Response to Ross Douthat’s “The Pope and the Right”

Ross Douthat spelled out what a lot of right wing Catholics must be thinking in a recent NYT opinion piece. I’ll respond point by point. I do not think this piece of writing is unsophisticated or egregiously off the mark, but still, I’d like to put forward my thoughts in its context.

To begin with, Douthat critiques three major defenses right wingers have thrown up: first, that Francis’ statements about the economy in his recent apostolic exhortation are not really so unusual that we should take major notice of them; second, that his comments are pastoral in nature, not wholly political. The last argument he lists has to do with papal infallibility, which I don’t have the expertise to take up at this time. On the first two arguments, Douthat writes:

First, they have pointed out that there’s nothing truly novel here, apart from a lazy media narrative that pits Good Pope Francis against his bad reactionary predecessors. (Many of the new pope’s comments track with what Benedict XVI said in his own economic encyclical, and with past papal criticisms of commercial capitalism’s discontents.)

Second, they have sought to depoliticize the pope’s comments, recasting them as a general brief against avarice and consumerism rather than a call for specific government interventions…

It’s true that there is far more continuity between Francis and Benedict than media accounts suggest. But the new pope clearly intends to foreground the church’s social teaching in new ways, and probably seeks roughly the press coverage he’s getting.

It’s also true that Francis’s framework is pastoral rather than political. But his plain language tilts leftward in ways that no serious reader can deny.

I imagine a lot of left Christian readers let this part slide because he seems to be setting up his argument here rather than doing any offensive argumentative work of his own. It may also look like he’s supplying a healthy critique of his own side. But Douthat is not really launching a full critique of his comrades here. Look at how his defenses let the major problems with the two arguments he supplies slide:

1.) In his response to argument one, we receive only a defense of the continuity between Francis and the previous pope Benedict, but lose the admission of continuity between Francis and the whole of Catholic tradition.  It’s true that popes have held wildly different political positions over time, but to pretend that the only source of authority in the tradition for Francis is his direct predecessor Benedict is to dispense with his consonance with hundreds of years of renowned church thinkers, including my often cited Augustine and Ambrose. In other words, saying “yes, Francis’ views track well with Benedict’s, but he’s definitely pushing them harder” is to weasel out of the admission, “yes, Francis’ views track with Benedict’s, and with the church fathers who give Catholic social teaching much of its richness, vitality, and rigor.” I do agree with Douthat’s assertion of emphasis; Francis clearly sees poverty as his project, but the admission of continuity stopping with Benedict is a clever move by right apologists (note: Douthat isn’t the one to credit with inventing this move, but he doesn’t correct it, either; this isn’t to say he writes in bad faith, but that his critique shouldn’t be understood as complete) to make Francis’ position appear temporary and uprooted from history.

2.) To say that Francis’ framework here is ‘pastoral’ yet clearly ‘leftward’ is to use language in a clever way to slice the feet out from under Francis. Let me try to be as plain as possible: Francis’ framework is better expressed as ‘theological’ than pastoral, and ‘in good accord with the teaching of Christ’ than ‘leftward.’ When we collapse good, strong, robust political theology down into ‘leftward’ politics with a weak ‘pastoral’ edge, we imagine Francis’ position to be more of an ad-hoc political response to a newly arisen issue than a piece of theory about what is true of the relations between man and God, and when we claim his words are ‘clearly leftward’, we give a temporary, historically contingent political label to what is more accurately viewed as anywhere and always true of the relations between man and God. Let there be no mistake: Francis has done what the right most hates by pulling off the veil of moral neutrality from markets and the government structures that support their operation. He has said these creations of mankind must be as open to judgment as any other, and to shy away from this, the right would really prefer his purpose be a short-term political admonishment, not a wholistic statement about right concord with God. After this set-up, Douthat offers three short rebuttals to Francis’ overall position in Evangelii Gaudium. Here they are:

First, that when it comes to lifting the poor out of poverty, global capitalism, faults and all, has a better track record by far than any other system or approach.

Second, that Catholic social teaching, properly understood, emphasizes both solidarity and subsidiarity — that is, a small-c conservative preference for local efforts over national ones, voluntarism over bureaucracy.

Third, that on recent evidence, the most expansive welfare states can crowd out what Christianity considers the most basic human goods — by lowering birthrates, discouraging private charity and restricting the church’s freedom to minister in subtle but increasingly consequential ways.

1.) If we assume global capitalism has a better track record than (what else, exactly?) other systems at creating enough production to be adequately distributed in such a way that the maximum number of people might escape poverty, then what we’re arguing for is something akin to what we see in European social democracies, e.g. a free market with necessary regulations and powerful programs of just distribution. In other words, if after global capitalism has done its work we still see widespread poverty and intolerable inequality, it is still theologically incumbent upon us to respond to that poverty. We cannot say: “well, we enacted the system we think works best, and though we could now do more, we’re off the hook.” This presumes God is only interested in procedural justice, e.g. making the best first-order decision about how to proceed, and then shrugging off the consequences. But God’s moral judgment of our actions does not end with intent, nor is it ever even suggested to be purely procedural: outcomes matter, and we must always answer why we’re choosing not to aid our poor.

2.) You can read my takedown of the right wing co-opting of subsidiarity here. I think Clare Coffey also makes a very wise point (which we’ll be writing on soon) when she points out that not all distribution programs focused on relieving poverty are out of keeping with subsidiarity, even in the way Douthat imagines it. For instance, if a government simply distributes a Universal Basic Income to everyone and then lets poor families and communities decide how to spend that money, isn’t that 10x more friendly to the notion of self-regulation and community driven resource use than having food pantries decide, effectively, if you can eat ritz crackers or canned soup today? Subsidiarity is about, in part, the liberty of people and communities to self-actualize without being crushed by the authority of organizations that control resources and can thus powerfully influence instances of smaller constitution beneath them. In that case, scattered and spotty assistance programs that regulate precisely where you can live, what you can eat, etc. are much less friendly to subsidiarity than the government simply doing it’s job by distributing something like a UBI, and then letting the poor choose how to spend their money and run their lives from there.

3.) As Mary T. Clarke says, if you feel disincentivized to give charity because material needs have been met, you never had the love to give in the first place, only the material gift. Charity is an expression of love, when it’s legitimate. If you’re giving only a material gift without the deep love of your neighbor, you’re not doing charity. But if you’re still interfacing with your neighbor with that same deep love long after the material gift is no longer necessary for their survival, you will still be doing charity! I have pointed out before that poverty impoverishes our expectations of charity, and here Douthat appears to prove my point.

I’m not exceptionally interested in his birthrate argument because I don’t see high birthrates to be an intrinsic good. If what’s being gotten at here is the source of the dropping birthrates, e.g. later and rarer marriage and the use of birth control, I have already pointed out that it’s poverty, not wealth, that seems to militate against marriage; I have no moral objection to the use of most kinds of birth control, and at any rate would consider the converse (intentionally making people poor so that they’ll have huge numbers of children) pretty evil, as it would require the intentional infliction of poverty upon, of all things, scores of infants.

As for the freedom of the church to minister, this is not an issue native to states that support robust poverty alleviation programs; see, for instance, the preponderance of Christian socialist parties alive and well in Europe. That we would likely all agree that some distance between church and state administration is optimal for both structures proves that this is an issue to be argued by degrees in post-hoc fine tuning, which is always possible within a democracy.

As for me, I think the most important thing about Francis’ entire position, as he performs it and writes it, is that it reminds us that all institutions created by human hands are subject to God’s judgment, and we cannot escape accountability for what we create by pretending it’s morally neutral (markets, distributions) or that since the creation itself was just, we should not have to answer for its outcomes. It’s disingenuous for the right to pretend that we’re proposing full communism or some such soviet-esque boogieman system here, when there are lower order and simpler projects that would achieve our ends of alleviating poverty. It’s also dishonest to divorce this project from theology: for Christians, tireless devotion to the cause of the poor will always be an expression of our love of God, and to attempt to render it amoral or trivial is to deliver a blow to the right concord between people and God.