I’m old enough to remember Communism and the Cold War. In fact, I spent the first half of my life deeply convinced that I knew how I would die—along with all my family and friends in a nuclear war, leaving behind no descendants or any trace among the radioactive rubble. That shadow only lifted in 1989, when a godless system of slavery collapsed with the bloodstained Berlin Wall.
Another thing I remember from the Cold War was the leftist trick called “moral equivalency.” When a critic of Communism would point to the tens of millions of civilians starved or shot by men like Stalin, or tortured by men like Castro, some “fellow-traveler” would always come back with a list of historical flaws in the U.S. system, such as: “Well, what about segregation? Or the millions of black men in prison for minor drug offenses?” When the conservative said that bad as segregation was, it paled beside the millions who languished in the Gulag, the answer would come back, “So you’re trivializing racism? You think the Klan and bigoted sheriffs are fine and dandy, as long as they help fight Communism?” And there the conversation would end—with the fellow traveler flouncing off convinced of his moral rigor.
Or so it seemed. But when I witnessed such interchanges, I was sure that the fellow traveler really knew better. No sane and honest person could really compare the crimes of the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany with any of legal injustices found in a free society (excepting abortion, of course—but such fellow travelers gladly accepted abortion). For that reason, I concluded that those fellow-travelers were not as stupid as they seemed. My conclusion was much more charitable: They were simply lying. First to themselves and then to others. But in their guts they knew better. The natural law is carved right into the human heart, and none of our conscious fiddling on an intellectual Etch-a-Sketch can wholly obscure it.
It’s with this pungent memory that I read articles by Catholics who wax indignant at patriotic, prolife, free market Americans, accusing them of “dissent” from Catholic teaching—and putting those conservatives on the same moral level as politicians who promote abortion on demand, homosexual “marriage,” and other grave offenses against the natural law. Even if it were true that papal statements about the technical issues of economics were binding, Magisterial teaching (which they aren’t—see below), it is simply and plainly dishonest to compare a prudential disagreement with the pope over which is the most effective means to eradicate poverty, with a statement like Nancy Pelosi’s that as “a practicing and respectful Catholic” [legal abortion]“is sacred ground to me.” That really is like equating unjust drug sentencing guidelines to the millions who died in the Gulag.
What’s appalling to me is that any Catholics who presented himself as “faithful” to the Church would make such arguments, whose obvious effect is to divide and render helpless the prolife movement, and help keep pro-choice liberal Democrats in power. Such talk recalls the “seamless garment” tactic used by “Ted Kennedy” Catholics and feminist nuns in the 1980s, who asserted that a Catholic couldn’t oppose abortion unless he was also a radical pacifist. They weren’t promoting pacifism; they were keeping pro-abortion politicians in power. And they knew it.
Moral equivalency is not an honest argument, but a sleazy rhetorical trick, and deep in their guts the people who employ this sleight of mind are aware that they’re using stage magic, pulling a rabbit out of a hat. Likewise dishonest are Catholic liberals who try to pretend that the Church puts the same priority on reducing economic inequality as she does on protecting the lives of the unborn, or the integrity of marriage, or religious freedom. The Church has always, since Christ Himself walked the earth, called on the better-off to share their surplus with those in need, and to foster an economy that justly rewards honest labor and supports the integrity of the family. But the ways in which such goals may be best achieved are up to us. The pope has a simple, straightforward job description: He must pass on the treasure of divine revelation entrusted to the apostles, and authoritatively interpret the content of natural law. Neither of these mandates gives a pope special insight into the details of technical economics, or biology, or astronomy (see Galileo).
A given pope who is especially well-educated in a matter may offer his private opinion as to what he thinks might work in a given field—as the learned Pius XII, for instance, would make suggestions to beekeepers or to opticians. But nothing in the pope’s charism includes special knowledge or insight about the practical implementation of… anything. Popes Leo XIII, Pius XI and John Paul II were quite specific in asserting this limit to their authority.
Popes have made grave prudential errors even concerning the liturgy—as Benedict XVI admitted when he reversed Paul VI’s prohibition of the traditional Latin Mass. While most of our popes have been wise and holy men—let’s leave aside the scoundrels, like Stephen VII who dug up his predecessor, Pope Formosus, and tried his corpse for heresy—even the best men can make mistaken judgments when they speak outside their competency. Pope over the centuries have forced Jews to wear yellow stars, praised the persecution of Protestants, encouraged book-burning, and supported tyrannical governments (such as the Russian Tsar’s) against their oppressed subjects (such as the Poles). None of this shakes our faith in the papacy, because the See of St. Peter is not some omnipotent supercomputer that spits out daily instructions for us on every aspect of earthly life. It is a moral touchstone and the faithful guardian of divine revelation. If we try to make it something other than Christ meant it to be, we end up having to explain away those yellow stars and burning heretics… and the papacy looks ridiculous.
So when Paul VI made the well-meaning suggestion in Populorum Progressio that the best way to eliminate Third World poverty was massive foreign aid, funded by taxes on citizens of the West, paid straight to Third World governments, faithful Catholic economists were free to disagree. Given that every empirical study has shown that such foreign aid did nothing to help the poor—and in fact, made matters worse by entrenching dictators and building massive bureaucracies—it’s a good thing that papal infallibility and authority do not rest on the pope being right all the time, whatever he says, on whatever subject. We are not obliged to torture our minds into thinking otherwise. If a future pope were to say that an absolute free market government, with no regulations and very low taxes, were the best way to eliminate poverty, we would not be obliged to think that was accurate either. No the pope can’t set the proper, “truly Catholic” policy on immigration, or taxes, or global warming. As our moral compass, the pope can tell us we need to go to Mass every Sunday; he was never meant to serve as our GPS, and dictate whenever we need to turn right or left.