In this time of transition — Barack Obama saying farewell to the presidency as Donald Trump moves into that job, Republicans flexing their muscles as the dominant political party — Catholic leaders, including an advisor to the pope, gathered with academics and labor leaders in mid-January to step back from that flurry of activity to think about economics and workers' rights from the perspective of Catholic social teaching.
On Jan. 10, a lineup of speakers addressed libertarianism and the dominant American culture of runaway consumerism at "Erroneous Autonomy: The Dignity of Work," the third in a series of conferences sponsored by the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies at Catholic University in Washington, in partnership with the AFL-CIO.
Stephen Schneck, director of the institute, began by recalling Pope Pius XI's 1931 encyclical, Quadragesimo Anno, when the term "erroneous autonomy" was first used to convey "the Catholic church's concern that systems of untethered, competing individual choices — like markets, and not just economic markets — can lead to outcomes that are contrary to morality and contrary to the common good."
Speakers covered a range of topics, including the way health care, even Catholic health care, is now treated as a commodity, which distorts its mission; consumerism and family life; a moral take on capitalism and the environment; international development and the dignity of work in the developing world; and a grim picture of capitalism, governance, and the new Congress and administration.
Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego and Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston — the sole American on Pope Francis' Council of Cardinals — bookended the afternoon, speaking on three kinds of erroneous autonomy and hope for the dignity of labor, respectively.
McElroy's remarks, reprinted in full here, focused on the incompatibility of Catholic social teaching with what he calls the three "framing forces" of American political and social life: the drive for the sovereignty of markets, the technocratic paradigm (dominance over the environment and culture), and nationalism (make America great again!).
"If love of country is a virtue and a moral obligation in solidarity, the nationalistic impulse itself has no moral identity," McElroy said. He proposed three questions for Americans in the coming months: Who are "the people" in the United States? What does greatness mean for the United States? And does nationalism concern itself only with the interests of the United States, or is it fundamentally connected with our obligations to the international common good?
Those questions served as a kind of framing force for the day's talks.
Daughter of Charity Sr. Carol Keehan, president of the Catholic Health Association of the United States, remarked that many religious congregations were founded expressly to take care of the poor and the sick — that Jesus himself cared for the sick — yet health care companies are now major players on the stock market and legislation is crafted not with the health of the many in mind, but rather to appease drug companies and the insurance industry.
"Neither the individual nor the common good is being valued in this race to repeal" the Affordable Care Act, Keehan said, calling Congress' willingness to take away coverage from the more than 20 million people who now have it "irresponsible," "callous," and "something we must find intolerable."
"The tyranny and worship of the marketplace is deeply felt in health care."
After health care came a look at the impact of consumerism on family life by Holly Taylor Coolman, professor of theology at Providence College. She zeroed in on the widening socioeconomic gap between the richest and poorest in the United States, as not just income inequality but wealth inequality continue to grow exponentially.
A spirit of "competitive individualism" has gripped many American families, both rich and poor, she said, with different goals but similarly damaging effects. Wealthier families increasingly exist in a state of "busyness," with "grooming children for success" their primary reason for being. "People are being formed for one reality: success in the marketplace," she said. They might be working in cooperation, but the goal is ultimately a competitive one.
Poor families are simply focused on survival, Coolman said, as the challenges of economic necessity "deplete family members and the whole family system." We need look no further for evidence of this stress on families of every stripe than the loss of the practice of sharing meals together, as "eating dinner now presents itself as a virtually insoluble problem."
A take on consumer capitalism and the environment, by David Cloutier, professor of theology at Catholic University, followed. Citing the problem of unlimited consumption as an example of erroneous autonomy, Cloutier called for "conscientious moral stewardship" that does not entail simply giving away all of your belongings but rather more thoughtful lifestyle choices in keeping with the universal destination of goods or sharing of God's gifts — impact investing, seeking out fairly traded goods, buying from workers who were paid a fair wage.
"Where is the just wage tag on my clothes?" he asked. "We should demand to see these things, but all we see is the price tag."
Joan Rosenhauer, executive vice president of Catholic Relief Services, offered stories of hope from the developing world, where CRS works. From teaching basic financial education to the most marginalized in Africa (allowing people to feed and educate their families), to teaching social and negotiation skills to young people in Latin America so that they can sidestep gang recruitment, to fighting human trafficking, CRS programs are shaping economic life by harnessing private capital for social impact, she said.
"Justice is the floor below which we cannot allow people to drop," she said. "Charity is what goes up and above that."
Rosenhauer's stories of uplift were followed by something a little more sobering, as Thomas Frank, author of What's the Matter with Kansas and, more recently, Listen Liberal, offered a critical assessment of the Obama years and the Trump rebellion. He cited the Democratic Party's long shift away from the workingman; it has, instead, fashioned itself "into the tribune of the enlightened professional class, a 'creative class' that makes innovative things like derivative securities and smartphone apps."
We are witnessing America as it "clambers further down into the sulfurous pit called utopia," he said, "down into the seething Arcadia of all against all."
John Carr, director of Georgetown University's Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life, (left), Cardinal Sean O'Malley, and Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, at the Jan. 10 conference (Courtesy of The Catholic University of America)
O'Malley offered reflections on his experiences with organized labor and the papal tradition of calling "for equity, for fairness in our understanding of what constitutes a just economy and the role of workers." The text of the cardinal's talk is here.
Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, closed the conference with a commitment by organized labor to stand with immigrants and their right to remain and work in the United States.
"What Trump proposes tears at our values, and we will resist it and refuse to be divided into us versus them," he said. "Pope Francis has called on Catholics to be a true sanctuary. The next few years will define who and what we really are, as a labor movement and as a church. Will we stand true to our moral values when it could really cost us something? We will be tested."
Although Trump's name was not mentioned too often, his presence was felt, particularly in post-conference conversations. When asked how thoughtful people might conduct themselves over the next four years, Cloutier said, "It's kind of organize or die at this point. There has to be a decisive coming to grips with what you stand for."
A fourth conference is being planned for spring 2018, said Schneck. Speakers at that gathering "will consider how erroneous autonomy undercuts the church's moral teachings, in the way that faceless markets foment moral relativism and erode genuine personhood by detaching the person from community," he said.
[Julie Bourbon is a freelance writer and editor in Washington, D.C.]