Catholic Teaching On Economic Life
In the American election cycles 2004 and following, there has been an increased visibility of Catholic influence in the political process and a public debate amongst Catholic voters. It is a great gift to the American people that the Catholic Church may offer the clarity of moral truth to the country’s political discourse.
However, this participation on the part of Catholics presents a variety of challenges. How is the teaching found in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church to be expressed within the American political tradition? The answer is not so clear-cut and is inevitably the subject of much debate. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issues a document before every election called Faithful Citizenship, which presents “Catholic Social Teaching” to the laity, in summary form, an authentic Catholic view of the natural moral law grounded in the inherent dignity of each human person and how it can and should be lived out within the political process.
The document, however faithful it may be to the Church’s constant teachings presents itself as general and too vague. To the American Catholic, the Bishops’ guide proves to be a disastrous voting guide with its “crash-course” in natural law theory applied to contemporary problems, insisting that Catholics consider a whole litany of issues, don’t vote on single-issues, while not fooling one ’s self into thinking that each issue (particularly abortion) exists on the same moral plane as other issues. With the crisis of catechesis, the document hurts more than it helps.
The written guidance provided by the Bishops has lent itself to the nonsensical, divisive almost circus-like fighting between partisan groups – primarily with politically-minded Catholics – quoting conveniently from the same document making the case that their political platform is entirely consistent with the Gospel and the tradition of the Church. I personally believe both sides are wrong and my greatest concern is the lack of charity (and faulty reasoning) this debate has, rather than the debate itself.
Faithful Citizenship at best makes broad strikes at a whole range of issues, but it does not go into depth and offer the insight that can be found in papal teaching on social and moral matters, in encyclicals such as Rerum Novarum (Pope Leo XIII, 1891), Quadragesimo Anno (Pope Pius XI, 1931), Mater et Magistra (Pope John XXIII, 1961), Pacem in Terris (Pope John XXIII, 1963), Populorum Progressio (Pope Paul VI, 1967), Laborem Exercens (Pope John Paul II, 1981), Solicitudo Rei Socialis (Pope John Paul II, 1987), Centesimus Annus (Pope John Paul II, 1991), Evangelium Vitae (Pope John Paul II, 1995), and Deus Caritas Est (Pope Benedict XVI, 2005).
Other relevant documents on Catholic social thought include Program of Social Reconstruction (U.S. Catholic Bishops, 1919), which in itself really reiterates the teaching of Pope Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum, Pastoral Letter of 1919 (U.S. Catholic Bishops), Brother and Sisters to Us (U.S. Catholic Bishops, 1979), Capital Punishment (U.S. Catholic Bishops, 1980), Economic Justice for All (U.S. Catholic Bishops, 1986), and The Participation of Catholics in Political Life (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, 2002), among others.
It seems quite crystal clear that the U.S. Bishops have no intention for Faithful Citizenship to be a stand-alone document, but only a summation of Catholic social thought and an incentive for the faithful to explore the depth and richness of 2,000 years of tradition of social and moral theory. I think American Catholics often miss the point.
Though, the American media and some uneducated Catholics believe to the contrary, the Church’s teaching and the position of faithful Catholics in regard to the sanctity of life and the “domestic church” of family and marital life is non-negotiable. There is a debate about whether Catholics can vote, even remotely or under any circumstances, for candidates that would favor legislation that are contrary to these fundamental goods. This is an important debate, but is not the point of focus here.
Rather, given the state of the American economy, it has become a question of Catholic political thought in the American political tradition – at least, as far as I have observed – what is an authentic Catholic approach to economic life? From my own study in college, I have noticed several Catholic political scientists, e.g. the Cochrans, present the Catholic position as “purple” – neither liberal nor conservative, Democrat nor Republican, but “communitarian” or centrist. It almost seems that Catholics are social conservatives and economic liberals; that is to say, the Republicans have taken the mantra of being “pro-life, pro-marriage, pro-family” and the Democrats, the mantra of “social justice.” It seems to me, that this is a profound oversimplification of Catholic social thought – though, I can see how and why a person would embrace this view – despite the fact that it boxes the Gospel imperative that motivates Catholics into concise, rigid political labels. This is no way implies that it is wrong for Catholics themselves to choose a particular side of the aisle to work from and to work to transform their adopted political identities, as liberal or conservative, or anything else, into something that closely conforms with the Catholic social tradition.
To be clear, the answer to the question of an authentic Catholic approach to economics is very complex and very disputed. However, it seems fair to say that one pivotal question is one that is often glossed over: what is the Church’s understanding of the role of the government? The answer to this question undoubtedly makes it easier to answer the former question on Catholic economic theory—if there is such a thing.
Fr. Robert Sirico, co-founder of the Acton Institute (which seeks to integrate Judeo-Christian truths into free-market principles) gave a phenomenal lecture on “Pope John Paul II and Catholic Political Philosophy” at the University of St. Thomas in Houston.
He asserted that the objective standard to measure any institution of government is by its “respect of the human person—their right to life, liberty, and any and all social and civil rights due to them by their inherent basic dignity.” Pope John Paul II, according to Fr. Sirico, was very insistent that the focus of Catholics should be on human dignity that rises above and beyond ideological commitment to economic systems. This is at the core of Jesus’ teaching to not gain the whole world at the expense of the eternal salvation of one’s soul—love of one’s neighbor is a central tenet of the Christian faith. Though, he disliked the phrasing, Fr. Sirico presented this model of thinking as a “third way” between laissez-faire and intervention by the State.
Ultimately, the Church has not, nor will she ever present the world with an objective, ideal model for economic life—it is beyond the scope of her mission. The Church only presents moral principles to be integrated into economic life, for economic frameworks will change and evolve as all human societies do. However, the Church will speak out against faulty economic systems, e.g. socialism, which as Pope John Paul II himself asserted is based on an anthropological error, i.e. the good of the person is entirely subordinated to that of the community. In such cases, the Church is exercising her authority to preach the truth about man based on a proper theological anthropology and not offering recommendations on how to arrange a society’s economic activity.
Given this, there are a few things that I would like to suggest— everyone is free, as always, to contradict me. Capitalism is either a tool for good or for evil, depending on the moral compass of the society it is implemented in. Being one of very few, self-described Democrats in the discourse on The American Catholic, I have no problem offering critiques of what I see as faults in the economic practices promoted by the majority of conservatives – here, I’m speaking about the basic framework; just as I’m sure the vice versa is true. In talking about a Catholic approach to economic life, I think one cannot condemn capitalism, in the same way as socialism or communism, which have a faulty sense of human nature, because the word capitalism unlike the other two seems to mean too many different things to too many different people. I’m not sure if everyone really means the same thing when they say ‘capitalism.’
Capitalism, as I see it, is freedom (that is the freedom to do as you ought) exercised in the economic field, same as in other fields. The aim of any free economic system is to expand the free exchange of goods and services and ensure productivity; the Catholic moral imperative insures that this is done in a way that respects human dignity.
Markets are the free exchange of goods and services, which benefits everyone involved – like society, it is an ever-changing and developing process, as the availability and use of resources will change as well. Money makes it possible for those participating to have a common unit of value in this exchange and as is evident, third party interruptions can put limits on the market as well effect the value of the monetary unit.
The network of prices arises from the buying and selling of services. The idea of profit is simply outpacing costs. Today, when a business is very successful in this regard, some would make claims of “excessive profit.” However, this is an indicator to other entrepreneurs that they should get into that market; new investors should enter the market to meet those demands and it fosters competition to create efficient modes of production.
Market competition is present to ensure that workers are paid in a way that corresponds to the performance of their work; hence, this reality is inhibited by “labor equality” – equal across-the-board set wages, which ensures equal outcome and not equal opportunity. The radical interventionist method creates a displacement of human resources and limits opportunity by restricting the creative spirit inherent in human nature.
Ideally, markets do not devalue the principle of solidarity because employees should be treated as their human dignity demands. Though, as is well-known, this is not always the case.
In many ways, the vocation of an entrepreneur is a worthy calling. The entrepreneur must constantly be aware of the needs of others and willing to invest in those resources to meet those needs – in Christian terms, entrepreneurship is about service to society. An under-discussed aspect of Catholic social thought is what Pope John Paul II coined as the “right to economic initiative.” This right is undermined with third party interventions, which are not objectively inappropriate, but can and do exceed their limitations and sap the creative genius of the citizenry by a bureaucratic apparatus. For, when entrepreneurs are free, they may find innovative ways to produce things, to think about things, and produce and use resources more efficiently and effectively—that is, when all of these things are done in accord with the moral law. The ultimate resource of man is himself.
It is clear that planned economies deny the possibility of economic innovation because unlike free markets, they stagnate because they fail to update quickly and aren’t prompt to meet new public challenges or demands. In a free market economy, the only way to be successful is to profit by producing some good or service for a reasonable price that the public is willing to buy in abundance. Now, it is clear to me that this is no way suggests that products are the best or are morally licit. This task, first, belongs to those who form moral consciences – to direct consumer tastes to consumer ends. In today’s society, many people — namely parents — charged with the task of forming moral consciences have neglected that vocation and such failure is gravely manifest.
This is what I received from the lecture and to be clear, it was not argued that Pope John Paul II supported laissez-faire free-market capitalism. Rather, it is an indication that free markets respects man’s liberty and promotes growth in virtue as well as in developing man’s creativity toward the intelligent, proper use of creation for human flourishing and a dignified quality of life. The latter, of course, cannot be achieved if one’s theory of economics – or motivations – is not grounded in a correct understanding of the natural order, i.e. man’s place in and relation to all of creation.
The question of the role of the government in society is intrinsically linked to another question. Unfortunately, this question is not addressed explicitly in the document Faithful Citizenship. In fact, a major failing of the Bishops’ documents on Catholic social teaching is the omission of a major component of the political philosophy derived from our faith. The document includes (1) the right to life and the dignity of the human person, (2) call to family, community, and participation, (3) rights and responsibilities, (4) preferential option for the poor and vulnerable, (5) the dignity of work and the rights of workers, (6) solidarity, (7) and care for God’s creation.
The list does not include the eighth principle, which is just as important as the other seven (sometimes the other seven are further separated to make a total of nine, excluding the non-mentioned principle) and that is the question of the role of government and the principle of subsidiarity. I think this slip on the part of the Bishops has not gone unnoticed. In regard to charity and welfare, we all have a moral obligation to love and care for the most vulnerable populations. The question is not whether they should be cared for, but how. In the Catholic tradition, the first and foremost “safety net” is (or should be) the family. Next in line should be local charities, with government assistance (faith-based initiatives) being a positive form of support. The last option available should be government undertaking when all other conceivable solutions have failed. As history has shown us, well-intentioned laws by the government can ineffectively curb the evil that it is seeking to prevent, but rather contribute to it and/or lead to the introduction of newer, perhaps, worst evils.
It becomes clearer that the basic principles of Catholic social thought are linked together and are perhaps the true vision of the consistent ethic of life preached by the late Cardinal Bernardin. When it comes to the preferential option of the poor, subsidiarity matters because it is crucial in providing an answer to the question of what are the most effective ways of assisting the poor? The government, which admittedly has its benefits, may present itself as an impersonal force which lacks the loving personal touch that the private sector may offer. Additionally, bureaucracy can easily expand itself beyond its own payrolls and does not always remain within fiscal restraints. There is clearly much debate to be had in this regard.
On a personal note, the exclusion of subsidiarity from Faithful Citizenship makes it seem as if the Church’s doctrine has nothing to say, vis-à-vis guidelines, in the still ongoing federalist vs. anti-federalist debate – though the anti-federalist position is today called “federalism.” As a Democrat, I think this is terrible because of the structure of the American government into basicially three levels — federal, state, and local or municipal. I think so much compromise could be made between liberals and conservatives, if we all rallied behind the principle of subsidiarity and moved the debates on so many issues – economic matters, energy policy, health care, education, fighting poverty – to the states and not leave it at the federal level. This would allow fruitful democratic debate. I’m not sure if many conservatives are not so closed to “liberal” suggestions or influences, partially or entirely, insomuch because they think they are fundamentally wrong, but because on some issues they are inclined to agree on, they may fear it being implemented at a federal level.
Also, I think this alone could diminish the power of lobbying groups. Lobbyists exist in their current form because the federal government has so much power and thus, they can easily purchase “favor” from Washington. This politics of powers has really blurred the distinction of each of the three branches of government – with Congress in a uber-partisan gridlock, the circus-like melodramatic horserace for the presidency, and the Court becoming a pantheon of nine gods who rule instead of interpret and uphold the laws of the Constitution.
Even taxation would not have to be so acute because the government – that is, the federal government would not have to undertake so many tasks without first having allowed smaller, less bureaucratic institutions whether private sector or state and local governments attempt to remedy challenges.
So much more can be said. Still even, the question of interest — what is a Catholic approach to the economy — still lacks a definitive answer, though I am not sure there is one, except to abide by the basic principles the Church has presented.