Autonomy can be a force for good in the world, said Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, but it can also be “seriously threatening to human welfare and the common good.”
The Second Vatican Council endorsed autonomy in Gaudium et Spes,
its Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, when it
defines that “created things and societies themselves enjoy their own
laws and values which must be gradually deciphered, put to use and
regulated by men,” O’Malley said.
Yet Vatican II also criticized autonomy when it is “interpreted apart
from moral limits and in isolation from any religious meaning,” the
cardinal said. But “when work and creativity are located within a moral
and religious framework, together they serve to enhance human dignity
and social justice.”
O’Malley made his remarks at a conference, “Erroneous Autonomy: The
Dignity of Work,” Jan. 10 at The Catholic University of America that was
co-sponsored by the university’s Institute of Policy Research and
Catholic Studies and the AFL-CIO.
As a young Capuchin priest in Washington, O’Malley said, he heard
many tales of grief from immigrants in the nation’s capital. He recalled
the situation of a domestic worker for a diplomat who not only harassed
and abused her, but withheld her pay - and her passport, so she could
not get another job. “Because he had diplomatic immunity, there was
nothing we could do,” he said.
“St. John XXIII called for a country’s economic and social goals to
include consideration of the international common good,” the cardinal
said. “The church also recognized the need for international
institutions and agreements to address the growing complexity of an
The saint’s words carry over to the Vatican’s current inhabitant,
Pope Francis. “In his words and actions, Pope Francis has been a strong
public advocate for the dignity of labor, including making interventions
when companies were intending significant elimination of jobs. He has
argued strongly that in the midst of the forces of technology and
globalization, people cannot be reduced to arguments for greater
efficiency,” O’Malley said.
“The pope has stressed the need for equity, for fairness in our
understanding of what constitutes a just economy and the role of
Bishop Robert J. McElroy of San Diego, who also addressed the two previous Erroneous Autonomy
conferences in 2014 and 2015, spoke this time about “solidarity in
society as the alternative pathway to the various forms of erroneous
autonomy which flourish under different labels in American society but
are linked by a radical individualism.”
He identified three such manifestations as “the sovereignty of markets,” “the technocratic paradigm” and nationalism.
“As Catholic social teaching has made clear in every moment of the
modern era, free markets do not constitute a first principle of economic
justice,” McElroy said.
St. John Paul II, in the encyclical Centesimus Annus (The
Hundredth Year), “made it absolutely clear” that any market system be
“circumscribed within a strong juridical framework which places it at
the service of human freedom in its totality, and which sees it as a
particular aspect of that freedom, the core of which is ethical and
McElroy said “the central myopia of the technocratic paradigm springs
from the fact that it reduces complex realities of the human person and
the universe to the plane of instrumentalization and scientific
He, too, cited Pope Francis’s own critique as that technocracy “moves
forward in the final analysis neither for profit nor for the well-being
of the human race that in the most radical sense of the term power is
its motive - a lordship over all.”
And while love of country is a virtue in Catholic social teaching,
McElroy said, “the principle of solidarity requires that men and women
of our day cultivate a greater awareness that they are debtors of the
society of which they have become a part.”
He quoted St. John Paul, who said that “love of the motherland … has nothing in common with narrow nationalism or chauvinism.”
One question about the United States’ nationalistic trend that must
be asked, according to McElroy: “Who are ‘the people’ in the United
States? … Populist nationalism has often been exclusionary and nativist.
The recent (presidential) campaign was deeply marred by exclusionary
“The point of this conference is to dissect ‘erroneous autonomy,’ and
I’ve spent a big part of my career doing just that,” said author and
social analyst Thomas Frank, best known for his book What’s the Matter With Kansas? in dissecting the nature of Donald Trump’s win over Hillary Clinton in November.
“I admit it’s been a lot of fun poking holes in the things
conservatives say,” he commented. “These guys blow off the facts when
they feel like it, they swipe symbols from the other side, they
illustrate arguments on economics with fairy tales. They will say
anything. The reasoning you hear on their favorite radio shows seems
like something from a brainwashing session at Lubyanka prison. It is
preposterous. It is contemptible.
“But you know what it’s better than?” Frank said. “It’s better than
nothing,” which he added was, in essence, the Democrats’ response to
millions of Americans who felt left behind in the recovery from the
2007-2009 Great Recession.