Monday, March 17, 2014

Since You Asked, Somechop

A funny thing happened on the way to a serious discussion about Catholic beliefs and American politics.  It disappeared into cyberspace.

A sister-in-law had posted a story on Facebook concerning the President’s tin-earedresponse to a critique of the Affordable Care Act.  Everyone should read it.

I understood his point, which reduced to “be responsible and prioritize your expenditures.”  It’s what he might have said without controversy before revolutionizing the relationship of citizen to government, which now owns Americans’ healthcare.  Coming from him today, it sounds thoughtless and insensitive, somewhat like “let them eat cake.”

It's easy enough for him to opine about how others should make tradeoffs between cable TV and health insurance, as he jets between Hollywood fundraisers, Hawaiian vacations, golfing adventures and parties with Beyonce     

This is what my sister-in-law wrote in her preface to the article:

Okay, it was callous and clueless of Obama to say this, but argh, this is the exact response so many conservatives give when people struggle to afford food, or school lunches. All of a sudden when these same people can't afford Obamacare, suddenly conservatives understand how much poor people struggle and how they deserve to keep their dignity.
I hate everybody.


Joseph Prever, Sarah Johnson, Clare Rita Kosmalski and 103 others like this.



Simmy—better known as Simcha Fisher to her many readers, or Somechop Fisher to her Facebook friends—is a best-selling author and an emerging voice concerning Catholics and sexuality.  She has a devoted following and an influential platform.

I objected for two reasons.  First, at times it seems that she reserves her special ire for “conservatives.” The same tendency is more pronounced in other renowned Catholic bloggers, notably MarkShea, and it surprises me given that conservatives generally share their solicitude for faith and family.

Secondly, her point is valid that conservatives don’t usually consider individual struggles or school lunches to be primarily political mattersthough Peter Schweizer and others have made the empirical case that they do concern themselves with others’ suffering, personally and privately, much more than liberals.  Regardless, people of a conservative inclination did not create the hardships they are routinely pilloried for not solving with public fixes.

President Obama and the Democratic Party solely created the critical mess he now so breezily dismisses.  That seems a substantive difference, which explains why conservatives have barked at the President over this small proof of his callous disregard for the little people the ACA was purportedly intended to serve. 

It is ironic that conservatives, rather than the President, would be singled out for his hypocrisy.  I posted a response that, in essence, questioned how and why this had become a story (to her) about conservative callousness and cluelessness. 

For reasons I will shortly explain, my question is lost, as are the first fifty comments of what became a lengthy and, at times, highly-charged discussion.

One thing led to another after my initial comment.  I wound up in a respectful contention with Kate Cousino, a Catholic blogger on the Personalist Project website, which is run by philosophical friends, and on which my wife also posts weekly (the brilliant, witty and beautiful Devra Torres).

The discussion dragged on late into the night.  As happens sometimes on social media, she eventually wrote something that blew steam from my nostrils.  Rather than charge, I decided to pray, and shut down my computer.  My son called from college later; we talked into the morning hours; and I went to bed.

I awoke the following morning with a busy schedule of work and errands.  Around midday, I checked Facebook, opened the post and found some pointed comments addressed to me by Simmy and her husband, Damien. 

For reasons evident to anyone who has read his guest posts on Simmy’s blog over the years, Damien writes under the pseudonym of “The Jerk.”

Another sister-in-law, Abby, entered the fray with a personal anecdote.  Abby, like all of my wife’s sisters, is the mother of many children, well educated, faithful and a talented writer.  (BTW, all of her brothers are, too, except for the part about being mothers.)  We have been friends since the 1980’s when I met her and her husband (and Devra, my wife) in Liechtenstein at the International Academy of Philosophy.

I resolved, and promised, to respond when I had time, which was not until early evening.  Naturally, the discussion was on my mind throughout day, and I was anxious to respond to my interlocutors.

Much to my dismay, that opportunity was unavailable, as Simmy had removed the post and discussion from her page.  I was only able to preserve the comments I did because I’d left the discussion open on my browser.

Because this debate among Catholics about what the faith requires us to believe regarding social justice and the welfare state is an important one, I’d like to finish it, or at least answer the questions I was asked. 

Actually, I’d prefer to continue this discussion indefinitely, and invite it onto this platform and/or my Facebook pages. 

Consequently, I post the germane parts of the discussion that I was able to preserve, with the responses I would have made.  Comments made by other contributors are omitted.


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Max Torres I appreciate your viewpoint, Kate. It's a difficult problem. We've each got our inclinations, temperaments and experiences. You, I gather, just want the (materially) poor taken care of, regardless of cost. Need is trump, and you like that the State has coercive power to redistribute money to meet it. There's abundant support for that position in Catholic Social Doctrine, and I accept it as a possibility. I don't think such a construction is necessitated by CSD, or by constructs such as human dignity, the common good and solidarity. In fact, I think the welfare state cuts against them rather than for them--despite the good intentions of many who support it. My experience of public medicine and the maternal-paternalistic state was less positive than yours in the ten years I lived in Spain, and the twenty-plus I've been working there. Moreover, I don't think either the cost or that model is sustainable, as fractures in the EU's capital markets indicate. It will either take a more congenial approach to civil society and the intermediate institutions that comprise it, or it will go the route of Cyprus, and ultimately Moscow or Bejing. That will spell the end of investment, innovation, prosperity and, ironically, care for the needy. Without denigrating anyone, my own conclusion is that we need to stick together, hustle, sweat, and rely on ourselves and our loved ones primarily, or the state and everything else is likely to come crashing down around our ears. I agree with Simmy's and your point that conservatives could be warmer and fuzzier. I just don't see that as the gravamen of the issue. I'm also amazed at the number of people clustered around Patheos that do. I hope we can all pull together, soon, because divided we fall.
20 hours ago · Like · 2


Kate Cousino max, i tend to think gov. policies should express the values and priorities of the nation, rather than be an alien, detached creature. if, as a society, we agree that the hungry should be fed, then I see nothing threateninf in, as a nation, using the medium of the state to accomplish the will of the citizens, for the good of the citizens.
19 hours ago · Like · 1


Kate Cousino the "state" is merely a human institution, as much a human instrument as any other, and the goid or evil of state action is therefore not an absolute, but dependent on the virtue of those persons acting within it.
19 hours ago · Like


Max Torres Kate, the problem with the state, or any institution, is that it takes on a life of its own, and adopts its own purposes according to the dictates of the fallen human beings directing it. I'd feel less threatened if men were good angels; so, too, would have the founders. Knowing that we aren't, and knowing that the coercive power of the state was to be feared rather than fomented, they devised a system of government limited to enumerated powers (feeding the hungry was not one of them), and constrained by ten broad amendments.
         If the rule of state power is to exercise it on behalf of the "will of the citizens," (meaning a plurality of votes counted, which always surpasses the number of voters) then we're a step away from Madame Guillotine. We'd best pray that "we agree" on nice things. Thankfully, the founders preferred Locke to Rousseau, whose "general will" is at home on continental soil, but alien here.
14 hours ago · Edited · Like


Kate Cousino Max, do you recognize any gradation between representative democracy and...I can't even call it mob rule, because the Reign of Terror was not really the 'mob', or even a plurality of the citizenry--it centered around a handful of quite definite personalities and the factions and resources they controlled. Earlier your comparison was communist China, so I'll go with that. Do you see any gradation, or difference in principle, between a representative democracy which represents the voters' desires for a social safety net, and Maoism? Because you write as though one must inevitably become the other.
         I think human beings are made for community, and a community that cares about its own will make provisions for the poor. A Christian society certainly should. I see no reason at all for there to be any conflict between my aiding the poor individually, my aiding the poor through local bodies like my parish or local charities, and my aiding the poor through large scale or far reaching communal bodies like an NGO, national charity, or state or federal government.
         Since I see no necessary connection between a healthy social net and government interference or obstruction of private efforts towards social justice, I see no contradiction in advocating for both public and private efforts to remedy human suffering, where they seem needful and beneficial.
14 hours ago · Like


Kate Cousino Or, to put it another way, it seems far more useful to identify and oppose abuses of state power where they exist, than to oppose just uses of state power in the hope that somehow preventing the state from acting justly will also prevent it from acting unjustly.
14 hours ago · Like · 1

That’s where I checked out.  It was the “do you see or recognize any distinctions between black and white?” that steamed me.  Her questions and points were legitimate, however; they deserved a response, which follows:

To: Kate Cousino

·      Kate, last things first. The idea of limiting (opposing) state power was the founder’s, and mine by consequence. It's our native political culture. Beyond that, let me give you an example of why waiting for the State to goof up (as opposed to remaining eternally vigilant to prevent it from doing so) is a bad idea. A decade ago, Americans overwhelmingly supported protecting the citizenry from terrorism with far reaching laws. That general will to security gave us the Patriot Act. Now, the NSA, HSA and even private companies acting at their behest strip-mine metadata on ordinary citizens like you and me. It took a whistle blower to inform us of the fact, and he's been called a traitor by nearly everyone.  Big Brother is watching us under the cover of law passed in a representative democracy, and there's nothing that you or I can do about it; not even Angela Merkel can. My point is that the state, especially the federal state, is not a good thing to empower with a broad mandate to do good works because it will eventually do bad works.  That is the consequence of our fallen natures, and one reason why America’s founders devised a system of restraints on government power.  Perhaps I'll reconsider my appreciation of their handiwork when someone shows me a government that shrinks as well as grows. Not even Ronald Reagan—who I never voted for, incidentally—could pull that off.

·      Agreed, a Christian society must make provisions for the poor.  (Two ancillary points: (1) Not everyone agrees that we are a Christian nation, though I do, and, thus agree that we have an obligation; (2) We are referring here to the materially needy, fully realizing that the Church’s definition of the poor includes everyone, as we are all spiritually impoverished and in need of Christ’s redemption.)  Every level of society from individual to state has a role to play. The relevant questions are (1) to what extent, and (2) with who in charge; in a word, how?  There are good, personalist, reasons to situate the protagonism for this duty at the individual (personal) level rather than the collective (political) one.  The difference between the former and latter routes is the crucial role of human volition—the personal power through which we form ourselves.  Individually (or through voluntary associations, e.g., Church, benevolent society, Rotary, United Way, etc.), I act freely.  As people are both the subject and object of their acts, whatever we freely do redounds to our persons and conduces towards our integral human fulfillment.  As the subject of a state, I act through compulsion and under threat of penalty (whether I agree with the assessment, or not).  That is no small difference to a Catholic.  On the other hand, there are expedient economic (rather than moral) reasons for collective protagonism.  Government can shake the money out of the pockets of those who don’t agree, and thereby accumulate big piles of it to redistribute.  The State can also hypothecate the nation’s future.

·      Yes, I recognize gradations and differences-in-kind between a representative democracy operating within a system of checks and balances, whose powers are limited on the one hand, and totalitarian regimes on the other.  What I find hard to distinguish is between your stated notion of national government as an instrument empowered to “remedy human suffering” in accordance with “what we” agree on and “the will of the citizens” on the one hand, and a tyranny of compassion and good intentions on the other—not unlike Soviet Communism.  (My earlier reference to Cyprus was meant to recall that just one year ago, a European social democracy “solved” its chronic debt and deficit problems by confiscating 10% of people’s deposits held in Cypriot banks—their actual money, not just a tax on their earnings.  Once the principles that (1) need trumps, and (2) the state is broadly, rather than narrowly empowered, to meet it, nobodies property is private.)  Catholics are obliged to remedy human suffering to the furthest extent possible, and to serve the poor (not just the materially needy).  We are not obliged to become Statists.

When I picked up the discussion the following day, I discovered the following comments:


Damien Fisher Max mistakes Edmund Burke and Adam Smith for Church fathers.
11 hours ago · Like


Somechop Fisher Max Torres, I have heard a good many conservatives say the things you've been saying; but usually, after they've had an actual real-life experience in which they have an opportunity to help the working poor, they say something like, "But now it turns out it's not so cut and dry in real life." Did you want to follow up on your comments? Or is this a Gingrich moment, where it doesn't matter what you do, as long as you say the right things?
11 hours ago · Edited · Like · 1


Damien Fisher Can I just point out: Social Justice is not the same thing as the Reign of Terror. Nor does the concept of government agencies dedicated to feeding the poor lead to the guillotine. That is as dumb an idea I've heard in a while. But what do I know, I never went to Harvard.
11 hours ago · Like · 2


Damien Fisher I haven't lived in Spain, either. I understand, though, it's a different country that has been ruled by a fascist dictator for much of the 20th century.
11 hours ago · Like · 1

My responses to Damien and Simmy follow:

To: Damien Fisher

·      I actually don’t mistake Edmund Burke and Adam Smith for Church fathers.  Neither do I mistake Popes for founding fathers.  Nor do I mistake Catholic Social Doctrine for the American system of government.  The Church acknowledges its own limits in the political, economic and cultural realms.  Perhaps American Catholics should, too.

·      Social justice is a term used not only by the Church, but also by Marxists, communists, socialists, secular humanists and assorted haters of Catholicism, whose roots lie precisely in the reign of terror, if not earlier episodes of totalitarian barbarism. The Church understands the term to signify the obligation that all Christians have to help others, respect human dignity, and work in solidarity towards the common good.  It is discharged in myriad ways, including through public programs.  My preference, for reasons outlined in this discussion and elsewhere (e.g., NomanSays), is for beneficence to be dispensed as close to home and parish as possible.  Church teaching is clear on the obligation, and on a public (political) responsibility in discharging it.  Because the Church is admittedly not an expert on everything concerning man that it opines on, CSD is open to the question of how the obligation is to be discharged. It does, however, require that it be handled in accordance with the dictates of the principle of subsidiarity.

·      In sum, you don’t have to be a statist to be a good Catholic.

·      With respect to Spanish history, my understanding is that prior to Franco, the country was ruled by collectivist totalitarians who narrowly won popular election and interpreted their victory as a broad mandate to do good according to their lights, which they proceeded to discharge by assassinating thousands of priests and nuns, confiscating and destroying Church property, murdering or arresting faithful Catholics and, generally, imposing their atheistic vision (including abortion on demand) onto Spain’s Catholic society.  It was, in short, not unlike a reign of terror.

To: Somechop Fisher

·      Yes, Simmy.  I did want to follow up on my comments.  But you made that impossible, in the forum you called me out on, by deleting your post.

·      I, too, am sure that more real-life experience of living like a Christian will help me gain a fuller perspective on things, and make me a better person—someone less like Newt Gingrich, I suppose.

·      I have also met people who responded as you describe after performing work in the trenches of poverty.  Sometimes, they even leave the experience with a renewed commitment to helping people avoid such predicaments in the first place.  In addition, I have met people who, after experiencing a change in fortune—e.g., writing a best seller, starting a business, being promoted, losing deductions or tax credits—lament the burden of crushing taxation (one they had previously eluded), and ask something like, “Does anyone know a good CPA or tax lawyer?”

·      Many liberals who publicly support social welfare policies privately turn their back on espoused principles at tax time, when collective compassion threatens their pocketbooks, as opposed to just those of “conservatives” (the middle class).  I’m thinking of former supporters of the Affordable Care Act, who now resent losing their existing coverage and getting saddled with more expensive insurance.  I’m also thinking of corporate chieftains like the heads of Apple, IBM, Google, Starbucks and more, who talk a good social game, but keep billions in corporate cash offshore in order to avoid U.S. corporate taxation.  Let’s not forget Warren Buffet, who publicly champions tax increases that don’t affect him, while reaping beneficial treatment from crony politicians (e.g., for Burlington Northern Railroad) as well as billions of dollars through transactions structured to avoid taxation (i.e., his recent sale of the Graham companies/Washington Post).  A little scorn for their hypocrisy wouldn’t be misplaced.

·      The point of my initial comment was to distinguish between (A) Statist liberals like president Obama who speaks with callous disregard for the citizenry he purports to champion (with immunity from widespread media criticism, at that), and on whose alleged behalf he engineers society, and (B) small-government conservatives who speak (perhaps too myopically, and obsessively) about the limits of what government is empowered, and competently able, to do.  That’s an important distinction that too often gets overlooked in the writings of faithful Catholic bloggers (authors), and was conflated in your post, which managed to convert liberal callousness into a reproach against conservatives.   

Much to my relief, my sister-in-law Abby weighed into the discussion. 


Abby Tardiff I really appreciate Max's comments, which seem to me to me show good will--a real effort to take the Church's teaching to heart, at personal cost. On the other hand, I wish people could see that medical care is in a whole other category now. When my daughter needed emergency open-heart surgery to the tune of $100,000, do you think my parish could help me? Or my family? I turned straight to the government. Thank you, taxpayers--you saved her life. Medical care costs so much in large part because medical technology has advanced, and it's out of the reach of families and private charities now. It's not like having someone bring you groceries for a week when you're between jobs.
11 hours ago · Like · 1

To: Abby Tardiff

·      Thanks, Abby. I appreciate your evaluating my argument closely.

·      I understand that health care is a “whole other category” of need.  (Though, as an aside, it’s not as sui generis as might initially seem.  Groceries, utilities, seasonal clothing and more are all essential for good health.)  My core objection to the way it’s been handled here is that reasoning proceeded from the wrong premise.  “Everyone should have insurance” was a shibboleth that obstructed progress towards solving the real issue, which was that “everyone should have access to affordable healthcare.”  As you pointed out, costs have skyrocketed.  That is the problem that should have been addressed, not who to transfer the cost onto.

·      There were many alternatives, prior to the Affordable Care Act, that might have accomplished cost reduction without converting the unwilling into dependents of the state, radically altering the insurance market, establishing a new entitlement, menacing the public fisc and bloating the rolls of government employment by tens of thousands of highly-paid public employees at the IRS and a score of newly created agencies.  The Affordable Care Act has raised healthcare costs (as predicted) while creating “death panels” to address rationing.  It is the classic, statist boondoggle, sold on the basis of compassionate, yet false, promises, which IMO will ultimately institutionalize the culture of death in America.  I appreciate the sincere good intentions of many (not all) supporters.  But, this episode merely reinforces my aversion to big government, and raises the urgency of my opposition to the dynamics that forced the ACA onto us.

·      Separately, I often used Mary’s story to illustrate for my European friends that American streets weren’t littered with the bodies of our dying uninsured.  American “experts” and our media incessantly told them that they were, so Europeans believed it.  Mary’s story proves the point that ObamaCare wasn’t necessary to take care of even a poor girl with a costly, intricate and potentially fatal illness, whose parents weren’t insured.

·      Correct me if my memory serves badly.  But, you didn’t go straight to the government.  You went straight to the hospital administrator, who tapped into established funding sources.  Given the way we did things, it happened to be a government source.  But that was extraneous to your concerns.  You would be just as thankful to the Church, diocese, private donors, fraternal organizations or government entities that the administrator might have directed Mary’s case to.  Some medical professionals might even have worked pro bono if her unmet need had required it.

·      I, too, am ecstatic that taxpayers were there as a payer of last resort to save Mary.  What I object to is that taxpayers and consumers have been forced against their expressed wills to “be there” as primary providers.  It’s not right.

The final comments before the post was deleted follow:


Max Torres Oh my. I went away and came plugged back in to see that I'd re-molecularized into a buzz-saw. Kate Cousino, I'll pick this up in the afternoon. Damien and Simmy...
11 hours ago · Like


Kate Cousino Max, do you all get together for Thanksgiving? I'm imagining the gatherings on your lovely wife's side of the family...
11 hours ago · Like


Kate Cousino If I had money, I'd pay money to come watch the lot of you interact in person. 
11 hours ago · Like

·      We agree on the important things, Kate: God, faith, family, children, life, grace.  That keeps things cordial despite strong personalities, outspoken opinions, varying temperaments, etc.  No two-or-more people agree on everything.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. It would have been a good idea to send a message, given the circumstances, explaining why the thread was deleted. As stated, the reason for posting this debate is that it's an interesting, timely and important one for Catholics to have.

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.