Webb vs. Rocha: A Look at the Chauvinism of Open Discourse
On Monday, September 5, the Newman Center hosted an event titled Webb vs. Rocha: A Debate. The debate focused on capitalism and how it should be viewed in relationship to Catholic social teaching. This seemed like it would be an informative event: after all, here were two Wabash professors taking a critical look at an issue that is of relevance to Catholics, Christians, and non-believers alike. And, indeed, it was an informative event. However, surprisingly, the event was criticized by several people at the college who refused to attend. As a matter of fact, although the debate attracted upwards of 160 attendees, which is far more than most other events of this type on campus attract, there was no attention given to it by the college, the college website, or The Bachelor. At an institution that supposedly values critical thinking, why should this be?
Dr. Sam Rocha began his remarks in the debate in reference to this strange phenomenon. “[Something],” he said. “Any time […].” After the debate, student body president Steve Henke remarked, “If we could raise the level of discourse at this college to what was displayed at that debate, we would be in a better situation.”
So, to anyone who questioned the legitimacy of the debate, or to anyone who complained of its chauvinism or its lack of civilized discourse, but who did not attend the event, please open your mind. If you would like, you could even watch the debate posted on the Wabash Newman Center’s YouTube channel. The first step toward meeting our goal of “thinking critically” is not to discredit civil discourse because of personal bias.
A Recap of the Debate…
So, now that I have made my plug for open discourse, on to a discussion of the debate itself…
Dr. Webb opened the debate by essentially defending the position usually taken by those on the religious right. A key point of Catholic social teaching, he said, was the doctrine of subsidiarity, which basically says that political and economic issues ought to be addressed at the lowest level possible. This doctrine is based on the Christian’s call to love. When individual Christians and congregations do what they can to help the poor, the work is done out of love and the results are more effective than if the federal government attempts to help the poor. Capitalism, Dr. Webb argued via an appeal to Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum, by protecting the individual’s right to property also protects the individual’s ability to be charitable by giving away his property. When the government takes away some of the individual’s property, it also takes away some of his ability to be charitable. And to think that government could do a better job distributing this property than individuals can do, Dr. Webb argued, is utopian idealism.
Dr. Rocha’s response to Dr. Webb centered on the fact that he believes that Christians ought to use the Gospel to inform their politics instead of using politics to inform their Gospel. He argued that Dr. Webb was trying to fit the Gospel into the existing political structure of twenty-first century America instead of letting the Gospel transform the politics. Specifically, he cited the doctrine of the preferential option for the poor expounded by Pope John Paul II in his encyclical Centesimus Annus. American capitalism, he argued, with its emphasis on trickle-down economics, is more like a preferential option for the rich, which flies in the face of the Gospel’s admonishment, “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40).
In the end, from a rhetorical standpoint, it appeared to this observer that Dr. Rocha won the debate. This was simply because Dr. Webb did not address Dr. Rocha’s core argument about shoehorning the Gospel into the modern political structure. However, from the standpoint of truth, it seems like the debate was a draw. Dr. Rocha’s call for a Christian politician instead of a political Christian hit to the heart of much of what the religious right advocates. That said, he didn’t necessarily articulate what a properly formed set of Christian politics might look like. On the other hand, Dr. Webb certainly made a case for the doctrine of subsidiarity and the inefficiency of government programs in helping the poor.
But don’t take my word for it. If you missed it, the debate is posted on the Wabash Newman Center’s YouTube channel. Check it out and decide for yourself. After all, civil discourse is not about one man’s summary of two sides of an argument any more than it is about discouraging free speech!