The announcement by the Catholic University of America last November that it had received a $1 million grant from the Charles Koch Foundation for the study of principled entrepreneurship provoked a minor dust-up when an organization called Faith in Public Life rounded up 52 scholars (a third affiliated with Jesuit institutions) to sign a letter expressing their agitation over CUA’s acceptance of that gift.
The criticism itself was pretty trivial. The brothers Koch, Charles and David – owners of the nation’s second largest privately-held company and non-Catholics – were accused of having an ideological agenda (of which, of course, the signatories themselves are completely free). They were further accused of “directly contradicting Catholic teaching on a range of moral issues,” to which CUA adroitly responded that the signatories seek “to instruct The Catholic University of America’s leaders about Catholic social teaching, and do so in a manner that redefines the Church’s teaching to suit their own political preferences.” Well put.
The lead signor of the letter to CUA was the Reverend Stephen A. Privett, SJ, president of San Francisco University – this is the Catholic institution of higher education whose chairman of the department of Theology and Religious Studies is an “ordained” priest of the Celtic Christian Church and has presided over same-sex weddings. Perhaps instead of lecturing other university presidents on their fidelity to the magisterium of the Catholic Church, Father Privett ought to tend to the implementation of Ex Corde Ecclesiae at his institution.
The larger point here is that those who admire the Catholic tradition of social thought ought to cheer this grant and the research it will fund. The Church is in urgent need of empirical analyses of the real world impact of public policy choices. And while it may be that economic research is rarely free of any ideological bias, voices must be heard within the Church in defense of job creation and economic liberalization. The absence of those voices renders what the Church has to say on public policy matters platitudinous at best, injurious at worst.
The tradition of Catholic social teaching, rooted in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and begun in earnest with Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 Encyclical Rerum Novarum (“Of New Things”), is both magnificent and evolutionary, responding to the changing circumstances of human existence. A principal challenge to the popes who have contributed to the social canon is the necessity of addressing universal principles and concerns, rather than those of particular modes of government and society.
It falls to local bishops to particularize the universal, as the American bishops attempted in 1986 with the ill-fated Economic Justice for All (the experience of which has prevented the American bishops from authoring another comprehensive statement on economics to this day).
Herein lies the problem: if they confine themselves to drawing-out social implications of Scripture, the Apostolic Tradition, and Natural Law, then the bishops may very well have no need to be informed of economic research. But the moment bishops begin to prescribe specific policies, they take on a moral obligation to be fully informed of the empirical evidence regarding the impact and efficacy of those policies. The American bishops endorsed Obamacare – will the American people actually be better served as the result of its implementation?
Consider two other issues currently in the public eye. Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski of Miami, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, advocates an increase in the minimum wage. Yet 85 percent of rigorous academic studies find that an increase in the minimum wage results in job losses, and there is further evidence of lost hours of work, and decreased opportunities for unskilled laborers. Knowing this fact may not alter the Archbishop’s position, but does he not have a moral obligation at least to be aware of the potential for those policies he advocates to inflict harm?
Similarly, Archbishop Wenski, again on behalf of the American bishops, endorses an extension of long-term unemployment benefits. Yet John Mueller of the economic forecasting firm LBMC and the Ethics and Public Policy Center finds that extending benefits increases the unemployment rate and suppresses GDP (yielding, as we have, a jobless and anemic recovery). Mr. Mueller calculates that the extension of unemployment benefits beyond 26 weeks (currently at 96 weeks) accounted for 3 percent of the unemployment rate at the height of the recession and one percent as of last October. Does Archbishop Wenski have an obligation to take this effect into account? He does if he wants the economic policy statements of the U.S. bishops to be taken seriously.