Fr. Longenecker and Papal Economics

Francis wave2Fr. Longenecker has posted an interesting blog in which he compliments a piece by Ross Douthat at the New York Times which I agree seems insightful.  The trouble is that some of those who are accusing Pope Francis of being ‘naïve and simplistic’ about the economy are actually ‘naïve and simplistic’ about the Church’s social doctrine and doctrine of the Church’s magisterium.  Just to clarify I am not talking about Fr. Longenecker, who for me has been a great stimulus for thought.

One small historical example would be the fact that when Leo XIII condemned ‘socialism’ he mostly meant what we today call ‘communism’ though he may have had in mind what later developed as National Socialism in Germany.  My point is that modern western democratic governments which happen to be frankly mildly ‘socialist’ when compared to the US are probably not what Pope Leo had in mind with his condemnation of ‘socialism’.

Nor has the developing social doctrine of the Church taken sides and condemned all attempts at modern democratic socialism (as defined above).  A recent work by Maciej Zięba, OP (Papal Economics, ISI Books 2013) has a section highlighting the change and ambivalence in the use of these terms through various modern Popes in the Church’s Papal teachings (p. 57-60).

I think Fr. Longenecker is on to something when he says;

The stereotyped economic debate still seems to be centered around certain naive assumptions: that capitalists are always money grubbing, greedy villains and that collectivists are always high minded, idealistic brothers and sisters of the poor.

What if the Pope isn’t trying to ‘take sides’ economically, but rather asking for new dialogue in which the Church’s venerable ethical traditions are allowed to question our current economic theories?  Are we right as Catholics if we say that the Pope has no authority to say anything in this area?  I want to be careful here.  It is the broad principles of social doctrine which are timeless and binding, but what reaction is called for by the Catholic faithful to the ordinary magisterium of the Church when it suggests certain critiques or application of these principles to real situations?

Tim Worstall, a Fellow at the Adam Smith Institute in London, contributes an otherwise interesting opinion piece to Forbes about Evangelii Gaudium in which he fasley concludes,

Fortunately the idea of Papal Infallibility only applies to occasions when the Pope himself declares that he is speaking infallibly. Which, from memory, has only been done once to assert the possibility of the doctrine of Papal Infallibility. So it is still OK to disagree on this point about the nature of a desired economy.

While Worstall  is partly right, (it is OK to disagree about the nature of a desired economy) yet his comment displays a common misunderstanding of authority and infallibility.  This opinion falsely believes that if something is not formally pronounced in an infallible statement we are free to ignore it as mere opinion.  Recently Avery Cardinal Dulles published a work on Magisterium (Magisterium: Teacher and Guardian of the Faith, (Naples, FL: Sapientia Press, 2007) which outlined some of the nuances of this doctrine including various levels of infallibility attached to Church documents. Dr Martin Rhonheimer points out that it is important in the case of the Church’s social doctrine to observe a “distinction between two levels: on the one hand, the level of the principles of the doctrine of the Catholic faith; on the other hand, that of their concrete historical application.  (Nova et Vetera, English Edition, Vol. 9, No. 4 (2011): 1029–54).   Dr Rhonheimer notes;

In the magisterial declarations—in particular in those touching on political, economic, and social issues—many elements are found that depend upon historical circumstances. The magisterium of the Church in the field of social teaching also contains, together with immutable principles founded on the doctrine of the faith, a mass of implementations that are often, in hindsight, rather dubious. What is involved here is not a type of “teaching” similar to Catholic teaching in matters of faith and morals, where the Church interprets the natural law in an obligatory manner—as in the cases of questions concerning contraception, abortion, euthanasia, and other moral norms in the field of bioethics. (p. 1046).

Fr.  Anthony Figueiredo has pointed out that “the classical conception of the magisterium emphasizes four basic characteristics regarding the teaching function of bishops”.[1]  First the Pope is seen as the head of the college of bishops.  Since all authentic teaching authority is concentrated in the episcopal order, and since the pope is the head of the College of Bishops, then the pope is the supreme and universal teacher of the Church.[2]  Secondly the pope and bishops alone are the authentic teachers of the Church because they have received their office or powers through Holy Orders.  Those who have received these orders are given the special assistance of the Holy Spirit (Luke 24:25) which is rooted in the gift conferred on the Apostles enabling them “to know the mind of God, and to interpret Scripture as God willed”[3]  This assistance of the Holy Spirit allows the magisterium of the Church to be infallible in two ways: in an extraordinary way in the infallible definitions of a Council or in the infallible pronouncements of a Pope when he speaks ex cathedra, and secondly in the “ordinary  and universal teaching of the pope and the bishops in union with him.”[4] This does not imply that other acts of the magisterium which are in the form of solemn definitions, are necessarily subject to error and a matter for open debate.[5]

While paying attention the distinction made by Fr. Rhonheimer above, what sort of response from the faithful is called for in relation to papal teachings which are not given at the highest level of infallible pronouncements? The fathers of the Second Vatican Council specifically outlined the degree of ascent various types of teachings.

In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent (religioso animi obsequio adhaerere debent). This religious submission (religiosum obsequeium) of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to (sincere adhaereatur), according to his manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking. (Lumen Gentium, 25)

The Catechism quotes this point explicitly noting;

Divine assistance is also given to the successors of the apostles, teaching in communion with the successor of Peter, and, in a particular way, to the bishop of Rome, pastor of the whole Church, when, without arriving at an infallible definition and without pronouncing in a “definitive manner,” they propose in the exercise of the ordinary Magisterium a teaching that leads to better understanding of Revelation in matters of faith and morals. To this ordinary teaching the faithful “are to adhere to it with religious assent” (religioso animi obsequio adhaerere debent )422 which, though distinct from the assent of faith, is nonetheless an extension of it. CCC 892

Again returning to Fr. Rhonheimr’s distinction, in the Church’s social doctrine we must be in complete submission to the general principles of social doctrine but the concrete historical situations are subject to change and debate.  While Lumen Gentium 25 might not have as great a force for the specific historical applications of social doctrine, should not the principle be that we are at least willing to listen to the Pope and to allow our hearts to be challenged by what he says in these areas?  Rather than dismissing the Pope as ‘naïve and simplistic’ are we not rather called to offer him docility and respect?  I was particularly moved by a post on First Things by Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry in this regard. Once again I do acknowledge that their can be respectful disagreement on the specific applications of social doctrines.  I should point out that this respectful dissagreement requires that one knows the principles of the social doctrine and that one is applying them rightly, and not that in an unprincipled manner we can do what ever we want.  Yet as a further challenge to those of us who are catechists, what example are we giving to to other Catholics if we publically disrespect the Holy Father’s official teachings?

[1] Figueiredo, Anthony J. The Magisterium-theology relationship: Contemporary theological conceptions in the light of universal church teaching since 1835 and the pronouncements of the bishops of the United States  Tesi Gregoriana: Serie Teologia 75. (Rome: Pontificia Universita Gregoriana, 2001), p. 30.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., p. 32.

[4] Ibid., p. 33.

[5] Germain Grisez, “Infallibility and Specific Moral Norms: A Review Discussion,” The Thomist 49 (1985): 248-87 and his “The Ordinary Magisterium’s Infallibility: A Reply to Some New Arguments,” Theological Studies 55 (1994) 720-32.

© Scott McKellar 2013



  1. […] by arguing that he was speaking unauthoritatively, which in itself showed a lack of knowledge of Catholic teaching. The point is that there was a lot of negative labeling going on. Surely even Rush Limbaugh is not […]

  2. Dr Peter Davids (above) linked my post in his own reaction to Pope Francis on Economics. The Catholci News Agency reported:
    Vatican City, Dec 15, 2013 / 09:07 am (CNA/EWTN News).- In an interview published Dec. 14 in the Italian newspaper La Stampa, Pope Francis has responded to several questions touching controversial topics that have arisen in his papacy.

    When asked by Italian Vatican analyst Andrea Tornielli about the accusations of Marxism from “ultra-conservative Americans,” who took issue with certain passages of the Pope’s recent apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, the Pontiff was quick to denounce such ideology.

    “The Marxist ideology is wrong,” he responded flatly.

    The Pope had severely criticized the assumptions behind “trickle-down theories” in the exhortation, saying that they expressed “a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.”

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