"There are only two ways of telling the complete truth—anonymously and posthumously."Thomas Sowell

Sunday, June 07, 2015

Jean Elshtain on the orientation of Catholic social theory

Over at The Mirror of Justice law blog, Michael Moreland posts an excerpt from the work of the late scholar Jean Elshtain on Catholic social thought.  Elshtain was a clear thinker and her work is very much worth reading, as this little bit of her analysis indicates:
Catholic social thought does not offer a “third way,” as if it were simply a matter of hacking off bits and pieces of the individualist-collectivist options and melding them into a palatable compromise. Rather, it begins from a fundamentally different ontology from that assumed and required by individualism, on the one hand, and statist collectivism, on the other. The assumptions of Catholic social thought provide for individuality and rights as the goods of persons in community, together with the claims of social obligation.
Indeed.  Both libertarians who try to ground their own ideology's particularities in Catholic social thinking, as well as big-government statists who do the same, are both missing the boat.  Catholicism isn't trying to "do" politics, it is proposing a way of looking at the world that incorporates both the human person and the common good.  Natural law, the principle of subsidiarity, and the principle of solidarity form the bedrock of Catholic social teaching.  The atomized and desiccated ideologies of the day have much to learn from Catholicism as a consequence.

Related item:  The Imaginative Conservative has posted a piece where the late Catholic social justice scholar Stratford Caldecott discusses a recent statement by Angelo Cardinal Scola discussing the modern idea of rights, an idea that is central to both libertarianism and modern liberalism. Scola makes the point that without a proper understanding of the human person, informed not only by an understanding of the person as an individual but also as a member of a community, there is little room to productively talk about the kind of rights that people hold. The cardinal speaks of this as "I-in-relation." As Caldecott puts it:
It seems to me that the Cardinal is getting at the following. Human rights can only be based on (a) the inherent or intrinsic value of the person, existing in relation to God, cosmos, environment, and fellow human beings, and (b) the actual needs (rather than wants) of that person in that situation if he is not just to survive but to flourish. This requires that we know at least roughly what a human being is and what causes him to flourish—in other words, we need an adequate anthropology. Without that, we are whistling in the dark.

Another related item:  I have had the good fortune of being cited by Prof. Elshtain for an article I wrote on just war theory when I was a law student. Not to brag or anything. If interested my article, which explored Catholic influences on just war theory, can be found here at the Gonzaga Journal of International Law website.


Tom Van Dyke said...

The elegant classicist, the Jewish and/or atheist [not mutually exclusive terms] philosopher Leo Strauss once respectfully referred to "Roman Catholic social science." Since Uncle Leo had that 3000-year stare, and saw everything in terms of Moses or Plato, that "Roman Catholic social science" even merited a mention at the philosophical table, let alone respect, rather floored me.

As for "Roman Catholic social science," it must be built upon natural law. it's gotta work in the real world. It's all more a question of means; all are agreed on the ends. Poverty = bad. Pollution = bad. Murder = bad.

The Church does not have technical solutions to offer and does not claim “to interfere in any way in the politics of States.”

said Pope Ratzinger in Caritas in Veritate, and this must be kept in mind whenever the laundry list of all the world's troubles is trotted out, for which, of course, the left has its matching list of statist solutions.

As for poverty, the question isn't whether there should be a "preferential option for the poor" as Francis puts it, but what's the best means to feed them. Normative Catholic teaching hasn't yet caught up with the fact that free-market economics--capitalism, if you will--has done more to lessen poverty than any coercive redistribution scheme* [in fact, the latter often causes poverty].

Natural law is still the operative dynamic in the Catholic regard for the matters of this world, and "the invisible hand" works. [Natural law requires that its suppositions are borne out in reality.] It is not disloyal to the Pope or the Church for Weigel and the "theo-cons" to argue the Church must update economic principles that were formulated in the early days of the Industrial Revolution.


IN HIS inaugural address in 1949 Harry Truman said that “more than half the people in the world are living in conditions approaching misery. For the first time in history, humanity possesses the knowledge and skill to relieve the suffering of those people.” It has taken much longer than Truman hoped, but the world has lately been making extraordinary progress in lifting people out of extreme poverty. Between 1990 and 2010, their number fell by half as a share of the total population in developing countries, from 43% to 21%—a reduction of almost 1 billion people.


Most of the credit, however, must go to capitalism and free trade, for they enable economies to grow—and it was growth, principally, that has eased destitution.

Poverty rates started to collapse towards the end of the 20th century largely because developing-country growth accelerated, from an average annual rate of 4.3% in 1960-2000 to 6% in 2000-10...

Mark DeForrest said...

Well put, Tom. Pope Francis should appoint to to be one of his advisors! You are spot on about Catholic social teaching being grounded in natural law -- in many ways it is simply natural law applied though the lens of the Beatitudes. IMHO.