Almost five years ago I wrote for ChroniclesMagazine.org a piece attacking Thomas Woods’ views on the relationship between Catholic social teaching and the science of economics. In brief, my complaint was against Woods’ contention that certain teachings of the popes on social matters overstep the boundaries of legitimate Church teaching because they contradict the findings of economics, as Woods conceives them to be. In other words, Woods claimed that a subject, whose conclusions are based merely on human reasoning, is able to trump teachings which more than one pope claimed were a part of his legitimate teaching office. Well, back in 2004 Dr. Woods replied to me at LewRockwell.com, and I replied to him again here. In addition, the exchange generated a large response by ChroniclesMagazine.org readers. A couple years later I submitted a scholarly paper to the Catholic Social Science Review on the separate but related question of what kind of economic analysis is implied or assumed by the popes in the exercise of their teaching on social matters. For although the Church does not claim the authority to set forth the correct principles of economics, or of any other human science for that matter, inevitably the papal social encyclicals make use of certain economic principles and modes of analysis which imply a certain understanding of how an economy operates, just as the popes assume a certain understanding of philosophy, without thereby setting forth a detailed philosophic system. Incidentally, my paper was not primarily an attack on Woods, and I mention him only in a note.
The editors of the Review (with my permission) created a symposium in the journal based on my article, with the chief response by Dr. Woods and four subsidiary replies, Woods and I each selecting two of the respondents. Although, as I said, my paper mentioned Woods only briefly and hardly adverted to the question of dissent from papal teaching, Woods chose to make that point an important part of his reply. All this appeared a couple of months ago in the 2009 issue and I was content to let the matter rest there for the time being. But now Dr. Woods has taken his reply and posted it on LewRockwell.com. Since he has chosen to widen the conflict, as it were, I am taking advantage of the kindness of the ChroniclesMagazine.org editors to reply to him.
In the first place, before I begin to examine Woods’ article, why is this controversy important? It is important for two reasons, the more fundamental of which is that if adherents of a certain form of economics are able to relegate certain parts of papal teachings to merely unfortunate expressions of opinion on the part of popes, why stop with economics? Why cannot adherents of psychology, sociology, philosophy do the same? Although it is true that the Church has not been given the mission from our Lord of elaborating the principles of any of the sciences that are based on human reason and experimentation, she is in the position of stating when the various human sciences impinge on moral or dogmatic questions. It is not the business of economics or psychology, at least as conducted by faithful Catholics, to tell the popes that they have strayed beyond their teaching office into other domains. If the Church cannot say that certain conclusions of the various sciences are sometimes simply wrong, what are we to say to a psychologist who claims that his research shows that sexual promiscuity is necessary for healthy human development? Or to a philosopher who asserts that it is nonsense to talk of entities such as God or angels and that such words are merely meaningless utterances that refer to nothing real?
The second reason that Woods’ project is so unfortunate is that Catholic social teaching is important, indeed very important. Although the Church has been teaching in the area of economic and social morality from her beginning, since Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum every pope has seen this explicit attention to the “social question” as a worthy and appropriate exercise of the authority which Jesus Christ entrusted to the Apostle Peter and his successors. Any Catholic, I would think, who regards the Church as God’s voice in the midst of sinful and fallible mankind would welcome such teaching on the part of the Vicars of Christ. I am aware, of course, that their exercise of infallibility is limited to the most solemn statements, and that some of their utterances do not even rise to the level of magisterial teaching. But when we encounter a certain doctrine, the right of the worker to a living wage, for example, repeated over and over again since Leo XIII as the teaching of the moral law, we would be very foolish to look upon this as anything but the exercise of that authority which Pius XII spoke of in his encyclical, Humani Generis. Pope Pius wrote,
20. Nor must it be thought that what is expounded in Encyclical Letters does not of itself demand consent, since in writing such Letters the Popes do not exercise the supreme power of their Teaching Authority. For these matters are taught with the ordinary teaching authority, of which it is true to say: “He who heareth you, heareth me”; and generally what is expounded and inculcated in Encyclical Letters already for other reasons appertains to Catholic doctrine. But if the Supreme Pontiffs in their official documents purposely pass judgment on a matter up to that time under dispute, it is obvious that that matter, according to the mind and will of the Pontiffs, cannot be any longer considered a question open to discussion among theologians.
So to summarize, a faithful and orthodox Catholic ought to be suspicious of any argument tending to set limits on papal teaching, limits more narrow than those set by the popes themselves, especially when these arguments depend upon some science whose conclusions ultimately rest on man’s fallible reasoning power. This is not to denigrate reason, but to point out its limits and imperfections and that it is not the final authority for a Catholic on matters of faith or morals. After this general introduction let me turn my attention to Woods’ article.