Baptism Is Not an Economics Degree

I’ve often heard people talk about their most beloved aspect of our Faith. When asked, “What’s your favorite thing about being a Catholic?” some well-instructed souls will cite the Eucharist, while others will speak of their devotion to Our Lady. The pointier heads in the room might cite the Church’s rich storehouse of worldly and heavenly wisdom. In the old days, people pointed to the liturgy — but that was before its renovation in the 1970s with shag rugs and cheap wood paneling. My mother (if speaking candidly) would surely have copped to Bingo. Reading what many Catholics have to say on economics and politics lately, it seems to me that if these folks answered honestly, they’d have to say: “Being Catholic gives me a high-minded rhetoric of noble-sounding values, a sense of moral superiority, and unrestricted license to speak and write as a crank.”

I’m reminded of people I used to meet at Latin Mass, whose faith was past reproach, but who hadn’t spent quite enough time on the care and feeding of Reason. Some would wave at me yellowed copies of The Remnant, citing the latest column proving that heliocentrism is a heresy. But I’ll never forget the sweet old lady who took me aside one Sunday.

“Do you know what I read?” she whispered. “The environmentalist scientists are planning to reduce the world population to 700,000 people, and turn the rest of the planet into a nature park.”

“Er, really?”

“And you know how they’re going to do it?”

“Well . . .”

“They’re going to clone dinosaurs and unleash them on us,” she said, almost giddy with glee. Apparently some columnist had read Al Gore’s Earth in the Balance, rented Jurassic Park, and connected the dots.

Unsure of the charitable response, I restricted my remarks to these: “Well, you know what I heard? For the past 30 years, the Freemasons have been faking the weather.”


“Yeah. I don’t have time to tell you how they do it, but I promise I’ll give you all the details next time I see you.” And I never came back.

I’d made the woman’s day. From then on, whenever it seemed to be spitting smog on Lexington Avenue, or blazing heat on the asphalt, she knew that behind the Masonic façade there really was glorious, temperate, Catholic weather — if only we could see it.


That pretty well describes how too many Catholics look at economics and public policy. Whatever the facts of the matter, regardless of learned arguments, they know without thinking too hard or reading too much that the “Catholic” answer (as they dimly understand it) must be correct . . . so they need not bother slogging through the trouble of doing any research. Having read about an issue (perhaps for the first time) in some Church document or other, they seize upon a relative Good it recommends:

  • The Church supports a “living wage.”
  • . . . and decent conditions for workers.
  • . . . and opportunity for the poor.
  • . . . and “economic justice.”
  • . . . and “rights for immigrants.”
  • . . . and health care.

Then they treat this desideratum as an unconditioned absolute, as binding as the right to life, more important than liberty or property. They don’t feel the need to master even the basics of the discipline they’re considering, but rather grab left and right at whatever facts will help them build a case. If they’re talking about economics, they’ll cite a Gospel verse here, quote St. Francis there, throw in some abuse of “usury,” maybe even summon some half-remembered Chesterton — then wrap it in a pretty pink bow with a long quotation from a bishops’ pastoral letter and act as if they’ve made a genuine argument. If you ask about the costs of the policies they propose, or the dangers of bureaucratic management, they won’t respond to specifics, but rather start pounding the table and accusing you of “dissent” from Catholic teaching . . . as if you’d marched right out and joined Planned Parenthood or the Klan. Instead, you’re simply suggesting that maybe, just maybe, the hailstorm outside the window isn’t being faked by the Masons.

I’ve had my disagreements in the past with the learned Thomas E. Woods Jr., but as someone who has taken the trouble to read seriously in the discipline of economics (I wrote a book on the subject in the light of Catholic social teaching), I share with him a violent frustration at Catholics who grandstand about “distributive justice” and offer Rube Goldberg schemes for re-engineering our country’s economy, without knowing or caring how wealth is produced in the first place. Our country’s relatively recent, hard-won, and fragile prosperity they treat as if it had descended in pennies from heaven, and the only question now is how to divide up the windfall fairly. All property and all labor, they take for granted, is owned in common. It may suit the State to allow you to hold a “title” to your house, or keep some portion of your wages. But fundamentally you belong to the U.S. Congress, just as a Russian serf and every stick of furniture in his house was the property of the tsar. Left-leaning bishops who wish to make this point note that Creation was given to man in common; they leave out the fact that our labor is our own, and that taxes enforced by the threat of imprisonment can mount up to a kind of slavery. (Medieval serfs paid only 10 percent of their wealth to their feudal lords; you and I pay up to 50 percent when federal, state, local, Social Security, and sales taxes are added up — which means that half our time is spent working with a bayonet at our backs.)

What’s missing from these people’s happy, totalitarian picture is something fundamental to the West, a fruit of Christian culture that it took Vatican II (yes, you read me correctly) for the Church to fully recognize: the fact of human dignity. In the early Church, up through the first writings of St. Augustine, the Church asked only for liberty of worship, confident that the gospel would sway people on its own. In his later years, frustrated by the intransigence of the Donatist heretics, Augustine changed his mind and asked the now-Christian emperors to “compel them to come in.” Building on Augustine’s later work, many popes and countless Christian kings used the coercive power of the State to persecute heretics — arguing that the free will of these individuals was outweighed by the danger to the souls they might lead to hell. Besides, they said in a phrase that became a little bit infamous, “Error has no rights.” Since no one has a right to do what’s wrong, how can those with false beliefs have a right to hold and practice an inaccurate religion? Do they have the right to lie about the gospel?

At Vatican II, the Council Fathers (under pressure from American prelates, as an unsympathetic Michael Davies argues) were more concerned about the very real persecution of Christians throughout the Communist bloc than the duty of (now-deposed) Catholic monarchs to uphold orthodoxy. They reframed the question as follows: Error may have no rights, but the person holding the error does. In Dignitatis Humanae, the Council teaches that the dignity of the human person forbids religious coercion by the State. Pope John Paul II was not, I think, misguided when he apologized for the actions of his predecessors that violated this precept.

Nor does human dignity stop at the church door. Throughout the Catechism, the Church insists on the rights of the human person to liberty of thought, association, and action — within the limits of justice and the countervailing rights of one’s fellow men. Only when our actions violate justice — not charity, but justice — is it right to use the violent, coercive power of the State to curb and restrict them. Indeed, it is only justice that can be enforced by the State. Mandatory charity is as moot as mandatory faith or hope.

So in all our discussions of health-care reform and other economic issues, let’s keep in mind that part of loving our neighbor entails not enslaving him at gunpoint to suit our vision of the Good — be it religious orthodoxy, economic equality, or anything else. On a prudential level, we must take with grim seriousness the threat that any health-care plan, even if it for the moment excludes abortion and sterilization, will expand — irrevocably — the power over our lives of a grimly secular State. That’s power we won’t get back, and it won’t (given our Constitution) be used in the service or with the guidance of the Church. “He who is not with me is against me” (Mt 12:30).


John Zmirak is the author, most recently, of The Bad Catholic's Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins (Crossroad). He served from October 2011 to February 2012 as editor of Crisis.

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