Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Catholic Social Teaching and Economic Justice, III: How to Read an Encyclical

In the previous posting in this series we explained how to understand the Catholic doctrine of infallibility. It does not mean that everything the pope says is true simply because the pope says it. Rather (as Catholics believe), infallibility is a special power that the Holy Spirit grants to the pope as pope to discern truth in the area of faith and morals. Nothing is true because the pope says so; the pope says so because it's true.

Even given the correct understanding of infallibility, however, we still have to understand that the pope may teach infallibly, but that does not mean that we learn infallibly — or that the pope did not commit some human error in teaching or otherwise conveying a truth. Just because our faith is strong says nothing about our knowledge or wisdom, our ability to understand a complex or subtle truth, or even to discern when the pope is speaking infallibly as pope, that is, in his official capacity, or when he is speaking as a fallible human being giving an opinion.

The pope as pope speaks infallibly when speaking on matters of faith or morals. Once he gets into applying these principles, however, he is in the area of science, which is beyond the limits circumscribed by the doctrine of infallibility.

This is true even when the science involved is theology, once called the "Queen of all sciences." This presents Catholics with a seeming paradox. Is not the pope as pope the final authority on matters of faith and morals? And isn't theology, well, the pope's job? How could what the pope says in the field of theology not be automatically infallible?

Because the Holy Spirit protects the pope as pope from error when discerning the basic principles on which theology is built, not in his theology. The pope may be (and frequently is) a very fine, even great theologian — a "theological scientist" — and we must be very careful when arguing with him when the subject is theology, the same as you would when discussing physics with Albert Einstein.

That does not mean that the pope is necessarily correct in his theology as a matter of course. Were that the case, the popes would hardly open up theological questions to debate, or present their arguments in order to convince people, and engage in debate with other theologians. He would simply make a declaration, take it or leave it. As a theologian, the pope is a fallible human being applying principles that he as pope discerned infallibly. He is therefore subject to error — not in the discernment of the underlying principle or truth, but in what he does with it.

If that is the case with respect to theology, often the pope's special area of expertise as a human being, it is all the more the case when the subject is economics or finance, our areas of concern. Fortunately, the popes recognize their own limitations, even if some of their supporters do not. Consider, for example, the following passage from Pope Pius XI's Quadragesimo Anno:

"As We have already indicated, following in the footsteps of Our Predecessor, it will be impossible to put these principles into practice unless the non-owning workers through industry and thrift advance to the state of possessing some little property. But except from pay for work, from what source can a man who has nothing else but work from which to obtain food and the necessaries of life set anything aside for himself through practicing frugality?" (§ 63.)

This could not be a better example of what we are talking about. The pope mentions principles he has previously stated. It doesn't matter what those principles are for our purposes. The only thing we are interested in at this point is that they are principles. They are thus to be construed as infallibly true — as absolutely certain knowledge, without question.

The pope then explains that — in his personal, fallible opinion — these principles cannot be applied unless non-owning workers become capital owners. He then goes out on a limb, so to speak, and claims that (again, in his opinion) the only way for non-owning workers to own capital is to practice "industry and thrift."

This is demonstrably not the case. A non-owning worker may become a capital owner in any number of ways. He can inherit wealth and use it wisely to purchase capital. He might win the lottery. Someone might make him the object of charity and give him a fortune. He might steal it. He might even, if the financial and legal system were restructured properly, acquire capital on credit, secure it with capital credit insurance, and pay for the capital with the profits realized from the capital itself.

Obviously we have to use a little common sense here. The pope is not denying that non-owning workers can become owners other than by practicing frugality and thrift. He is saying that, in his opinion and as a usual thing, workers aren't going to become capital owners except by practicing frugality and thrift.

Given this understanding of what the pope is saying, the next sentence becomes a little problematical — at least, if we're looking for infallible declarations. As he says, "[E]xcept from pay for work, from what source can a man who has nothing else but work from which to obtain food and the necessaries of life set anything aside for himself through practicing frugality?"

In other words, unless a propertyless worker makes enough in wages to be able to meet his responsibilities and set aside a sufficient amount to purchase capital, how can he purchase capital, thereby redeeming himself and his dependents from what Pope Leo XIII called "a yoke little better than that of slavery itself." (Rerum Novarum, § 3).

Well . . . by inheriting it, receiving it as alms, gambling, stealing, or gaining access to the same means by which the rich became rich: capital credit.


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