If God weren’t in the details, Catholics wouldn’t fight with one another so much. It’s all bunnies, kittens, and unicorns when we talk about principles, and vipers and velociraptors when we try to apply those principles.
This came up this week with the appearance of a statement on Catholic socialism by a group calling themselves the Tradinista! Collective. They are so far anonymous, with even the two names on the home page apparently pseudonyms.
Doing a good thing
Judging from a survey of web responses, a few people cheered the Tradinista! Manifesto, some appreciated the effort while disagreeing with the content, some argued with it, and several went after it like snarling spitting monsters, dismissing the Tradinistas as privileged kids playing at politics, or dreamers who preferred their dreams to hard realities.
“Socialism” seems to be taken as a “Hit Me” sign taped to their backs. If the writers argued at all, they used arguments like “The Church condemned socialism ha ha stupid people!”, which ignored the different meanings of socialism, and the history of the Church’s use of the term, to score a cheap debating point. The critics were often so unfair to the writers that I think they committed the sin of detraction.
The Tradinistas, whatever one thinks of their ideas, did a good thing in offering a genuinely leftwing alternative. If they manage to get an ongoing place in the wider Catholic discussion, I wrote on Ethika Politika, their arguments will force other Catholics to more seriously consider some neglected aspects of the Church’s social teaching.
This is all to the good, even for economic conservatism, which needs constant challenge to make its best, more humane proposals, and not to sink into libertarianism or social Darwinism. It’s good for Catholic economic conservatives who in the press of public debate can favor conservative thinking over Catholic.
I’ve appealed to the Church’s social teaching and had a Catholic economic conservative say “That’s just wrong” and go on as if he’d settled the matter. No struggle with what the teaching might mean and might require, no examination of his beliefs in light of the Church’s challenge, no concern that he’s become the kind of dissenter he otherwise condemns. Too many people take the fact that Catholic Social Teaching isn’t quite as binding and authoritative as the Creed to treat it as something advisory and optional.
Issues to work out
These are issues to be worked out, that the Church must work out to be faithful to her calling in the world — especially as the world loses touch with certain truths about man and becomes less genuinely humanistic. More to my point here, the issues illustrate what happens when we move from talking about principles to making those principles incarnate in the world.
Take the Acton Institute crowd as representing Catholic liberalism (in the classic free-market sense) and the Tradinistas as representing Catholic socialism. The gap between them is very wide, and perhaps unbridgeable.
But not on the principles. They’d both agree on general ideas like human dignity and flourishing, the good of individual freedom, the need to care for the poor, the authority of the Catholic Church, the inadequacy of secular answers, the evils of totalitarianism, and others.
If that’s all they were talking about, it would be bunnies, kittens, and unicorns. But social teaching, like politics, only matters if it really matters, if it changes peoples’ lives: their jobs, the availability of jobs they can get, their housing, the stability of their neighborhoods and their ability to move, their safety, their savings, their ability to save anything, their ability to go to school and to get ahead by working hard, their freedom from barriers of race or class.
Ask those questions, and Actonite and Tradinista will argue, probably fiercely, with words said on both sides later to be regretted (or not). These are big questions with huge effects on human happiness, and people care very much about their answers. Catholic sinners fighting over ideals fight like sinners. It’s likely to be vipers and velociraptors.
There’s no way the Church can answer very important questions without argument. The gap between principle and application is far too great for easy agreement. The Church’s future will include lots of fighting, and that’s okay. There’s no other way to do what we have to do, though we can do it better than we do.