Magisterium, shmagisterium


Twenty-five years ago, the U.S. Catholic bishops issued a pastoral letter on the economy that updated the Church’s critique of modern capitalism that traced to Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical, Rerum Novarum:

[W]e suggest that the time has
come for a “New American Experiment”–to implement economic rights, to
broaden the sharing of economic power, and to make economic decisions
more accountable to the common good. This experiment can create new
structures of economic partnership and participation within firms at the
regional level, for the whole nation, and across borders.

Did leading Catholic conservatives respond by bending the knee and confessing that their embrace of Reaganism might be at odds with the Magisterium? They did not. Led by the likes of former Treasury Secretary Bill Simon and Theologian-without-Ph.D. Michael Novak, they did all they could to strangle the baby in its cradle.

But that was then. Now, conservatives have put obedience to the Magisterium at the core of their Catholic identity–as James Hitchcock put it last month in a characteristic screed against liberal Catholicism: “Conservative
Catholics define themselves in terms of obedience to Church authority,
acceptance of official teachings, and a strict personal morality, especially in
matters of sexuality,” Or, as the late Richard Neuhaus liked to say, “Fidelity, fidelity, fidelity.”

So what do conservatives do when the Magisterium takes a position that they find unpalatable? A couple of years ago, George Weigel dismissed those parts of the papal encyclical Caritas in Veritate he didn’t like by claiming that they were the work of liberal gnomes in the Curia. More commonly, conservatives simply refuse to recognize–as Novak and Simon once did–that they are in disagreement with something the hierarchy is teaching.

A case in point, as Michael Sean Winters effectively demonstrated the other day, is Robert Sirico’s recent assault on social welfare policies over at Crisis. Or, for that matter, we’ve got the spectacle of Rep. Paul Ryan, having besought episcopal approval for his budget plan, literally running away from efforts by a Catholics United staffer acting on behalf of Faithful America, to get him to reconcile his service to both Christianity and Ayn Rand.

Over at the American Spectator, Mark Tooley makes fun of the liberal Christian furies who are pursuing Ryan and Co. for their devotion to Rand: “It’s touching how liberal, religiously pluralistic groups
like Faithful America and American Values Network are suddenly very
concerned that Christians specifically remain faithful to the Bible
and to Jesus.
” But of course, the charge from the left is not infidelity but hypocrisy. As for those Hitchcockian conservatives, having fetishized the Magisterium, they’re entitled to be hoist on their own fetish.