Paul and Bill spoke with Aida Ramos, Ph.D., an associate professor of economics at the University of Dallas. Prof. Ramos’ research and teaching at that private Catholic university include topics in economic development and Catholic Social Thought and their implications for public policy. She is the author of a book (Shifting Capital: Mercantilism and the Economics of the Act of Union of 1707 ) in the “Palgrave Studies in the History of Economic Thought” series.
The Vatican’s first direct foray into issues of justice in economics and the relationship of capital and labor came from Pope Leo XIII in 1891 in his encyclical Rerum Novarum. Pope Pius XI added to the Church’s economic analysis 40 years later in the encyclical Quadragesima Anno; it focuses on the different systems of economic organization. The Vatican has spoken out about economic organization and justice in various additional ways over the years, including such encyclicals as Saint Pope John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus. In general, both capitalism and socialism have received mixed reviews in terms of their virtues and problems.
At the core of economic decision-making—discernment about the systems from which we choose and how we implement them—is the balancing of rights and responsibilities. The Church strongly proclaims a variety of economic rights held by human persons. It also insists that humans and corporations go beyond a limited notion of responsibility focused only on maximization of income and wealth. The Church asks, what is the economy for? What is my duty to God and other human beings as it is to be exercised through human economic behavior?
The universal destination of goods is a Catholic principle that the reason the economy exists is for the good of all human persons. The preferential option for the poor is a principle which states: If any action makes the poor worse off, do not pursue it. The Church also teaches that we all have a responsibility to uphold the common good. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, the totality of social and economic conditions is intended for human beings to achieve fulfillment and authentic happiness.
Pope Franics’ new encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, reminds the faithful to pursue fraternal relationships of compassion and love with people all over the world, which helps the human ecology to reflect and build the common good. This taps into principles of Catholic Social Teaching including solidarity and respect for the dignity of each unique individual created by God. This global consciousness coexists with a local consciousness guided by the principle of subsidiarity—which instructs that people at the level of smaller communities should have responsibility and authority to address all issues they can address, free of intervention by higher authorities unless those greater resources must be called upon.
Catholic Social Thought, or Catholic Social Teaching, has been called the Church’s best-kept secret, partly because its principles are prospective meeting grounds for broader public consensus; they are drawn from the Gospel and Church wisdom through the ages, but they have rarely been proclaimed as a package to be consistently understood, discussed and applied in unison.
Paul and Bill focused on the 2020 elections as a point of tragically little focus in discourse or reasoning—but a good starting point for wide-ranging conversation about humanity’s desperate search for balance, hope, and sustainability in our hearts and minds. The desire for a higher wisdom—a happy medium, a golden mean—has always been complicated by our focus on ourselves and our temptation to believe that we know best, the co-hosts pointed out. Bill pointed out that “fake news” was said to have made its first appearance in the Garden of Eden, courtesy of the serpent; that comment was made by Pope Francis in his 2018 reflections for World Communications Day.
Society is operating in a state of radical uncertainty and unsustainable indebtedness among persons, but we forget the stabilizing recognition that we share an indebtedness to God—a responsibility to Him as our source and our only reliable resource. We have forgotten a lot about this, leaving us not only lost, but facing a steep price to pay as God’s children, Paul said. He referred to the story of King Josiah’ realization that he and his people had strayed from the laws of the Torah.
People seeking personal goodness and the common good know we have made serious mistakes on our journeys and have perpetuated ignorance and poor judgment. Each successive generation has been left unprepared and unable to make difficult decisions that would point toward healing. Bill recalled G. K. Chesterton’s call for a nation’s responsibility to wisdom that whatever wisdom was being handed down via what he called “the democracy of the dead.”
But such respect for tradition is not one of humanity’s strong points. Paul pointed out that our podcast’s name points to a second millennium whose second half was marked by major departures from tradition for the sake of greater human creativity. The co-hosts discussed how any attainment of a golden mean has been lost in the pursuit of collaborative innovation—even though we fail to hone our ideas as humble learners and listeners. Meanwhile, any instinct to hold fast to the tried and true only traps us in cocoons of misguided, comfortable assumptions. The artificial “communities” we belong to through our digital culture are places not of roots which allow us to grow, but of simplified labels which mimic understanding, Bill said. He was drawing upon concerns about internet trends voiced by Pope Francis in his 2019 message for World Communications Day.
Our political system does not encourage any sustained, constructive dialogue between the old and the new or between fresh, authentic perspectives. Paul pointed out that we are not presented with real choices despite the fact that parties and partisans paint themselves as sharply different. And Bill pointed out that one are of common ground so many leaders share is the use of pessimism and fear. He recalled the presidential campaigns where candidate Biden spoke of a dark winter ahead and candidate Trump portrayed himself as the alternative to anarchy and economic despair.
When an incomplete knowledge of history leads to despair about the past and present of a society, it can seem like the structures undergirding that society are held up more by mass psychology than real accomplishments or aspirations, the co-hosts said. Our culture likes to exalt creativity in principle, but have we made it easier to see connectivity and possibilities, Paul asks. Bill, proving his fascination with papal teachings for World Communications Day, would point out that the 2020 message of Pope Francis highlights our need to pass along hopeful stories from generation to generation that begin with our dynamic, hopeful relationships with God. Paul reflected on how our childhoods do not always prepare us for the kinds of pursuits entailed in the career pursuits and panoramic interests of adulthood. In a world of limited, utilitarian perspectives, it is hard to find happy wanderers with big ideas looking for life’s happy mediums.
- Brad Stalcup joins Paul and Bill in this episode to talk about his recent entry into the world of Catholic education. He began teaching religion to high school freshmen and sophomores in this fall semester of 2020—a time that Paul describes as a “baptism of fire” because of Covid-19 and today’s unusual circumstances overall.
- The vast majority of the approximately 120 students in Brad’s various classes is learning in-person, but there are several who are “live-streamers,” participating in the courses through distance-learning. The school is located in the region around Cleveland, OH.
- It’s a labor of love, not overwhelming, and “I’ve got great students,” Brad says He has not surveyed the classes to find out which ones identify themselves as Catholic, but the vast majority are Catholic and probably 50 percent are practicing Catholics in the sense of weekly Mass attendance. There is definitely a Catholic identity in this high-powered school, “which I’m grateful for,” Brad says.
- There is an eagerness to learn, especially among the freshmen, he says. He recalls that his own freshman year was a bit of an iffy time, and he wanted to help young people not fall into the trap of a slow start in high school, perhaps accompanied by theological doubt. The bottom line for sophomores is that they try to predict and give the teacher the “right answer.”
- Two key messages to Brad’s approach to the freshmen: God does stuff. And your life matters. Because of scientific materialism, there’s a temptation to think life doesn’t matter because humans are actually reduced to a tiny bit of matter drifting through space. For the sophomores: God desires your happiness. And He invites you into relationship. Church only makes sense in the context of relationship, Brad points out. His principal goal is to rid them of “moralistic, therapeutic deism,” which already shows up in students’ papers—when they say, “God is there for you,” for example
- Brad says he likes using poetry, particularly “The Hound of Heaven.” It makes both of the two points he wants to focus on with freshmen. He adds that it’s important to present certain things as true while also leaving room for questions. Or else they will build a wall around their heart. Thomas Aquinas himself asked the question, “Does God exist?” so it’s a worthy question to think about. Ceasing to believe in God drives a wedge between science and God. Today’s focus on science is for things that happen on earth and God is for my spiritual fulfillment. When they start conflicting, our culture encourages scientistic This involves incorporating faith and reason together in a healthy way—leaving room for questions, having them think about life in non-scientific ways.
- Learning science involves asking questions just like learning religion. The tendency in students is to think they can memorize answers, in both, but there are more constructive ways to teach both.
In this episode, Paul and Bill are back together for a conversation that catches up on past episodes which pondered big problems in science, government, the economy, personal well-being, and more. The pondering focused on solutions as matters of step-by-step processes, but as our conversation starts, we’re feeling a bit overwhelmed by the enormity of the problems, their quantity and complexity. Society relies more and more on government, which has proven it does not perform long-term planning very well. And it doesn’t really have the needed resources and insights it claims to have.
Ultimately, the solutions are at the individual level and in communities and communion. Paul recommends Chesterton’s biography of St. Thomas Aquinas. The Church does have amazing resources for building up faith and hope in ourselves and others—with insights at the local and global level. Of course, the Church too is in a vulnerable and broken position in its circumstances as a human institution. Paul and Bill wonder how the Church can exercise influence in the nature of evangelization and civic duty at a time when the world needs better problem-solving that respects but transcends our various individual differences and weaknesses. Collectively, intellectuals are a tiny minority, and God must love rednecks (literally with red necks) because these are the working people. Here’s an inspiring story about rednecks. We must aim to do much of our work, with God’s help, in small steps and initiatives that growing corporations and growing empires of power will consider small and off-the-radar. The reference to “Let’s Get Small” looks to Steve Martin and an old “Saturday Night Live” performance in which he left a message that stuck with Bill.
A big part of the answer is Catholic Social Teaching. These principles can give us approaches and motivation and starting points for conversations about a sense of purpose to unite us. Again, it entails humility, not pontification, because at the individual level we need to act in our families and communities to get involved in bringing these principles to life—perhaps by going into politics, or getting involved in a civic organization, or simply accepting responsibility to assist some kind of repair work on one of society’s obvious wounds. This may involve joining groups, like the Knights of Columbus, to fight for many causes including racial justice. If we join the Democratic Party, our role would be to push for reform and renewal—but then again, the Lord would require us to do the same thing in the Republican Party.
Hilaire Belloc said the defining feature of the self-proclaimed “practical man” is his inability to reason back to first principles or forward to final consequences. Our politics are likewise defined by politicians thrashing about myopically trying to win individual elections. We need to provide our own grass-roots strength for each other, through solidarity, that gives us confidence to approach the public square with the particular abilities we may have to help. Often, this participation is best done at the local level, through family and community and small groups where we can make a distance and experience people’s needs, strengths, and dignity. This is the principle of subsidiarity.
Overall, the solutions and principles point us toward small, not huge solutions. Paul and Bill have talked in the past about how the fields of science and government, for instance, are hobbled in handing us solutions because there is little capacity for long-term planning or even long-term thinking at those grander scales. Many gaps appear in such an entrepreneurial macro-setting: Why did we fail to plan for this or that? Why did we not see this coming? We must be thinking small but thinking big. This is the economy of God and a strength of the Catholic Church, whose purview is local and global, individualistic and cosmic.
Bill interviewed a leading Catholic voice in public affairs, especially in bioethics and the culture of life: Richard Doerflinger.
- His latest column for Catholic News Service examines the implications of the “Science Wins” maxim publicized by Pfizer Inc. in a recent TV commercial. You can see the commercial here.
- Doerflinger mentioned libertarian bioethicist John Harris in connection with the developments and moral controversies surrounding research on embryonic stem cells some years ago. Once concerns about human dignity were successfully eased by the development of pluripotent cells, science and society both did win from a prudential pullback from reliance on embryonic cells.
- Phronesis is practical moral judgment that integrates human wisdom and prudence to make the best decisions possible on public policy and practice given the facts human beings know from science—in light of virtue as a crucial factor.
- In the Catholic journal First Things. James Hankins has written recently about Machiavelli as the political guru of his day, who introduced scientism as a values-free guideline for geopolitical strategy. Machiavelli’s own predictions about outcomes in the absence of moral judgments led to strategic failures rather than successes, Doerflinger pointed out.
- The only law of history is the law of unintended consequences, according to Niall Ferguson, famed analyst of history, economics, and science. Doerflinger commented that unintended negative consequences have indeed been known to result from cases where science was unleashed without the exercise of human prudence.
Photo credit: The Criterion (Indianapolis)
Part 2 of a three part conversation between Paul and Bill, where the main themes are skepticism, Catholic education, the mysterious absence of the Spanish Flu from our historical consciousness prior to 2020, and the philosophical conundrums of materialism, transgenderism, and scientism.
- Paul and Bill continued their conversation about skepticism toward science and religion. They touched on several examples of science failing to show that it “knows everything” or gets everything right. There must be a constant push for additional inquiry and knowledge. Bill said the teaching of religion in K-12 Catholic schools needs to express the hunger to learn more—the dynamic sense of joy in seeking God—just as the teaching of science sets an exciting stage for learning.
- The co-hosts discussed the lack of sure scientific knowledge about the COVID-19 pandemic. This led to references to the Spanish flu. Its history is poorly understood by most people, just as there was poor understanding in 1918 about the flu’s origins and impacts.
- Philosophy and natural science became unmoored from each other after the 17th century. Bertrand Russell appeared to share an opinion that Paul considers quite natural—the reluctance to accept that no philosophical inquiry into reality can be conducted without employing at least some original, foundational assumptions.
- Stephen Pinker acknowledges that materialistic thinking suffers from logical inconsistencies, Paul said. He referred to Pinker’s landmark book, The Blank Slate, an inquiry into the origins of human nature.
- Quantum physics, in its effort to explain how everything works by describing the behavior of atoms, is full of paradoxes, Paul said.
I had the privilege of being on the Pat Flynn show on Holy Saturday (episode here). Pat comes from the worlds of both fitness / bodybuilding and philosophy and puts out new episodes nearly every day on those topics. He is a revert / convert to the Catholic faith and has an intriguing life story. If you're not familiar with him, definitely go over and fish in his well-stocked pond for topics of interest. You would do well to listen in to his conversation with Jared Zimmerer of Word on Fire, for starters! He has also had Society of Catholic Scientists (SCS) president Stephen Barr on not once, but twice.
Happy Divine Mercy Sunday, everyone. Bill and I will be back with another episode (or two... depending on how chatty we get) next week.
If you happen upon this post as a Pat Flynn fan, may I suggest checking out our homepage where you can find links at the upper right to our interviews with many members of the SCS, especially speakers at the 2019 SCS Conference, and to a list of other popular episodes.
If the SCS specifically intrigues you, they have a ton of media, like videos of talks both at SCS Conferences and elsewhere, and an impressive archive of biographies of Catholic scientists. Definitely go to their homepage to learn more.
In this episode, Bill presents excerpts from an interview with fellow Secular Franciscan Tim Short, director of formation for the Indiana Region. They discuss, among other things, St. Francis' attitude toward creation and how it relates to the larger picture of the medieval Christian intellectual world and the birth of modern science.
- Tim Short, OFS, is a member of the Secular Franciscan Order, whose initials in Latin are OFS. This international, canonically approved Roman Catholic order was founded by Saint Francis of Assisi especially for laypeople. Members belong to local, regional and national fraternities. Tim is the director of formation for the Our Lady of Indiana regional fraternity. He previously served as formation director for the Immaculate Conception local fraternity of the Order (still commonly abbreviated as SFO in the United States), located in Mishawaka, Indiana.
- Tim and podcast cohost Bill Schmitt are both professed members of the SFO, having professed a lifetime commitment to the Rule of Life which St. Francis composed. Francis also composed rules to govern orders of friars and nuns, the latter commonly called the Poor Clares.
- Tim has been instrumental in starting a new website that will serve SFO fraternities’ needs for “ongoing formation.” Find this “OFS Ongoing” website at https://secularfranciscansusa.org/ongoing-formation-resources/ When you visit the site, you’ll see a major resource Tim composed for a series of small-group discussions that can be used by any fraternity but was used first by the fraternity in Mishawaka. The resource, “A Journey Through John,” is based on the Gospel of John and reflects the importance Secular Franciscans are to place upon the Gospels as keys Francis used in building an intimate relationship with Jesus Christ. Resources drawn from Franciscanism, Pope Francis, and the beloved “Peace Prayer of Saint Francis” have been composed by Bill Schmitt and are also described at the new website.
- Other priorities in formation include an ever-deeper embrace of the Rule of Life and of the early writings from St. Francis and his friars who provided authoritative insights into the foundational Franciscan charisms.
- Tim pointed out in our interview that Saint Francis lived during a time when the old ethos made little distinction between Catholic religious thinking and what we would call scientific thinking. A time of greater doubt and division was emerging during Francis’ lifetime (circa 1180-1226). Francis’ sense of mission emphasized peacemaking, healing, and an embrace of natural life in all of creation, so one can see him as a bridge-builder encouraging love and awe for circumstances we would deem ripe for scientific analysis.
See more of Tim's work at ofsongoing.com.
Bill and Paul discuss the topic on everyone's mind, the coronavirus and social distancing, through the lens of social polarization and isolation that already so characterized American, Western, and modern society in general.
- One should not assume that “social distancing” breaks connections. Paul and Bill got together to talk about the subject and found that it connects to many other things, at least as an intellectual exercise. But also with many emotional, spiritual and sociological implications.
- Bill said that, upon first hearing about “social distancing,” he instinctively connected it to a phenomenon he ponders and writes about a lot—the phenomenon of social polarization. (He writes about it in his OnWord blog, and in 2018 he wrote a book (When Headlines Hurt: Do We Have a Prayer?) reflecting on Pope Francis’ concerns about the polarizing effects of contemporary news and digital information flows.
- Social distancing, apart from the validity of scientific claims that it is needed to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, looked to Bill like a physical, societal manifestation of the polarization trend which leads to the isolation, exclusion and defamation of people. It encourages them toward confirmation bias because they choose to hear only the opinions that back up their pre-conceived notions.
- Paul said social distancing also seems to tie into America’s infatuation with the “loner.” He recalled the self-imposed isolation discussed in Robert D. Putnam’s 2000 book, Bowling Alone.
- Both participants in the conversation connected the concept of loner with many ideas: the modern assumption that being a loner need not carry high risks, like it once did, because of the protection offered by government; the omnipresent promise among colleges that they will prepare their students to become “leaders” as opposed to followers; the observation by Alexis de Tocqueville (in Democracy in America) that Americans of the 1800s were instinctively individualists; and the more recent observation that we live in an age of celebrity when everybody wants to famous, even in relatively impotent, purposeless ways. This latter notion was discussed by Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft in an episode of EWTN’s “The Philosopher’s Bench.”
- It is especially sad that, at a time when Pope Francis points out that the Church has many valuable responses to the tendency toward social polarization and isolation, “social distancing” has prompted an end to Mass attendance. As remarked in a blog post by David Seitz, OFS, one of Bill’s favorite Franciscan commentators, the loss of civic solidarity and civil conversation is a profound kind of penance.
- We welcome Darcia Narvaez, Ph.D., to the microphone. She is a professor of psychology at the University of Notre Dame, specializing in developmental cognition, the human brain, and behavior.
- She has authored or edited numerous books, including Indigenous Sustainable Wisdom: First Nation Know-how for Global Flourishing (2019); Basic needs, wellbeing and morality: Fulfilling human potential (2018); and Developing the virtues: Integrating perspectives (2016).
- A cornerstone of her research, Neurobiology and the development of human morality: Evolution, culture and wisdom (2014), received the Expanded Reason Award from University Francisco de Vitoria and the Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI Vatican Foundation. The award recognizes innovation in scientific research and academic programs based on Pope Emeritus Benedict’s proposal to broaden the horizons of reason. This expansion questions and incorporates reflections on the anthropology, epistemology, ethics, and meaning that exist within a specific science. The foundation selected her book from among more than 360 entries from 30 countries.
- Prof. Narvaez discusses here the concepts she groups together as “Evolved Nest” perspectives on child development and human flourishing. They serve as a lens for understanding the current state of our society and culture—our “downward cycle” in the collective pursuit of wisdom, morality, and community interaction. You can explore the concepts and their relevance for children, adults, and human ecology at evolvednest.org. She writes about an array of topics connected to this in a widely popular Psychology Today blog called “Moral Landscapes.”
- Based on her research and informed by her diverse experiences (spanning seven careers, as she puts it), she suggests several ideas for recapturing a sense of wholeness amid the woundedness in human nature. Several characteristics of modern society have arisen over the past few centuries to cause the wounds seen today in civic life, communities, families, and individuals, she says. Drawing upon lessons from cultures that existed a long time ago, her suggestions to restore wholeness include such often-forgotten basics as more frequent engagement with nature, thinking new thoughts, journaling, and free-spirited play. “People don’t know themselves,” she comments. “You can get a lot of work done if you take a break.”
- Morgan Burkart is the audio engineer for this third season of “That’s So Second Millennium.” Our original theme music, “Igneous Grok,” is by Vin Marquardt. Paul Giesting, Ph.D., is a geologist, consultant, and public intellectual with a passion for philosophical and theological insights into the world that complement scientific knowledge. Bill Schmitt, MPA, is an independent journalist, consultant, musician, and multimedia content producer in the fields of higher education, engineering, religion, and public affairs.