When Milton Friedman Reviewed a Papal Encylical

Milton Friedman is a Nobel memorial prize winning economist (1976). He was a prominent faculty member at the University of Chicago and a significant shaper of what has come to be known as neoliberalism.

I was astounded to find among the stacks in the Jesuit Library that Friedman had written a short essay [Milton Friedman, “Goods in Conflict?,” in A New Worldly Order, ed. George Weigel (Lanham, MD: Ethics and Public Policy Center, 1983), 75-77.] on Pope John Paul II’s encyclical (the name for a letter that the Bishop of Rome writes to the faithful that everyone is meant to take really seriously) Centesimus Annus. The letter is written to mark the centenary of a very important encyclical by Leo XIII in 1891 called Rerum Novarum, which kick-started the Catholic Social teaching tradition. Writing in 1991, just months after the reuinification of Germany and less than two years after the collapse of the Iron Curtain and the USSR, John Paul II reflects on how state-planned, centralized economies run the risk of trapping humans in a diminished spiritual, emotional, and political purgatory. The form filling maze of a bureaucracy is not a path to just and flourishing societies. The Pope was equally clear that free-market capitalism was no utopia. When the pursuit of wealth disconnects from the common good, that too is bound to be oppressive.

So, there’s lots of “on-the-one-hand-and-on-the-other” in this encylical, which is actually a hallmark of the genre (at least before Francis arrived, grabbed the mic, and got all John the Baptist on us). Friedman is not a “on-the-one-hand-and-on-the-other” writer and so he gets stuck straight in. The letter warrants the attention of people like him, who are not Catholic, because “it comes from the head of a major institution in the modern world, a pre-eminently multinational institution with members in the hundreds of millions throughout the world, an institution that has great influence on the beliefs and day-to-day activities of these hundreds of millions.” The most striking aspect of the letter, in his reading, is how it gives comfort to everyone except Communists, Marxists, and those who are ok with abortion.

Friedman would definitely get a passing grade if he based his essay in my class on that interpretation.

He calls it “a remarkably thoughtful, comprehensive, and finely-balanced document” before noting that the role played by subsidiarity – the idea in Catholic thought that decision making should be exercised at the lowest possible level. It’s of course interesting, because subsidiarity appears as a conservative idea, but today it is almost radical because of how it acts against the logic of neoliberalism. Friedman may not have been fully aware of how his theories would work out, but it is certain that his desire to carve out space for the market free from political interference has ended up with the markets interfering with politics. Instead of small localities deliberating together, as the Popes advocate, what we have are globalised trade deals and cross-border technocrats specifying many of the technical details of how we share life together. 

For all the effort that Milton clearly put into being positive, Friedman’s closing comments will be of interest to any historians of anti-Catholicism, as they stink of the bias of sophisticated bigotry.

But I must confess that one high-minded sentiment, passed off as if it were a self-evident proposition, sent shivers down my back: “Obedience to the truth about God and man is the first condition of freedom.” Whose “truth”? Decided by whom? Echoes of the Spanish Inquisition?

The high-priest of economics doesn’t like it when the high-priest of Christianity assumes the axioms of his own religion. Better, he would suggest, to unquestioningly embrace his axioms about aggregates and margins. That’s the truth that no one can dispute.

Your Correspondent, It’s like words are his second language

Questions For Christians About Schools

Last week I wrote about Irish churches and primary schools. A tremendously exciting topic, I grant you. I am surprised the internet didn’t break, like a textual equivalent of a photoshopped picture of Kim Kardashian.

Somewhere around 95% of Irish schools are under the patronage of one church or another. I think that Irish Christians should support moves to radically alter this arrangement, but in my blog post I argued that our reasons for divesting control of primary education would be different from the ones that were commonly trotted out in the opinion pages of the newspapers.

In short: Christianity and education both suffer when Christian education is put in a position of such overwhelming power.

Forcing people to pretend to be Christians to get a place in school is the worst discipleship model imaginable. Placing the task of teaching children about the God who raised Jesus from the dead, having first raised Israel out of slavery in Egypt in the hands of people who don’t believe it and only go through the motions because it is the only way to get a pay packet is the second worst discipleship model imaginable.

Christians choose well when they choose to let go of power. So let it go.

But in a great comment on my post, a fellow called “Hmmmmself” asked what is “the ideal relationship between religion and public schools in Ireland?”

Obviously I am the man to ask. I don’t have kids. I am not a teacher. I don’t even live in Ireland at the moment!

But it does give me an opportunity to raise three questions that I think Christians should consider when it comes time to finding schools for their kids.

The Far Side

1. What does it mean to pass on the faith?
One of the reasons why the Catholic church says it is a good thing to have lots of Catholic primary schools is to pass on their “ethos”. Christianity is a strange, mysterious movement and there are many things that can be said about it. One thing it definitely isn’t is an “ethos”. Christianity is not an attitudinal stance towards the world. It isn’t simply a life philosophy. An ethos is made up of values and principles. Show me a Christian value and I will show you a domesticated Christianity. Show me some Christian principles and I will show you a Christ who has been cut down to size.

Christianity doesn’t yield principles. It inculcates practices. As far as I can see, the distinctive way of being that following Jesus entails is ill-suited to being taught as part of a curriculum, as the commenter put it, “sandwiched between a history lesson and a science experiment.” For one thing, it spills out and takes over the history lesson and casts light on the science experiment.

So passing on the faith is something that is primarily, overwhelmingly, done in the community called “church”. Let the school be a place of mission, having been formed in the church. Pass on the faith in song and prayer and sacrament. Don’t think you can out-source it to a harried, under-paid teacher whose own understanding of the parables adds up to “be nice to people.”

Christian schools in Ireland have produced generations of people inoculated with just enough religion to be immune to the Gospel. Stop thinking you can “pass” Christianity on like you pass on your love of GAA or Irish dancing.

2. What does it mean to run schools?
My friend Richard Carson (a graduate of Protestant schools) alerted me to this lobbying website set up by the Irish Protestant schools this year. It presents funding cuts to the sector as a sort of religious rights issue. Notice the “ethos” on display: talk of “Investing in our children,” not a word about austerity, many words relying on rational choice theory, and not even a single mention of Jesus.

Fee paying schools, which Protestant schools often are, are implicitly machines of inequality and bias in society. The staff are paid for by the state and the fees paid go towards add-on benefits. The rich get one (higher) level of education and everyone else makes do with a default. That the rich are also often Protestant is a serious theological problem.

Catholic schools have an untenable and unjust monopoly on the provision of education. Protestant schools have an untenable and unjust economic advantage in the provision of education. Why are churches so eager to do something that the state could arguably do better?

When we run schools, we can point to that as proof of our continued relevance and as a reason for why the powers that be should take us seriously and invite us to their policy formation meetings. We would raise better Christians if we got to do it on our own, outside of school. And the state would certainly create a better educational system, less skewed against the growing number of people without religious attachment and the large Islamic population. We wouldn’t get invited to as many state functions, which is ok because we need the extra time now that we are increasingly forced to create ad-hoc welfare programs to cover the gaps left by state-sanctioned austerity!

3. What does it mean to support the system?
One of the reactions that Christians often make to the under-funding and intellectual stagnation of state education systems is to pull their kids out and go down the home-schooling option. I am going to run the risk of offending friends when I say this, but home-schooling is a poor choice for Christians.

Here’s my reasoning: the people who choose to home-school are almost invariably brilliantly qualified for the task. They are smart and hard-working and committed parents who show patience and ingenuity on a daily basis. But that means they are the exact type of person that you want to have involved in your local, under-funded, intellectually stagnant primary and secondary school! You don’t resist the home-schooling temptation because the alternative is better for your kids. You resist it because you and your kids are better for your neighbours when you are in the local school!

People who choose to home-school might not always be rich, but they are rarely poor. They can afford the time to teach at home, which means they could afford the time to be active in supporting the most put upon people in the Irish education system: teachers. When they pull out and teach their kids at home, it is almost certain that their child benefits. But their neighbour’s child suffers. Irish schools need the families that could home-school but choose instead to stick it out in a crappy, rough school, confident that their own participation in parent councils and management boards and the presence of their kids in classrooms will be a net-gain.

So you are a Christian who wants to see their kids mature into Christians who exhibit a gracious, sacrificial faith that loves God and loves their neighbour? Then form them in the gracious practices of the church. Teach them that the school yard is the perfect place to learn how to sacrifice for their neighbour, by befriending the friendless and standing up for the defenceless. The rest of their life they will be immersed in places where people challenge the very basis of their faith. When they are taught to handle school, they’ll flourish at college and have a spine in the workplace. If you think of these decisions about “investing” in your children, consider how vulgar it is to expect a dividend from your kids! If you think that “only the best” education can “fulfill your child’s potential,” consider what Jesus thinks of human potential. In the end, kindness to our neighbours is what he is interested in. Placing your children into a new, state-directed, diverse, slightly antagonistic school environment might just be the perfect educational environment.

Your Correspondent, His education is what survives when what has been learnt has been forgotten

On Theology That Is Funny


Is it enough that our theology is true? We’re meant to speak the truth in love, and we love to see the people we love laugh.

This gem is from Hauerwas and Willimon’s The Truth About God, page 89.

Your Correspondent, Is sorry for that time he tried to make gravy in the bathtub

Reasons You Need To Know Karl #734

Famous magician, decent bloke, funny writer and not very angry atheist, Penn Jillette is attributed with this very fine point:

Penn Jillette

I don’t mean to make this post into an apologetic polemic. My intention here is to simply state a clarifying principle. Very often when engaging with contemporary atheism, I am stuck by how rare it is that my interlocutor is familiar with the Biblical text. It is rarer still that they have actually are fluent in its narrative. It is practically unheard of to find someone today who actually understands how that narrative works. Finally I have never encountered any atheist in this generation who has a sense of how all this fits together. In an analogy with the natural science, when it comes to Christianity, atheists are able to do sums and hence conclude they natively understand all physics.

So back to Mr. Jillette. This is a most excellent critique of something, but not orthodox Christianity.

With this he takes down large swathes of theology written after a fellow called Reimarus. With this he destroys a big quarter of the contemporary church that imagines Christianity is just civilisation taken to its (il)logical perfection. But it is a claim that leaves the heart of Christianity untouched.

When serious minded sceptics ask me how to engage with Christianity I advise them to read a Swiss man called Karl Barth. Now Barth himself is not that special, as he always reminds us. He is just the closest in age to us of a tradition that stretches back through Jonathan Edwards and Calvin and Luther and Thomas and Anselm and back to the very old names of Athanasius and Augustine and Tertullian. As the closest to us in age, we find it easiest to relate to how he tells the story.

The story of Christianity that he tells is exactly not like science in this crucial regard: It is revealed.

If God did not reveal Himself, we would not know him.

Religion is actually exactly what Jillette claims it to be: humanity’s effort to fill a void. Christian claims are not undone by such insights because of this revelatory proposition.

Now I do not mean to suggest that since we claim God revealed Himself, therefore He did. Rather, simply, the claims that are made in the name of the Trinity are not the kind of claims that will repeat themselves.

Your Correspondent, Shopped for love in a bargain store and didn’t get what he bargained for