By Daniel R. DiLeo
On November 30, 2013, Ross Douthat offered a thoughtful reflection in the New York Times entitled “The Pope and the Right” in which he considered how politically and economically conservative U.S. Catholics might respond to the economic vision articulated by Pope Francis in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium. Although a critique of this particular article might prima facie seem limited in scope, such an analysis in fact highlights the concepts of fundamental values, root paradigms and “global pre-scientific convictions” in a way that can contribute to broader questions and assessments of Catholic responses to Evangelii Gaudium in particular and Pope Francis in general.
“The Pope and the Right”
The first apostolic exhortation from Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, was published in November 26, 2013. There, the pope built on the themes of concern for the poor and economic justice that he has emphasized since the inception of his papacy. In particular, the pope leveled especially pointed criticism of “trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world” (no. 54). Given that such models generally underpin American economic conservatism, many conservative secular commentators critically denounced the pope’s economic vision. In addition, politically and economically conservative Catholics such as Catholic League President Bill Donohue and Tea Party Catholic author Samuel Gregg were also quick to criticize key aspects of Pope Francis’ economic teaching.
Amidst these condemnations of Pope Francis’ economic vision by both secular commentators and economically conservative Catholics, Ross Douthat, a self-identified economically conservative Catholic, offered a relatively accommodating take on the pope’s economic message. In “The Pope and the Right,” Douthat acknowledges that Pope Francis’s “sharp critique of consumer capitalism and financial laissez-faire” economics stands in tension with American economic conservatism. In response to this conflict, Douthat suggests ways to reconcile “left-leaning papal rhetoric” with “right-of-center [economic] conclusions.” Animated by this ethos of relative openness, Douthat concludes that Pope Francis’ exhortation “should encourage a much greater integration of Catholic and conservative ideas than we’ve seen since ‘compassionate conservatism’ collapsed, and inspire Catholics to ask more — often much more — of the Republican Party, on a range of policy issues.”
From the perspectives of both rhetoric and prescription, there is much to appreciate in Douthat’s article. In light of the on-going culture wars and toxic hyperbolic language that continue to plague both the Catholic Church and the public square in the U.S., Douthat’s respectful tone and thoughtful analysis are a breath of fresh air that all Catholic commentators—indeed all commentators—should take note of and emulate. Additionally, Douthat’s openness to allowing the pope’s words to alter the political and economic platform with which he openly identifies is a commendable and welcomed change in the face of ideologues of all stripes that intractably resist compromise or perceived ideological adulteration of any kind.
Despite these positive aspects, however, Douthat’s article ultimately seems to fall short of the full openness to radical conversation that Christians are invited to embrace. Douthat concludes that “the challenge for conservative Catholics is to seek[ integration — meaning an economic vision that remains conservative, but in the details reminds the world that our Catholic faith comes first.” In other words, Douthat seems willing to allow Catholic faith to shape his conservative economic ideology to a certain degree, but ultimately averse to the possibility of allowing Catholic faith to fundamentally challenge and/or radically reshape his a priori ideology of economic conservatism.
Fundamental Values, Root Paradigms, and “Global Pre-Scientific Convictions”
In light of Douthat’s article, the anthropological concepts of fundamental values, root paradigms, and “global pre-scientific convictions” can serve as important notions by which to better understand how Catholics—in particular economic conservatives—have responded to Pope Francis and his economic vision. In several places, James Bretzke, S.J., Ph.D. describes how anthropologists utilize the concepts of fundamental values and root paradigms—terms that are roughly synonymous with what Rahner calls “global pre-scientific convictions”—to describe the most basic beliefs that inspire and animate a person’s actions and opinions. Although these opinion-shaping foundational beliefs can be conscious and explicitly recognized, Rahner acknowledges that such influential base-level convictions can also be subconscious and lack explicit acknowledgement (“On Bad Arguments in Moral Theology”, Theological Investigations, 18, New York: Crossroad, 1984: 74).
When “The Pope and the Right” is considered in light of these anthropological concepts, it seems that Douthat’s fundamental values are rooted in economic conservatism more than full openness to Catholic sociopolitical thought. As noted, Douthat is expressly closed to the notion that the church’s paradigm might radically alter his “global pre-scientific” economic convictions. By analogy, Douthat’s recommendation seems to model the story of the Rich Young Man who left Jesus in disappointment because he was unwilling or unable to allow Jesus’ message to radically transform his a priori ideology rather than simply be selectively integrated into it (Mark 10:17-22). As such, Douthat’s call for the “integration” of Catholic sociopolitical thought and economic conservatism falls short of the kind of openness to radical conversion to which Catholics are called.
Despite this analysis, however, Douthat’s root paradigm seems to be more open to the fullness of the church’s message than those of Donohue and Gregg. Douthat’s article appeared four days after the publication of Evangelii Gaudium and is open to integrating Pope Francis’ teaching into his a priori economic paradigm. In contrast, Donohue and Gregg were quicker and more critical of the pope’s economic teachings: Donohue published his article the day after Evangelii Gaudium and charged that Francis’ critique of trickle-down economics “suggests an incomplete understanding of this issue,” while Gregg published his response on the same day as the apostolic exhortation and declared that “there are just too many unexamined assumptions about the economy that have made their way into this document.”
In Lumen Gentium, the Second Vatican Council declared that:
In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent. This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will (no. 25).
In other words, the assent to which Catholics are called with respect to papal teachings on faith and morals (obsequium religiosum) requires thoughtful reflection, prayerful consideration, and prudential judgment. Given the time required for this in-depth process, and along with the complexity of the economic issues discussed by Pope Francis, it is difficult to see how someone whose fundamental paradigm is rooted in authentic openness to Catholic sociopolitical thought might be able to dissent from elements of an apostolic exhortation within twenty four hours of its publication. As such, it seems plausible to suggest that the “global pre-scientific convictions” of Donohue and Gregg are fundamentally rooted in economic conservatism—rather than openness to the fullness of Catholic sociopolitical thought—to an even greater extent than that of Douthat.
In light of this assessment, it is important to clarify that this article neither undermines the concept of prudential judgment nor seeks to create a sort of Catholic sociopolitical litmus test. Key economic passages of Evangelii Gaudium are matters of prudential judgment rather than infallible teaching, and Catholics are free to disagree in good conscience with certain assessments and teachings of Pope Francis. Rather, this essay has sought to lift up key anthropological concepts towards the end of considering the extent to which Catholics who have criticized Pope Francis are ultimately guided by authentic openness to Catholic sociopolitical thought or allegiance to some other ideology.
At the end of his editorial, Donohue writes that “Pope Francis is neither liberal nor conservative. He’s simply Catholic, and a towering champion of its many causes.” On this Donohue is correct, and in making this point he affirms the central message of the present article in a way that invites all Catholics to consider its implications. Neither Evangelii Gaudium in particular nor Catholic sociopolitical thought in general fit neatly onto the American political landscape, and given this U.S. Catholics must approach the public square with a paradigm that is fundamentally Catholic rather than rooted in any a priori political ideology—conservative, liberal, or otherwise. Towards this end, Catholics can use the anthropological concepts of fundamental values, root paradigms, and “global pre-scientific convictions” to thoughtfully and honestly assess the extent to which responses to church teaching are ultimately rooted in authentic openness to the fullness of the church’s message or guided by some other deeper ideological commitment.
Note: I would like to express my gratitude to James T. Bretzke, S.J., Ph.D. who first taught me about the concepts of fundamental values, root paradigms and “global pre-scientific convictions.”
Daniel R. DiLeo is a Margaret O’Brien Flatley Fellow and Ph.D. Student in Theological Ethics at Boston College.