Fact Check: Why Catholics Who Disagree With Justice & Peace White Papers Aren’t “Cafeteria Catholics”

UPDATE 2: A Round-Up of Excellent Comments On The Justice & Peace White Paper.

24 hours have passed since the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace released its note (i.e., “White Paper”) on finance and development.

I find that’s about how much time it takes to get a good snapshot of where general opinion is on a given news story, so now it’s time to take stock over what we have learned from Day One.

First of all, many liberal Catholics are complaining that orthodox Catholics have sought to “downplay” the level of teaching represented in this document and have “refused” (they claim) to actually engage with what the text says. In other words, they’re trying to claim orthodox Catholics are “cafeteria Catholics” for simply explaining and following the distinction the Church herself makes about her various levels of teaching.

And news flash: the official English translation of the document has not yet even been made available on the Vatican website! Plus the link that originally contained a provisional translation on the Vatican radio website has since been taken down. (An unofficial translation has now surfaced on www.News.va).

I, and my orthodox Catholic friends — and the Catholic press — do not enjoy the luxury apparently afforded Fr. Tom Reese who, as I noted yesterday, had advance access to the document. I know from my experience with embargoed texts that you are not supposed to leak the contents of the document in advance, and yet for some strange reason I don’t see liberal Catholics complaining that Fr. Reese got the scoop days (if not weeks) before the rest of us.

Once again, orthodox Catholics and the Catholic press who care seriously about accurately presenting the authentic teachings of the Church were scooped by a liberal Catholic voice who, with advance warning and talking points prepared, got in front of the mainstream media to confuse millions of people about the Church’s message before the rest of us had even had a chance to see the text. That’s the headline story about Day One.

With all that in mind, it should therefore come as no surprise that the first reaction of many orthodox Catholics was to simply set the record straight and say what we can know before even reading the text: namely, that the Pope and the Vatican do not introduce new teaching binding for Catholics around the globe through a note published through a curial council aimed in particular for the attendees of a United Nations General Assembly which won’t take place for weeks!

It’s extraordinary how many self-professed Catholic and reporters on things Catholic don’t get this point, while simultaneously lecturing the rest of us about what it means to be Catholic. It makes me wonder if they actually understand their own argument.

Here’s what I mean.

Evaluating the level of authority of papal documents is not a game of comparing words that can be found (or will soon be found) on the Vatican’s website with other words that can be found on the Vatican’s website. It’s to fundamentally comprehend how the Church teaches. Furthermore, it strikes me as a deep hypocrisy for liberal Catholics to complain that orthodox Catholics are being “selective” when we don’t accept prudential comments on tangential things such as economics issued by a second-tier curial department, when liberals regularly refuse to accept authoritative teachings on the fundamental right to life, on the definition of marriage as between one man and one woman, let alone the Church’s whole doctrinal system.

Is that the debate they really want to have — fidelity to the Church’s most basic teachings?

I’ll make this simpler: for any liberal Catholic who claims orthodox Catholics are being “cafeteria Catholics” on questions of economics, they should pledge publicly that they fully, 100% support the Church’s teaching on life, marriage and contraception right now.

Then we’ll talk. If not, we simply don’t share the same basic commitments to being fully Catholic.

I look forward to reading this document eventually, around my many other daily obligations. But I know that reading it won’t revise what I said above about how the Church teaches. And if liberal Catholics seriously want to invite orthodox Catholics to read it fairly, they can begin by not falsely claiming that it is on the same level as actual authoritative Church teaching.

In the meantime, I’ll conclude with a section of Nicholas Hahn’s critique of the document:

“…a question that must be asked is: does [the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace] a king? [It] has, in effect, suggested the creation of a near god-like emperor to rule the world’s financial and monetary systems.

This king would be entrusted with “universal jurisdiction” over the world’s economy. It would, because the International Monetary Fund has supposedly “lost an essential element for stabilizing world finance,” facilitate the creation of a “central world bank” responsible for “global monetary management.”

The king would have authority to tax transactions made by firms like Goldman Sachs. Revenues from such taxation would be deposited into a “world reserve fund,” a fantasy collection basket of sorts, aimed at supporting economies most affected by financial crises.

And if that wasn’t enough, the king would also be directed to bailout banks (“recapitalization with public funds”) subject to wildly ambiguous “virtuous behaviors.” As if the guarantee of a bailout would somehow ensure a stable market.

Ultimately, the king calls on States to look beyond Hobbes’ “state of nature” which would trap people “in a never-ending struggle with one another.” Evidently, this new global authority is the “only horizon compatible with the new realities of our time and the needs of humankind.”

People of good will know better. There is brighter horizon. One of self-government and free markets. One that has lifted more people out of poverty than any other. One that has empowered the disenfranchised and most vulnerable. Indeed, one that has some measure of Truth, albeit imperfect.

The Council concludes its document with a reference to the Tower of Babel “where selfishness and divisions endure.” Yet, the real towers of Babel these days are precisely the kind of bureaucratic authorities the Council seeks to proliferate.

As I said, I look forward to reading it.



  • ctd

    The “logic” is all wrong. “Liberal” Catholics do not claim that “orthodox” Catholics are being cafeteria Catholics on questions of economics. Liberal Catholics may claim that “conservative” Catholics are being cafeteria Catholics, but certainly not “orthodox” Catholics.

    In fact, it is orthodox Catholics that claim that conservative Catholics, especially of the neo-conservative or libertarian persuasion that are cafeteria Catholics. (Just as it is orthodox Catholics that accuse the liberals of feasting cafeteria- style when it comes to marriage, life, and contraception.

    Furthermore, while it is true that the specific proposals contained in the document are not binding on Catholics, much of the document’s bases for those conclusions comes right out of the Magisterium. A Catholic cannot dismiss the whole document without running afoul his or her fidelity to the Church.

    For me, I accept all of the Church’s teachings – marriage, contraception, economy – you name it and when I compare the recommendations in this document – which are not binding – with the recommendations of groups like the Acton Institute – also not binding – the new document comes closer to reflecting the Church’s true teaching.

    • Brett Salkeld


    • Joshua Mercer

      ctd, you write: “A Catholic cannot dismiss the whole document without running afoul his or her fidelity to the Church.” But Thomas Peters hasn’t rejected the document, in whole or in part.

      • wjj

        The claim wasn’t that he ‘rejected’ the document, the claim was that he ‘dismissed’ it. I reject an argument that I consider and find wanting. I dismiss an argument that I can’t be bothered to read or understand, what with my ‘many other daily obligations,’ or some such; and besides, it’s not binding and it’s written by those freaks at the minor curial office of Justice and Peace. Do you deny that this tone dominates Peters’ discussion of the document?

        It’s not the rejection that bothers me, at least–I reject some of its proposals myself–it’s the blithe dismissal on antecedent grounds that irks orthodox Catholics such as myself, and that makes us think that Peters, and others, are filtering the message of the Church–however that message is expressed and whatever degree of authority it possesses–through priorly held political and economic commitments.

        In doing this, Peters and others are not correcting the errors of someone like Fr. Reese, they are merely repeating them, and so it goes.

  • Brett Salkeld

    What about those of us who do support Church teaching 100% on life and family issues? Can we complain that you’re being “selective”?

    There are more of us than your narrative lets on and some of us, like Cardinal Turkson and Pope Benedict, if not me, are worth engaging rather than dismissing.

  • Nathan

    So a Catholic priest, who is, safe to say, a political liberal, got a copy of this document prior to its release and then gave his take on it before anyone else got to tell us that a Vatican document isn’t that important because it isn’t straight from the Pope and isn’t in line with one’s political/economic beliefs? I’d be amused if I didn’t find it so disheartening how the political right and left in this country use the Church to advance their own political interests.

  • Joe DeVet

    I’m dumfounded that a Vatican group could still think that the UN, or a UN-style international authority, could be trusted with the economic well-being of the peoples of the world. The UN has proved itself over and over to be a corrupt, hyper-politicized, anti-life, anti-Christian organization. How can anyone expect them (or a parallel organization) to do a principled job if given that kind of power? Jesus’ characterization of certain religious leaders applies in this case–Blind Guides!

    Besides proposing to trust the manifestly untrustworthy, the white paper apparently joins many in proposing a false solution to a mis-diagnosed problem. The root problem is not the financial system, though it plays a tangential role. The root problem is the “Social Welfare State”, which can’t resist the temptation to over-promise government largesse which end up bankrupting the country when the bill comes due. This is a fiscal and cultural problem, not a financial problem per se. See what’s happening in the Europe crisis for their version, and 2008 here–wild over-lending, at the government’s behest, for mortgages, combined with the ongoing problem of having promised too much, on too little resources, for Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and other welfare programs.

    The usual solution–find a scapegoat, lay our sins on his back, send him into the wilderness, and think you’ve solved something. It saddens me when our Church has no more wisdom than our political classes on such things.

    By the way, we already have a teaching document which comments on the Social Welfare State. (Hint–it doesn’t have much positive to say about it.) See what Bl John Paul II said in “Centesimus Annus”.



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