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CAFTA, Prudence, and Volleyball

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After receiving some responses to a previous post (CAFTA/Culture of Life: Enemies?), I thought I would post the the exchange with my most recent dissatisfied critic. Here’s to volleying! (I have edited the emails for confidentiality.)

Mr. Phelps,

It was with great interest that I recently read your blog entry “CAFTA/Culture of Life: Enemies?” as for some strange reason it recently appeared on the Google Alerts. I found it amusing how you worked John Paul’s teachings in without actually quoting or pointing how you perceive [Catholics for Faithful Citizenship] being in error. You say “They provide a list of vague quotes by a Colorado bishop and conclude (somehow–I cannot quite follow their reasoning) that free markets are “clearly” inconsistent with a culture of life.” It is interesting that you are willing to cast aside the better judgment of Catholic Bishops for what you perceive as “free trade”. Further more criticizing the stand of the Bishops lends one zero credibility with Catholics or an organization such as your that claims Catholic connections.

We are all for free trade, but as Catholics we are not for it when it puts lives at risks and seeks to disrupt the common good of all. I find it increasingly alarming that those on the extreme right somehow seek to their narrow view of the world into Catholic Teaching when the reality is , it simply does not fit.

Best Regards,
[Mr. X]

Dear [Mr. X]
I had wondered why a blog post from two months ago began the responses pouring in yesterday. Google Alert, hmmm… Well, I thank you for your respectful engagement and for refraining from simply calling me a pinhead like a gentleman did yesterday.

Because the post was a blog post, my entry does not offer a comprehensive argument; nor was it intended to. Let me try to at least lay the foundations for one here (what a great world we’d live in if we could settle these matters in the space of a blog post or email!). I would like first to address the “better judgment of the Catholic Bishops.”

Being a convert, I fully understand and respect the authority of the episcopate. But this is not quite the same thing as the Bishops advising on prudential matters. As I understand, the Church lays out the directives to, among other things, protect the dignity of the human person. But there are many ways the principles of the Church play out in the actions of persons and governments. Simply because a policy recommendation comes from a Bishop does not mean that it is the wisest, either in context of trade or even in the context of Church teaching. I am sure that both you and I could give handfuls of examples of Bishops that have given shoddy (at best) advice throughout the centuries (and some of them may be seated in American cathedrals as we speak!) “Bishop” does not necessarily imply “better judgement.” (Also, let’s be clear: even though there is more than one Bishop who would disagree with me, the article in question in my blog cites a single bishop, not the bishops as your email implies–you might also check out the political leanings of the Central Americans in Washington lobbying against CAFTA: this does not necessarily discount their argument, but it does give one pause).

Further more, I do not think that disagreeing with some of the Bishops automatically disqualifies me from credibility. This may be true for those who take all their prudential cues from the Bishops, but what are we to do when the Bishops themselves disagree? If a Bishop takes a particular stand on a policy matter, his position should not automatically be qualified as “the Catholic one”. I think many Catholics and non-Catholics understand this and are willing to listen to someone who happens to disagree with a Bishop on a particular matter of policy.

But the point of the blog post was that the article in quetsion used important and powerful Catholic terminology (Culture of Life) indescriminately. If there is anything that undermines Catholic teaching in this world, it is not calling out the Bishops on decisions that may be misapplications of Church teachings, but it is the irresponsible use of language that leads others to think a particular matter is settled “clearly” or is necessarily “the Catholic position” (a good example of the horrors a misuse of language can beget is some Protestants insistence that we Catholics “worship Mary.” A former Protestant myself, I can tell you that this faulty and intellectually irresponsible terminology is so fixed in some evangelical minds that you and I are worthy of being burned for idol worship). Also, the fact that you imply I am of the “extreme right” (as if this settles the matter) is evidence of the ‘portmanteau style’ of argument employed in this article: it is easy to discount arguments when you case them in ‘cover-all’ terms like ‘extreme right’ or ‘culture of life.’ There is a place for terms like ‘culture of life’; but unfortuntately, your use of ‘extreme right’ and the sentence “Clearly, supporting CAFTA is inconsistent with upholding a culture of life”–these are examples of a path of empty rhetoric and not of a carefully distilled prudence. And this is precisely what I was objecting to in this and other blog posts: the article does not lay out a clearly reasoned application of Catholic Social Teaching and implies that because a particular bishop holds the same position as your group, this is clearly the Catholic position. It is not, and to suggest so is, in my estimation, intellectually irresponsible.

But perhaps this is the nature of the media of posts and email and op-eds. Perhaps we find ourselves more and more obligated to relgate prudence to the realm of the pithy. This is why the Acton Institute makes great efforts to study and understand the Catholic social tradition and to encourage others to thoughtfully engage this quarry of wisdom BEFORE extracting phrases or concepts here or there and using them to make dangerously half-reasoned arguments that bear the title ‘Catholic’: this happens often, and not just among the politically active laity.

For the Church’s tradition of social teaching is a precious gift and one that we must handle carefully. We cannot allow ourselves (or even our Bishops) to use the terminology and authority of the teachings to advocate for policy decisions that appear compassionate, but may in fact undermine the dignity of those for whom we show compassion. Is this what is going on with the CAFTA debate? I suspect so. But through a careful study of human anthropology and the dignity and freedom of the human worker we can make the best decisions possible regarding trade.

This is why I am glad you have engaged me on this issue. I hope you will take advantage of the great amount of work the scholars and pastors (Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish) at the Acton Institute have done on these matters (there is quite a bit to browse through even on our Web site,; see particularly the policy page,the Center for Academic Research, and the work of Rocco Buttiglione, Michael Novak, and Samuel Gregg). I think you will find that it is anything but a “narrow view of the world” (another unfortunate portmanteau).

For if we share something, it is the desire to make those prudential decisions that truly will guard the dignity of the human person and will glorify Christ. Let us work together toward that goal not only in compassion, but with prudence as well.

All the Best to You and Your Family,
David Michael Phelps

David Michael Phelps