Apostolic Succession without Success

It used to be that the claims of a Cardinal in the church might be above the paygrade of an ordinary university theologian, but in sectors where papal supremacy is still audacious, a bishop’s links to the apostles doesn’t count much any more. Timothy Cardinal Dolan’s op-ed for the Wall St. Journal has not pleased a bevy of Roman Catholic theologians and ethicists:

Jesuit Fr. John Langan, who holds the Cardinal Bernardin Chair of Catholic Social Thought at Georgetown University, faults Dolan for crediting all the positive accomplishments of the economy “to the private sector, while exempting it from serious criticism for the actual defects of our system, the problems of ‘real existing capitalism.'”

“Virtuous American capitalism,” Langan argues, “is an abstraction. The key question is whether the notion is being used to prick or to lull our consciences.”

For Langan, “The real arguments which need to be faced have to do with achieving the right balance of private initiative, redistributive programs, fair regulations, opportunities for the young and for the previously excluded, equitable and realistic taxation, a style of management that treats workers with dignity and respects the environment.”

Unfortunately, he says, “far too many of the friends of American capitalism devote their energies to denouncing, defunding, and otherwise restricting efforts to face the immensely complex set of problems that confront us. They are devoted to a powerful but incomplete method of economic thinking that marginalizes important human needs and values that Catholic teaching is committed to proclaiming and defending.”

What especially caught the ire of the theologians was Cardinal Dolan’s focus on personal morality and virtue while excluding structural issues.

“Cardinal Dolan’s stress on personal virtue as the solution to issues of economic injustice does not give sufficient attention to the structural causes of poverty,” Hollenbach complains.

“These structural issues have long been a major emphasis in Catholic social teaching, especially since Pius XI placed high stress on social justice as a reality that goes beyond the justice of individuals,” he says. “Pope Francis is clearly aware of these structural issues when he argues that markets do not lead to justice by ‘trickle down.’ The Pope’s critique is another way of calling for structural change.”

Dolan’s column “reflects a heavily individualistic understanding of morality,” says Professor Mark Allman, chair of Religious & Theological Studies Department at Merrimack College.

“He seems to reduce the bad behavior of the financial districts to individual choices, which ignores John Paul II’s teaching on ‘social sin’ as ‘institutionalized evil,'” Allman says. “Granted John Paul said all sin is traced back to individual choices, nevertheless there are structural and cultural practices that contribute to a culture or status quo that can be inhumane.” But in Dolan’s piece, “There’s no mention of the need for structural change.”

Then again, the Cardinal wasn’t resting simply on his own ecclesiastical authority, perhaps because economics is an aspect of human interaction that resists divinely revealed categories. Dolan, it turns out, needed the help of Larry Kudlow to yield an opinion with the weight of apostolic authority:

Larry Kudlow of CNBC tweeted that he worked with Cardinal Dolan on the piece. On his show back in August, after quoting the pope’s tweet that people are “unemployed, often as a result of a self-centered mindset bent on profit at any cost,” Kudlow commented, “That doesn’t sound like much of a free market message to me.”

Many of the themes in Dolan’s column can be heard in Kudlow’s show. “I hope sincerely that the pope does not believe that his native Argentina was an example of capitalism,” Kudlow said. “That was state-run fascism, and that was cronyism and stealing.”

He argued that what Pope Francis is saying is, “businesses, politicians, and everybody, we all have to have a conscience. As we go about our business in this system, we must have a conscience and we must not forget those who are less fortunate.” Kudlow said he believes that “Judeo-Christian values, meritocracy values, that is where the rising tide lifts all boats.” He acknowledged, “That does not mean poverty ends, but that is where the rising tide comes from.”

In contrast, Kudlow said “Pope John Paul II had a much more market-friendly approach to all this” because he lived under Soviet Communist rule. “He understood that the socialist systems or even the quasi-socialist systems have no freedom,” he opined. “I am not sure this pope really understands that.”

So the next time Jason and the Callers want to lecture Protestants about our poorly governed ideas and communions, they may want to consider the incoherence in their own seemingly well-ordered circles.