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.
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.
Jackson Heights, New York
JOHN F. MAGUIRE REPLIES:
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.
Charlotte, North Carolina
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!
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.
San Francisco, California
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.”