Volume > Issue > Letters to the Editor: December 1984

Letters to the Editor: December 1984

Opposing the Bishops

I, like the editors of the New Oxford Review, I’m sure, have become increasingly discomforted recently as some who profess to uphold Roman Catholic orthodoxy have shifted their target from those theolo­gians who publicly dissent from major tenets of the Catholic faith to the American bishops them­selves. It seems to me that in pre­senting themselves as exponents of true Catholic teaching, they have placed themselves in such deliberate and outspoken opposi­tion to those with an apostolic mandate to teach that they in ef­fect present themselves as the au­thentic interpreters of the faith. They claim papal endorsement for this stance despite frequent Vatican denial that there is any serious breach between its own teaching and that of the Ameri­can hierarchy.

My creeping suspicion that there is more than one organized “counter-Magisterium” in the Church was recently confirmed by a direct-mail letter I received from a newly founded organiza­tion which calls itself the American Catholic Conference and which has on its board of direc­tors some well-known politically conservative Catholic writers. The content of the four-page let­ter makes it clear that the name American Catholic Conference (not to be confused with a simi­lar organization called American Catholic Committee) was chosen as a deliberate counter to the United States Catholic Confer­ence (USCC). The letter decries the “influential Church bureau­crats” who are pushing the American Church into political controversies and implies that its organization is representative of “all loyal American Catholics” in competition with the USCC.

The letter, which was mail­ed before the release of the U.S. bishops’ pastoral letter on the U.S. economy in November, goes on to warn that the “political ac­tivists” who are “tearing apart our Catholic Church” are about to use the bureaucracy they al­legedly control to critique Amer­ican economic policies through the then-upcoming pastoral on the economy. The American Catholic Conference (ACC) letter decries the fact that a committee of bishops had already deplored “current policies which attempt to solve America’s ills at the ex­pense of the poor and unemploy­ed,” and that Business Week had “predicted” that the “bishops’ statement will sound a lot like the 1984 Democratic platform.”

The ACC letter never care­fully distinguishes the USCC from its parent the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB), since its writer obvious­ly regards the NCCB as fully in the sway of the USCC. For in­stance, the ACC letter opens with a question that shows as lit­tle respect for the teaching office of the bishops as do many so-called “liberal” declarations: “Last year the American bishops condemned our nuclear defense strategy. Next…the bishops will criticize our nation’s eco­nomic policies…. Are they speaking for you?”

Later the letter cites as ex­amples of the radical activism in the Church the many bishops who “campaign for the nuclear freeze” and the few who “called for unilateral disarmament.” In so doing it seems to deny implic­itly the right of a bishop to en­dorse publicly a cause which is not incompatible with the princi­ples of Catholic moral teaching and which he regards as a proper application of those principles, as long as it is clear that his en­dorsement does not bind his flock.

I do not deny that the American Catholic Conference has a just complaint against some members of the USCC bureaucra­cy and even some bishops who seem to promote a liberal politi­cal agenda that is not entirely in accord with Catholic social teaching. But I regret that the ACC is so blind to the extent to which its own conservative political sympathies affect its own per­spective on that teaching.

For instance, the ACC letter tells us that its organization plans to “arrange meetings between in­fluential bishops and concerned Catholic industrial leaders,” and “distribute essays and editorial columns defending our economic system.” In other words, the ACC seems to assume that the premises upon which the Ameri­can economy operates — I say premises because I presume the ACC would admit abuses — are completely compatible with the

Church’s social teaching. But the ACC’s own ideological commit­ment prevents it from seeing the intrinsically prophetic nature of Catholic social teaching which must always stand as a counter to any existing socioeconomic system.

Anyone who presumes to speak about Catholic social or­thodoxy must be willing to eval­uate critically his own socio­economic system from that pro­phetic perspective — not just pro­vide an apologetic rationale for his own system.

It seems hypocritical that those who decry the attempt of some Catholic political liberals to politicize the agenda of the Cath­olic Church by making it con­form as closely as possible to the Democratic Party platform would present Catholic social teaching as if it conformed to the Republican Party platform. Sure­ly it is just as presumptive for the American Catholic Conference to claim to uphold Catholic social orthodoxy in opposition to the American hierarchy as it is for liberal Catholic organizations to claim to represent the “true spir­it of Vatican II” in opposition to the same hierarchy.

Edith Black

Orinda, California

Trust Economic Liberty

The latest battle in the NOR’s campaign against the free market is waged in contributing editor John F. Maguire’s “Price Markups and Moral Decline,” a review of Wilbur and Jameson’s An Inquiry into the Poverty of Economics (Sept.). With the gusto of a journalist deliver­ing his scoop, Maguire relates the authors’ discovery that big, and allegedly noncompetitive, firms now engage in “price markup,” raising prices above cost in order to finance future investment and survive the stagflation their shortsighted activity generates. Greater labor participation in in­vestment decisions is recom­mended, since those decisions ad­versely affect too many people to be left to the whims of inves­tors. Scholastic principles of “just exchange” are deemed rele­vant to today’s crises. Fr. Ber­nard Lonergan’s circulation anal­ysis, which treats economic mis­adventure as a function of cumu­lative moral misconduct, is quot­ed for a contemporary touch.

By implying that successful­ly competitive firms are uncom­petitive, Maquire forgets that they can hold their own only by satisfying consumers better than do their competitors. He also of­fers no argument to show that greater participation by non-owners (“labor”) in management would not hamper the produc­tion of these goods these same non-owners expect to find in the marketplace. But to suggest that a favorite policy may have unin­tended consequences has never been easy for socialist reformers, Thomist or otherwise.

The idea that greed or ca­price and not the market deter­mines prices easily leads to the socialist dream of eliminating money prices altogether. But without them, there is no eco­nomic calculation. Prices are al­ways set as high as permits the greatest return: in the market­place “markup” results in unsold surpluses.

To the individual firm’s buyer, prices of productive fac­tors may appear to be determin­ed by “costs,” but these are themselves prices, and are deter­mined far from the firm in the consumer goods markets: the val­ue we attach to the things we buy is transferred to the means of their production. Maguire’s cost theory of “just prices” would reduce “just wages” to the money price of the food, cloth­ing, and shelter that enable work­ers to come to work to do their jobs. In other words, workers can finance a humane standard of liv­ing only by “marking up” the prices of their services. And of course minimum-wage laws, in­spired by “just price” ideals, cause a surplus (i.e., unemploy­ment) of any labor-service whose marginal contribution to the product is less than that mini­mum.

It is unfortunate that Fr. Lonergan, in his Essay in Circula­tion Analysis, does not train his eye for bias and “cumulative de­partures from coherence” on governmental debasement of cur­rency, expansion of bank credit, and power to tax. His formidable equations and elegant prose about historical cycles bypass the simple act of consumer prefer­ence and its economic consequences, which are poor material for mathematical expression.

Christian compassion for the least of His brethren should inspire criticism of fallacious eco­nomic notions that once had theologically orthodox adherents. We can circumvent the economic “debate” about the “right” state policy and the “right” individu­als to enforce it if we shelve statist theories and pay greater attention to defenders of the free market, particularly those of the Austrian school of Mises, Hayek, and Rothbard. Their insights re­quire neither mathematics to be grasped nor a state to be imple­mented, but only the liberty which some Christians, it seems, are not prepared to trust.

Tony Flood

Jackson Heights, New York


Although I do not mention the “neo-liberal” economics of Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich von Hayek (nor the anarcho-capitalist utopianism of Murray Rothbard) in my review of Wil­bur and Jameson’s An Inquiry in­to the Poverty of Economics, Tony Flood is right to surmise that my basic position concern­ing the relationship between eco­nomics and ethics, militates against “Austrian” School sub­jectivism and individualism, as against all attempts to systemat­ically uncouple economic analy­sis from questions of just prices, just wages and just distribution of wealth.

To be sure, a balancing of production and consumption takes place in the marketplace, but we must be careful not to al­low this truth to obscure the even profounder truth that the “free market” is not free of the effects of individual bias, group bias and general bias; just as Flood’s “simple act of consumer t preference” is not free of these biases. (If Lonergan’s analysis is correct, Flood’s “simple act of consumer preference” is not so simple after all.)

Flood mistakes my review as a campaign against the free market, even though a major im­plication of the review is that we should campaign to free the market from cumulative bias (yes, and the state too). This bi­as, I tried to make clear, is relat­ed to moral decline, and moral decline is related to socio-eco­nomic decline, as evidenced by the link between “mark-up pric­ing” insofar as it is unjust and the phenomenon of combined in­flation and increasing unemploy­ment.

Stated polemically, the question before us is: Who, then, is for a truly free market — those who would liberate the market from cumulative bias, or those who would transmute the market into an idol of general bias (as do various “free market” ideolo­gies)?

Flood’s assumption that Thomism is a species of social­ism is just as erroneous as the “liberal scholastic” opinion that Thomism, with a little touching up, is compatible with economic liberalism. Authentic Thomism, on the contrary, sees in liberal­ism and socialism two cousins: two forms of social modernism in revolt against (among other things) Scholastic principles of economic justice.

I am amazed that Flood should bring up the primitive “socialist dream of abolishing money prices.” The just price tradition considers that a crank idea, as does Flood: but for a different — and I must say, ob­vious — reason: In any money economy, the problem of equiva­lent exchange becomes the prob­lem of just price as expressed in money terms. We do not want to abolish money (hardly); we want to abolish the imperialism of money, which finds expression in the suppression of the family liv­ing wage in the name of whatever price for labor the labor market will bear.

The imperialism of money (money no longer properly mea­suring real values) also finds ex­pression in opposition to worker participation in “managerial” de­cisions — decisions having to do with pricing, investment plan­ning, etc. But: the worker is not to be reduced to a mere means of production; rather, he is, in his proper dignity, the effective sub­ject of his work, and for this rea­son, rightfully, a full participant in what today our labor laws seal off as exclusively “managerial de­cisions.” In Lonergan’s terms, the suggestion that worker par­ticipation will hamper the pro­duction of goods is by no means free of the group bias of corpo­rate managers.

Lastly, a theological note. I agree with Tony Flood that the Christian spirit (the fire spoken of by our Lord) has the power to “inspire criticism of fallacious economic notions”; but I would argue that it loses this power when it abandons theologically orthodox principles of economic justice.


I am writing to share some good news. After a spiritual so­journ which began in evangelical circles in 1971, I became a Ro­man Catholic last September.

I feel like I have “come home.” After thinking like a Ro­man Catholic for several years, it is a great relief finally to put the issue behind me, and be one.

Thank you for your part in helping me see the spiritual and intellectual richness of Catholi­cism. If there is truly to be a New Oxford Movement, it will be because people like those who write for the NOR demon­strate the vitality and vibrancy of our ancient tradition.

Carl Horn

Charlotte, North Carolina

50 Percent

Carry on your interesting magazine! It is challenging and provocative, even though I dis­agree with you 50 percent of the time.

Love that Robert Coles!

R.J. Grieve

Flint, Michigan

Berrigan’s Error

In what is without doubt a war against the unborn, pro-lifers are, and should be, the first to welcome new allies in the strug­gle. In this light, a short news ar­ticle on “Daniel Berrigan, Pro-lifer” would have been useful. But a lengthy adulatory article on the same (by Stephen Settle in the Oct. issue) is another matter.

I have never met Fr. Berri­gan and know only what the (liberal) press tells me about him. While one may be pleased that a man of his renown (repute?) is a defender of unborn children, it is unnecessarily divisive to pre­sent him as a paradigm pro-lifer.

Ten years have, as Settle says, wrought some changes. Ten years ago, for example, one could say without challenge that “America finally extricated her­self from the Vietnam quag­mire,” in no small part thanks to Berrigan’s behavior. Today, though, I would think we see better that event as the compelled abandonment of millions of civilians — not to mention fight­ing men and material — to (dare I use such strident terminology?) slaughtering communists. The question is whether these 10 years have produced any new un­derstandings in Berrigan.

Moreover, Berrigan’s en­dorsement, if it be such, of the pro-life sit-in movement in fact threatens this particular flower­ing of faith with more harm than good. Settle’s implication not­withstanding, the right-to-life sit-ins began — as near as I can see — prior to and independent of any influx of “those with pri­or experience in sitting-in at gov­ernment offices and weapons fac­tories.” And with good reason.

Berrigan’s probable error, and the error certainly of the “seamless garment” folks, is an inability to draw distinctions. A sit-in at an abortion mill is, al­most certainly, justified; a sit-in at a weapons factory is, almost certainly, not. A preplanned act of war may be justified; a pre­meditated act of abortion is nev­er.

An anti-abortion sit-in seeks to prevent an immediate and un­doubted grave harm, while turn­ing the hearts of those involved. Anti-war sit-ins sought to impede a remote process which may or may not have been involved in immoral actions.

For my small part, I wel­come Fr. Berrigan’s prayers and deeds on behalf of the unborn. But until a few legitimate ques­tions are answered, I suggest we look elsewhere for our role models.

Edward Peters

San Francisco, California

Fetal Pain

In his September column, John C. Cort asserts that “ad­vances in medical science are re­peatedly lowering the estimates of when a fetus first feels pain (now about six to eight weeks).” and hopes that this new evi­dence will “impress people on the ‘pro-choice’ side that they have been making assumptions that are neither humanly nor sci­entifically sound.”

In early 1984 the American College of Obstetricians and Gy­necologists issued a statement that said, in part: “We know of no legitimate scientific informa­tion that supports the statement that a fetus experiences pain ear­ly in pregnancy. We do know that the cerebellum attains its fi­nal configuration in the seventh month and the mylenization (covering) of the spinal cord and the brain begins between the 20th and 40th weeks of pregnan­cy. These, as well as other neuro­logical developments, would have to be in place for the fetus to perceive pain. To feel pain, a fe­tus needs neurotransmitted hor­mones. In animals, these com­plex chemicals develop in the last third of gestation. We know of no evidence that humans are dif­ferent.”

Dr. Ervin E. Nichols, ACOG’s Director of Practice Ac­tivities, said further: “There are reflexes that take place in some medical procedures, but then usually after 18-20 weeks [99 percent of all abortions are per­formed prior to this point]. We have no evidence whatsoever that this is interpreted by the fetus as pain.”

George Scialabba

Cambridge, Massachusetts

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