Baptism Is Not an Economics Degree

I’ve had my disagreements in the past with the learned Thomas E. Woods Jr., but as someone who has taken the trouble to read seriously in the discipline of economics (I wrote a book on the subject in the light of Catholic social teaching), I share with him a violent frustration at Catholics who grandstand about “distributive justice” and offer Rube Goldberg schemes for re-engineering our country’s economy, without knowing or caring how wealth is produced in the first place. Our country’s relatively recent, hard-won, and fragile prosperity they treat as if it had descended in pennies from heaven, and the only question now is how to divide up the windfall fairly. All property and all labor, they take for granted, is owned in common. It may suit the State to allow you to hold a “title” to your house, or keep some portion of your wages. But fundamentally you belong to the U.S. Congress, just as a Russian serf and every stick of furniture in his house was the property of the tsar. Left-leaning bishops who wish to make this point note that Creation was given to man in common; they leave out the fact that our labor is our own, and that taxes enforced by the threat of imprisonment can mount up to a kind of slavery. (Medieval serfs paid only 10 percent of their wealth to their feudal lords; you and I pay up to 50 percent when federal, state, local, Social Security, and sales taxes are added up — which means that half our time is spent working with a bayonet at our backs.)

What’s missing from these people’s happy, totalitarian picture is something fundamental to the West, a fruit of Christian culture that it took Vatican II (yes, you read me correctly) for the Church to fully recognize: the fact of human dignity. In the early Church, up through the first writings of St. Augustine, the Church asked only for liberty of worship, confident that the gospel would sway people on its own. In his later years, frustrated by the intransigence of the Donatist heretics, Augustine changed his mind and asked the now-Christian emperors to “compel them to come in.” Building on Augustine’s later work, many popes and countless Christian kings used the coercive power of the State to persecute heretics — arguing that the free will of these individuals was outweighed by the danger to the souls they might lead to hell. Besides, they said in a phrase that became a little bit infamous, “Error has no rights.” Since no one has a right to do what’s wrong, how can those with false beliefs have a right to hold and practice an inaccurate religion? Do they have the right to lie about the gospel?

At Vatican II, the Council Fathers (under pressure from American prelates, as an unsympatheticMichael Davies argues) were more concerned about the very real persecution of Christians throughout the Communist bloc than the duty of (now-deposed) Catholic monarchs to uphold orthodoxy. They reframed the question as follows: Error may have no rights, but the person holding the error does. In Dignitatis Humanae, the Council teaches that the dignity of the human person forbids religious coercion by the State. Pope John Paul II was not, I think, misguided when heapologized for the actions of his predecessors that violated this precept.

Nor does human dignity stop at the church door. Throughout the Catechism, the Church insists on the rights of the human person to liberty of thought, association, and action — within the limits of justice and the countervailing rights of one’s fellow men. Only when our actions violate justice — not charity, but justice — is it right to use the violent, coercive power of the State to curb and restrict them. Indeed, it is only justice that can be enforced by the State. Mandatory charity is as moot as mandatory faith or hope.

So in all our discussions of health-care reform and other economic issues, let’s keep in mind that part of loving our neighbor entails not enslaving him at gunpoint to suit our vision of the Good — be it religious orthodoxy, economic equality, or anything else. On a prudential level, we must take with grim seriousness the threat that any health-care plan, even if it for the moment excludes abortion and sterilization, will expand — irrevocably — the power over our lives of a grimly secular State. That’s power we won’t get back, and it won’t (given our Constitution) be used in the service or with the guidance of the Church. “He who is not with me is against me” (Mt 12:30).

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