Dr. Thomas Woods Jr. in the Dock

While engaged in a discussion over Catholic Social Doctrine with a certain Protestant author, I was directed to the works of a certain Catholic libertarian by the name of Thomas Woods, Jr. The issue under contention was whether or classical liberalism is compatible with the declarations of the Church. It was the position of my acquaintance that Dr. Woods had demonstrated with great clarity that classical liberalism was in fact compatible with Catholicism. Apparently, Woods even went so far as to publish a book where he argued this at great length.

Upon investigating the daring doctor I found a handful of oddities. On the one hand, Woods is the associate editor for Latin Mass Magazine. Well, bravo! On the other hand, he is a senior fellow in history at the Ludwig Von Mises Institute. Now, Catholics advocating classical liberalism has become all too common, but a Traditional Catholic? That is an oddity ranking somewhere between a three-legged ballerina and a quadriplegic valet driver.

While rummaging through Woods' online material, I stumbled upon a document entitled Catholic Social Theory and Economic Law: An Unresolved Tension. Jackpot! If there was anything written by Woods that would clear up the matter, this appeared to be it. 

Much to my dismay, I didn’t get through the first paragraph before realizing that I was in for a rather uncomfortable ride. The preface began by assuring the reader that he has the most profound respect for the popes of the 19th and 20th centuries. Now, for those who are unfamiliar with this tactic, authors resort to these “assurances” when they are about to embark upon a crusade against those they claim to so profoundly respect. This trend turned out to hold no less true here than elsewhere.

From the get-go he displays nothing but hostility towards the declarations made by the popes he claims to profoundly respect. 

Woods accuses the popes of advocating “fateful” ideas and goes so far as to arrogantly insist that “if the Church is going to presume to establish moral principles on the basis of the consequences that follow from this assumption, then some demonstration of its truth must be attempted.” To make matters worse – if this is at all possible – he sides time and again with a cherry-picked number of scholastics, all of whom the Editors at IHS Press have insist are taken out horribly of context. 

In short, Woods makes abundantly clear to the readers that he prefers the company and wisdom of atheist/agnostic economists over against the declarations of the Magisterium in matters pertaining to all things economic.

If I may be so frank, the tone of the entire piece echoed the kind of anti-Catholic drivel that one may expect to hear from frightful figures such as Ayn Rand and Ludwig von Mises. It most certainly lacked the kind of prudence that would be expected in what was peddled as a humble criticism from a faithful son of Mother Church. The reason being, of course, that Woods had no intention of reconciling CSD with classical liberalism. Quite the contrary! He was hoping that his denunciations of the popes, the encyclicals, and many of her faithful sons would in some way justify his adherence to a philosophy that is inherently at odds with the teaching of the Church.

My primary concern, though, is with a number of assertions he made much later in the paper. In fact, they came just prior to his conclusion. The header of this particular section read: The Magisterium Has No Competence Here. Just reading it gave me the impression that this mad has no fear trampling where archangels fear to tip-toe. Here is what he wrote:

“... by any definition, it lay well beyond the competence of the Magisterium to presume to describe the workings of economic relationships.” He goes on to say that while one “hesitates to describe Catholic social teaching as an abuse of papal and ecclesial power,” it “seems dubious” that popes would“attempt to impose, as moral doctrine binding on the entire Catholic world, principles that derive” from their“intrinsically fallible reasoning within a secular discipline like economics.” To add insult to injury, he thunders, “at the very least, it appears to constitute an indefensible extension of the prerogatives of the Church’s legitimate teaching office into areas which it possesses no inherent competence or divine protection from error.”

But do his claims hold true? One need look no further than the encycicals or popes he referenced throughout the paper in order to conclude with full certainty that Woods assertions are worse then wrong, they were dead on arrival. 

Woods references four encyclicals written by four different popes: Rerum Novarum, Leo XIII; Quadragesimo Anno, Pius XI; Pacem In Terris, John XXIII; and Laborem Exercens, John Paul II. The question, then, is what authority these documents, and the popes who wrote them, claimed to possess in the field under consideration.

Rerum Novarum, the Magna Carta of CSD, is not so outspoken in regards to the authority of the Church in matters of economic affairs as are later encyclicals, but it is certainly not left without a witness. In section 16 we read: “We approach the subject [economic and social theory] with confidence, and in the exercise of the rights which manifestly appertain to Us.” While Pope Leo XIII wouldn’t presume a monopoly on the putting together of a comprehensive program applicable to any and all people in any and all places, he would certainly declare that the Church is at the forefront among various authorities concerned with the putting together remedies for various economic ills and shortcomings.

Pope Pius XI was far more outspoken. In Quadragesimo Anno he wrote that Rerum Novarum was written in the “virtue of the Divine Teaching office entrusted to him [Leo XIII].” The pontiff goes on to write in section 11 that “the Pope clearly exercised his right” and that he declared “confidently and as one having authority” those things that “the Church, heads of States and the people themselves directly concerned ought to do.” He reiterates this in section 31 when saying that “the rules” which Leo XIII issues were “in virtue of his [papal] authority.”

It is in sections 39 and 41 of the same encyclical, though, that Woods will find himself in a great deal of trouble. A passing glance of these two sections ought to have caused him an extraordinary level of discomfort.

Section 39 declares that “those who would seem to hold in little esteem this Papal Encyclical [Rerum Novarum] and its commemoration either blaspheme what they know not, or understand nothing of what they are only superficially acquainted with, or if they do understand convict themselves formally of injustice and ingratitude.”

In like manner, section 41 says that “principle which Leo XIII so clearly established must be laid down at the outset here, namely, that there resides in Us the right and duty to pronounce with supreme authority upon social and economic matters.” The pope continues by saying that this would “bring under the subject of Our supreme jurisdiction not only social order but economic activities themselves.”

Conveniently, Woods was not inclined to deal with, much less reference, passages of this nature in his diatribe.

Pacem In Terris, written by Blessed Pope John XXIII, followed on the heels of another encyclical by the same pontiff entitled Mater et Magistra. The claims of authority and jurisdiction in Mater Et Magistra were foundational for any and all declarations that would follow, whether in that encyclical or in any other.

John XXIII says in section 16 of Mater et Magistra that “We approach the subject [social and economic theory] with confidence, and in the exercise of the rights which manifestly appertain to Us.” The pope goes on to say in section 218 that“the permanent validity of the Catholic Church’s social teaching admits of no doubt.” From here he spends the larger portion of the end declaring directives that he considers to be binding on all, especially the faithful children of the Church. He insists that CSD “is an integral part of the Christian conception of life” (222); that it should be taught in all seminaries, schools, religious instruction programs, and spread through all mass media (223); that beloved sons should put it into practice and strive to have others understand it (224); that they should be “convinced that the best way of demonstrating the truth and efficacy of this teaching is to show that it can provide the solution to present-day difficulties” (225); and that these principles must be put into effect (240).

Here, too, we see strong warnings for those, like Dr. Woods, who would fail to embrace papal instruction on social and economic matters. Section 241 requires that the faithful Catholic's "attitude must be one of loyal trust and filial obedience to ecclesial authority.” For the pope was concerned that “if in the transactions of their temporal affairs they take no account of those social principles which the Church teaches… then they fail in their obligations… [and] may even go so far as to bring discredit on the Church’s teaching, lending substance to the opinion that, in spite of its intrinsic value, it is in fact powerless to direct men’s lives.” 

These words, possibly above all others, force men like Woods to their knees in fear and trembling. Instead, as with similar warnings in other encyclicals of this nature, Woods allowed them to hit the cutting-room floor.

As for the final encyclical referenced by Woods, it had little to say of its own authority. Pope John Paul II, in Laborem Exercens, had no reason to reiterate what had been said so many times over concerning the authority of the Magisterium in regards to social and economic matters. Still, in article III section 14, the pope states that “the many proposals put forward by experts in Catholic social teaching and by the highest Magisterium of the Church” are of “special significance.” While "special significance" may not bear the same kind of gavel pounding found in Mater et Magistra, I see nowhere within the enclyclical that the nature of things had in any way changed from the time of Blessed John XXIII and the writing of Labor Exercens.

It should be obvious, then, that Woods is in grave error concerning the issue of the Magisterium’s jurisdiction over both social and economic concerns. Consequently, he has chosen to side with a mongrel horde of atheists, agnostics, and a cherry-picked remnant of scholastics (taken out of context) over against the Bishops of Rome and the overwhelming majority of the Church’s faithful sons who worked long and hard towards the reconstructing of a Catholic social order. He gives aid and comfort to those enemies of the faith by boldly criticizing the Church and calling into question the very right to jurisdiction the pontiffs claimed for themselves and their decrees. Furthermore, he advocates those very social and economic dogmas that the sovereign pontiffs condemn. But, worst of all, his actions place him in the frightening position of an obstinate son as described, particularly, in Quadragesimo Anno and Mater Et Magistra.

It is my hope that Woods would reconsider his position, and that he would do so with a sense of great urgency. With this being done, I pray that he would put as much effort into educating others about the majesty and wisdom of CSD as he has into deconstructing it in hope of salvaging his commitment to theories the Church has steadfastly denounced.


Paleocrat Tuesday, January 6, 2009 at 6:13:00 PM CST  

This entry was originally written on my website back in August. Dr. Woods and I had an online conversation concerning this post and two videos that accompanied it. Here is what he had to say:

"If anyone can point out to me a_theoretical_statement from economics that contains a moral dimension, then I will listen... As soon as you can find me one principle of economic theory that is bound up with morality, you be sure and let me know."

My reply is linked to the title of this post.

He's just looking for one. C'mon, just one. : )

Robert Tuesday, January 6, 2009 at 7:10:00 PM CST  

In short, Mr. Woods is a secularist.

John Médaille Tuesday, January 6, 2009 at 7:23:00 PM CST  

The real trick would be to find a proposition NOT connected with a moral dimension. The very balance of supply and demand depends on equity (justice) and where there is no justice, there is no balance. In such cases, we must rely on non-economic means, like consumer credit (usury) or government spending to maintain demand and thus sustain supply. Anybody know of any cases like that?

Anonymous,  Wednesday, January 7, 2009 at 6:45:00 AM CST  

Woods asks for a "theoretical statement". Here is one: Mises states, “It [praxeology] is neutral with regard to all judgments of value and the choice of ultimate ends.”

Aquinas, on the other hand says, “It sometimes happens that an action is indifferent in its species, but considered in the individual it is good or evil. And the reason of this is because a moral action, as stated above (Article [3]), derives its goodness not only from its object, whence it takes its species; but also from the circumstances, which are its accidents, as it were; just as something belongs to a man by reason of his individual accidents, which does not belong to him by reason of his species. And every individual action must needs have some circumstance that makes it good or bad, at least in respect of the intention of the end. For since it belongs to the reason to direct; if an action that proceeds from deliberate reason be not directed to the due end, it is, by that fact alone, repugnant to reason, and has the character of evil. But if it be directed to a due end, it is in accord with reason; wherefore it has the character of good. Now it must needs be either directed or not directed to a due end. Consequently every human action that proceeds from deliberate reason, if it be considered in the individual, must be good or bad.” (ST
I-II, 18, 9)

Anonymous,  Wednesday, January 7, 2009 at 9:30:00 AM CST  

I'm not a Catholic, so I'm on thin ice talking about such things, but from the outside, it looks like Woods is a wolf in Catholic sheep's clothing.

Donald Goodman Wednesday, January 7, 2009 at 11:03:00 AM CST  


I discussed this issue at some length in the introduction to Distributism: A Catholic System of Economics. Woods has some great things to say about almost everything else; but on economics, he's clearly dead wrong.

Deep Thought Wednesday, January 7, 2009 at 11:05:00 AM CST  

Wow. If I had known you hadn't run into this guy yet I would have warned you!

Aged parent Wednesday, January 7, 2009 at 12:25:00 PM CST  

In my opinion, I would tread as lightly as possible with regard to Dr Woods. That does not, of course, mean that you should not correct his errors here. You should, and you should continue to do so. He is unquestionably ill-informed. Yet the possibility exists that he could begin to shake off the Austrian junk.

It took me many years to get that "road to Damascus" conversion vis-a-vis Americanism and Capitalism. Dr Woods, hopefully, will one day get his own Damascus so it would be better to keep the rhetoric as gentlemanly as possible. In short, we have to watch our tempers. Dr Woods is a good man, even though it is true he is bouncing around a bit these days as regards his view of Catholicism. I'm not sure but I believe it to be true that he has, for example, parted company with some well-known Catholics over his economic views, which does seem to indicate that he places these views on a higher level of importance than the social teachings of the Church. This is most unfortunate and I hope he will see the error of his ways sooner rather than later. The longer you wallow in error the harder it is to leave it.

Sadly, he has dug in his heels even deeper by writing a book about these wrong ideas. So it will take a rather supreme example of humility for him to publicly change his opinions. But I think he eventually will, once his Catholicism starts to become the main focus in his life.

Until that happens keep it gentlemanly with him. And say a "Hail Mary" for him. There is hope there.

Iosue Andreas Sartorius Wednesday, January 7, 2009 at 3:46:00 PM CST  

Dr. Woods' book, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, is great read, athough Distributists might take issue with his attirbution of free-market economics to the monks of the Salamanca School.

Richard Aleman Wednesday, January 7, 2009 at 4:39:00 PM CST  

Well, the problem with Salamanca is that the few texts available in print are from Hayekian, Marjorie Hutchinson.

I'm going home to Spain in a couple of months, and I'll see if I can find translated texts from other sources.

John Médaille Wednesday, January 7, 2009 at 5:02:00 PM CST  

For an answer to Woods (and others) on Salamanca, See Peter Chojnowski's Corporation Christendom: The True School of Salamanca at http://drchojnowski.blogspot.com/2004/12/corporation-christendom-true-school-of.html

The thesis actually traces back to Schumpeter, who interpreted the Scholastics as "Austrians," because he could not understand what they meant by "common estimation" in determining just market prices. Schumpeter ended up having the Scholastics talk in tautologies: the market price should be determined by common estimation, which was the market price." The Scholastics may have had their faults, but speaking in tautologies was not one of them.

There are a host of commentators who follow in Schumpeter's footsteps, slavishly repeating the same error.

Anonymous,  Wednesday, March 11, 2009 at 10:30:00 PM CDT  


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Tom Tuesday, June 16, 2009 at 4:31:00 PM CDT  

I am a huge fan of Rerum Novarum and CST. I also am not a classical liberal. I am, however, like the rest of you no doubt anti-collectivist. I just wanted to say though that Woods' Classical Liberalism is much more compatible with CST than the fascism which is practiced today in the United States. Many of his actual positions with how the U.S. should be run, in practice would lead to more subsidiarity. From there, no doubt he may object, would be a great place to institute the CST. There are no avenues for distributionism in our fascist state right now. The constitution, which leaves most power to the states, if obeyed, would leave such avenues. So on a practical level, we shouldn't disagree much with what Dr. Woods is saying. Although he may object to an emphasis on credit unions, co-ops, and employers facing moral demands to provide just wages for its employees; politically speaking he would not have any means to prevent that sort of thing. The Austrian School, even if we do not like there extremism and blind devotion to markets; still has many important things we can learn from. For instance its criticism of fiat money, fractional-reserve banking and central banks, which have been structures of sin, especcially in our country.

Unknown Tuesday, July 28, 2009 at 10:03:00 AM CDT  

"While engaged in a discussion over Catholic Social Doctrine with a certain Protestant author"

he is hawking his beliefs at another Prot site as well:


Apparently, he is already fresh with a new book (did not take long, one wonders)

Dale Alquist was allowed briefly to speak on Chesterton and in particular, Distributism:


But interviewer, a 5-pointer, was more interested in Chesterton's misunderstanding (their defense as always) of Calvin.....

Unknown Tuesday, July 28, 2009 at 10:05:00 AM CDT  

John Médaille said...
The real trick would be to find a proposition NOT connected with a moral dimension

Comemnt-true, is not our everyday lives and actions in union or dis-union with God?? how can a Trad say certain things are not (unless said trad loves the spotlight-he does-and has a lecture/book to hawk-has many).....I would send him your humble and grat book, John, but i would likely be wasting my few Fed Reserve Notes.....

Unknown Tuesday, July 28, 2009 at 10:06:00 AM CDT  

AC said...
I'm not a Catholic, so I'm on thin ice talking about such things, but from the outside, it looks like Woods is a wolf in Catholic sheep's clothing

Comment-here here, on E.Michael Jones' website, he has a podcast on Agents of Influence.....Woods is at the last 10-15 minutes.....

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