We Shouldn’t Turn to the Church for Economic Analysis
Last week saw the publication of an apostolic exhortation written by Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium. The wide ranging document (over 200 pages long) is self described as “on the proclamation of the gospel in today’s world” and opens:
The joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. With Christ joy is consistently born anew. In this Exhortation I wish to encourage Christian faithful to embark upon a new chapter of evangelization marked by this joy, while pointing out new paths for the Church’s journey in years to come.
So, naturally, everyone decided it was about economics.
Yes, the document does touch on economics. Page forty-six has the section that generated headlines:
We have created a “throw away” culture which is now spreading. It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression, but something new. Exclusion ultimately has to do with what it means to be a part of the society in which we live; those excluded are no longer society’s underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised — they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the “exploited” but the outcast, the “leftovers”.
In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and I the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting.
There’s something a bit frustrating about this one section out of a wide-ranging document which addressed everything from the need for a personal discipleship to Christ, to the importance of marriage to how homilies should be written to abortion and the sacredness of unborn life becoming the one passage which people reading news coverage of the exhortation hear about. It seems typical of the urge, both inside and outside the religious community, to reduce any complicated message to its most political application. “Pope Condemns Capitalism” is a headline which allows one side of the political spectrum to cudgel the other, while “Pope Calls Everyone To More Personal Relationship With Christ” just doesn’t have that conflict-driving ring. Though, of course, it’s the latter message that we arguably need to hear more. Given the way this reaction has developed I can’t help but be reminded of the intro to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy radio play:
This planet has — or rather had — a problem, which was this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much all of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movement of small green pieces of paper, which was odd because on the whole it wasn’t the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.
Francis, I think, gets this, and the focus of his exhortation is not primarily economic. Be that as it may, Pope Francis did certainly choose to include the controversial section, and so it’s not unreasonable to address it, though I think people should be spending more time on the rest.
The Pope’s comments have received attention even outside Catholic circles. For instance, Harvard economist and textbook author Greg Mankiw offered the pope’s remarks a pretty skeptical reception. There have been a range of Catholic reactions as well, from politically left-leaning Catholics trumpeting “I told you so!” to politically right-leaning ones muttering that the pope does not know what he’s talking about on economic matters.
Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry has provided a more thoughtful approach in First Things with a piece entitled “Let’s Listen to Pope Francis on Economics”. Arguing that Catholics should allow their preconceptions to be challenged by the pope, Gobry writes:
I’ve long believed in free market economics and believed that the Church would do a lot of good in the world if it embraced it. And I still believe those things. But what the financial crisis has laid bare is that the most conventional version of free market economics was actually dead wrong.
It would have been a pastoral, doctrinal, and theological disaster if the Church had, over the past twenty years, blindly subscribed to what I’ll now refer to as the Washington Consensus. What in 2006 looked like the invisible hand of the market leading the financialization of the economy turned out to be a disastrous instance of crony-capitalist central planning. And when the Pope denounced it, I was among those condescendingly explaining to him that he didn’t get it. What it turns out is that economists actually know very, very little, and that a lot of what we thought we knew turned out to be wrong. Given this hard-to-swallow fact, the prophetic voice of the Church that reminds us of what must be the ends of economic activity is very salutary.
I do think that free markets have allowed a great increase in economic growth throughout much of the world, and that this has been a great human good, but I don’t think that the Church would “do a lot of good in the world” if it embraced capitalism. Indeed, I very explicitly think that the Church should not endorse capitalism.
Because the Church is not on earth to conduct economic analysis and more than it is on earth to decide whether the sun is at the center of the solar system or the manner of the origin of species. Its job is not to figure out what sort of economic system will result in the highest growth or the greatest equality or any other such thing. Its job is to transmit God’s graces to us through the sacraments, and to preserve and pass on to us His teachings. These teachings are not simply abstract, and throughout history (including the modern social encyclicals) the Church has sought to apply the teachings of Christ to the changing situations (the “new things” of Rerum Novarum) in which Catholics find themselves living out their lives.
However, while the application of moral principles to new situations most absolutely includes situations which we think of as “economic”, and thus may have a certain appearance of being “economic teachings” they are not in fact economic analysis of the sort which we normally think of under the term. The Church’s insight here is moral rather than economic. The Church teaches on how we ought to treat each other as people, not what actions will result in the greatest efficiency, the greatest growth, or the greatest profit. As such, the best response to Church teaching on economic interactions may not be “the state should require that everyone behave the way the Church says they should”, since that may well not have the intended consequence. (For example, it may be far more beneficial for society to have need based programs which assist the working poor than to have a high one-size-fits-all minimum wage, in part because doing this would remove from employers the dilemma of either paying some workers more than the market value of their work because of their needs, or else being undercut by those employers who do.)
Reading Francis’s exhortation with care (and in the light of some of the translation issues which have come up) I think it’s fairly clear that Francis is not denying the efficacy of markets as functioning economic mechanisms, but rather condemning those who imagine that because markets allow for greater growth, and growth tends to help society as a whole, that by supporting markets we have now fulfilled the whole of our obligations to our fellow men. Far from it, the fact that on average people do better in a given situation does not mean that some people are not still doing very badly, and that we have a duty to help those people in every way we can.
Importantly, this critique applies no matter what one’s economic preferences. Even after supporting what one imagines to be the right economic policies, one still must help those who find themselves in difficulties in whatever the prevailing situation may be. This applies to slacktivists on the left just as much to the misguided free enterprise fans who seem irresistibly drawn to writing defenses of Scrooge this time of year.