Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner was recently invited to give the commencement address at the Catholic University of America. Boehner himself is a practicing Catholic. But some professors both at Catholic U. and other “Catholic” colleges wrote a public letter upbraiding Speaker Boehner for violating Catholic social teachings by proposing major cuts to entitlements. The letter treats the Speaker like a five-year-old, one who is ignorant and hard-hearted, neither knowing about the social teachings of the Church (they sent him a copy of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church) nor caring about the poor. They repeat the old complaint that “it [the budget] carves out $3 trillion in new tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy.” 

While there are a few recommendable passages in this letter—such as, you cannot cut the budget in a way that is a disproportionate sacrifice of the benefits that the poor get—most of it shows a very poor understanding of Catholic social teaching, such that my undergraduate students could write a better letter than this one. In fact, there are so many problems with the letter that one does not know where to begin. So let’s examine just a few points.

First of all, it turns out that Professor Schneck, the first signer of the letter, and hence, probably its author, is a board member of both Democrats for Life and Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good. The fact that he is a Democrat tells us a lot, in that most Democrats have major socialist tendencies, and bow down to the Obama agenda. Secondly, I even question the “life” title. Remember Professor Kmiec (see my articles in this forum about him), who, in supporting Obama’s presidential run even though Obama is the most anti-life presidential candidate we have ever had, justified his support by lumping together concern for the poor with the overt act of murdering an innocent baby, holding that Catholics who concentrate on abortion take away from the other life issues, as if these could be compared. For his loyalty to Obama in suppressing a major moral teaching of his faith, Kmiec was rewarded by the president by being nominated to be the Ambassador to the Vatican. The Vatican rejected him. (Gee, maybe that tells you something.) He then was appointed to be Ambassador to Malta—remember, the island converted by St. Paul (“[i]t profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world but for Malta?”). He got that position, but resigned soon after because basically the Inspector General reported that he was incompetent, used his office for his personal agenda, and did not take directions from the State Department, his immediate superiors. The always whiney Kmiec, of course, denied everything, just as he blamed those who wrote against his questionable life position as being mean. 

The second organization of which Professor Schneck is a board member is funded by George Soros, the billionaire businessman-socialist-atheist, who also funds many of the most leftist organizations in America. While I do not know the personal thinking of Professor Schneck or the other academics who signed the letter, board membership in these organizations does put some questions up for discussion as to the sincerity of the letter and the interpretation given to the social teachings of the Church. 

On the sincerity front, Professor Schneck says that he was shocked that the public letter “became viral” so quickly. This man who calls himself a political scientist did not know that a public letter attempting to embarrass the Speaker of the House prior to his speaking at Catholic University of America would cause a stir? This strains the bounds of credulity, to say the least. If the signers did not want the publicity, if they were that concerned with the Speaker’s moral understandings, why did they not just send it to him privately, even handing it to him after the commencement ceremony, to make sure he got it? The signers of this letter just became shills for the Democratic agenda, hiding behind their version of Catholic social teaching in the process.

Since Professor Schneck is a board member for Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, let us take a look at the nature of the common good. Vatican II defines the common good as “the entirety of those conditions of social life under which men enjoy the possibility of achieving their own perfection in a certain fullness of measure and also with some relative ease, [but] it chiefly consists in the protection of the rights, and in the performance of the duties, of the human person” (Dignitatis Humanae, #6). Notice that this definition has no specific content, but specifies a certain “habitat” in which the human person can develop. The specifics are decided by the laypersons with the guidance of the Church. Nevertheless, the specifics of all this are generally prudential, not moral. Part of this common good is helping the poor. How this is done is part of the virtue of prudence, and includes actions about which there will be disagreements among well-meaning persons. But remember, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” As a Catholic economist, this writer is concerned with things that will actually help the poor, and save the most souls. The writers of this letter seem not to care about the poor or souls, and here’s why. The best way to help the poor is your own personal actions, either alone or in concert with others. Mother Teresa correctly pointed out that Jesus sometimes comes to us in distressing disguises. Personal contact with the poor is where Jesus is met. We, you and I, have the responsibility to help the poor, and when we do it personally, we sanctify ourselves, as opposed to having the government take the money out of our wallets to do that which it thinks it can do better, and buy votes in the process. 

Also, the question should be asked, “Who are the poor?” Are they only those short of cash? Is there a reason why they are short of cash, like, say, just hard luck, or is the cause mental problems, addictions? Are they working poor who never got any skills? Did they have parents who never imparted to them a work ethic? Are they crippled, or seriously depressed? And what about rich people who live in a bubble and never think of the serious questions of life? All these are poor, and money is not always, and frequently is not, the solution.

What about the principle of subsidiarity, which Schneck mentions toward the end of the letter? Subsidiarity was annunciated first as a concept by Leo XIII, although it appears in many other Catholic thinkers, but not by name. Pope Pius XI gave it its name. Subsidiarity holds, first, that nothing should be done by a higher social level that can be done by a lower social level, and secondly, that nothing should be done by a government agency that can be done privately, by either individuals or their groups. As Leo points out, the state is the last resort, not the first. This begs the question, “What has the human race done all these centuries without government welfare programs?” How much of the “lower” and “private” has been destroyed by government doing everything, leading to a cynical approach to the poor by the citizen? How much is this attitude encouraged by statist Catholics who never really stress subsidiarity?

Lastly, what about the enormous budget deficit that threatens the very future of this country? If this is not taken care of soon, we will all be poor. That’s the reality that the letter takes no care to pursue. What about the question of taxes on business slowing the growth of those businesses or driving marginal ones out of business, and contributing to unemployment? It figures that these signatories would not even think of these things. The list of signers has only one economist on it, and he is from Catholic University. He seems like the odd man out, seeing that he is there with a lot of theologians, nursing professors, and directors of vaguely named institutes, and even the head of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, a notoriously leftist and even heterodox organization of non-habit-wearing Catholic sisters.

The answer to the question as to why this even happened is contained in this video, which is very informative. It is really sad that our Church has become so politicized, that we have to beaten over the head with Democratic party themes disguised as Catholicism by folks who have very little idea of the nature of the world, and who have no problem putting Catholics on a guilt trip for trying to find prudential solutions to economic problems their kind of thinking caused in the first place.
If you read my last article, “What Is a Humane Economy?,” you will notice that in there I brought up the subject of whether large corporations seek money or power. I said that if they seek power, it is only because they seek money, which is their raison d’être. Well, this article was a paper I gave at a conference of an academic society. The format of the panel I was on was that each of four participants gave their papers, then responded to questions from the panel, and then responded to questions from the attendees. Mine was the last of the four papers. The first was by a very radical distributist who, I found out later, has no graduate credentials in anything, and said he teaches theology at a good Catholic university down south. I looked at the website of this university and his name does not appear there. Be that as it may, the only “question” anyone asked from the panel was this guy asking something about my paper. I put the word question in quotation marks because he did something I have never seen at any academic conference since I have been either attending or actually giving papers in over forty years: He shouted his question at the top of his lungs, saying: “How can you say that corporations don’t seek power?” I felt like replying in an Inspector Clouseau fashion: “Well, I just opened my mouth and the words came out.” But I didn’t. I tried to answer the question, but he kept shouting his question, phrasing it in various ways. I had to shout over his shouting. Finally, in desperation, I said that we would have to agree to disagree and get on with it. No one else on the panel had any question for anyone else. Incidentally, his paper was a hodgepodge of non-scholarship and ranting, such that if I wanted to question or critique his paper, I would not even know where to start.

There are two lessons from this episode. The first one is that distributism is merely an ideology. And distributists are unhappy folks, because this is not the first incident of this type I have witnessed, just not at academic conferences. If distributists had good arguments, why do they not discuss them in a mature way? But they either use trickery, like asking the speaker trivial questions they know the speaker can’t answer, or merely shout their way through. The reason is that an ideology has, by definition, no convincing reasons. It is merely taking an idea, usually unproven, and building a logical system around it. This is why they do not like probing questions. For example, in a meeting of distributists a student of mine asked how this distributist society is going to come about since there is absolutely no real movement in society toward it. Would it have to be imposed by the government? Everyone in the room got furious with this student for even asking the question—a proof that we are dealing with an ideology. (For a good discussion of probing questions and ideology see, Eric Voegelin, Science, Politics and Gnosticism [n.p.: Regnery-Gateway, 1968].)

Now for the heart of the question. I do not agree with Milton Friedman that the whole purpose of a company is to make a profit. The purpose of a company is to produce something that the founder of the company believes is beneficial to the public. Studies of entrepreneurs have borne this out. But the desire to do this cannot be fulfilled unless the company brings in more money than it spends. The difference between the money it spends and that which it brings in is called profit. As Pope John Paul II said in Centesimus Annus, profit is the sign of the health of the company. In addition, profits are returned to stockholders, who ponied up the money for the company to begin with. They would not have done this without some expectation of a return on their money, which they would have put into a different enterprise. Profits are also plowed back into the company for research and product development so that the company can produce better products.

Why, then, do large companies seek favors from government? They do so because the government will give them privileges which make it easier to make more profit. One way to do this, believe it or not, is to insist that government regulate the industry, because regulation costs companies money, and smaller competitors cannot afford dealing with the regulations, and go out of business, thus limiting competition for the original firm. The same is true of tariffs. Why do corporations not want power? Because power is not money, and they are judged on the basis of money, not power. When the CEO goes to a stockholders meeting, bragging about how often he has been in the White House, it does him no good if the company is failing. But if the CEO has been to the White House and has persuaded the President of the United States to suppress the competition in some way, and that has resulted in an increase in revenue, the stockholders are happy.

The reason that distributists and others do not understand this is because, repeating myself, their views are pure ideology. The value of any writer’s or speaker’s thought comes not from whether you like it or not, but from whether it jives with human experience. Distributism does not. Capitalism does.

But how do we solve this tendency to get government favors for some businesses so that they prosper over those who did not get favors? The remedy is to prevent government from getting involved in the economy. If government were strictly prevented from any interaction with companies for any reason, and this could be monitored, crony capitalism would end. A company would have to survive on its own effort and newcomers to the industry would have a better chance to compete, as well as foreign suppliers. Prices would go down, and the people of the US would not be paying for massive bailouts in exchange for votes for politicians.