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The Value of Catholic Professional Societies

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles ) | Dec 11, 2009

In leafing almost at random through the 2009 Catholic Social Science Review, I was struck again by what wonderful things are the new truly Catholic professional associations. I suspect this holds true for many parts of the world, but I know the situation in the United States best. We do have older professional societies, but those in operation prior to the 1960’s have been eviscerated by the crisis of Faith which accompanied the sexual revolution and the rapid secularization of that period.

Thus older associations, though still academically powerful, have largely fallen by the wayside. For example, the Canon Law Society of America (founded in 1939) has frequently abused its “pastoral” focus to propose solutions to marital and ecclesiastical problems which are out of tune with Catholic doctrine. And the Catholic Theological Society of America (founded in 1946) is a hotbed of dissent in which a few orthodox theologians maintain membership for purely professional reasons. In recent years, the Society has openly wondered about how it can attract more “conservative” scholars. But it would be difficult for the Society as currently constituted to pay more than lip service to the Magisterium and, indeed, it most often directly challenges Magisterial authority.

Replacements with a deeper and more intelligent commitment to fidelity have been slow to emerge because of the widespread dissent in Catholic higher education. But two new ones have managed to gain a foothold, the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars (founded in 1977) and the Society of Catholic Social Scientists (founded in 1992).

The Catholic Medical Association is a special case in that it has demonstrated the same historical pattern within the life of a single organization. Beginning as the National Federation of Catholic Physicians Guilds, with thousands of members in a collection of regional guilds, the organization was shattered by internal controversy over contraception in the 1960’s, for a time trading internal election victories between the two sides. Those faithful to the Magisterium eventually won the battle, but they found themselves presiding over a much-reduced organization which depended more on individual members than on the old guild system. The result, in 1997, was a change in the name to the Catholic Medical Association. (I should pause to note that the CMA is a reliable guide for the evaluation of healthcare reform from a perspective that is both medically informed and deeply Catholic.)

The Review

It is the Society of Catholic Social Scientists that publishes the work that occasioned these reflections—The Catholic Social Science Review, with its fourteenth edition appearing this year. This is a single volume of over 500 pages which constitutes, in effect, the extended proceedings of the Society, including Symposia, Articles, Book Reviews, Documentation, a section on the Church in Public Affairs, and several Special Sections. The normal way to get the Review is to become a member of the Society, which costs just $25 per year (the Review may also be ordered by non-members from the Franciscan University of Steubenville bookstore). It will tell you something that to pass the membership bar you will have to provide the names of existing members who know you and/or sign a statement of fidelity to the Magisterium of the Catholic Church.

The SCSS was founded seven years after my academic career ended (I was involved in Christendom College from its founding in 1977 until 1985), so despite my Ph.D. in History I never joined as an academician. I joined earlier this year, however, when we were tightening the focus of CatholicCulture.org, because I knew that with an increased emphasis on commentary, I would want to keep abreast of what the better Catholic professional societies were up to. Hence I came to be reading the Review and happened upon the Symposium on “The Implications of Catholic Social Teaching for Economic Science”. I do not intend to reproduce in detail the arguments made by the participants in this worthwhile discussion. Instead, I will provide a brief overview so that I can use it as one of many possible examples of why I maintain that “the new truly Catholic professional associations” really are “wonderful things.”

The Symposium

My old colleague Thomas Storck (who served as the first full-time professional librarian at Christendom College and is now a Fellow of the Chesterton Institute) poses the challenge which launches the symposium. Catholic social teaching, argues Storck, has implications not only for how we ought to act economically but for the nature of economic theory itself. The primary implication is, briefly, that so-called scientific schools of economics, which attempt to understand economics in terms of immutable laws based on unchangeable market dynamics, are fundamentally incompatible with Catholic social thought, which demands recognition that many other factors enter into economics, factors deriving from intimate impenetration by the institutions, social structures, vehicles of power, and values of a culture.

The formal reply to this challenge is offered by Thomas E. Woods, Jr. of the Ludwig von Mises Institute, who is clearly vexed with his fellow Catholic (Storck) for lumping von Mises’ Austrian school of economics together with neo-classical economics in this challenge. Woods argues in general that Storck betrays insufficient understanding of several economic schools of thought, and he argues in particular that the Austrian school, by rooting economic theory in a reading of human action in toto, really takes adequately into account everything that Storck claims it excludes. Thus the Austrian school, Woods suggests, is capable of providing an objective analytical system without resorting to interpretation based on normative constraints (for example, moral values). It follows (for Woods) that Catholic social teaching ought not to be ill at ease with such a scientific system; in fact, it is under considerable obligation to make use of it.

The first respondent to this debate is University of Dallas economist John Médaille. Longtime readers of my blog will already know that I think highly of Médaille’s work (see, for example, my review of his book, The Vocation of Business: Social Justice in the Marketplace, in Is There a Vocation to Business?). Médaille rather comes to the rescue of readers who are beginning to doubt that Storck has a leg to stand on, reminding us of something that even von Mises gives evidence of having known, that “all…theories are value-laden and culturally encoded”. The question, therefore, is not whether economic science is positive or normative; like all human sciences, it is invariably both. The question is how does it fit into the hierarchy of truth? As Médaille puts it:

The physical sciences normally terminate in physics, but the humane sciences—the sciences of human relations—terminate in some view of man and particularly in some view of justice.

Out of Confusion . . .

There are additional interesting interventions in this symposium from Charles M. A. Clark of St. John’s University, Kevin Schmiesing of the Acton Institute, and Emil Berendt of Friends University, but this is the wrong place for a detailed exploration of economic science, at least if I want most people to read to the end. I have permitted Médaille to have the last word here because I wish to quickly recast a fundamental insight, one among several, which emerges from the give-and-take of the symposium, and to propose this insight with a suitable edge.

It is, then, precisely the cultural framework within which so-called value-neutral economic theory articulates its “laws” that the popes say must change. The popes don’t quarrel with the fact that certain economic operations may function more or less predictably within the observable mechanisms of a given culture (that is, within a culture’s predominant institutions, power-structures, motives for action, attitudes, and values). What the popes presuppose is that even the most detached of economic theories depends in many unseen ways on the very mechanisms it observes as the mainsprings of human action, and unless we change (convert) these “mechanisms”, neither economic theory nor economics itself can predictably serve the common good.

It is one thing to understand how “money works” in the 21st century world; it is quite another to envision how much better it might work if the values, institutions, powers and goals of the 21st century world were fundamentally altered in the way the Catholic Church says they need to be altered. In such a shift, the insights of every school of thought would be observed in a radically different context, submitted to more enlightened judgment, realigned, and pieced together in new, perhaps unforeseen ways. Whatever comments individual popes may make on this or that specific situation along the way, it is precisely such a radical shift in perspective that is the ultimate point of Catholic social teaching. This is significant for its own sake, and it also explains (again!) why it is pointless to sit within the same old frameworks attempting to evaluate each social encyclical in terms of left and right.

An Immense Value

But my larger purpose in this particular essay is to call attention to the benefit of vibrant and faithfully Catholic professional societies. There were six participants in this symposium, each of them deeply committed to the Magisterium of the Catholic Church, yet each of them representing different starting points, different emphases, different interpretive frameworks, different prejudices and different insights, all participating in a quest for truth through the application of disparate fallen—yet happily engraced—intellects. Even with such a common and cohesive starting point, the diversity is both astonishing and challenging; because of the common starting point, it is also refreshing. It is a struggle for both the participants and the reader to make intellectual progress, but intellectual progress is made nonetheless. Imagine how much harder a task that becomes among scholars who have no fundamental principles—or only false principles—in common!

All human knowledge depends on a worldview, which serves as an organizing principle so that observed phenomena may be rightly interpreted as facts, facts may be rightly interpreted into theories, and theories may be rightly interpreted into a deeper understanding of reality. Our “thinking classes” possess an incomparable advantage when they can agree on a secure framework for this worldview, and there is no framework as secure as that provided by a well-authenticated Revelation from the Author of Truth Himself.

There are many reasons—intellectual, personal, academic, social, and political—for the continued formation of new professional societies among committed Catholics, societies which can serve as alternatives to those which now lie in shambles under the rubble of relativism. Such societies, even in their infancy, may provide anything from a network for employment to leverage in public controversies. Representing in themselves a certain achievement of Catholic culture, they will in turn become instruments for the further formation of that culture in a larger world. But not the least important of these reasons is the benefit of having significant discussions, often confusing and sometimes heated, that nonetheless enable us to gain a firmer grasp on truth.

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