Erroneous autonomy: Third edition

by Michael Sean Winters

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January 10, the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies (IPRCS), at which I am a visiting fellow, will host a conference entitled "Erroneous Autonomy: The Dignity of Work." The event will be held on the campus of the Catholic University of America. Complete details and registration can be found here.

This is the third in a series of conferences around the theme of the relationship of Catholicism to libertarianism that IPRCS has sponsored. The first was held in June of 2014 and featured a keynote address from Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga that included a bristling and engaging defense of Pope Francis' critique of neo-liberal economics. In planning the event, we knew we wanted to invite a U.S. bishop with the intellectual chops to respond to the cardinal, and we providentially invited Bishop Blase Cupich, then the bishop of Spokane, to do so. No one knows the degree to which that talk put Cupich on the Vatican's radar screen, but three months later, Cupich got the call informing him Pope Francis had appointed him to be Archbishop of Chicago.

In addition to those two speeches, the intellectual energy generated by the panel discussions was remarkable, and several attendees so remarked. Listening to the first panel, the cardinal leaned over to me and said that he had worried he was walking into hostile territory before the event, and he was thrilled to find highly articulate academics who grasped the Holy Father's critique and were unafraid to apply it in an American context. Fr. Mark Massa, Dean of the School of Theology and Ministry at Boston College, was so excited by the discussion that his next dean's colloquium picked up on the theme, with an all-day conference in Chestnut Hill on the related theme of "why libertarianism isn't liberal."

While planning the first conference, Fr. Clete Kiley, a Chicago archdiocese priest, director of immigration policy at UNITEHere, and a senior fellow at IPRCS, suggested we invite Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, to introduce the cardinal. It was an inspired selection. After the event, one of Trumka's aides said that organized labor had been working at developing language that provided a moral and human indictment of current economic relations, and that Cardinal Maradiaga and the other participants had greatly eased that task. They were thrilled by what they heard.

So thrilled, that the second iteration of the Erroneous Autonomy conferences was held the following summer at the headquarters of the AFL-CIO, right across the street from the White House. The subtitle of the second conference was "A conversation on Solidarity and Faith," and the keynote address was given by Washington's Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who not only recalled his and Trumka's shared roots in Western Pennsylvania, but also delivered a powerful explanation of Catholic social doctrine as it pertained to current social and political realities. One passage in his comprehensive talk really stayed with me:

I grew up in that part of Southwest Pennsylvania where the labor movement was quite active. One visible way that solidarity was manifested, both within the movement and in the larger society, was respect for the picket line. Once, some years ago, as I was making my way to a close by store, preoccupied in thought, I heard someone say "Please Father." I then looked up and saw this picket line. Needless to say, I stopped. "Thank you," she said to me. Growing up it was clear — you don't cross a picket line.

The efforts to stand together on behalf of all human development, to be inclusive in our outreach to all people, to demonstrate the commitment to protect the environment and our respect for all human life are the new picket lines of today which we ask all, with us, to respect.

Here was the cardinal, in a non-religious setting, explaining in a thoroughly accessible way church teaching about conscience and the moral law: There are certain things which, out of respect for human life and dignity, you simply do not do. It was also the first time in many years since I heard a reference to St. Pope John Paul II's second social encyclical Sollicitudo rei socialis (1987), but which many theologians have since come to recognize is a key link in the development of Catholic social doctrine from Blessed Pope Paul VI's Populorum progressio in 1967 and Pope Francis' Evangelii Gaudium in 2013.

That second conference was also distinguished by the collaboration of faith leaders from other faith traditions. Rabbi Jack Moline of the Interfaith Alliance and Professor James Bratt of Calvin College demonstrated how deep the roots of solidarity are in their respective traditions, and Lisa Sharon Harper of Sojourners spoke powerfully about the role of solidarity in fashioning both the themes and the methods of the civil rights movement. Professor Meghan Clark, who has emerged as one of the leading young theologians in the country, spoke at both the first and second conferences, and has written a book that treats the theme of solidarity in modern Catholic social doctrine in detail. Her contributions are always both incisive and comprehensive. An afternoon panel was similarly stimulating, focusing on how solidarity helps us cross borders, with a special consideration of the plight of Latino immigrants.

For our third iteration, we decided to play with the format a bit. This year we will have one panel that will examine the ways libertarian ideas, and specifically the culture of consumer capitalism, bleed into the rest of the culture in ways that are damaging. Professor David Cloutier will examine the ways the environment is degraded and threatened by the dominant consumer capitalist ethic. Sr. Carol Keehan, head of the Catholic Health Association, will consider the ways the commodification of health care distorts the church's mission to carry on the healing ministry of Jesus. Professor Holly Taylor Coolman, of Providence College, will look at how the consumer mentality affects family life. And Joan Rosenhauer of Catholic Relief Services will examine the ways dignified work is essential to integral development in poorer countries.

There will be three major talks. The first, by Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego, will examine three faces of erroneous autonomy in the current political climate, and author Thomas Frank will give a presentation of the political landscape from a liberal, and populist, perspective. Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston will speak about the dignity of work, and Trumka will give concluding remarks.

It is no form of special pleading to encourage people to attend this conference. As the country prepares for new leadership, the framing of many issues in terms of libertarianism versus Catholic social doctrine remains a potent frame of reference. I anticipate as much or more intellectual energy at this conference as we had at the first two. And bringing together pastors of the church with academics and policy experts and union leaders guarantees that our ideas are not untethered from the human realities they seek to address. This event will be a time when the church and organized labor can think together out loud. It is a conversation you do not want to miss.

[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]

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