Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

More and more often on Catholic campuses, left-wing Catholics are hiding their own ideological preferences behind the mantra "Catholic social thought." To listen to them, you would think that the Catholic social ethic has four main emphatic tenets and five great silences. The four emphases are: (1) pacifism and nonviolence; (2) legal limits on the income of the rich; (3) the extension of the social welfare state for the poorest 12 percent of the American population (about forty million people), until all are lifted by government grants above the poverty line; and (4) the elimination of the death penalty in the thirty-some states that still allow it.

Merely on the terrain of social ethics, this creed is notable for (a) its silence about ending abortion (forty-eight million since 1973); (b) its silence about federal funding for embryonic stem cell research and cloning; (c) its silence about the fourfold increase in violent crime since 1965¯committed disproportionately against the poor; (d) its silence about the sixfold increase in father-abandoned families (chiefly among the poor); and (e) its silence about the horrific oppression of Muslim peoples around the world, including the daily assaults on their dignity by secret police, and the normal, regular abuse of their individual rights. We might call these the five silences. But there are others, too.

Don’t believe me? Take up, for example, the article published in the May 2 edition of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette by the former president of St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, near my own hometown of Johnstown. Former president Maynard Brennan, who during his own term in the presidency invited on campus Herbert Aptheker, a leader of the Communist Party U.S.A., wrote angrily¯and untruthfully¯against the recent invitation of President Bush, by the archabbot of the Benedictine monastery, Douglas Nowicki, to give the 2007 Commencement Address on May 11. Bush, he writes, is out of step with Catholic social doctrine.

The current president of St. Vincent, Jim Towey, who once worked under President Bush, wrote a sharp and exact rejoinder to Mr. Brennan in the May 4 edition of the paper. So there is no need for me to take up the particulars. But there are some good background points to make.

Before I had read Mr. Brennan’s fevered letter, I had written of my own nostalgic fondness for St. Vincent, as I began thinking ahead to the visit of a president of the United States to my old stamping grounds in the small towns of southwestern Pennsylvania¯the quarterback capital of the world, you may recall from The Joy of Sports .

I have long loved St. Vincent, visited there often, lectured there three or four times, and my wife’s seventeen prints of the Apocalypse hang there as a set, discovered by the monks in a New York City print gallery.

So Mr. Brennan’s falsifying screed made me angry.

It would be easy enough to tear down his argument detail by detail, so wildly wrongheaded and inaccurate is it. For example, he argues that the average income of the top one percent—1.1 million dollars—is in itself unjust. Yet closer study reveals that the average income of the top one percent is biased toward the very upper end by a few extremely high incomes. It is more instructive that the bottom income limit of the top one percent is $328,000—including a lot of doctors, lawyers, consultants, and other professionals who have incorporated themselves in past years but who now, with lower income tax rates, have gone back to paying themselves outside the corporations in which they used to find tax shelter.

Again, the numbers and the percentage of the poor have plateaued and wiggled around only slightly for some two decades¯and for significant reasons. Only a tiny fraction of them work (or even can work) full-time year-round. The major part of them consists of female-headed households, some with children. Most of these are widows or never married women, the fathers of their children having abandoned them. Wages can’t go high enough, where there is so little work. (And for those who do work doggedly¯modern immigrants, for instance¯their stay in poverty is short.)

On top of that, generous government subsidies for income, housing assistance, Medicaid (or Medicare for the elderly), and the like do not count in the official poverty numbers. Therefore, no matter how much the government assists them with grants, their income cannot go up¯by federal definition they cannot.

The actual amount of federal moneys targeted for the poor and paid out each year is so high that if it were paid out per capita directly to the poor, and also allowed to show up in official tallies of poverty, no one in the United States would be poor. But most of the money doesn’t reach those at whom it is "targeted." It is rather inefficient, in Tom Sowell’s memorable simile, to feed the horses first in order to feed the swallows.

Further, in feeling sorry for the poor victims of Katrina, and blaming their condition on President Bush, I wonder if Mr. Brennan has been watching the way other people in other regions respond to even more total devastation, in the Midwest, for instance. I wonder if he remembers that the Johnstown flood of 1889, just over the mountains from him, killed almost five hundred more persons than Katrina.

Mr. Brennan stands by the Benedictine Peace Statement of 2005. He is free to do that, but that statement is by no means the best, deepest, or longest-standing peace statement of the Catholic social tradition. "We believe that violence does not yield peace," he quotes. Perhaps he is confusing force with violence. It has long been the duty of states to use force in such a way as to establish and defend the tranquillity of international order, within whose rule of law alone peace can bloom among states. Peace depends on law, and law needs sometimes to be enforced, at great cost.

War is not the answer to everything, but in the recent past it has been the answer to slavery, German imperialism in 1914, fascism (1922¯1945), and communism at various spots around the world until in 1989¯checkmated and wildly overspending on arms¯the beast withered from within and gave up the ghost.

Mr. Brennan praised 2,357 Benedictines who felt "concerned about the military and political ethos of our own country where justice is defined on the basis of our self-interest rather than on a consciousness that we are part of a common humanity." This America hating is truly not admirable, and even if does emanate from 2,357 holy, highly moral, and prayerful Benedictines, it remains a slur on many noble and brave fellow citizens. American men and women are not dying in Afghanistan and Iraq in order to advance their own or their nation’s self-interest but out of a noble purpose to bring long-suffering Arab peoples under the same elemental protections as the "common humanity" of the world community of democracies. The aim is to turn the tide toward a more peaceful form of government and economic progress.

Does Mr. Brennan think these bravest ones are dying for oil? The war has already cost more in dollars than our nation could ever pull out of Iraq in oil, even if it wanted to.

Does Mr. Brennan think the war in Iraq has been good for President Bush’s presidency? From the beginning, President Bush understood the costs to himself and his reputation. It would have been irresponsible for him not to act, given the intelligence that President Clinton, Vice President Gore, Secretary of Defense Cohen, and others had themselves learned of and spoken out about. The risk of not acting at all (on a scale of one to ten) was estimated variously by various sources, but by no one was it zero. Many before Bush and before September 11 feared that the probability was in the high range rather than the lower.

Meanwhile, under Saddam Hussein, every violent group in the Middle East was being assisted and given haven, and ten thousand Iraqi citizens were being killed each month. UNESCO reported that five thousand infants were dying a month, from malnutrition brought on by Saddam Hussein’s diversion of funds into his armies and his private palaces.

It is true that Pope John Paul II pleaded with President Bush not to go to war in Iraq. But the Catholic catechism obliged him to recognize that the concrete decision and the personal responsibility in that regard rested with the president himself, and on other world leaders, not with churchmen. In actual fact, as the American ambassador to the Vatican at that time has reported repeatedly, never once did the pope in their meetings insist on no military action by the United States, and certainly never on pacifism (Pope John Paul II was no pacifist). The pope didn’t want the war. But neither did President Bush; it would have gone much better for his presidency if he could have found a way to duck his responsibilities.

Rightly or wrongly, President Bush decided that his constitutional responsibilities could not shield him from the need to take action against Saddam Hussein. What he added new was a positive thrust, an attempt to give the Arab world a first-ever chance to turn the vital energies of their unemployed young into the search for human rights and legal dignity among Arabs, for the rule of law and for the economic opportunity and prosperity long denied ordinary people in that part of the world. This was an attempt to change the direction of history, from terrorism to civil creativity.

In short, there is more than one way of grasping the principles, working out the middle axioms, and examining with accuracy and through open, respectful debate the concrete realities addressed by Catholic social thought. The particular left-wing way so ardently backed by former president Brennan is one way of doing so¯a highly questionable presentation even of the left-wing way, as I have tried to indicate. But Catholic social thought has more than one wing. It needs at least two to fly.

Alas, the imperialist Catholics try to foist off their monolithic, myopic vision of Catholic social thought as though it were the whole of that beautiful, long-lived, and many-colored intellectual tradition. Theirs is only a splinter, not the whole beam.

If Mr. Brennan were content to present his own views, and those of his allies, as one option among many, I would have no quarrel with them. We could then have many useful arguments about the concrete realities, as well as about the policy options most likely of success.

But in that case, Mr. Brennan would have to give up his imperial desire to pretend he is the official voice of Catholic social thought. He might actually learn to enjoy good arguments with persons of goodwill who roundly disagree with him on fundamentals, as well as on concrete matters of fact.

That used to be the good Benedictine tradition we all loved and admired¯generous, open, respectful of diverse opinions, civilizing. That used to be the Benedictine charism.

His colleagues are showing that it is still vigorous.

Michael Novak’s website is . The 1994 Templeton Prize winner, he is also a member of the First Things Editorial Board.

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles