Keeping Caesar under God: Social doctrines provide the true measure of economic systems

by Julio Demasi

In his discussion of normative economics, Michael Welker states that questions of what ought to be “are based on judgements that appeal to cultural norms and standards.” There is, however, a more fundamental and certain basis for making such judgments, namely, the rich treasury of Catholic moral teaching, often called “Catholic social doctrine.” With reference to these teachings, I would like to examine two central issues raised in Mr. Welker’s article: evaluation of economic systems and, perhaps more importantly, conversion.

In its social doctrine, the Church sets forth “principles for reflection, criteria for judgement, and directives for action” which promote “correct definition of the problems being faced and the best solutions for them.”1 The Church does not propose any specific actions, but only defines the moral realities which any genuine solution will respect. Each society, aided by economists and others with pertinent knowledge, must then apply these truths concretely to their given socio-economic situation. For example, America can choose how best to ensure a just wage, but the Church has authoritatively developed the criteria of a just or living wage, established that it is a human right due to all workers, and proclaimed, in the words of Pope John Paul II, that it is perhaps “the key concrete means for verifying the justice of the whole socio-economic system.”2

Respecting the legitimate realms of the sciences, the Church neither “proposes economic and political systems, nor shows preference for one or the other,” provided they promote and respect human dignity, and allow the Church due freedom.3 The quote cited by Mr. Welker from Centesimus Annus—“It would appear that on the level of individual nations and of international relations, the free market is the most efficient instrument for utilizing resources and effectively responding to needs…But there are many human needs which find no place on the market”—is not so much an endorsement of capitalism as an acknowledgement of the market’s strengths and a critique of its shortcomings. The market is effective, the Pope says, only with respect to needs “endowed with purchasing power.” Therefore, fundamental human material needs (never mind our deeper spiritual needs) which, by “the strict duty of justice and truth… are not allowed to remain unsatisfied,” find no place in the market.4

Some, while admitting that these human needs must be met, may contend that this is not the role of the market; that these needs should be met by other means, so as to keep the market unfettered to do what capitalism does best. But is this consonant with Catholic social teaching? Pope Paul IV acknowledges concepts of “profits as the chief spur of economic progress, free competition as the guiding norm of economics, and private ownership of the means of production as an absolute right” without the limits of social obligations, as having become part of the fabric of human society. These concepts appear to be prevalent in our day as well. The Pope then states that this “unbridled capitalism” (or liberalism, as it is also known) “paves the way for a particular type of tyranny, rightly condemned by…Pius XI, for it results in the ‘international imperialism of money’. Far from being a true functioning of economics, the Pope call this an ‘improper manipulation of economic forces [that] can not be condemned enough’.”5 Although, as Mr. Welker pointed out, most capitalist economies today are mixed economies, involving various limits and interventions, many conservatives still hold up the idea of “pure capitalism” as the ideal.

When Pope John Paul II addresses the question: “Should capitalism be introduced into countries searching for the path for true economic and civil progress?” his answer is both positive and negative. “Yes” if by capitalism is meant “the recognition of the positive role of business, the market, private property ....the resulting responsibility for the means of production as well as free human creativity.” However, if “freedom in the economic sector is not circumscribed within a strong juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality” and which see ethics and religion, not economics, as the core of human freedom , “the answer is certainly negative.”6

The Pope does desire, without reservation, “a fresh enthusiasm for the study, spreading and applying” of Catholic social teaching, particularly in those countries lacking direction after the collapse of “real socialism.”7

There is a tremendous need for these truths—the universal destiny of goods, the primacy of labor over capital, the living wage, the social obligation of private ownership, the obligation of rich nations, to name a few—which are often not heard in other segments of society. Thus the need for conversion of which Mr. Welker spoke, beginning with the individual, in particular with one’s self. Conversion is not to be only on the individual level, however. As all who work to promote respect for human life know, structural injustice must be confronted on a practical and social level, even as hearts are being changed. The cooperation of all, from the individual through the international, is needed to bring about the culture of love. This “new evangelism” which is so urgently needed, and to which the Holy Father unceasingly calls us, must, in his words, “include among its essential elements a proclamation of the Church’s social doctrine.”8

The encyclicals urge that this be spread by every means at our disposal, not the least of which is education. “It is therefore our urgent desire that this [social] doctrine be studied more and more. First of all, it should be taught as part of the daily curriculum in Catholics schools of every kind.”9 The Pope goes on to say that Christian education is incomplete without it and that to be effective, formal teaching must be accompanied by experiential knowledge gained from positive voluntary actions on the part of the students. Regrettably, apart from the commendable emphasis on human life issues and some aspects of family, I have heard social justice issues spoken of ambivalently at the University, or even dismissed, rather than embraced in the fervent spirit so evident in the encyclicals.

Pope John Paul II speaks of an interdisciplinary dimension of the social doctrine: the Church assimilating contributions of the social disciplines and, in return, helping them to open their horizons in the service of humanity. Through this dialogue, Catholics (and all people of good will) who have vocations in the various fields of economics, political science, teaching and catechetics, communications, etc., are called to incarnate the truth about the human person. Commonly, though, our “positions” seem molded more by ideologies or popular commentary than a critical reflection on the whole of Catholic social doctrine. It has been lamented that students can graduate from this University with little understanding of Catholic culture, and I agree; yet, how much greater the loss to the Church and society should they graduate without a sound understanding of these essential moral teachings! All of us, with rare exception, will be involved with economic, social and political affairs; therefore, we all need to correctly “form our conscience on the moral dimensions of economic decision making and be able to articulate moral perspectives in the general societal debate surrounding these questions.”10

Catholic social teaching has often been called “the Church’s best kept secret.” May Franciscan University be a place where it is both well known and heartily embraced in all its dimensions.

Mr. Demasi is a non-traditional, Senior Theology major, who spent several years in various Christian ministry programs, including six years with LAMP Ministries in New York, before coming to Steubenville.

  1. Pope John Paul II, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis # 41 ↑
  2. Pope John Paul II, Laborem Exercens # 19 ↑
  3. Pope John Paul II, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis # 41 ↑
  4. Pope John Paul II, Centesimus Annus # 34 ↑
  5. Pope Paul VI, Populorum Progressio # 26 ↑
  6. Pope John Paul II, Centesimus Annus # 42 ↑
  7. Ibid. # 56 ↑
  8. Ibid. # 5 ↑
  9. Pope John XXIII, Mater et Magistra # 223-28 ↑
  10. National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Economic Justice for All: Pastoral Letter on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy # 360 ↑