Volume > Issue > Letter to the Editor: March 2011

March 2011

Democratic Socialism: An Unacceptable Proposition?

Ryan Chegwin (letter, Dec.) identifies himself as a democratic socialist and a traditional Catholic. Forgive me if I don’t see how that can be possible.

Socialism as a political system is rooted in materialism, secularism, and atheism. That’s why so many popes have condemned it. If Chegwin can run with that crowd and remain an orthodox Catholic, he is a rare bird indeed.

When it comes to controversial issues, the Left is solidly for abortion rights, physician-assisted suicide, embryonic stem-cell research, and “gay marriage,” to mention only a few. If Chegwin is the traditional Catholic he says he is, he knows that each of these has been emphatically condemned by the Church.

Assuming Chegwin is strictly an economic socialist, he still has a big problem, as the Church opposes centralized economic planning while upholding the right to own private property. The principle of subsidiarity the Church espouses “is opposed to all forms of collectivism” (Catechism, no. 1885). There go three of the main pillars of socialism.

As for the social-welfare state Chegwin favors, perhaps he hasn’t noticed, but it has been collapsing worldwide from its own dead weight, as do all the Left’s economic nostrums eventually.

The social/economic teaching of the Catholic Church steers a middle course between extremes, and neither socialists nor capitalists can claim it as their own.

F. Douglas Kneibert

Sedalia, Missouri

Ryan Chegwin argues that Church teaching is more compatible with a social-welfare state than with free-market libertarianism. While in theory that might be an acceptable statement, in actual practice it is not. As currently practiced by our own government, the social-welfare system is harmful to the values the Church holds.

I have worked in management at the store level in the grocery retail business for the past 35 years, much of that time in African-American and Hispanic communities. I have seen the destruction of the African-American family in that time due to social welfare. Since “The Great Society,” we have given much to this community in the form of food stamps, WIC, AFDC, housing supplements, and various other welfare benefits provided by various levels of government. What it has led to is the destruction of the family — more than 50 percent of babies born to African-American parents are born out of wedlock. Who needs a father if the government is going to provide you with food, clothing, and shelter? Correspondingly, men do not have to worry about leaving a woman and family if the government is going to take care of them.

These same problems are cropping up in the Hispanic community.

Socialism may work in small religious communities, but not in large societies. In fact, socialism becomes a tool of political parties or individual politicians to gain a large following or electorate and maintain power. This has been seen as far back in the past as the Roman Empire, when politicians passed out free bread to the common people to gain or consolidate their power. Fast-forward to today and we see the same thing happening in Europe, South America, and the U.S. It might not be as obvious as free bread, but the same methods and effects are present.

The Church is correct to be concerned about the average citizen and worker. Every person is entitled to a fair living wage and safe working conditions. The government should be concerned that these are provided by just regulations and laws guided by Christian values. Those members of society who lack adequate food, clothing, shelter, and medical care should get these goods and services from private-sector religious and secular organizations supported by private citizens.

James Hundt

Midlothian, Texas

Regarding the discussion of the moral imperatives involved in Catholic economic and social teaching, I’ve read every papal encyclical from the past hundred years several times and have never found an endorsement of socialism. There have been many incisive condemnations of economic exploitation, but never the promotion of an all-controlling state as a substitute for the moral imperatives of personalism, described by Jacques Maritain and others, and unambiguously demanded by our Lord, which are necessary to address all human problems.

Many Catholics get questions of economic morality wrong and have been using their misunderstandings to endorse economic egalitarianism. Disparity of wealth is not a sin, nor is it a sin to be rich. Envy, however, is a sin, as much a sin as the rich ignoring obligations to generosity. Our Lord’s metaphorical description of the difficulty of a camel passing through the eye of a needle referred to a small gate in Jerusalem where camels had to crawl on their bellies — a metaphor for humility — in order to pass. Though the rich have to overcome many difficulties to discover humility, it is not impossible.

Atheists and other religion-haters have always looked to socialism to ameliorate social problems. Government is the religion for those with no religion. Catholics have no excuse for siding with them. It is no accident that socialism, for purposes clearly ideological, has murdered more human beings than all the other episodes of mass killing in human history combined. It is no accident that population-management and extermination of inconvenient lives inevitably occur in socialist states. Many libertarians living in market economies endorse abortion, but its cultural acceptance is not predetermined or inevitable, as it is in states committed to practices of absolute social engineering.

Contemplating this reality does not slow down the minds that are busy pursuing a safe, easy way out of getting one’s hands dirty by personally helping those with broken lives. It’s a lot more palatable to demand more and more government programs — from a bankrupt government bankrupting even more of the future — than to volunteer to change bedpans or share a personal income we may believe is too modest to share. When good confronts evil, there must be suffering and sacrifice. Compassion without suffering and sacrifice does not exist. We must give of our substance, not our surplus.

Freedom is an obligation of the state to the people, and it begins with economic freedom because free economies give natural resistance to taking government ineptitude too seriously. The idea that principles on how human beings ought to order their lives together may be redefined by popular human vanity, often captive to elitist cultural dominance, will only create pseudo-principles in perpetual flux, an anarchistic declaration of rights separated from morality, which will inevitably be used to manipulate, to exploit, or to undermine religion and family life in a manner that serves the interests of the state-defined commonweal. And once obtaining new powers, governments never give them up.

Great wealth may corrupt a rich man’s mind and soul, but the unearned and undeserved power given to bureaucrats, legislators, and judiciaries — who never have to face consequences for being wrong — make them even more vulnerable. There is no excuse for ignoring the day-and-night difference of social benefits between free markets, which have made deserts bloom and lifted hundreds of millions from poverty, and socialist states that treat life itself as a utilitarian commodity of convenience to the state.

Jesus did not say the poor will always be with us because He was insensitive. He was describing the ongoing consequences of sin. We cannot affect utopia, and we should never be oblivious to the greater corruptions and universal poverties we support when we fantasize about the creation of a just society based on social and economic dependence, rather than immersing ourselves in individual charity and other divinely endowed virtues, including industriousness and generosity.

Fr. George Ryan, C.S.P.

Port Richmond, New York

Austrian Libertarianism: A Reasonable Proposition?

I appreciated Thomas Storck’s review of Christopher Ferrara’s new book The Church and the Libertarian (Dec.), but in a justifiable correction of libertine excesses, he dismissed a few worthy principles.

The Austrians are asking the right questions: How much freedom can we give up in defense of liberty? How far can a government of the people insert itself into the lives of the people? At what point does a democracy cease to be democratic? When does taxation become confiscation? Is the manipulation of our currency justifiable or corrosive?

Libertarian support for same-sex marriage and abortion is certainly not universal. If marriage ontologically predates the state, the state overreaches its authority by imposing same-sex marriage. It seems obvious that libertarian respect for the individual could be applied readily to an individual yet to be born.

The Austrians offer no new revelation in recognizing that individuals in both the public and private sector tend to pursue their own benefit. The challenge is to minimize opportunities for self-interest in our public institutions through a reduction in the size and scope of government. Catholics might see this as a prudent hedgerow around our government of sinners, for sinners, and by sinners.

Stephen Schmalhofer

New York, New York

As a Catholic libertarian who has been greatly influenced by the Austrian school of economics, I read Thomas Storck’s review of The Church and the Libertarian (Dec.) with much interest. While I look forward to reading Christopher Ferrara’s book, I want to offer a few points of clarification for readers who might be unfamiliar with the Austrian school.

The first is that it teaches that economics is value-neutral. Economics deals with means, not ends. Therefore, the economist qua economist is incompetent to pronounce a particular action ethical or unethical. Storck claims that “the Austrians…openly dissent from [Church] teachings with their puerile claim that popes have no authority or competence to teach in the area of economic morality.” I do not know of any Austrians who assert this. Instead, the school maintains that the economist can analyze a policy recommendation — even that of a pope — to determine if the means chosen are capable of producing the ends desired. A pope is within his magisterial bounds when he urges the faithful to care for the poor. But if he were to then claim that the best way to do this is to have the central bank print money, he is speaking on a subject upon which he has no special expertise. It would be incumbent on the economist to point out that this policy would not enrich the poor; in fact, by distorting the price structure, it would impoverish them. This sort of criticism, which is typified by Thomas E. Woods in his excellent book The Church and the Mar­ket, is entirely within the bounds of orthodoxy.

The second point is in regard to ethics. While Ludwig von Mises was not an anarchist, his most talented disciple, Murray Rothbard, was, and the libertarian movement seems to have followed Rothbard. However, just because Rothbard was wrong on some ethical points does not discount the many valuable contributions he made as an economist. Storck recognizes this when he correctly denies that anything Ferrara has said in reference to Vatican II would minimize the importance of his latest book. Nor can we simply conclude that the proper role of the state is to enforce Catholic morality. Certain practices, like abortion, are immoral and should be illegal. But other practices may be immoral and yet be tolerated by lawful authorities. Hence St. Augustine wrote: “If you do away with harlots, the world will be convulsed with lust.”

While it is true that the Catholic Church has tried to steer a middle way between socialism, which it has explicitly condemned, and laissez-faire capitalism, there is nothing to suggest that the Church might not clarify her position. The science of economics is relatively new, and the Church will have to incorporate its findings into her recommendations. It is worth pointing out that the progenitors of the Austrian school were none other than the Spanish scholastics: Francisco de Vitoria, Domingo de Soto, and Luis de Molina, for example. It is a pity the works of these men were neglected for so long. It is a greater pity that the real descendants of these Catholic scholars are less interested in learning from them than in slamming Rothbard.

The Church is admirably wrestling with this new science, as evidenced by Pope Benedict XVI’s recent encyclical Caritas in Veritate. But even here it’s clear that the Pope, for all his wisdom and erudition, could learn a thing or two from the Austrians. He writes: “In a climate of mutual trust, the market is the economic institution that permits encounter between persons, inasmuch as they are economic subjects who make use of contracts to regulate their relations as they exchange goods and services of equivalent value between them, in order to satisfy their needs and desires.” One of the Austrians’ key insights was that because value, in economic terms, is subjective, people exchange items of disparate values. When I subscribe to the NOR, I do so because this publication has more value for me than the money I exchange; the NOR, meanwhile, values my money more than the latest issue it sends me in the mail. This has substantial ramifications in that any non-coercive exchange is mutually beneficial from the perspective of the consenting parties.

When Storck quotes Pope Paul VI as saying that “at the very root of philosophical liberalism is an erroneous affirmation of the autonomy of the individual,” he is on very solid ground; this is something with which the libertarian must come to terms. It is entirely valid to point out that the state can play a positive role in human development. If libertarians are guilty of forgetting this, it is also true that other political ideologies vastly overrate the intrinsic goodness of government.

My understanding of distribu­tism is slight, so I will use Ferrara’s own definition: “Distri­butism means simply the widest possible ownership of private property.” As this is also the goal of the libertarian, I suspect that we have more in common than Ferrara admits. As the news testifies daily, the state diminishes the possible ownership of private property by appropriating it for itself, the banks, and large corporations. A step toward libertarianism is indispensable in providing the framework that makes distributism possible.

Eric Jackson

Coon Rapids, Minnesota


I appreciate Mr. Jackson’s letter, for he states the contentions made by supporters of Austrian economics clearly and courteously. He begins by denying my claim that “the Austri­ans…openly dissent from [Church] teachings with their puerile claim that popes have no authority or competence to teach in the area of economic morality.” Jackson says, “I do not know of any Austrians who assert this.” One could cite many examples of such dissent by Catholic Austrians. I offer the following, taken from a paper delivered by Thomas Woods, “Catholic Social Teaching and Economic Law: An Unresolved Tension,” delivered at the Austrian Scholars Conference at the Mises Institute in March 2002. Woods wrote, “The primary difficulty with much of what has fallen under the heading of Catholic social teaching since Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum (1891) is that it assumes without argument that the force of human will suffices to resolve economic questions, and that reason and the conclusions of economic law can be safely neglected, even scorned…. This attitude runs directly counter to the entire Catholic intellectual tradition, according to which man is to conform his actions to reality, rather than embarking on the hopeless and foolish task of forcing the world to conform to him and to his desires.” The entire paper is obviously too long to reproduce here, but this passage gives the flavor of his attitude toward the Church’s social doctrine. I submit that if one said the same about any other papal teaching — objecting to, say, the teaching of Humanae Vitae on the basis of some­one’s understanding of psychology or sociology — everyone would immediately recognize it as dissent. But when the objection made is based on economics, somehow it is not seen in the same light.

But if we go on to consider Jackson’s second claim, about the value-neutral nature of economics, we get to the heart of the matter quickly. In fact, it is not as simple as many people think to separate descriptive from ethical statements about economics. For example, can a wage ever be unjust? I submit that the concept of wage justice has no meaning in either Austrian or mainstream neoclassical economics because in those systems the wage-determining factor operates without reference to justice or injustice. There is no room for saying that a worker is due a living wage in commutative justice. It makes as little sense as saying that a planet moves unjustly or two chemical elements react in an unjust manner. The Austrians have constructed their system of economic analysis so that there is no room for ethical mandates.

But the Austrians do more than this. They routinely switch back and forth from their economic analysis to policy prescriptions and justify the latter by an appeal to the former. And many of these policy prescriptions are in fact contrary to what the popes have taught in their social encyclicals — for example, their belief that property rights are absolute, which is surely a moral question, not a question of descriptive economic analysis. Christopher Ferrara cites many more examples in his book, and I refer Mr. Jackson and other readers to it for a more complete account.

The Austrians are fond of saying that if the popes advocated unsound principles of architecture for building churches, no one would be bound to follow their directives. The popes should simply tell us to build churches and let architects figure out the best ways of keeping their roofs from falling down. And this is correct. But note that the popes have never taught in the area of architecture. They have taught, however, in the area of economic morality.

Who is to define the limits of papal competence? Catholics must recognize the fact that the Church of which they are members claims the right to teach about economic justice — and about many other areas of morality — even if that might mean treading on the toes of adherents of certain economic schools. If Catholics don’t accept the governing authority of the Church on this point, then in my book they are dissenters. Pius XI’s term for them was even harsher — he called them “social modernists” and said that he deplored their teaching as much as he did that of dogmatic modernists.

The Austrians frequently make the claim, as does Jackson, that their approach to economics was foreshadowed by certain Spanish theologians of the late Renaissance. Whether that claim is true or not is not important. What is important is that even if these theologians were in perfect agreement with the Austrians — which is doubtful — they have no particular magisterial authority. They cannot be used to argue against papal teaching any more than any other group of theologians can. It seems strange to appeal to the authority of Molina or Soto but to be unmoved by the authority of Leo XIII, Pius XI, or John Paul II.

The Austrians do not simply advocate a “value-neutral” economics. Their economic principles are used to buttress an ethical system that includes a fundamental approach to political and social matters, which in many instances is contrary to that of Catholic teaching and tradition. That they have managed to convince many unwary Catholics is deplorable, but hardly surprising, for we live in an age of immense doctrinal confusion, even among Catholics.

The Purpose of Money Is…

Mitchell Kalpakgian, in his article “The Christian Art of Christmas Spending” (Dec.), provides a marvelous meditation on the virtue of money stewardship. As a young en­tre­­preneur who has been financially blessed, his article was especially impor­tant to me. Though I have struggled personally with all the “mad ways of the world” in regard to finance, I experienced a feeling of renewal when I read this: “The purpose of money is to spend it on loved ones and the poor.”

Like many others, I too engage in financial discussions with many men of the world, yet rarely do I hear such sentiments. But nothing can be truer. Whether you consider yourself rich, poor, or in the middle, divine providence will never be outdone in generosity — and what true happiness and pleasure generosity provides to us men in the world, especially at Christmastime!

John Lindsey

Winchester, Virginia


Reading David Mills’s article “Rules for Happiness” (Dec.) brought to mind a woman I know who slams the specific rules of our Church — where a reverend priest may specify, after a confession, say, nine Hail Marys to lift the crippling effects of sin.

Yet this same woman, who rants and raves against organized religion, has made an avid religion of her revered Doctor Oz, who specifies that exactly nine white raisins, soaked in Gin and allowed to dry, should be eaten every day, to alleviate the crippling pains of her arthritis.

Go figure.

Richard M. Dell'Orfano

San Marcos, California

A Triumph of Literalism Over Meaning

Rosemary Lunardini’s article “A Defining Step Toward Authentic Liturgical Reform” (Nov.) provides a clear and helpful overview of the linguistic changes to be introduced into the Mass, come Advent 2011. However, it gives short shrift to one change that represents a hard blow to me personally.

I am an adult convert who came to the Church in my thirties, so all I know of Catholic worship is the Novus Ordo as offered in the years since the Second Vatican Council. During long involvement in liturgical music (as a choir member, cantor, and musician) I have had occasion to think deeply about the Mass and to consider which sections elicit enthusiastic response and appear to have genuine emotional resonance with the people. I have also had numerous opportunities to observe some of the awkwardness and many of the liturgical abuses that have helped to prompt the revisions.

One of the responses people always recite with great feeling is the Ecce Agnus Dei: “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.” I appreciate this intensity, because those words have had special significance for me. When I first grasped the Catholic understanding of the Real Presence, that moment in the Mass struck me with great force. The statement assured me that, despite my failings and unworthiness, I could receive the eucharistic Lord through the love and forgiveness of God.

I wouldn’t say that the line made me a Catholic, but in a very real sense it confirmed my faith and secured my decision to become one.

I realize that the Ecce Agnus Dei is drawn from the story of the faithful centurion in Matthew 8. The words are a paraphrase. But to me — and, I suspect, to a great many other people — they offer a measure of encouragement that the passage intended to replace them cannot. To substitute the actual quote, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof…” at a critical point in the Mass, when the Host has been consecrated and the faithful are about to receive, will be to take something that is profoundly tangible, make it abstract, and then ask us to infer its relevance to us as believers.

This amounts to a triumph of literalism over meaning, and for me it will be a truly great personal loss.

It’s possible that I have misunderstood or over-inflated the liturgical significance of these words. I sincerely hope not, because that would raise troubling questions about how I have understood the Catholic faith all these years (since the 1970s). Moreover, I recognize how hard the bishops have worked to restore order and theological consistency to the central expression of our worship — which has clearly become erratic.

So I will say the new words. But I will say them with an ache in my heart, praying that this loss won’t negate the other, more positive changes being made to the Mass I love.

Bill Kassel

Hillsdale, Michigan


I am moved by Mr. Kassel’s appreciation of the sublime meaning within the straightforward words that Catholics have been saying in response to the Ecce Agnus Dei: “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.”

I also trust that he will, in time, find the same prayerful devotion in the new phrase, which he now thinks will be an intrusion: “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.”

There is something more in the new phrase besides the scriptural reference to the words of the centurion, which I cited in my article. There is a slight but important shift from the communicant to our Lord as the center of the action taking place. True, the person brings himself, a sinner, of his own free will and repentance to the Eucharist. But just then, he finds the Lord who comes to meet him and to heal him. The Lord now enters where the communicant heretofore receives.

There are other such shifts that occur in the new missal, and they have the special purpose of focusing on the divine presence and action of Christ. Perhaps this will help ease the transition for Mr. Kassel and others who feel trepidation about the coming changes.

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