Acton Institute Powerblog

Clergy and Economists: Allies Not Adversaries

Share this article:
Join the Discussion:

We welcome a new contributor to the Acton Commentary crew: Dr. Dwight R. Lee, the William J. O’Neil Endowed Chair in Global Markets and Freedom at Southern Methodist University. In this week’s commentary, Lee discusses how the social objectives of clergy and economists are remarkably similar, even though their “windows on the world” suggest different approaches to achieving the shared aim of building a better, more humane society. This week’s commentary is adapted from an article to be published in the Journal of Markets & Morality (Vol. 12, No. 2; Fall 2009). Excerpt:

My hope is that members of the clergy, in their desire to achieve a better world, will begin to see economists as allies instead of adversaries. This hope may be dismissed as preposterous by some since, as an economist, I argue that market incentives are the most effective way of achieving many of the social outcomes most of the clergy favor. But those most opposed to market incentives for achieving desirable objectives have the most to gain by taking a look through the economic window. Much of the skepticism, indeed hostility, towards markets is based on distorted and mistaken views of how markets operate and what they accomplish.

Religious differences notwithstanding, most people respect the clergy for their noble objectives and effort to achieve those objectives by encouraging and celebrating “the better angels of our nature” mentioned in Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address. Most approve of the clergy’s concern with encouraging behavior such as sharing with, and serving the interests of, others; helping the poor; sacrificing for the good of the wider community; acting as good stewards of the earth’s resources; being concerned with protecting the environment; and generally living a life that promotes social cooperation and harmony.

Read more >>>

John Couretas John Couretas is Director of Communications, responsible for print and online communications at the Acton Institute. He has more than 20 years of experience in news and publishing fields. He has worked as a staff writer on newspapers and magazines, covering business and government. John holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in the Humanities from Michigan State University and a Master of Science Degree in Journalism from Northwestern University.


  • Roger McKinney

    Very interesting perspective! Also, I think it helps to compare the attitude of the clergy to medicine. The Bible speaks only of prayer and anointing with oil and wine as means of healing, but no clergy would advocate those methods and those methods alone as means of healing sick people. The clergy have a great deal of respect for the medical profession. They don’t try to heal sick people or perform surgeries. They refer sick people to medical doctors.

    But when it comes to helping the poor, they limit their knowledge and advice exclusively to that in the Bible. Giving is their only prescription. That happens because most clergy are still stuck in medieval economic theory, which they mistake for Biblical economics. Socialism is nothing but a revival of medieval economics. What a disaster the Church would be if it was still stuck in medieval medicine!

    At the same time, clergy must reclaim their role as prophets. OT prophets refused to accept that everything the state did was legal, right or good. Even John the Baptist opposed the king of Israel in his day. Clergy today have been fooled by the claim to sanctity on the part of democracy. They have absorbed the worldly concept of the hallowed nature of the will of the majority. The clergy should repent of this idolatry and challenge the government when it violates God’s laws, as did Biblical prophets. In the sphere of economics, that means challenging the state when it violates God-given private property rights.

    A good place for the clergy to start would be to read the article by Wilhelm Roepke from 1954 reprinted at

  • John, A provocative issue. What’s a layman to do? In the clergy we have an array from Rev. Jeremiah Wright to the Holy Father. In economists, a rainbow of systems from John Maynard Keynes and Karl Marx to Milton Friedman and F. A. Hayak.
    It is coincidental that in today’s Zenit, Carl Anderson, the Supreme Knight of Knights of Columbus made the following statement about Fr. Michael McGivney, whose cause for beatification has taken a step forward:
    “Father McGivney’s beatification would be an important event,” Anderson said, “not only for Knights of Columbus, but for the many thousands of parish priests who quietly do the Lord’s work in parishes each day and regard him as an outstanding example for priests everywhere.”
    It is evidence of preserving the common good that the insurance investments of the Knights did not follow AIG or Lehman into financial difficulties, because the KofC investment policies were both moral and financially sound.
    I do not intend to sell the Knights, but they are a part of contemprary reality that should not be ignored.

    I am certain that many responsible laymen are honestly confused by the actions of Notre Dame in granting time and a degree to Barack Obama, inspite of the protests of almost 80 Bishops, particularly the Bishop of the Diocese in which ND resides. Yet, there are almost 80 bishops, some of whom have Catholic higher education in their diocese, shouldn’t those schools be marketed as truly Catholic? Is it immoral for clergy to understand and utilize the market, if not for profits per se, then to meet the needs of a confused laity?

  • Roger McKinney

    Patrick, I can’t clear up the other issues for you, but the issue of which school of economics to follow should be simple for a Christian. Christianity has always upheld the sanctity of private property and the free market at the only forum in which the right to property can be practiced. Economics must be built on those moral foundations. Only the Austrian school is built on those. That should narrow your search for true economics considerably.

  • Rick McGinniss

    “It is useful to consider two broad approaches to improving the world. The first is to improve people so that they do the right things out of a sense of moral duty. The second approach is to improve incentives so people are motivated to do the right things because it is in their interest to do so. A reasonable generalization is that the clergy emphasizes the former approach to improving the world, while economists emphasize the second.”

    This is, in my opinion, a reasonable and accurate generalization. It’s also unfortunate because Jesus repeatedly appealed to incentives and self-interest as a way of motivating right behavior.

    For example, He didn’t say “lose your life for my sake because it’s the right thing to do” (which is an appeal to moral duty). He said, “lose your life for me and you will find it.” He didn’t say “give because it’s the right thing to do.” He said, “give and it will be given back to you – and then some.”

    In Jesus’ teaching, the incentive to moral behavior – including sacrifice – is always finding, gaining, and increasing personal fulfilment in this life and some kind of tangible reward in the coming Kingdom of God. Clearly, that’s an appeal to self-interest.

    I think we theologians and clergy are a little confused. It’s greed that’s bad, not gain.

  • John Couretas

    Patrick: What’s a layman to do? Easy. Support the Acton Institute. This organization has worked for 20 years to bring a deeper moral reflection to economic issues. There are any number of things you can do not only for clergy but for lay people and friends in business: Attend Acton University and the Institute’s various lectures; purchase and share the audio, video and print works available through the bookstore; share links from the blog and the main site with your priest and friends; sign up for the weekly Acton News & Commentary newsletter; and much more. Most of all, keep the conversation on these issues going with people who are serious about important “markets and morality” questions. Thanks for reading.

  • My thanks to John and Roger for their kind and direct responses.

  • DC

    My thanks to John and Roger for their kind and direct responses.