Cardinal Timothy Dolan has a new article in the Wall Street Journal. It is massively disappointing and either exceptionally inarticulate and incoherent or an intentional dissent from Catholic doctrine on economic justice. What is clear is that it is an attempt (albeit failed) to spin Pope Francis’ strong defense of economic justice in order to make it more free market friendly. The article fails to address the critical role government must play in regulating markets and redistributing wealth for the sake of the common good (outside of vague references to proper regulation and “public policies of ‘legitimate redistribution of economic benefits’”). No effort at all is made to explain what this means in terms of the role government must play in promoting the common good. Free market fundamentalists can read ‘properly’ (regulate) and ‘legitimate’ (redistribution) as ‘minimally’ and ‘minimal,’ reinforcing their libertarian beliefs. Nothing is done to disabuse them of the illusion that their beliefs are compatible with Catholic teaching.
Cardinal Dolan writes, “The answer to problems with the free market is not to reject economic liberty in favor of government control.” This language simply does not reflect the language that has been used in over 120 years of Catholic Social Teaching. If it is merely a rejection of communism, the language is imprecise and unfortunate. But one might also draw the conclusion that ‘government control’ means coercively redistributing wealth and regulating markets, both of which the state has the responsibility to do under Catholic teaching.
He concludes by writing, “A just economic order relies on both material wealth and on people’s openness to the transformation of their hearts in love and solidarity. That is the path to the greatest kind of prosperity for all.” It also relies on the state playing a critical role in ensuring economic justice. This is integral and cannot be ignored or mentioned only passingly. It needed to be at the center of this article if he intended to explain authentic Catholic social teaching and Pope Francis’ efforts to promote economic justice.
In reminding us that “what many people around the world experience as ‘capitalism’ isn’t recognizable to Americans” and “Americans must remember that the holy father is speaking to this world-wide audience,” the article seems to imply that Pope Francis’ critiques of economic libertarianism are not really applicable to the United States, only to ‘crony capitalist’ states, a talking point favored by free market fundamentalists who reject Church teaching on economics. Perhaps the most stunning line, one that indicates that Cardinal Dolan is disconnected from the very culture in which he lives, is his false claim that “few people subscribe to an inhumane philosophy of radical economic individualism.” The very heart of Pope Francis’ message is a critique of this individualism, and he is not Don Quixote tilting at windmills. Proponents of economic libertarianism, which is rooted in radical economic individualism, play a critical role in American politics and are the chief obstacles to social justice.
On twitter, free market enthusiast Larry Kudlow, who has been critical of Pope Francis and is a proponent of the bogus theory that Pope Francis does not understand free market capitalism because he is from Argentina, noted that he worked with Cardinal Dolan on the article. In attempting to explain Pope Francis’ approach to economic justice, why on earth would Cardinal Dolan turn to a critic of the pope?
This may explain, however, why he fails to clearly articulate the role government should play in promoting economic justice and focuses on individual virtue instead. He writes, “Virtuous people, acting justly, compassionately and honestly, are the foundation of good economic or business activity that can produce prosperity for all, and not just for a few.” Individual virtue is something worth encouraging and it is critical to a more just society, but that cannot be the basic foundation of economic justice, because human beings sin. If men were angels, no government would be necessary, but here on earth, institutions must protect against individual and structural sin. This is why while we encourage women to choose life and work to give them the resources they need to make that choice, we also work to ensure that the state will guarantee unborn children the right to life.
Cardinal Dolan calls for a “middle course” on economics. That’s great. Unfortunately he does nothing to point us in the right direction of where that middle path is. Instead, he embraces themes that have been articulated by critics of the pope. If Cardinal Dolan wants to support Pope Francis’ efforts, next time he would do well to reach out to those who understand Church teaching and have been fighting for economic justice here in the United States, instead of free market enthusiasts who reject Church teaching.