Patrick Deneen teaches political science at Notre Dame. He also writes for a number of magazines and websites and is a member of the editorial board for Ethika Politika. Mr. Deneen is Catholic and conservative, but in a recent interview (for Ethika Politika) he took pains to distinguish himself from some of his conservative religious brethren who “tend to stress morality in the realm of sexual ethics while taking a more laissez-faire view of economics…They have tended to read the Church’s teachings on sexual ethics to be inviolable, but Catholic social teachings regarding economics to be a set of broad and even vague guidelines.”
Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, for one, has taken issue with Deneen for such statements, claiming that it’s simply a matter of fact that Catholic doctrine and teaching is unambiguously clear about sexual behaviors in ways that it is not about economics. Regardless, Mr. Deneen insists that the two realms (sexual and economic) are properly considered together, rather than treated separately or even pitted against each other. He takes issue with “a Catholic social conservatism that would stress especially sexual morality and would…de-link those concerns from economic considerations,” noting that, in recent decades, “One could be conservative on sexual morality until one was blue in the face without ever threatening the libertine claims of market capitalism.”
Ah yes: market capitalism. What distinguishes Patrick Deneen from so many of his fellow conservative Catholic (and Christian) commentators—M. Gobry, Ross Douthat, Rod Dreher, etc.—is that he sees market capitalism as being at the root of the ills (if ills they be) of modernity. He scoffs at what he calls “the sprinkling of holy water on The Market” and observes that “many Catholics…are strenuous in their insistence that, on the one hand, the public square should not be stripped of religion and morality, but that the Market should have a wardrobe like Lady Godiva.” 2
In his interview, Mr. Deneen suggests that Catholics (and like-minded others) might want to “re-engage with the economic tradition known as ‘Distributism’ [which] insists that an economy must be subordinate to the human telos, and so ought to be organized with a view of supporting the family, stability of communities, self-direction and widespread ownership ,subsidiarity, and solidarity.3 In all these areas,” Deneen claims, “our economy today ends up fostering their opposite.” Nor is this an attack on “Big Government” as the source of all evils, but rather an indictment of modern capitalism: “Our economy supports and encourages an increasingly childless workforce and fungible bonds, tenuous relationships to place and community, a desiccated ‘culture,’ centralization and monopoly and crony capitalism, and a debased utilitarian calculation of value and success.”
Returning to what he sees as a misplaced focus on sexual issues, Deneen says, “it would be refreshing to see the same energy and devotion exhibited by so many conservative Catholics on issues related to life, religious liberty and gay marriage, to issues related to a proper ordering of the economy.” So far as Church teachings go, prohibitions about sex may be straightforward and easily understood, while injunctions to “economic justice” may be vague and subject to conflicting interpretations; but Deneen says that’s no excuse—"Catholics don’t properly think and act as Catholics if we treat these spheres as if they were autonomous and unrelated; indeed, it seems to me that basic economic arrangements that privilege individual autonomy, materialism, mobility at the expense of community, and an ‘amoral’ market significantly and inescapably contribute to our comprehensively ‘disposable society’ (using Pope Francis’s description of, among other things, our abortion regime).” To be clear, Deneen is not suggesting that Catholics cease their opposition to abortion, gay marriage, or other signs of the Sexual Apocalypse; he's just suggesting that they pay as much attention to the boardroom as they do to the bedroom, and that decisions made in the former place have an influence on behaviors in the latter.
Conclusion: “Only when we see similar energy demanding reforms of our economic system in the name not of equalization of outcome, but the telos of human flourishing, will we likely see lots of different and interesting policy ideas of how to foster a more humane economy.” Deneen is not saying, exactly, that given a more humane economy, sexual ethics will take care of themselves; he is saying, though, that an economic regime distorted in all the ways that market capitalism is distorted inevitably leads to distortion of our lives and even our most private behaviors. This is not quite economic determinism; rather, it’s a holistic understanding that people don’t make choices, sexual or otherwise, in a socio-cultural vacuum.
You may see some similarity (I certainly do) between Deneen’s perspective and that of one Karl Marx, for whom economics was important because of how it impacted, often adversely, people’s ability to live properly human lives—in Deneen’s phrase, to realize “the telos of human flourishing”. Marx, as Michael Harrington pointed out decades ago, was not at heart an economist but a moral philosopher (as was, originally, Adam Smith); Patrick Deneen is asking us to take a similar approach and to view the economy not as something that simply produces goods, merchandise, and “stuff,” but as something that produces—wittingly or no—certain kinds of human beings and certain patterns of living.
Measured that way, our Gross Domestic Product might be less impressive than we like to think.
2 Ah, but some will say, doesn’t the Hobby Lobby case show that conservative Christians are actively trying to bring religious principles into the marketplace with them? Not according to Mr. Deneen, who wrote, not that long ago, a scathing criticism of Hobby Lobby’s claim to be a “Christian” corporation, its opposition to four kinds of contraception notwithstanding. Again, Deneen believes that it takes more than an orthodox/traditional stance on sex and reproduction to make either an individual or a corporation “Christian”. Man does not live by monogamous heterosexual reproductive marital sex alone.
3 Distributism ought at least to provide common ground between Patrick Deneen and Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry; M. Gobry has written a good deal about Distributism, and favorably, on his Inebriate Me blog.