A Christian Socialist Defense of George Weigel

By Aaron Taylor
February 17, 2014

Thomas Storck’s recent article, “George Weigel on Papal Teaching,” highlights the fact that “cafeteria Catholics”—those who use their own discretion to decide which parts of Catholic doctrine to believe—are just as likely to be found on the political Right as on the liberal-Left. Those on the Left shelve Catholic beliefs on human life and the nature of marriage in order to appeal to a free-wheeling socially liberal constituency. Those on the Right explain away the Church’s teachings on social and distributive justice, bowdlerizing Catholic social thought in an effort to make it congruous with laissez-faire capitalism.

Yet, while I don’t necessarily disagree with Storck’s diagnosis, such critiques must proceed with great caution lest the side-effects of the medicine prescribed turn out worse than the symptoms of the disease. For example, in a recent article, “What Popes Can and Can’t Do,” Weigel argues:

Catholic social doctrine has long taught that we are stewards of creation and that the least of the Lord’s brethren have a moral claim on our solidarity and our charity; the social doctrine leaves open to debate the specific, practical means by which people of good will, and governments, exercise that stewardship, and that solidarity and charity.

Storck claims that Weigel’s approach here reduces Catholic social doctrine to “vague goals” without any substantive content:
The Church’s social doctrine is now to be represented by Weigel and his allies as just a set of goals, and we’re all free to propose our own ideas about how to achieve those goals.  Help the poor!  Exercise solidarity and charity!  Be nice!  What a clever way to neutralize the hard-hitting specifics of Pope Francis’s teaching.

Yet, abusus non tollit usum. If the error in “cafeteria Catholicism” is its abuse of individual discretion, we must be careful that, in opposing this abuse, we don’t go to the opposite extreme, stomping on an individual’s ability to think for himself in favor of a robot-like adherence to the Magisterium. Faith, as Pope Francis pointed out in his first encyclical, is not a form of darkness that extinguishes the capacity for reasoning (Lumen Fidei, #3). Faith is a “light” that enables reason to see rightly. Faith “awakens the critical sense” and “broadens the horizons of reason,” but also “orients reason” so that it may come to a deeper knowledge of truth (#34-36). Fidelity to the Magisterium is not the same as Magisterial positivism, and fidelity to Catholic social doctrine doesn’t mean a mindless implementation of a program laid out by the Vatican or by bureaucrats working for the USCCB (as I’m sure Storck would agree).

It seems to me that, at least in a formal sense, there is nothing objectionable about Weigel’s claim that Catholic social doctrine sets policy goals without mandating specific policy solutions. The converse of this claim would be that according to which Catholic teaching mandates both the goals of the social order and the specific policies to be implemented. But this seems to choke off any possibility for humans to think through political problems using their own rational faculties, rather than relying on the faculties of others who are arguably less well located to solve their particular problems. It would be ironic if we supposed the Church were calling for this, since the perfection of the human person as a political animal through participation in a communal process of practical reasoning is precisely the reason that a human “social order” necessarily exists in the first place.

Critique and questioning of post-Rerum Novarum formulations of Catholic social thought don’t just come from Manchester capitalists like George Weigel, Michael Novak, and Robert Sirico, but from distributists and Christian socialists, many of whom are thoroughly orthodox in theological matters.

Distributists and Christian socialists have pointed out repeatedly, for example, that Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum appears to depart fairly radically from Aquinas’s analysis of property rights with his claim that “every man has by nature,” and not simply by common custom, “the right to possess property as his own,” this being one of the things that separates man from “animal creation.”

Aquinas, like Leo, located the institution of private property in the specifically rational part of our nature, but with an important difference, as John C. Cort explains in “Christian Socialism: An Informal History”:

Under human law each individual had given up his or her claim to the free use of the material goods, property, over which God has given humankind, all men and women, by natural law, a common dominion, in exchange for a social arrangement of private property. This same individual gets in return the implied assurance that this arrangement will fulfill the purpose of giving him or her what property or possessions he or she needs for subsistence.

Traditionally, therefore, private property was seen as belonging not to the ius naturale, as Leo teaches, but to the ius gentium. When one understands how Aquinas and the patristic authors conceived of property rights, it is much easier to understand why Cardinal Cajetan, one of the greatest expounders of Aquinas’s teachings, could claim that “riches that are superfluous do not belong to the rich man as his own,” but to the political community, and can be dispensed either by the community as a whole or by its governing authority. In fact, Cajetan argues, when superfluous riches are not dispensed with, an “injury” is perpetrated against the entire political community. But whereas the earlier Thomistic tradition refused to separate a personal right from the right-ordering of the entire community, Leo XIII seems to follow Scotus and Ockham in seeing a property “right” not as a customary title to a particular kind of use but as a form of absolute dominion:
If one man hires out to another his strength or skill, he does so for the purpose of receiving in return what is necessary for the satisfaction of his needs; he therefore expressly intends to acquire a right full and real, not only to the remuneration, but also to the disposal of such remuneration, just as he pleases … consequently, a working man's little estate thus purchased should be as completely at his full disposal as are the wages he receives for his labor … it is precisely in such power of disposal that ownership obtains, whether the property consist of land or chattels (#5, emphases added).

The point here is not necessarily that Leo is wrong. The point is that someone doesn’t become a “cafeteria” Catholic just because they decline to follow Leo’s analysis of property rights in favor of the traditional Thomistic analysis and the political consequences that follow from it, because Rerum Novarum, although it clearly declines to makes use of it, never explicitly condemns the Thomistic framework as a legitimate form of analysis for Catholics to employ—just as, for example, John Paul II’s decision to use Aquinas’s framework for the analysis of human action in Veritatis Splendor does not mean that every form of ethics apart from Thomistic ethics is now prohibited by the Church.

Leo goes on to allege that socialists endeavor “to transfer the possessions of individuals to the community at large,” an assertion which is ambiguous and somewhat questionable—even Marx, many of his commentators agree, did not want to transfer individual property to the community, but only productive property. Throughout Rerum Novarum, one of the accusations to which Leo returns continually is the idea that socialism is driven by the jealousy of the poor over the wealth of the rich. Socialism, Leo claims, preys on the lower classes who are "ever ready for disturbance" (# 47), and on "the poor man's envy of the rich" (# 4); a socialist system would lead to the door being "thrown open to envy, to mutual invective, and to discord" (# 15).

Again, my point here is not that Leo is wrong. On the contrary, he’s right. Socialism that attempts “to transfer the possessions of individuals to the community at large,” as well as socialism that is borne from envy and hatred—as opposed to, say, a passion for justice—really is immoral, and as Catholics we can be confident of this if for no other reason than that Leo himself condemns it.

But clearly this characterization doesn’t apply to all (or arguably even most) forms of socialism. Pope Benedict XVI, for example, as Cardinal Ratzinger, once said that “democratic socialism was and is close to Catholic social doctrine, and has in any case made a remarkable contribution to the formation of a social consciousness.” For this reason, Weigel and company surely deserve a very careful hearing when they claim that the kind of predatory capitalism condemned by the Church is not the kind of capitalism they seek to foster and promote. This doesn’t mean they are not wrong. My sympathies lie with the Christian socialist camp. But Weigel can be in serious error without being theologically heterodox.

If these criticisms seem very similar to some of the criticisms that Weigel makes of modern “Catholic Social Teaching” (a term which often functions in discourse to erase the 1,860 or so years of Christian social thought prior to Rerum Novarum), that’s simply because they are similar. These kinds of distinctions and discussions may seem exceedingly subtle to some, as if it were merely a case of wishful thinking trying to circumvent the obvious import of Catholic doctrine. But the truth often is subtle, hence why Aquinas says that without the aid of Divine Revelation many important truths “would only be known by a few, and that after a long time, and with the admixture of many errors.”

Although authoritarianism is associated in the popular mind with the political Right, anyone acquainted with contemporary Catholic political debates is well aware that there is a virulent strain of authoritarian and anti-intellectual liberal-Leftism in the United States that uses “Catholic Social Teaching” as nothing more than a weapon to bludgeon political opponents into silence. If you don’t support the latest Democratic Party platform, you’re a violator of Catholic social doctrine, or so the popular refrain goes. This is not to say that everything (or even most of the things) that Democrats advocate are wrong. It's just to say that the way “CST” has been turned into an ideology that forestalls debate is profoundly alien to the Catholic tradition of free intellectual inquiry. Storck, I hasten to add, is certainly not to be found in this anti-intellectual liberal-leftist camp, but I fear his attack on Weigel unwittingly gives succor to a movement within the Church that ultimately poisons the wells of both faith and reason.

As Benedict XVI once pointed out, the Church “must use the shepherd’s rod, the rod with which he protects the faith against those who falsify it, against currents which lead the flock astray.” Use of the rod “can be a service of love,” and indeed it is not loving when “heresy is allowed to spread and the faith twisted and chipped away.” Neither is it loving or helpful, however, to see heresy under every rock.