Today is the anniversary of what might be John Paul II’s most important encyclical, Fides et ratio. Although I have not the time to give it a full treatment, if you have not read it I strongly urge you to do so as soon as possible. Catholicism’s eager embrace of reason & philosophy not only sets it apart from most other religions but also positions it to best respond to the philosophical failures that are hurting the modern world. If the modern world is to find some redemption, it will be because these words are heeded:
Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know himself—so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves
One of my favorite living historians is Victor Davis Hanson. I have read every book he has written and most of his articles. Trained as a classicist and historian of antiquity, he has written on a broad range of topics, from the hoplites of ancient Greece, ancient Greek agriculture, a searching examination of the Peloponnesian War, the farming crisis of the 80’s, the history of warfare and culture, the teaching of the classics and the debacle of our non-policy on immigration, and I have been astonished at how skillfully this man writes and with what intelligence, and very dry humor, he cuts to the essence of whatever subject he addresses. He moonlights as a pundit on current events and in that capacity I have found a recent column of his intriguing on the question of just why the Obama administration is hellbent on compiling such huge annual deficits. Here is a portion of the column:
We are going to pile up another $3 trillion in national debt in just the first two years of the Obama administration. If the annual deficit should sink below $1.5 trillion, it will be called fiscal sobriety.
Why, when we owe $12 trillion, would the Obama administration set out budgets that will ensure our collective debt climbs to $20 trillion? Why are we borrowing more money, when Medicare, Social Security, the Postal Service, Amtrak, etc. are all insolvent as it is?
What is the logic behind something so clearly unhinged?
I present seven alternative reasons — some overlapping — why the present government is hell-bent on doubling the national debt in eight years. Either one, or all, or some, or none, of the below explain Obama’s peculiar frenzied spending.
1) Absolutely moral and necessary?
The country is in need of massive more entitlements for our destitute and near to poor. Government is not big, but indeed too small to meet its moral obligations. Deficits are merely record-keeping. Throwing trillions into the economy will also help us all recover, by getting us moving again and inflating the currency. And we can pay the interest easily over the next 50 years. Just think another World War II era — all the time.
So big spending and borrowing are genuine efforts of true believers to make us safe, secure, and happy.
2) “Gorge the beast”
The spending per se is not so important, as the idea of deficits in general will ensure higher taxes. Nationalized health care, cap and trade, new initiatives in education, more stimulus — all that and more is less important than the fact that huge defects will require huge new taxes, primarily from the upper-classes. I see no reason why the total bite from state income, federal income, payroll, and health care taxes cannot soon in theory climb to 70% of some incomes (e.g., 10% state, 15.3% FICA, 40% federal, 3-5% health care). In other words, “redistributive change” is the primary goal. This aim is premised on the notion that income is a construct, if not unfairly calibrated, then at least capriciously determined — requiring the more intelligent in the technocracy to even out things and ensure an equality of result. After all, why should the leisured hedge-funder make all that more after taxes than the more noble waitress?
So big spending and borrowing mean big deficits, and that means taxing the greedy and giving their ill-gotten gains to the needy.
3) Big Brother?
Or does rampant borrowing for government spending reflect our despair over the inability of millions to know what is best for themselves? For democracy to work, all of us must fully participate. But because of endemic racism, sexism, class bias, and historical prejudices, millions of Americans do not have access to adequate education and enlightenment. Therefore, a particular technocratic class, with requisite skill and singular humanity, has taken it upon themselves to ensure everyone gets a fair shake — if only government at last has the adequate resources to fix things. If it proves problematic for one to register and vote, then there will be a program to make 100% participation possible. If some of us are too heavy and too chair-bound, we can be taught what and how to eat. If some of us do not study, we can adjust academic standards accordingly. In one does something unwise, like buying a plasma TV rather than a catastrophic health care plan, then we still can ensure he is covered. In other words, an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-moral guardian class requires resources to finish the promise of participatory America. After all, why would we allow the concrete contractor to “keep” 70% of his income only to blow it on worthless things like jet skis or a Hummer in his garage or a fountain in his yard — when a far wiser, more ethical someone like Van Jones could far more logically put that now wasted capital to use for the betterment of the far more needy?
Archbishop George H. Niederauer of San Francisco addressed on January 13, 2010 a free will defense of abortion by Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House:
In a recent interview with Eleanor Clift in Newsweek magazine (Dec. 21, 2009), House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was asked about her disagreements with the United States Catholic bishops concerning Church teaching. Speaker Pelosi replied, in part: “I practically mourn this difference of opinion because I feel what I was raised to believe is consistent with what I profess, and that we are all endowed with a free will and a responsibility to answer for our actions. And that women should have the opportunity to exercise their free will.”
Embodied in that statement are some fundamental misconceptions about Catholic teaching on human freedom. These misconceptions are widespread both within the Catholic community and beyond. For this reason I believe it is important for me as Archbishop of San Francisco to make clear what the Catholic Church teaches about free will, conscience, and moral choice.
Catholic teaching on free will recognizes that God has given men and women the capacity to choose good or evil in their lives. The bishops at the Second Vatican Council declared that the human person, endowed with freedom, is “an outstanding manifestation of the divine image.” (Gaudium et Spes, No. 17) As the parable of the Grand Inquisitor in Dostoevsky’s novel, The Brothers Karamazov, makes so beautifully clear, God did not want humanity to be mere automatons, but to have the dignity of freedom, even recognizing that with that freedom comes the cost of many evil choices.
Since 2002 Ken Masugi, a senior fellow of the Claremont Institute and lecturer in Government at Johns Hopkins University, Washington DC, has conducted Advent interviews with James V. Schall, S.J., author of over thirty books on political theory and theology. Fr. Schall teaches in the Government Department of Georgetown University.
The interviews themselves are a delight to read and span a variety of topics from current events to the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI to issues in philosophy, theology and ethics — and sometimes, in addition, what books Fr. Schall himself is reading at that particular moment in time.
The Pandora’s box that President Obama has opened with the release of the torture memo’s has caused quite a stir in the Catholic blogosphere. Nonetheless the stealth Catholic, comedian Stephen Colbert, has geniusely made a humorous rendition of the logic floating around Washington on the torture controversy. Biretta tip to Mark Shea.