It doesn't seem quite right to say that a conference about tackling poverty was an embarrassment of riches. But the combination of intellectual flair and energy, diversity of approach and insistent practicality—an unwavering focus on "real-world problems"—made the annual conference hosted last week by The University of Notre Dame’s Center for Ethics and Culture, at least in my experience, unparalleled.
Shuttling between economics and political philosophy, public policy and theology, literature and ethics—the conference paraded the unique strength of the intellectual Catholicism today—no discipline out of bounds, no perspective non grata. What also became clear was that, when it comes to thinking about a topic as multifaceted and fiendishly complex as poverty, no other approach will do. (For a thematic treatment that resonates with this approach, see the fall issue of The Hedgehog Review.)
Chicago economist and Nobel laureate James Heckman began by using a lot of “hard” data to recommend some distinctly “soft” (his word) solutions. Policymakers, Heckman thinks, have been fixated on pure cognitive skills as the determinant of inequality, not least because I.Q. is something you can measure. The evidence, though, is that non-cognitive skills—industriousness, self-discipline, fortitude—are just as important. And so? The solution has to be acting early, in infancy, in a succession of admittedly soft interventions (though when economists says “soft” they usually mean “not easily measurable”; corporal punishment isn’t necessarily ruled out).
Breakout sessions at conferences are usually dull, put on for contributors like me to deliver abstruse papers to build my resume and justify my institution's footing my airfare so I can hear the plenary speakers. At Notre Dame last week, however, the breakouts were as strong as, if not stronger than, the (very strong) main sessions, probably due to the careful crafting by center director O. Carter Snead. Take the seminar on "The Poverty of Abortion" featuring three women: Margaret Hogan, Janet McCann, and Jessica Keating (respectively, a philosopher, literary theorist, and theologian). The level of engagement was sophisticated, sensitive, and non-ideological, with the concept of "radical hospitality" providing a way beyond the stale rights-duties terms of the abortion debate.
And then came philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, aged 85. Before he spoke, we were reminded that this intellectual colossus had published his first book in 1953. That’s before the opening years of TV's Mad Men, if you can imagine that.
With most of the great thinkers I’ve had the privilege of hearing in person, I’ve had a similar experience: I come away having “got” a couple things, but mainly being so intrigued that I want to find the text so I can study it properly. With MacIntyre, though, there was such clarity that I can actually tell you what his main argument was: Structural injustice in our economy is sustained by our ‘"heedlessness." So we thrive off the cornucopia offerings of our supermarkets, but allow ourselves to forget the appallingly low wages of farm workers that make them possible. Heedlessness for MacIntyre is an act of omission. Pushing Burke to the left, he made it clear that it’s good men doing nothing when it comes the structure of the economy.
Complementing philosophical giants were policy titans. Peter Edelman, the law professor and welfare specialist who famously resigned from the Clinton administration after the 1996 right-leaning welfare reform was passed, spoke movingly about visiting rural Mississippi in 1967 as Robert Kennedy’s aide. In a fascinating piece of backwards-forwards social commentary, Edelman proceeded to list the seven major poverty trends they would never have anticipated in 1967, among them, again, the scale of the low-wage economy and the rate of incarceration.
One lasting impression of Notre Dame's "Your Light Will Rise" conference was the way that Catholic social teaching—from Leo XIII’s famous encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891) onwards—defies the left-right axis. Thus, in interview Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, could on one hand speak of the necessity of "facing head-on the effects of a system that places profit at its center," while on the other emphasizing that Pope Francis’s conception of poverty "[goes well] beyond a merely economic conception of poverty." For his part, Patrick Deneen, the political thinker who shone in the debate that closed the conference, came at capitalism from a conservative standpoint, lamenting, among other things the loss of tradition and the anonymity of markets.
This defiance of the left-right axis, so clearly on view in Notre Dame last week, suggests not only why Catholic social thought has so much further to run. It also suggests why, given how fed up a growing part of the electorate is with the level of political polarization, Catholic social thought should be increasingly heard.
James Mumford is the postdoctoral Wolterstorff Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. He is the author of Ethics at the Beginning of Life: A Phenomenological Critique, and is a frequent contributor to Standpoint, The Spectator, and other periodicals.
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