Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Pope Francis and Larry Arnn on Religious Liberty and Property Rights

I have a subscription to Hillsdale's Imprimis. I often find it interesting and enjoyable reading. But there are other times I wonder why I even bother, seeing as how it can read like a bad Western, where the writing is so stereotypical that you know all the characters and their roles before you've even begun. The December edition, an essay on property rights and religious liberty by Larry Arnn, president of the college, fits this mold. Among the baddies are the atheists, the Labour Party, Karl Marx, the Nazis, Barack Obama, the president of France, Progressives, the secretary of Education, socialists, and the Soviets. Arrayed against them are a typical cast of goodies: Aristotle, Christianity, Hillsdale College, James Madison, and Winston Churchill.

Oddly, among the baddies, or at least allied to them, is Pope Francis. To be fair, this is what Arnn writes: "Pope Francis is one who sometimes seems to be an example of the Christian who reads the New Testament as pointing in the direction of socialism. Commerce appears, in some of his writings and speeches, to be a grubby business purely based on self-interest - maybe even on exploitation, the opposite of charity. This reading of the New Testament - which I think flawed, by the way - is why Karl Marx, although he was famously an atheist and militantly opposed to Christianity, praised Christianity in one respect: that it declaimed against private property in the name of an otherworldly denial of self." So Arnn has introduced two layers of qualification here. He acknowledges that the view he ascribes to Francis is one that is "sometimes" found "in some of his writings and speeches." Francis may put forward other views elsewhere, though they are not described. Moreover, Arnn notes that Francis "seems to" or "appears" to condemn business, thus withholding judgement of how Francis actually views it.

I don't mean to call into question Arnn's entire argument regarding property rights, religious liberty, and their essential connection, based on human nature, which is a unity of body and soul. Indeed, I affirm his general conclusions. But I take issue with Arnn's aside about Francis, and not simply as a matter of papist pride.

Firstly, it is curious to me that someone professing to defend the Christian faith would cite Madison (a man who appears to have had little interest in religion and no adult practice of Christianity) and Churchill (an Anglican of nominal practice) while dismissing Francis, leader of the world's largest Christian denomination.

Secondly, Arnn's brief comments, though qualified, substantially misrepresent Francis's views, scattered though they can sometimes seem. Francis has indeed critiqued the contemporary economy. He warned about the "unfettered pursuit of money" and cautioned that "once greed for money presides over the entire socioeconomic system, it ruins society, it condemns and enslaves men and women, it destroys human fraternity." But Francis himself noted that " we are not yet tearing one another apart." The worst excesses of the market, to which we may be tending, have not yet come upon us. Francis's most oft-quoted phrase from this address - "the dung of the devil" - is actually a quotation from St. Basil of Caesarea and a reference not to the market, but to idolatry (of which the market can become but one example).

Meanwhile, Arnn overlooks Francis's comments in defense of property rights and the market. In Laudato Si', by no means an obscure work, Francis approvingly quotes St. John Paul II's comments that "the Church does indeed defend the legitimate right to private property." The remainder of the quotation, which Francis gives, modifies our understanding of these rights, but does not overturn them: "She [the Church] also teaches no less clearly that there is always a social mortgage on all private property, in order that goods may serve the general purpose that God gave them." (For more on this, see Catechism, 2402.)

Likewise, Francis writes in the same document that "business is a noble vocation, directed to producing wealth and improving our world. It can be a fruitful source of prosperity for the areas in which it operates, especially if it sees the creation of jobs as an essential part of its service to the common good." He further explains that, "in order to continue providing employment, it is imperative to promote an economy which favours productive diversity and business creativity." Such a vision may permit, or even require, limited intervention in the market, but I am hard pressed to imagine "productive diversity and business creativity" apart from free enterprise. Elsewhere in Laudato Si', Francis writes: "Helping the poor financially must always be a provisional solution in the face of pressing needs. The broader objective should always be to allow them a dignified life through work." Although he does not specify whether such work would be found in a market or non-market economy, I do not think it absurd to read this, in light of Francis's other comments, as perfectly compatible with the market.

Indeed, this pro-market reading of Francis's comments is reinforced when Laudato Si' is read alongside the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, which notes that the free market has the "capacity to guarantee effective results in the production of goods and services. Historically, it has shown itself able to initiate and sustain economic development over long periods." Again drawing on St. John Paul, the Compendium continues, "The Church's social doctrine appreciates the secure advantages that the mechanisms of the free market offer.... 'These mechanisms 'above all ... give central place to the person's desires and preferences, which, in a contract, meet the desires and preferences of another person.'"

If we are perplexed by Francis's praise of business and strong critiques of capitalism, he clarifies that he favors actual economic freedom, not monopolistic or exploitative behavior cloaked in the language of the free market:
To ensure economic freedom from which all can effectively benefit, restraints occasionally have to be imposed on those possessing greater resources and financial power. To claim economic freedom while real conditions bar many people from actual access to it, and while possibilities for employment continue to shrink, is to practise a doublespeak which brings politics into disrepute. Business is a noble vocation, directed to producing wealth and improving our world. It can be a fruitful source of prosperity for the areas in which it operates, especially if it sees the creation of jobs as an essential part of its service to the common good.
Arnn need not agree with the version of the free market that Francis - and the larger Catholic tradition - espouses, but it is misleading to suggest that Francis advocates state socialism.

Thirdly, Arnn's treatment of Francis is odd because many of the points that Arnn raises in the context of his discussion of Madison and Churchill are points that he could just as easily make from the thought of Francis or other pontiffs. Arnn's central claim is that "human beings are an odd integrity of soul and body." He contends that Madison championed both property rights and religious liberty on the basis of his "understanding of the integrated human being." Arnn even notes that "Marx is clear-sighted about this. He understands that if you like the way the human being is organized - if you like this integrity - then you are going to have to protect it all. And if you do not like it, you are going to have to uproot it all."

Francis, following on St. John Paul II's extensive work on the meaning of human body and its relation to the soul, makes a similar case in Laudato Si', where he writes:
We urgently need a humanism capable of bringing together the different fields of knowledge, including economics, in the service of a more integral and integrating vision.... Human ecology also implies another profound reality: the relationship between human life and the moral law, which is inscribed in our nature.... Learning to accept our body, to care for it and to respect its fullest meaning, is an essential element of any genuine human ecology.
Francis is adamant that moral and religious thinking - which would include the claim to religious liberty and rights of conscious - cannot be separated from political or economic thinking - of which the right to private property, long championed by the Church, is one element.

I hope I have not come off as unduly critical of Arnn or his argument. I overwhelmingly support his goodies and oppose his baddies. And, indeed, when faced with the choice between the right and left of American politics, I overwhelmingly lean right. But that assumes a dichotomy with which I am deeply dissatisfied, a choice a prefer not to make. In a similar vein, if you can guess the conclusions of an essay while playing the intellectual equivalent of darts while blindfolded, perhaps it is time to reconsider the very terms of the discussion. We can be more insightful than this.

Excerpts from Arnn, "Property Rights and Religious Liberty," reprinted by permission from Imprimis, a publication of Hillsdale College.
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