God and Caesar

by Stratford Caldecott

May I say how much I am enjoying the Concourse? The high quality of the featured debates and of the articles by Kathleen van Schaijik, Richard Gordon and Mark Fischer is a good advertisement for FUS.

As one of the signers with David Schindler of the 1994 statement, “A Civilization of Love,” let me try to respond to Michael Welker’s article “God and Caesar” in Issue 3. It seems to me that he has not grasped the essence of the debate. He writes that Schindler’s call for a “radically new economic beginning” implies “total conversion of society at every level and in every institution,” and comments that Schindler “proposes radical transformation without enough emphasis on the fact of sin.” The first of these claims is a caricature and the second is inaccurate. He also suggests that Schindler puts a priority on the transformation of society rather than the conversion of hearts. This is simply not true. Welker concludes that our present economic system is not “the necessary outgrowth of a particular idea” but ” the result of innumerable concrete choices made by individuals day by day,” and that Schindler’s proposal is unrealistic in a pluralist democracy.

Our economic system is indeed the result of innumerable individual acts of choice. But human choice is largely exercised on the (non-infinite) range of alternatives placed before us, and thus is always—in every economic system—channeled by the complex set of rules and assumptions that determine those limits. The assumptions of our own society are in important respects derived not from the Judeo-Christian tradition (at least not directly), but rather from an Enlightenment ideology that embodies a false concept of human freedom. To see this is not to deny any of the sensible points made by the neo-conservatives, including the need for incremental reforms accompanied by individual conversion. However, it is to become more realistic and less naively romantic about the prospects for piecemeal and incremental reform in a system that is flawed by such assumptions.

Schindler is a theologian rather than an economist, but economists ignore theology at their peril. His concern is the theological and anthropological assumptions that get built into economic thinking. Without an understanding of what he calls “onto-logic,” and of the way our human freedom gets channeled by social structures and habits of thought, individual efforts to bring about improvement may end up only making things worse.

Stratford Caldecott, Centre for Faith and Culture, Westminster College, Oxford

Mr. Caldecott is a frequent contributor to the Catholic quarterly Communio edited by David Schindler.

Michael Welker replies:

I am grateful and honored that a signatory of the “Civilization of Love” statement has written in to help clarify the terms of the debate. It may be that I misunderstood aspects of Schindler’s argument, as it was laid out in the Catholic World Report interview cited in my article. My main concern was more with how I think many people are likely to interpret Schindler than with his ideas as such. Perhaps in order to make my point, I unintentionally mischaracterized his argument.

I also want to say that I am in agreement with the fundamental tenets of the joint statement, which highlights the fact that “a universal call to holiness ...demands nothing less than a change of lifestyle,” as well as with Mr. Caldecott’s remark that “economists ignore theology at their peril.” This is why I, as a Catholic economist, struggle to integrate the findings of economic scientific analysis with the framework and guidelines provided by the social doctrine of the Church.

But even granting Mr. Caldecott’s helpful criticisms, I still have reservations about how Schindler’s discussion of the “structures of sin” and the need for radical change might be practically implemented. I am fearful of a certain scenario that has often played out in the course of history: well-meaning national/community leaders, guided by praiseworthy moral tenets, pursue political, economic, social and cultural reforms, which end by impinging on liberty, precipitating the decline of whole segments of society, and creating all sorts of other unintended negative consequences.

When I read the joint statement and observe the discussions regarding the culture of love, I am always asking myself these sorts of questions: What is this society supposed to look like? How are we going to arrive at the result it calls for? How do “structures of sin” become transformed other than through personal conversion? And how will the “Enlightenment ideology” which undergirds our present system be transformed in such a way that Trinitarian and right anthropological assumptions will be properly accounted for? (The answer to this latter is, I think, to be found in the phenomenlogical and hermeneutical tasks, which have yet to convincingly bring about reforms in the method of economic analysis and thought.)

I ask these questions because, as a social scientist devoted to the social doctrines, I am seeking practical means and methods of bringing our present system into better conformity with the truth about man. I raise certain cautions in order to help us avoid the danger of spiritual elitism, which can undermine our efforts. Moreover, I am anxious lest the proverbial pendulum swings so far the other way that we wind up with a set of public policies designed to legislate a culture of love. I know this is not what is intended by the Communio group; but it can happen so easily if we do not pay sufficient attention to the practical consequences of our best ideas.

There are usually more ways than one to obtain a worthwhile social goal, and I am extremely leery of the way so often resorted to in practice: i.e. more government intervention in our lives.

Economic analysis has the task of studying the way an economy works. From such analyses, principles can be derived which may help us establish concrete means of transforming the structures of sin. I am asking for deep integration between the science of economics and theology—because economics is a valuable tool of reform which can help provide solutions to the serious problems related to American capitalism.