Anthony Esolen is an extraordinary writer, whose work I have often enjoyed. I first encountered him several years ago, as a subscriber to Touchstone, and can still remember admiring his “Body and Soul Uplifted” and reading passages from “Dozens of Cousins” aloud to my wife.
And so it caught my attention to see that he has embarked upon a series of articles on Catholic social thought in Crisis magazine (an online only publication in recent years). To see him put his gifts to the cause of disseminating that body of doctrine seemed to be a very welcome thing.
I was disappointed, then, that the first installment (posted yesterday) amounts to not much more than a long and rather partisan rant. Imagine — he proposes in a long list — one absurdly exaggerated and caricatured scenario after another: using the Boy Scouts to justify street gangs, Michelangelo’s art to justify porn, or St. Francis’s teaching to justify looting. And then, after three and a half paragraphs of this, he gets to his point:
[I]magine anything most absurd, and you have not yet approached the absurdity of those who claim that Catholic Social Teaching implies the existence of a vast welfare state, bureaucratically organized, unanswerable to the people, undermining families, rewarding lust and sloth and envy, acknowledging no virtue, providing no personal care, punishing women who take care of their children at home, whisking the same children away from parental supervision and into schools designed to separate them from their parents’ views of the world, and, for all that, keeping whole segments of the population mired in a cycle of dysfunction, moral squalor, and poverty, while purchasing their votes with money squeezed by force from their neighbors.
And so immediately we are presented with a towering straw man. There are, of course, in our day varying interpretations and readings of Catholic social teaching and what it means in the concrete of the life of society, and good and bright people often disagree with one another on some of it. But is there anyone, among those who actually take seriously the idea of a Catholic magisterium and, within that, Catholic social teaching, whose thinking this accurately describes? Actually, is there anyone at all? It’s merely a distorted and silly caricature of the serious thinking that, it seems, Professor Ensolen intends to oppose in his series. Those who share his proclivities will, I suppose, be inclined to nod and even cheer, but it’s a cheap applause line at best.
“I’m sick of it,” Esolen says, and then launches into another list, now of those things of which he is sick. And what he is most sick of are people who fail to understand that Catholic teaching is “all of a piece.” Esolen writes:
I’m sick of hearing that Catholic teaching regarding sex and marriage is one thing, in that old-fashioned trinket box over there, while Catholic teaching regarding stewardship and our duties to the poor is another thing, on that marble pedestal over here. I’m sick of hearing that Catholic teaching regarding the Church and her authority is one thing, the embarrassing Latinate red-edged tome tucked away in that closet, while Catholic teaching regarding the laity is another, and pass that bread this way! No, it is all of a piece. What the Church says about divorce is inextricable from what she says about the poor. What she says about the presence of Christ in the Eucharist is inextricable from what she says about the respects in which all men are created equal—and the many respects in which she insists upon a salutary inequality. When we fail to see the integrity of the faith, not only do certain truths escape our notice; the rest, the truths we think we see, grow monstrous, like cancers, and work to destroy the flesh they once seemed to replace.
Now, he is, without a doubt, on to something here, and I whole-heartedly join him in his frustration over those who “fail to see the integrity of the faith.” As should be clear from many posts on this blog, I’m all for keeping together the fullness of the faith of the Church as an organic whole — those parts that challenge the “conservatives” among us as well as those which challenge the “liberals.”
Professor Ensolen seems intent only on challenging the latter folks. His criticisms in the paragraph quoted just above are well worth making. But the criticisms that didn’t seem to come to his mind in the course of his rant are glaring in their absence.
If we’re to criticize those who ignore the Church’s teaching on marriage and treasure its teaching on our duties to the poor, let’s also blast those who treasure the first and ignore the second. As we castigate those who dismiss what the Church says about the magisterium’s authority to teach but embrace its teaching on the laity’s role, let’s also reprimand those who embrace the first while dismissing the second. And so on with the other examples he offers in that paragraph.
And while we’re being “sick of” some people, let’s also be sick of those for whom the Church’s teaching on the relative nature of the right to private property is a socialist principle disguised in pious garb, while its teaching on marriage is essential to the health of society. Or those for whom the social nature of the human person is a vague and idealistic doctrine with little relevance to the important business of policy and budget, while its teaching on human dignity, especially the dignity of the unborn, is a doctrine with meaning and bite. Or those who dismiss the call to confront the social structures that keep people poor as dangerous liberation theology while obsessing over the plenary indulgences associated with the Year of Faith.
We must say to all Catholics who tend to pick and choose what’s most important based on political or personal preferences, including those who escape Ensolen’s notice: it is all of a piece. In fact, isn’t it safe to say that the readership of Crisis will tend to fall more often, inadvertently or not, into the errors Ensolen fails to mention? There are among Crisis readers (and authors) some who tend to be in their own ways — to use Ensolen’s words — “Americans first and nominal Catholics later,” but Ensolen isn’t mentioning those ways.
Honesty, fairness, and taking seriously the teaching of the Church demands that we do. I hope that the rest of Professor Ensolen’s series on Catholic social teaching will more successfully live up to this writer’s great insights and gifts.