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Free-Market Catholics Are Losing Their Faith (in Capitalism)

WEB New York Stock Exchange Christopher Berry CC

Christopher Berry CC

David Mills - published on 12/10/14

After decades supporting the market, some politically conservative Christians affirm the state.

“So,” writes a young man we know, who lives in a roughish section of Brooklyn, “there’s this poor little pit bull running around without a collar near my apartment. It seems to be getting more and more lost and anxious. People keep running from it, and there’s a lot of traffic. There are pretty much only two possible scenarios if the owner doesn’t find it soon: 1) traffic accident or 2) someone gets bitten.”

Fatal for the dog and traumatic for people, in both cases. Our friend was walking his sister’s pit bull mix and though the two dogs began to play together they eventually started play fighting, and since play fighting often leads to real fighting, he took his sister’s dog home and called 311, New York City’s non-emergency number.

He continues: “After a series of inane automated questions and a long announcement about parking regulations, it finally transferred me to Animal Control, which was also automated and asked me a series of inane questions. Finally, when I got to the right selection for reporting a stray dog on the street, it announced that I needed to hang up and dial 911, as I had what it termed ‘an animal emergency.’"

“So I called 911. The operator responded, ‘Sir, that’s not an emergency, call 311’ and hung up. So I called 311 again. This time I managed to trick the system and reached an actual operator, who explained that Animal Control is closed for the weekend, so I should call Monday to report the dog.”

Closed for the weekend. As if stray and possibly dangerous animals get off the streets from 5:00 p.m. on Friday till 9:00 a.m. on Monday. One would think that this would be one of those city agencies open all week, but it’s a city bureaucracy, with staffing and hours set by a higher, political, authority watching the budget, where the work has become 9-to-5 by-the-numbers routine. You will not see from such agencies, though you will from some of their employees, the degree of energy and engagement you think of when you hear “public service.”

Anyone who’s dealt much with a large public agency has had similar experiences, if not worse ones. Conservative websites and talk radio jump on such stories. National Review and The American Spectator love to publish them. The best conservative writers can pull out a dozen or two damning stories and a boatload of statistics that explain the stories when addressing any proposal to expand the welfare and regulatory state. Look at the debate over Obamacare.

By and large, and for about four decades now, conservative Christians — though Evangelicals more than Catholics — have sided with the conservative critique of government and the neo-conservative defense of capitalism. They’ve asserted with convincing arguments and statistics the productive and liberating effect of the market and criticized the naïve recourse to government almost inevitably offered by groups like the National Council of Churches and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. They’ve stressed the approval of the market given in St. John Paul II’s Centesimus annus (“the free market is the most efficient instrument for utilizing resources and effectively responding to needs,” for example), though tending to neglect all the qualifications and limits the pope included in his analysis.

So there’s that. Yet if I read the signs aright, many politically conservative Christians, Catholics and Evangelicals both, are now shifting in their attitude to the state, to a new assertion not just of the limits and dangers of the market but of the need for a welfare and regulatory government. They haven’t become old-fashioned socialists or even social democrats. They still believe in a capitalist economy, but want to restrict, temper, and even direct it in a way much more “liberal” than their movement has allowed since the 1970s.

They don’t make up a self-conscious movement and their affirmation of the state is often inconsistent and tentative, but the people I’m thinking of have broken with the conservative economic orthodoxy of the last few decades. Catholics emphasize the positive understanding of the state found in Catholic Social Teaching, an aspect of the teaching recently ignored, the way families don’t mention the nephew in jail for robbing liquor stores.

 I make this observation from conversations and wide reading in Catholic magazines and websites, and from talks like Archbishop Charles Chaput’s affirming exposition of Francis’s thinking on economics, given at the Napa Conference last July.

Indeed I’ve been surprised at several conservative Catholics I know who’ve strongly defended Francis for his views on politics and economics, people I’d have thought would have criticized him for his failure to support the market more unhesitatingly. You see this attitude especially clearly among the young Catholic writers writing for major Catholic websites, where libertarian voices are rare and where Alasdair MacIntyre is invoked far more often than Michael Novak.

Conservative Christians are changing on racial matters, as I wrote on my weblog last week. Many leading Christian conservatives no longer automatically defer to the police in any conflict and growing numbers are beginning instinctively to take the side of the marginalized and to question the agents of the state. As I wrote, they are now the kind of people whose support for racial minorities and the civil rights movement in the sixties National Review made fun of. The same is true for allegations about rape and the rape culture, as seen in the first responses to the Rolling Stone story on the University of Virginia.

They are moving left on economic matters as well, though not as consistently or quickly as on race. There’s still the problem of the poor panicked dog on the streets of Brooklyn and a city agency arranged to avoid dealing with the problem from Friday evening to Monday morning. But among the Catholics I’m writing about, that kind of problem is no longer dispositive, as the lawyers put it.

What it all means, I’m not sure, though I do think it is part of a growing disengagement of politically conservative Christians from the Republican party — a decisive disengagement that puts their movement into play when, as seems likely, the Republican candidate in a particular election is as pro-choice and pro-homosexual marriage as the Democrat. In the past, economics would have sent them to check off the Republican name. Now, that’s no longer so certain a choice.

David Mills,former executive editor of First Things, is a writer and author of Discovering Mary. His webblog can be found at

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