Advocates for the Court of Liberal Catholic Public Opinion weigh in…

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In an amicus curiae filing for the Court of Liberal Catholic Public Opinion in Motley Monk v. +McElroy published over at the National Catholic Reporter, Michael Sean Winters (MSW) takes The Motley Monk to task for playing what MSW calls a “shell game.” In MSW’s opinion, The Motley Monk’s analysis published in The American Catholic doesn’t delve sufficiently into “the weeds of facticity.”  MSW then goes on to state:

The poverty of so many millions of fellow human beings is also a fact with which the moral law must reckon and +McElroy rightly diagnoses the cultural and political impediments to our recognizing that fact of widespread poverty, and urges us to engage policies that will alleviate it.

According to MSW, Bishop McElroy rightly calls increasing the amount of money that government spends on anti-poverty programs—whether domestic or international—and for the Church to oblige Catholics to make doing so the moral equivalent of the Church’s efforts to eliminate abortion.

Poverty is morally repugnant to any serious Catholic.  Yet, what MSW doesn’t seem to appreciate is that U.S. Catholics should take pride in the fact that for the past five decades the government has directed their hard-earned tax dollars toward eliminating poverty.  But, domestically, to what end?

In 1964, in the opening salvo of the “War on Poverty,” President Johnson declared:

I believe that thirty years from now Americans will look back upon these 1960s as the time of the great American Breakthrough…the victory of prosperity over poverty.

Well, it’s been almost 50 years and there are some facts that ought to be factored into MSW’s considerations.

FACT: Some economists argue that government—both federal and state—has spent $15T to eliminate poverty across the nation in the past 50 years.

Despite the inherent problems in calculating the total outlay, it is estimated (in inflation-adjusted terms) that this figure represents anywhere from 13.3%-15% of the government’s total budget over those years. That’s a lot of money.

FACT: Some economists argue that the poverty rate in 2013 is about 15%. The last time it was this high was in 1993. Perhaps this figure is skewed due to the nation’s recent economic problems, so others argue that the actual poverty rate is more likely 7.2%.

So, let’s split the difference and say the 2013 US rate of poverty is 10%.  That’s about 33M citizens.

To interpret these facts, imagine if President Johnson had declared in 1964:

We will spend $15T over the next 50 years. Our goal will be to get the nation’s poverty rate down to 10%.

The real “shell game” being played is by those whose moral policy platitudes are intended to make Catholics feel guilty, with the goal of inducing them to comply unthinkingly with those moral policy platitudes. In this case, Pecksniffians who would seek to have Catholic bishops obligate Catholics to comply with their policy solution for poverty are evading important facts which demonstrate that theirs is a failed policy solution.

But, that isn’t what really matters because MSW’s amicus curiae brief indicates that he either didn’t read or read carefully enough what The Motley Monk posted at The American Catholic. In that posting, The Motley Monk took Bishop McElroy to task because in his 2005 article in America, His Excellency argued:

The imposition of eucharistic sanctions solely on candidates who support abortion legislation will inevitably transform the church in the United States, in the minds of many, into a partisan, Republican-oriented institution and thus sacrifice the role that the church has played almost alone in American society in advocating a moral agenda that transcends the political divide.

Okay. If the goal is to keep the Court of Liberal Catholic Public Opinion satisfied, it would indeed be wise for the nation’s Catholic bishops not to contest the right of pro-abortion Catholic politicians to receive Holy Communion.

But, then, if this were a true principle used to inform consciences, why ever would Bishop McElroy write in 2013 that the nation’s Catholic bishops should oblige Catholics to support government programs aimed at eliminating poverty?

If this were true, would not the imposition of Eucharistic sanctions solely on candidates who support increasing governmental spending on anti-poverty legislation inevitably transform the Church in the United States, in the minds of many, into a partisan, Democrat-oriented institution and thus sacrifice the role that the Church has played almost alone in American society in advocating a moral agenda that transcends the political divide?

The human species uses the facticity of dollars and sense to determine whether and to ensure that policies aimed at alleviating evils—political, social, economic, and yes, moral—are cost effective.

As an astute commenter responded to The Motley Monk’s post, supporting illegal immigration floods the labor market at a time when the labor participation rate is at its lowest point in 34 years. To support flooding the labor market means driving more Americans into poverty.

Some policy. And the bishops should oblige Catholics to follow it?



To read The Motley Monk’s post at The American Catholic, click on the following link:

To read Michael Sean Winter’s post at Nation Catholic Reporter Online, click on the following link:

To read The Fact Checker’s evaluation of the facts concerning the nation’s “War on Poverty” at the Washington Post, click on the following link:

To read The Motley Monk’s daily blog, click on the following link:


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  1. Kathy Saile, speaking for the USCCB, has a letter to the editor in the WSJ today,

    Pope Francis has spent the first months of his papacy calling for a “church that is poor and for the poor.” He has been a constant and forceful advocate for those left behind by a “culture of indifference.”

    But Nicholas G. Hahn argues that the U.S. Catholic bishops should not try to apply this central Christian insight to American political questions (“Tax Policy Isn’t the Purview of Preachers,” Houses of Worship, Oct. 25). In fact, they have a responsibility to do so. While Catholics can legitimately disagree over particular policies, we’re called to root those policy judgments in Catholic teachings, among them our shared obligation to protect the most vulnerable among us and see that their basic needs are met. Church teaching explicitly recognizes that the government has an essential role to play in promoting this aspect of the common good.

    Along with our rich body of teachings on such questions, Catholics have extensive on-the-ground experience helping the poor. At a time of growing inequality, with some 46 million Americans living in poverty, a robust Catholic voice is essential to the American political conversation.

  2. Food clothing and shelter for the most vulnerable are not among the things that government is good at promoting.

    “Bad luck” is.

  3. tamsin,

    As Catholics we all have the responsibility to promote public policies, including tax policies, that are consistent with Church teaching. But aside from avoiding intrinsically evil policies (e.g., taxing someone in a way that deprives them of material necessities), determining which policies are optimal in this respect is mostly an exercise in discerning outcomes via the application of practical prudence. As a tax lawyer and scholar for over 30 years, I can say with absolute confidence that our priests and bishops have no special charism for tax policy discernment, and are no more likely to be correct or incorrrect in their assessments than other faithful Catholics, which is why it would be very imprudent (and arrogant) for such clergy to speak on such policies unless they carefully disassociate such expressed views from the teaching charism of their office. In other words Wilton Gregory is entitled to his opinion and entitled to express it, but only as Wilton Gregory, not Archbishop Wilton Gregory.

    Very few of the 46 million Americans designated as living in poverty can fairly be described as impoverished by historical or worldwide standards, and even fewer can fairly assert that their status was caused by someone else’s riches. Instead, economic hardship in the United States is mostly associated with a 43% out of wedlock birth rate and a comparable divorce rate, both of which have been in part caused by welfare policies that some of our bishops have sadly, and foolishly, publically and enthusiastically supported.

  4. Let’s go to the record.

    The US has been throwing, er, redistributing huge amounts of taxpayer income/money at least since 1933.

    In addition to increasing their numbers, what have the poor person benefited for all those trillions?

    If those people cared about the poor, they’d try something (Eintsein’s definition of insanity) else something that may help them . . .

    Here’s what Jesus is going to say at the Final Judgment (Matt. 25). “I told YOU to feed the least of my brothers . . . not steal money from someone else to do it while aided and abeted universal, unhindered abortion.”

  5. I should clarify that I recently opted out of the USCCB “action alert” mailing list, giving as my reason, “bigger government is not the answer”.

  6. Riches, then, which benefit also our neighbours, are not to be thrown away. For they are possessions, inasmuch as they are possessed, and goods, inasmuch as they are useful and provided by God for the use of men; and they lie to our hand, and are put under our power, as material and instruments which are for good use to those who know the instrument. If you use it skilfully, it is skilful; if you are deficient in skill, it is affected by your want of skill, being itself destitute of blame. Such an instrument is wealth. Are you able to make a right use of it? It is subservient to righteousness. Does one make a wrong use of it? It is, on the other hand, a minister of wrong. For its nature is to be subservient, not to rule. That then which of itself has neither good nor evil, being blameless, ought not to be blamed; but that which has the power of using it well and ill, by reason of its possessing voluntary choice. And this is the mind and judgment of man, which has freedom in itself and self-determination in the treatment of what is assigned to it. So let no man destroy wealth, rather than the passions of the soul, which are incompatible with the better use of wealth. So that, becoming virtuous and good, he may be able to make a good use of these riches. The renunciation, then, and selling of all possessions, is to be understood as spoken of the passions of the soul.(Clement of Alexandria, Who is the Rich Man that Shall Be Saved?, XIV.

    Took me a while to find that, but it seems appropriate.

  7. Michael Sean Winters (MSW) might be convincing if only he could find that Gospel passage in which Jesus teaches, “Render the poor unto Caesar.” But not even the Bible exegetes who write for America magazine can find it. Maybe, just maybe Jesus never taught that.

    Or maybe MSW and his think-alike allies could tell us the Gospel chapter and verse in which Jesus tells the rich young man, “Go, sell all your neighbor has and give it to Caesar. Then lobby Caesar for another bread and circuses program for the poor.” But maybe, just maybe that’s not what Jesus taught either.

    Or maybe MSW and his minions could show us the passage where Jesus tells his disciples, “Use thy neighbor as thy piggy bank.”

    Such passages aren’t in Catholic Bibles. The Church does not teach that Jesus was created in MSW’s own image.

  8. ‘Poverty’ is not some sort of endemic disease which can be eliminated by programs analogous to public health measures. The term describes four phenomena:

    1. Lack derived from low levels of productivity in a society generally. This is medieval poverty or Central American poverty and it is inconsequential in this country. The address to this is the process and experience of economic development. The most consequential form of collective action here is the development of a reliable and efficient property registry, police force, and court system. Trailing that is the development of public works which can be maintained with local labor – farm to market roads, wells, and latrines. Also of importance would be basic schooling, agricultural extension (not best practices, but implementable ones), and public sanitation and occasional quarantines.

    2. Absolute or relative deprivation derived from abiding idiosyncratic behaviors. These require persuading people to live better lives. Public bureaucracies can assemble physical capital and manpower and act according to systematic norms. Addressing these people is a ministry and public bureaucracies are ill equipped to do that for practical reasons and reasons of social ethics. What public agency can do here is maintain public order and a set of consequences which form the context in which dysfunctional people make their decisions.

    3. Absolute or relative deprivation derived from the vicissitudes of life. Certain coarse and common problems can be addressed through public action, but you are also going to have administrative sorting and adjudication problems and people who fall through the slats. Mo’ money does not address the problems you have here, because the problem you have here is that public agencies are ill-equipped to make valid and reliable decisions on the basis of granular details.

    4. Absolute and relative deprivation derived from business cycles. Here you need optimal fiscal policy, monetary policy, and labor market regulation. (Memo to Michael Sean Winters: I would wager you would have a hard time finding a social democratic / syndicalist party in the occidental world whose program does not aggravate these problems. Look at France and Spain and see the results).

    5. Relative deprivation (and, occasionally, absolute deprivation) derived from the results of free trade in labor. Human capital differs from person to person, and people have abiding deficits of it. Addressing that does require public action.

    Tallying up ‘how much we’ve spent’ since 1964 is an idle exercise even if you’re using a proper accounting method because so much social trouble is abiding or continually replenished.

  9. Also re Michael Sean Winters: there are three large sources of injury to the quality of life in urban slums in American today (and yesterday, today, and tomorrow):

    1. Crime and insecurity generally
    2. Rotten schools
    3. Deteriorating physical capital.

    Addressing problems one and two requires vigorous sanctions on bad behavior and sequestering malefactors. Advocates for the social work industry tend to have a visceral hostility toward that (tho’ who knows, MSW may be an exception). Addressing the third requires suspending the collection of property taxes in slum neighborhoods and optimizing with regard to fire and building codes applicable therein and in the realms of planning and zoning and permissible housing types. Do you think you could find someone in the bowels of the USCCB who has ever given a thought to that?

  10. Also, re schooling, you need standardized regents’ examinations to estimate students’ actual accomplishments in the academic realm. The educrat lobby despises standardized tests and is obsessed with ‘the gap’ between various racial categories, which is a matter of no importance.

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