BOOKS AND THE CULTURE SPECTATORS IN the perennial church-state debate had every reason to expect quite a stir when a committee of American bishops issued the first draft of a pastoral letter on the U.S. economy last November. Surprisingly, however, the debate surrounding the bishops’ letter has not been about the inherent inconsistencies in mixing religion with democratic politics. Instead the bishops have been attacked for their naivete, sentimentality, knee-jerk liberal ideology and lack of expertise with economic problems. And much of this criticism has been tainted with an unsettling tone of condescension. Michael Novak’s book, Freedom With Justice: Catholic Social Thought and Liberal Institutions, is no exception. Although the book was written before the draft letter was released \(they came wouldn’t have written the book if he hadn’t anticipated that the bishops would come down hard on capitalism, specifically on the current economic philosophy and policies of the Reagan administration. The condescension is unsettling not only because it affirms the dangerously narrow view that only experts are equipped to offer solutions to economic problems, but also because it trivializes the efforts of those who are seriously committed to examining economic problems in moral and spiritual terms. In Novak’s case, the condescension is subtle, but tangible. Quoting sources from Adam Smith to Ronald Reagan, Novak sets out to show that the current American clergy’s understanding of economics is often based on misinformation and false assumptions. And because he thinks that the Catholic clergy are laymen when it comes to economics, Novak worries that they may not “see through some of the conventional, intuitively acquired notions that do not withstand analysis.” Worse still, their Barbara Paulsen is assistant editor at The Texas Humanist. naive solutions could get passed off as official Catholic teaching. It is almost as if Novak thinks the bishops are foolish schoolboys who dream of doing grand things but don’t know how to achieve them. He fears that the clergy has fallen for socialism and Marxist analysis much as the schoolboy romanticizes about a girl he does not really know. He flirts with her. FREEDOM WITH JUSTICE: CATHOLIC SOCIAL THOUGHT AND LIBERAL INSTITUTIONS By Michael Novak American Enterprise Institute, Harper & Row, 1984 253 pp., $17.95 He is blind to her faults. And he is unduly influenced by what she and her friends think about him. In a section of the book titled “Temptations in the Desert,” Novak says, “One of the constraints the Catholic bishops will face is a need to seem ‘progressive’. . . . The conventional wisdom among many intellectuals and publicists virtually requires that the bishops must in part seem to be anti-business; the prophet motive is quite as powerful as the profit motive.” Having passed off the bishops’ criticism of free enterprise as a mere buckling to pressure from leftist constituents, Novak goes on to delineate some of the pitfalls he wishes the bishops to avoid in writing their pastoral letter on the economy. Of old, he says, Catholic bishops might have been tempted by a nostalgia for the pre-capitalist ideal of an agrarian community of shared values leading them to become romantic about the state. They might have scorned profit and fallen prey to the medieval notion that collecting interest on capital was the sin of usury. In their misunderstanding of the dynamics of economic growth, they might have been tempted to stress security rather than creative risk. The American bishops today, Novak writes, will hardly be foolish enough to adhere to such old-fashioned thinking and its consequent romantic distortions. “American bishops will scarcely overlook the fact that profits are another name for development,” he writes. Lastly, “American bishops will hardly be triumphalist, as if Catholic social thought possessed a superior record in the actual achievement of social justice in Catholic countries. . . . There are wisdom and grace in the US economic system to be affirmed and before which to be humble. . . .” It is, of course, no coincidence that the bishops did what Novak says he could hardly imagine them doing. While they do affirm many aspects of the U.S. economic system, stressing the importance of human creativity, saving, and subsequent investment, the bishops argue most forcefully that the gross inequalities in wealth and income within the United States as well as on a world scale are moral violations of the minimum standard of distributive justice. They advocate major reform in the present welfare system, and citing Pope John Paul II, they deplore the “frenzy of consumerism” that causes a desire for luxury goods and “profits that do not ultimately benefit the common good of humanity.” In short, they affirm the idea that the state has a responsibility to help the poor and to provide jobs for those who want to work. Novak knew that the bishops wouldn’t avoid such “temptations.” In previous works, he is more candid about what he considers to be the “intellectual failure” of U.S. bishops. Namely, that while affirming the liberal ideal of human dignity and its emphasis on the individual person, Catholic theologians and clerics have begun to borrow from Marxist analysis in examining economic problems. He thinks they have come to idealize socialism as a means toward achieving social justice, solidarity and equality . Novak’s dilemma is that he’s not just another apologist for laissez-faire capitalism. He also wants to show that his ideological bias is backed up by Catholic teaching. Again and again, he insists that Catholic social thought’s emphasis on human dignity and individual rights logically compels the bishops also to ogy which he claims makes such rights possible. As a conservative Catholic out to reveal the left-wing distortions of Vatican II, Novak seeks to undermine The Failure of Pragmatism By Barbara Paulsen 26 FEBRUARY 22, 1985
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