After reading Getting Used to Thinking with the Church Takes Practice it was a bit of a challenge to separate out the invective against conservatives from the quoted papal teachings. I applied my rule of thumb with success though and thought I’d share both the rule and the application.
The rule is simple. The Pope is not usually an idiot; he’s surrounded by some of the better thinkers on the planet who have been managing to keep Catholicism intellectually viable for centuries through an awful lot of tumult; the words they use are often not used the same way as people local to me do and it’s wise to get your definitions straight before flying off the handle. And then there’s all that Holy Spirit miracle stuff but if you’re not a Catholic yourself, I don’t expect you’re going to find that last bit persuasive.
32. Lowering the level of protection accorded to the rights of workers, or abandoning mechanisms of wealth redistribution in order to increase the country’s international competitiveness, hinder the achievement of lasting development. Moreover, the human consequences of current tendencies towards a short-term economy — sometimes very short-term — need to be carefully evaluated. This requires further and deeper reflection on the meaning of the economy and its goals,as well as a profound and far-sighted revision of the current model of development, so as to correct its dysfunctions and deviations.
36. Economic activity cannot solve all social problems through the simple application of commercial logic. This needs to be directed towards the pursuit of the common good, for which the political community in particular must also take responsibility. Therefore, it must be borne in mind that grave imbalances are produced when economic action, conceived merely as an engine for wealth creation, is detached from political action, conceived as a means for pursuing justice through redistribution.
37. Economic life undoubtedly requires contracts, in order to regulate relations of exchange between goods of equivalent value. But it also needs just laws and forms of redistribution governed by politics, and what is more, it needs works redolent of the spirit of gift. The economy in the global era seems to privilege the former logic, that of contractual exchange, but directly or indirectly it also demonstrates its need for the other two: political logic, and the logic of the unconditional gift.
39. Paul VI in Populorum Progressio called for the creation of a model of market economy capable of including within its range all peoples and not just the better off. He called for efforts to build a more human world for all, a world in which “all will be able to give and receive, without one group making progress at the expense of the other.” In this way he was applying on a global scale the insights and aspirations contained in Rerum Novarum, written when, as a result of the Industrial Revolution, the idea was first proposed — somewhat ahead of its time — that the civil order, for its self-regulation, also needed intervention from the State for purposes of redistribution.
42. The processes of globalization, suitably understood and directed, open up the unprecedented possibility of large-scale redistribution of wealth on a world-wide scale; if badly directed, however, they can lead to an increase in poverty and inequality, and could even trigger a global crisis. It is necessary to correct the malfunctions, some of them serious, that cause new divisions between peoples and within peoples, and also to ensure that the redistribution of wealth does not come about through the redistribution or increase of poverty: a real danger if the present situation were to be badly managed. For a long time it was thought that poor peoples should remain at a fixed stage of development, and should be content to receive assistance from the philanthropy of developed peoples. Paul VI strongly opposed this mentality in Populorum Progressio. Today the material resources available for rescuing these peoples from poverty are potentially greater than before, but they have ended up largely in the hands of people from developed countries, who have benefited more from the liberalization that has occurred in the mobility of capital and labour. The world-wide diffusion of forms of prosperity should not therefore be held up by projects that are self-centred, protectionist or at the service of private interests. Indeed the involvement of emerging or developing countries allows us to manage the crisis better today. The transition inherent in the process of globalization presents great difficulties and dangers that can only be overcome if we are able to appropriate the underlying anthropological and ethical spirit that drives globalization towards the humanizing goal of solidarity. Unfortunately this spirit is often overwhelmed or suppressed by ethical and cultural considerations of an individualistic and utilitarian nature.
49. What is also needed, though, is a worldwide redistribution of energy resources, so that countries lacking those resources can have access to them. The fate of those countries cannot be left in the hands of whoever is first to claim the spoils, or whoever is able to prevail over the rest.
Clearly, there’s a redistributionist streak here but within limits. As is proper for a religious leader the Pope isn’t outlining a five year plan and he’s certainly left himself plenty of wiggle in the specific definitions of what constitutes helpful, rather than counterproductive, redistribution. But is any of this compatible with capitalism, and even more specifically with modern conservative capitalist thought? I believe so.
In the law of the jungle, might makes right and the weak go to the wall. The rich can always buy might and use it to steal from the poor. When the law exists as a fair, even-handed tool that is there for all, it promotes redistribution at such a fundamental level that most people don’t even consider the redistributive effects of it, it’s bedrock foundational for the 1st world because you can’t get rich without it. Yet for a world church, this assumption of the availability of law would be a bad assumption. The rule of law is not everywhere the Catholic Church operates and the Church sees the problems that arise when the law is for the rich and not for the poor. In that sense, conservatives not only support redistribution, we often champion it. This is certainly not the only form of redistribution that conservatives are in favor of but for my part, I’ll be laying out my list in subsequent posts. For everybody else, I encourage you to do so in comments.