are drinking with our milk or wine. We are like the frogs whom the French have learned how to cook: if you throw them into boiling hot water they immediately bounce out, but if you slowly heat them up, you can cook them unawares. Most people in the modern West are like these hapless frogs: they do not know what is happening to them or to the world they inhabit. By numerical standards, it seems that only a few people have been crying out to the world “Wake up!”, their eyes, their brow, betraying deep apprehension—the popes of the last hundred years foremost among them, those men who have yielded themselves entirely to the mystery of Jesus Christ, supreme Shepherd, and have been found worthy to share abundantly in His sufferings. (It has been noted, and this seems to me more than a mere coincidence, that the popes of modern times bear a peculiarly deep sadness on their faces. One thinks of Leo XIII, who tried to look placid and welcoming but often merely looked worried; of Pius X above all, who seemed on the verge of weeping; of Benedict XV, care-worn, a little severe, his face creased with anxiety; Pius XI, whose countenance combined a fierce fortitude with a pained resignation; of Pius XII, whose penetrating gaze was always accompanied by a sober face, as of someone in mourning (for the verbal equivalent, see the same pope’s poignant inaugural encyclical Summi Pontificatus of 1939). These were not men who thought the modern experiment was a magnificent success that needed some “fine-tuning.” One of the worst betrayals of Blessed John XXIII has been the misinterpretation of his famous smile. This was the smile of a saint to whom Christ had given the gift of good cheer and a light heart; he wasn’t smiling about the state of the world in the early 1960s. It was a supernatural joy, not a worldly optimism.) How can it be surprising that these few outspoken critics of the modern project are considered by their unbelieving neighbors, or even by their coreligionists, as altogether too extreme in their views, drunk with dreams, driven by an otherworldly piety that lacks a sane counterbalance of worldly know-how, and so on?
As their encyclicals demonstrate, the popes have always been speaking much more at a “macro” level than at a “micro” level. They are pointing to systematic, ideological structures of sin; they are calling for conversion of mind and heart; they are imploring Catholics to purge their social programs of elements that will compound rather than relieve the many crises we are facing. And yet, due perhaps to the habitual nearsightedness of fallen human nature, it is relatively rare to find Catholics who do not miss the forest for the trees, who do not quickly jump on the practical suggestions offered by the popes, whether to rejoice over their wisdom or deplore their fallacies, and overlook entirely the radical doctrinal framework from which these suggestions derive their only meaning and value. The popes are well aware that they can only teach definitively on universal moral principles or on such particulars as involve grave evil and therefore deserve to be condemned. They cannot bind the faithful to pursue a particular social program, though they can exhort them to do so; and when they put forward concrete steps to take, they are liable to making mistakes (though perhaps we should not be so ready to conclude that the rest of us, or any group of “specialists,” are less liable to make mistakes, given that the pope has been placed in a singular office by divine providnece and enjoy unusual divine aids which theologians by no means have always limited to ex cathedra statements). The more concrete a pope’s suggestions are, the more human, fallible, and debatable they will be. Thus Pius XI in Quadragesimo Anno 41 states:
There resides in Us [Roman pontiffs] the right and duty to pronounce with supreme authority upon social and economic matters. . . . Indeed the Church holds that it is unlawful for her to mix without cause in these temporal concerns; however, she can in no wise renounce the duty God entrusted to her to interpose her authority, not of course in matters of technique for which she is neither suitably equipped nor endowed by office, but in all things that are connected with the moral law.
Storck quoted this; in his “response” Woods ignores it. In like manner John Paul II writes:
Considered superficially, both themes [condition of workers; development of poor nations] could seem extraneous to the legitimate concern of the Church seen as a religious institution, and "development" even more so than the "condition of the workers." In continuity with the Encyclical of Leo XIII, it must be recognized that the document of Paul VI possesses the merit of having emphasized the ethical and cultural character of the problems connected with development, and likewise the legitimacy and necessity of the Church’s intervention in this field. [Sollicitudo Rei Socialis 8. Cf. Centesimus Annus 1 and 3; Veritatis Splendor 27; Leo XIII, Sapientiae Christianae 37. All this being said, Woods’ assertion that the modern popes’ policy proposals for international development proved disastrous when implemented and brought about the opposite of the goals intended, deserves some very close scrutiny. To take one example, it is far from clear that Paul VI’s advice was ever followed with anything distantly approximating fidelity. The neocolonialism of capitalist exploitation drove, and corrupted, most supposedly “benign” efforts at “development.” It is no wonder they failed; the popes themselves, in the same documents, identified the Western liberal ideology as poisonous for authentic human development.]
Though I cannot speak for Mr. Storck, I would be very surprised if he were not willing to make such a distinction, following the explicit teaching of the present Holy Father, who has emphasized this point.
The Church has no models to present; models that are real and truly effective can only arise within the framework of different historical situations, through the efforts of all those who responsibly confront concrete problems in all their social, economic, political and cultural aspects, as these interact with one another. For such a task the Church offers her social teaching as an indispensable and ideal orientation, a teaching which, as already mentioned, recognizes the positive value of the market and of enterprise, but which at the same time points out that these need to be oriented toward the common good. (Centesimus Annus 43)
The present encyclical seeks to show the fruitfulness of the principles enunciated by Leo XIII, which belong to the Church’s doctrinal patrimony and, as such, involve the exercise of her teaching authority. But pastoral solicitude also prompts me to propose an analysis of some events of recent history. It goes without saying that part of the responsibility of pastors is to give careful consideration to current events in order to discern the new requirements of evangelization. However, such an analysis is not meant to pass definitive judgments, since this does not fall per se within the Magisterium’s specific domain. (Centesimus Annus 3)
The Church’s social doctrine is not a “third way” between liberal capitalism and Marxist collectivism, nor even a possible alternative to other solutions less radically opposed to one another: rather, it constitutes a category of its own. Nor is it an ideology, but rather the accurate formulation of the results of a careful reflection on the complex realities of human existence, in society and in the international order, in the light of faith and of the Church’s tradition. Its main aim is to interpret these realities, determining their conformity with or divergence from the lines of the Gospel teaching on man and his vocation, a vocation which is at once earthly and transcendent; its aim is thus to guide Christian behavior. It therefore belongs to the field, not of ideology, but of theology and particularly of moral theology. (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis 41)
However, in company with a large number of American “orthodox Catholic” commentators, Mr. Woods goes entirely too far in the opposite direction, sweeping into his category of “fallible opinion” many aspects of papal teaching that are by no means so readily shelved, as a patient consideration of the nature of that teaching indicates. (I cannot recommend highly enough a study by Joseph Clifford Fenton, “The Doctrinal Authority of Papal Encyclicals,” in American Ecclesiastical Review 118 (August-September, 1949), 136–50, 210–20. This article can be obtained through a decent inter-library loan program. Fenton carefully analyzes the different levels of authority at which popes speak in their encyclicals and identifies characteristic marks that distinguish unchanging doctrine from changeable counsels or proposals.)
Bearing these things in mind, I do not for a moment believe, nor would it be at all reasonable to think, that every particular policy or program advocated by economic liberals is hopelessly poisoned by the liberalist ideology condemned by the Roman pontiffs. Pius XI recognized that many demands of the socialists were legitimate; John XXIII shocked the world by relaxing the prohibitions of Pius XII against Catholics collaborating with communists on practical projects, arguing that while the principles behind communism were erroneous, its partisans might have some good plans after all, and Catholics should be there to help out (Pacem in Terris 157–160; cf. Paul VI, Ecclesiam Suam 42).
In the same way, John Paul II has recognized some genuine good in a market-based economy and recognizes it as a potential force for human betterment. But—and would that all varieties of neo-conservatives could take heed out of a desire for intellectual honesty, if not from love of the Church (See the Zwicks’ penetrating critique of Weigel’s biography of John Paul II, available at www.cjd.org/paper/jp2bio.html)—he is no different from his precedessors in recalling, at times with language even stronger than theirs, the philosophical errors that undergird liberal capitalism and the worldly excesses to which the “free market” system is not only prone but, today, utterly abandoned. And it is this overarching and radical Catholic critique of the modern liberal ideology that I have never seen even a slight appreciation of in those who loudly proclaim the virtues of the unregulated free market, of government minimalism and so forth. Those who do embrace the papal critique in its fullness find themselves, not unreasonably, at loggerheads with those who pick and choose which elements of the papal magisterium they wish to keep for their private version of Catholicism. Among the “social modernists,” as the fiery Pius XI called them in Ubi Arcano 61, one can always find the reverent bow or respectful nod to a pope’s pious exhortations to be kind to your neighbor, generous with the poor, charitable in all circumstances; but one will never find a serious engagement of papal social doctrine. Why is this? Is it really because all this doctrine has been “disproved,” or is, at any rate, so mixed up with doubtful advice that we are better off ignoring it? Or is it rooted in an attitude, a stance of the will? Some approach papal teaching with the attitude: “I will joyfully conform my mind to what the Vicar of Christ is teaching, purifying my own thoughts of private excess or defect.” Others approach it with the attitude: “I will see what the Vicar of Christ has to say, and if it’s interesting or convincing or demonstrative, I’ll adapt my own thinking.” The former is the attitude of hierarchical obedience; the latter of popular democracy. And if the latter attitude has been condemned again and again (cf. Ubi Arcano 60), can we take seriously someone who keeps protesting, on the one hand, his undivided allegiance to Christ, and on the other hand, repudiates the unanimous doctrine of His Vicars?
Let us try to be clear about the fact that Woods is a dissenter in the fullest, strictest sense of the term—as strictly as it can be used. I insist on this point because nowadays the word ‘dissent’ gets used quite improperly for cases where there is only a difference of opinions on matters that have never been definitively resolved. When American neoconservatives (Woods not among them, Deo gratias) argue the merits of the “intervention” in Iraq against Vatican opposition, again they are not dissenting, because Catholics were not expressly forbidden to support or participate in the war. As is usually the case, the Holy See spoke strong words of exhortation, and made clear its opinion. There was no binding judgment. Hence an American Catholic thinker who supported the Iraqi “intervention” contrary to the Holy See’s position was not dissenting; he was disagreeing. I do not say any of this to take sides (though I have always been against the Iraq war—one of the things Mr. Woods and I can agree about, another being the superiority of the old Latin Mass), but simply to underline the fact that disagreement does not entail dissent, unless and until a matter of faith or morals has been publicly and manifestly determined by the teaching authority, or magisterium, of the Church. Now, for a person conversant with the rich corpus of social doctrine, nothing is easier than to demonstrate how large a number of political and economic principles have been determined in just this way, and it is proportionately easy to support my accusation of dissent, which can be extended beyond Woods to many others who dabble, or even manage to author monographs, in social ethics.
Lest I be thought an exaggerator, I wish to consider as an example an issue on which nearly all American “conservatives” stumble and fall. Woods writes:
There is nothing intrinsically immoral about a worker and an employer reaching an uncoerced labor agreement; even Storck, I presume, is not a Marxist. . . . I can show that wages are increased by means of an economic order that respects property rights and in which no one’s gain comes at another’s coerced expense. Since, unlike abortion, there is nothing intrinsically immoral about the voluntary wage relation, surely I am free to recommend this morally neutral method . . . Has any Church pronouncement ever said that it would be immoral, indeed a mortal sin, to advocate a free labor market?
First of all, notice the vagueness of all the language; it is as if Woods simply doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Telltale is the suggestion that if Storck objects to pure freedom in economic relations, he must be a Marxist. (This is too facile to merit further comment.) Let’s get down to business: what is an “uncoerced labor agreement”? Does it simply mean a contract freely agreed to by both parties? If so (and I assume that’s what Woods means), then yes, the popes have expressly condemned this minimalist understanding of a just contract. How easily forgotten are the words of Rerum Novarum:
Wages, as we are told, are regulated by free consent, and therefore the employer, when he pays what was agreed upon, has done his part and seemingly is not called upon to do anything beyond. The only way, it is said, in which injustice might occur would be if the master refused to pay the whole of the wages, or if the workman should not complete the work undertaken; in such cases the public authority should intervene, to see that each obtains his due, but not under any other circumstances. To this kind of argument a fair-minded man will not easily or entirely assent; it is not complete, for there are important considerations which it leaves out of account altogether. . . . [E]ach one has a natural right to procure what is required in order to live, and the poor can procure that in no other way than by what they can earn through their work. 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. (§43–§45)
It does not require a doctorate in theology to recognize that making someone a victim of force and injustice is a mortal sin. Moreover, Leo XIII demands many things of the employer, e.g.:
The employer is bound to see that the worker has time for his religious duties; that he be not exposed to corrupting influences and dangerous occasions; and that he be not led away to neglect his home and family, or to squander his earnings. Furthermore, the employer must never tax his work people beyond their strength, or employ them in work unsuited to their sex and age. (§20)
Leo expects the State—for the worker’s good and ultimately for the common good—to impose these obligations on employers if they do not freely accept them (§31 et seq.). Now, if companies have to give Sundays and holy days off; if they have to limit their hours and make family-friendly policies; if they have to limit their use of pregnant or nursing women, etc., then in all of these ways they are being made to “lose money.” In Woods’ terms, some one’s “gain comes at another’s coerced expense.” One can cite similar points ad nauseam. Woods is so far from Catholic social teaching—indeed, from the entire Western tradition from Aristotle through the Fathers down to Saint Thomas—he isn’t even moving in the same universe. This ought to be troubling his conscience. If Woods replies that he agrees with what the popes want (e.g., a living wage) but he thinks he knows better how to get those results, he is dodging the problems that we are facing here and now. Let us pretend that the magic of the free market will work things out to everyone’s advantage . . . someday. How long from now? Ten years? Twenty? Fifty? Meanwhile, do we let wage agreements contrary to the moral law simply stand unchecked, because the lives of some poor people have to be, as it were, manure to fertilize the ground for more prosperous days? It seems to me the Church is saying: The worker has to be given such and such, here and now. If not, mortal sin is being committed and the common good damaged. If this means inefficiency, okay; if it means a lower gross national product, okay; if it means the rich have to live more frugally, that’s even better.
Of course, it is very easy for Woods and others of the same persuasion to argue that what I am describing is an ultramontanist stance toward the papal magisterium that cannot be justified by theological or canonical criteria. They will say I am confusing infallible and non-infallible teaching, that I make the ordinary extraordinary, or the local universal, or papal opinion binding truth, etc. etc. (Can it escape the notice of Woodsians that by this kind of logic they become the strange bedfellows of their left-wing sisters and brothers, who reject, on exactly the same grounds, all that Woods holds dear? For an analysis of this conundrum I highly recommend Brian Harrison, Religious Liberty and Contraception (Melbourne: John XXIII Fellowship Co-op, 1988.) But I am doing no such thing. I recognize that what a pope says at the breakfast table does not bind me; that homilies, letters to individuals, and the like have a lowly status, unless the pope happens to employ such a document in an unusual way (he could make a dogmatic definition in a private letter if he so wished, but such a thing has never occurred); that his policy recommendations in regard to certain social problems are just that—recommendations. What I am speaking about is the ordinary universal magisterium that the pope confirms and builds up every time he addresses the church qua Vicar of Christ and shepherd of the universal Church, with the manifest intention of evaluating or passing judgment on an issue concerning faith or morals. This is just what the popes have been doing for over a century in large segments of their encyclical letters. And it was the failure to recognize the genuine authority and binding nature of this teaching that led to repeated formulations of the required stance of the Catholic vis-à-vis the ordinary papal magisterium—most famously, Pius XII’s Humani Generis 19–21, which formed the basis of the even more explicit declaration of the Second Vatican Council in Lumen Gentium 25. Parts of both texts were cited by Storck, yet once again were silently passed over by Woods in his “reply.” (For further discussion, see Thomas Storck, “What is the Magisterium?”, available here. See also the study by Fenton, mentioned in note 12.)
One might pose the following question to the Catholic capitalist: What if it turned out to be the case that a “successful, prosperous” economic system along capitalist lines were not compatible with more fundamental human goods as understood and proclaimed by the Church? What then? The Church’s answer could not be clearer: Things economic and political are always negotiable; human dignity and the conditions for its actualization in social life are not. If need be, the system has to be sacrificed, gutted, turned inside-out, to preserve the greater good. This is why I said the disagreement between Woods and Storck reaches down to the level of first principles. What is the good for man? Which goods are the greater goods? What principles determine for us the criteria by which we may answer such questions in accordance with the Gospel that has been faithfully handed down to us by the Church? In the end, much more is at stake here than the content and authoritative status of the modern papal magisterium, or quarrels between this and that school of economics. What is at stake is the identity of the Christian religion, the purity of the message of the Gospel. Recently I read a book that drove a sword straight into my heart, and has left me quaking with a mixture of joy and fear: Thomas Dubay’s Happy Are You Poor: The Simple Life and Spiritual Freedom (Published by Ignatius Press.) If you are faint-hearted, do not read this book. If you really want to know what the Gospel is asking of us, though, do read it. And I wager that your whole vision of money, wealth, poverty, social systems, and so on, will be overturned and renewed from top to bottom.
Instead of the “embarassing” and “painful” unmasking of papal error, there is another, in many ways more logical, option for Thomas Woods and for his fellow travelers. They may walk in the proud footsteps of the “eminent historians” and social liberals Döllinger and his disciple Lord Acton, both of whom dissented from the definition of papal infallibility proclaimed at the First Vatican Council, a dogma they could not “reconcile with their historical knowledge.” Woods and Co. could take as their model the devout-priest-turned-defiant-prophet Lamennais, who left the Church when Gregory XVI solemnly condemned liberalism in Mirari Vos of 1832, or the Abbé Loisy who sincerely accepted the “scientific” rightness of modern biblical criticism, and drew from it modernist conclusions for which he was excommunicated in 1908. And so on. The history of the Church is full of examples of men who thought more highly of their own intellectual gifts and insights than of the teaching authority and actual doctrine of the Church. And seldom has there been a dissenter who did not appeal to “proofs” or “evidence” from elsewhere, be it theology, philosophy, empirical research, or the much feebler resources of social science. Wide is the gate and broad the road that leads out of the Church, and many are they who follow it. May God grant that Thomas Woods and his fellow travelers do not go out this way, but experience a change of heart and a renewal of mind.
It is one of the very many ironies of this discussion that Woods, who is a well-known advocate of “Tradition,” is profiting from the very “laxity,” as he would see it, of John Paul II’s reign. If the present Holy Father had emulated the disciplinary severity of a Pius X or even a Pius XII toward outspoken clerical or lay dissenters, there is little doubt Woods would have found himself either already excommunicated or in serious danger thereof. Many have been punished—justly—for lesser dissent that Woods has demonstrated. For His mysterious reasons, God has permitted a state of the world and of the Church that favors freedom, in every degree and kind of use and abuse. What does this mean for the spiritual life? It means each one of us has to examine his own conscience regularly and discipline himself, lest “after preaching the Gospel to others, he become himself a castaway” (cf. 1 Cor. 9:27).
If Dubay’s book is on target (and the proof is in its pages; I can only ask you to read it and see for yourself), then Woods and Storck are not just disagreeing over something as “late in time” as the modern social magisterium of the Roman pontiffs. They are disagreeing about the religion of Jesus Christ and its demands. This has ever been the only real subject of disagreement between dissenters and the Church.