Dr. Paul Oslington, professor of economics at Australian Catholic University, has a piece up today that examines the scope of social encyclicals, beginning with Rerum Novarum in 1891 and focusing especially on the similarities and differences between John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus and Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate.
Comparing this tradition with that of ecclesiastical statements from other church traditions, Oslington judges (and I think quite rightly), “On the whole, statements of the Roman Catholic Church since the landmark papal encyclical Rerum Novarum, issued in 1891, have been of higher theological quality than most church statements, and more reticent when dealing with specific economic questions.”
He points especially to the 2004 Accra Confession of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC) as a negative example. I make a substantive criticism of the Accra Confession within the broader context of ecumenical social statements of the last decade in my recent book, Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church’s Social Witness.
I also point in that book to some of the things that the mainline ecumenical movement can learn from the tradition of Roman Catholic social thought. As Oslington rightly notes, the quality of the encyclical tradition makes it the natural starting point for broader dialogues about the role of faith and theology in relation to economics, politics, and social life. He points to the way in which Benedict’s encyclical has occasioned important discussion from all kinds of quarters, both in the secular media as well as by other Christian traditions.
Oslington is especially hopeful about the work of Benedict XVI, and says, “With these theological resources, there is hope for a much-needed deep theological engagement with economics. It is hard to image a Pope better equipped theologically to undertake this task.”
One of the most important things that Protestant social thought can learn from the encyclical tradition is the importance of the principle of prudence. This is manifested in a bias against making strict policy prescriptions in favor of articulating the broad principles that must be applied in various concrete circumstances.
As Oslington concludes, this is a fundamental element of the social encyclicals, including Benedict’s:
I don’t know what Benedict XVI’s theological engagement with economics will end up looking like. He indicates in the unfinished state of his reflections a call for “further and deeper reflection on the meaning of the economy and its goals” in the light of the “explosion of worldwide interdependence.”
Could this turn out something like the Augustinian theodicy of markets that Anthony Waterman saw in Adam Smith? Waterman argued that just as for Augustine government restrains sin in a fallen world until the time of a final judgment and renewal, so markets restrain the effects of human sin.
Will it include elements of the vision of economic life of early modern Franciscan thinkers favoured by Benedict and some of his advisors such as Stefano Zamagni?
Whatever direction it goes, it will be some kind of theological reframing of economics that orients economic enquiry without detailed prescription on matters of economic theory and policy.
Incidentally, Dr. Oslington was kind enough to endorse my book, and I pass along his comments here in full.
Jordan Ballor has written a useful guide for those wishing to venture into the smelly swamps of ecumenical social and economic thought. Why should non-swamp dwellers care what goes on there? Ballor’s quite reasonable answer is that ecumenical bodies claim to speak on behalf of churches, churches which many of us are part. Whether anyone outside is listening is another question—one which Ballor doesn’t address but which others such as Anthony Waterman have considered—that being less and less so. Ballor’s book is distinguished by considering not just the content of ecumenical statements on economic matters (which have given grief to a long line of professional economists), but also the theological self-understanding of the various bodies when they speak. He asks the deeper question of whether the bodies are adequately constituted to be the (or even a) Christian voice on economic matters, as well as the not irrelevant questions of their actual theological and economic competence. Fundamental questions are raised about the relationship between theological and economic discourse, and the sorts of institutions that support helpful discourse. Christian faith certainly bears on economic matters—the briefest acquaintance with the Scriptures is enough to dispel any doubts. Ballor’s book is part of the movement towards a better discussion of the links in our churches, universities and political forums.
I should note too that some serious work has been done in bringing the various traditions of Protestant and Catholic social thinking into dialogue.
This includes the proceedings of the conference commemorating Leo XIII and Abraham Kuyper in the Journal of Markets & Morality. I’m also pleased to announce that in the next issue of the journal we’ll be including an introduction to and translation of Herman Bavinck’s “General Biblical Principles and the Relevance of Concrete Mosaic Law for the Social Question Today,” prepared for the Christian Social Congress held in Amsterdam, November 9-12, 1891 (you can subscribe to the journal here).
Popes in Rome have attempted to steer the Catholic flock away from the “seductive” forces of socialist ideologies threatening human liberty, which since the late 1800s have relentlessly plucked away at “the delicate fruit of mature civilizations” as Lord Acton once said.
From Pius IX to Benedict XVI, socialism has been viewed with great caution and even as major threat to the demise of all God-loving free civilizations, despite many of their past and present socio-political and economic “sins.”
In their various official publications and social encyclicals, at least since the advent of the latter with Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum (1891), Roman pontiffs have given socialism a bad rap: It has never been positively perceived as a good political order, east or west of the Tiber River.
Why so? We do not have to look further than the popes’ own teachings regarding their vision of human work, anthropology, happiness and basic dignity.
First of all, socialism ultimately allows political authority to direct the ends of human happiness; that is to say, its supports the secular state’s programs and its functionaries’ potential and power to resolve much of man’s social and economic needs. It, therefore, replaces and distrusts individuals, local communities and families acting in free alliance with their Creator to build a good and better society for all. In a nutshell, socialism treats ordinary citizens like children incapable of governing themselves. When replacing private charity with public welfare programs, socialism takes full advantage of the contemporary crisis of adulthood infecting free societies, whose dishonorable, capricious and selfish citizens are unwilling to make sacrifices gratuitously for their neighbor (see these two Acton videos one character by Lawrence Reed and Michael Miller).
Hence, socialism tends to defile human dignity and dehumanize the personal and local processes of free collaboration and personal responsibility. And as socialism advances closer its pure form in political practice, it ultimately attempts to dictate and bureaucratize all of human socio-economic well being, a concept of social justice built on the dangerous quicksand of modern materialism, which ultimately drags human freedom down to a slow, merciless death.
As the current pope, Benedict XVI, writes:
The State which would provide everything, absorbing everything into itself, would ultimately become a mere bureaucracy incapable of guaranteeing the very thing which the suffering person − every person − needs: namely, loving personal concern. We do not need a State which regulates and controls everything, but a State which, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, generously acknowledges and supports initiatives arising from the different social forces and combines spontaneity with closeness to those in need.… In the end, the claim that just social structures would make works of charity superfluous masks a materialist conception of man: the mistaken notion that man can live ‘by bread alone’ (Mt 4:4; cf. Dt 8:3) − a conviction that demeans man and ultimately disregards all that is specifically human. (Deus Caritas Est, n. 28)
In order to give you a smattering of just how other popes have tended to view socialism, I recommend reading Gustavo Solimeo‘s “What the Popes Have to Say About Socialism” published for The American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property.
In Mr. Solimeo’s article we read that various popes believe that socialism is part of an “iniquitous plot…to drive people to overthrow the entire order of human affairs” (Pius IX); that “communism, socialism, nihilism (are) hideous deformities of the civil society of men and almost its ruin (and part of) a wicked confederacy” (Leo XIII); socialism is “contradictory (in) nature to the Christian religion (…) No one can be at the same time a good Catholic and a true socialist” (Pius XI); socialism has “no account of any objective other than that of material well-being” (John XXIII); and finally that the “fundamental error of socialism is anthropological in nature…. (It) considers the individual person simply as an element, a molecule within the social organism, so that the good of the individual is completely subordinated to the functioning of the socio-economic mechanism.” (John Paul II)
In this book, Novak aims to understand and analyze the theological assumptions of democratic capitalism, its spirit, it values, and its intentions.
Yet another moral meltdown based on greed. This time the human vice reared its ugly head in Westminster. For the first time since 1650, a Speaker of the House of Commons has resigned under angry public protest of his controversial use of public funds.
Yesterday, the Labour party’s second most senior leader, Michael Martin of Glasgow, officially quit as House Speaker amid accusations that he abused his publically financed personal expense account, a perk enjoyed by Members of Parliament.
The British population is outraged: not only because of the exorbitant nature of Martin’s financial reimbursements (reimbursements for cat food, installation of chandeliers, manure, porn material, and repairs to his country estate moat) during the painful economic recession, but because morally rekindled Britons are fed up and ready to part ways with the country’s current leadership.
Adding fuel to the fire, government officials released deeper probes into the art of public deceit. Repayment claims were filed by other M.P.s for interest charged on fictional mortgages on second homes, at time when many banks are foreclosing on the homes of ordinary citizens.
According to a study on global corruption released by Dr. Richard Ebeling of the American Institute for Economic Research, the United Kingdom has fared well amongst its European peers, given the positive correlation found between the freer markets of the British Isles and lesser incentives to perform illicit acts to gain undue advantages in either the public and private sectors. Therefore, United Kingdom has traditionally looked good when compared to the corruption impairing the progress of freedom and prosperity among the many “transition nations” of Eastern Europe.
However, even British traditions of good behaviour will not last forever. Pope Benedict has warned the world time and again of the corrosive nature of greed, which “distorts the purpose of material goods and destroys the world,” as he said last April 22 during his weekly general audience in Rome.
In the wake of the scandals of Westminster, Prime Minister Gordon Brown has rallied the British population to change. “Westminster cannot operate like some gentleman’s club,” where its members “make up the rules,” he said. Yet his oratory seems too little, too late. Under 10 years of center-left Labour leadership, the United Kingdom has slowly welcomed back bigger government – along with it invasive tax schemes, cushy welfare doles, and the slippery slope of greed and corruption among public servants.
Britain’s lawmakers are fortunate only to lose their prestigious government posts and reputations and face incarceration. Their prospects would have been far worse under the days under monarchical rule when greedy and corrupt political officials were quickly guillotined for accepting bribes and illegal financial contributions.
Following up on our coverage of Pope Benedict’s economic “prophecy,” here’s a snip from yesterday’s “Papal Bullishness” editorial in Investor’s Business Daily. Read then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s 1985 article “Market Economy and Ethics” here.
The Pope gave a “prediction that an undisciplined economy would collapse by its own rules,” the ex-socialist lawyer and economics professor nonsensically claimed at Milan’s Cattolica University last week.
Tremonti conveniently omitted that elsewhere in the Pontiff’s 2,300-word analysis he grumbled that Theodore Roosevelt and Nelson Rockefeller spread “the notion that only Protestantism can bring forth a free economy — whereas Catholicism includes no corresponding education to freedom and to the self-discipline necessary to it, favoring authoritarian systems instead . . .”
Furthermore, the only apparent English translation of the paper is on the Web site of Fr. Robert Sirico’s Michigan-based Acton Institute. Why would a think tank devoted to emphasizing the free market’s spiritual underpinnings tout an anti-capitalist tract?
A round-up of diverse items of interest, in no particular order:
- “Iraq to open consulate in San Diego,” (and Detroit). Facing difficulties in reaching the populations of Iraqis in the US, Iraq is planning to open consulates in San Diego and Detroit. “The Bush administration set a goal of admitting 12,000 Iraqi refugees this year.” This rather meager goal comes years after the invasion and after hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have had to flee to other countries for safety. Too little, too late: “…while more than 100,000 Iraqi Christians sought to emigrate to the US, only 200 were granted access in 2006.”
- Jack White of the White Stripes and Raconteurs pens an ode to his hometown, Detroit, after making comments perceived to be slights on the city after his recent move to Nashville.
- John Couretas writes of the situation for Coptic Christians in Egypt at the AOI blog, “Egypt’s Copts the ‘New Martyrs’?”
- Sam Gregg wrote the cover story for the July/August edition of Touchstone magazine, “The European Disunion: Benedict XVI on the Crisis of Faith & Reason.” This is the first issue I received as my prize for placing in the 2008 EO/Wheatstone blog symposium, and I’m eager to read it. Subscribe and get your own copy here today.
- Jennifer Roback Morse reviews Helen Epstein’s The Invisible Cure: Africa, the West and the Fight Against AIDS in a piece for the Weekly Standard.
- Michael Novak reflects at the First Things blog on the difference in the culture of charity between the United States and Europe, “The Giving Society,” drawing on the research of Arthur C. Brooks.
The U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) hosted 183 governments at a three day summit in Rome, from June 3-5. World leaders tried to find possible solutions in order to tackle the recent food crisis which has already caused hunger and civil unrest in several developing countries. Jacques Diouf Director General of FAO asked for $30 billion a year in extra financing to the United Nations needed to address world hunger threatening 862 million people.
Despite international efforts and estimates, the situation appears to be far more complex and certainly requires more than just a call for greater funding and a return to discredited subsistence economies. There is an alarming “silence” on what has contributed to this crisis and on what possible solutions already exist and can be found in Catholic social teaching.
The market economy, for instance, should not be looked upon with suspicion of greed and pure self-interest. Instead, the market economy has defeated poverty and paved the way for democracy, the promotion of human dignity, all important values of Christian social thought. It should, therefore, be considered as a resource used to fight corruption and misgovernment part of many developing countries affected by this crisis.
New solutions are, likewise, urgently required. Archbishop Silvano Tommasi, head of the Holy See’s office to the U.N. in Geneva, clearly pointed this out in an interview with the Vatican Radio. He also stressed the need to support local entrepreneurs and small farmers, encouraging them not to abandon the agricultural market.
Pope Benedict XVI in his address to the FAO summit also called for new solutions, defining this crisis as “unacceptable.” Highlighted by Zenit, the Pope underlined the need for “political action which, inspired by those principles of natural law written in man’s heart, protects the dignity of the individual.” He also underlined the need to “increase the availability of food by rewarding small farmers’ hard work and guarantee them market access; too often in fact, small farmers are penalized domestically by industrial farming and internationally by protectionist policies and practices,” as recalled by Asia News.
Diverse solutions have also been proposed by humanitarian NGOs who are following the FAO Summit, such as Oxfam, Medecins Sans Frontiers, and Care, who are condemning traditional financial aid, specifying the need to, once again, eliminate bio-fuels, protectionists regimes, VAT on food and the need to cultivate nutrient-rich food.
Unfortunately, Catholic NGOs such as Caritas Europa, FOCSIV, and Sant’egidio still do not seem to have an opinion on the matter. It is a great loss to the creativity needed for solving this crisis. These Catholic NGOs have field projects in several developing countries and surely with their longstanding experience could develop new perspectives to this situation in the light of Catholic social teaching.
While we await Pope Benedict’s first social encyclical, it has been interesting to note what he has been saying on globalization and other socio-economic issues affecting the world today. None of these amounts to a magisterial statement but there are nonetheless clues to his social thought.
So that makes his address to the Centesimus Annus pro Pontifice Foundation noteworthy. The Pope spoke about the current state of globalization, reminding the audience that the aim of economic development must serve the progress of man.
Benedict stressed that commercial interests must never become so exclusive that they damage human dignity. He expressed the hope that the process of globalization which has so far affected finance, culture and politics should in the future also lead to a “globalization of solidarity” and respect for all parts of society. This would be necessary in order to make sure that economic growth is never cut off from the search for the comprehensive development of man and society. The Pope pointed out that the principle of subsidiarity is vital in guiding globalization:
“In this respect, the social doctrine of the Church stresses the importance of intermediate bodies in accordance with the principle of solidarity. It allows people to freely contribute to give meaning to cultural and social changes and direct them towards the authentic progress of man and the community.”
The conference was entitled “Social Capital and Human Development” and the foundation’s name recalls John Paul II’s 1991 social encyclical of the same name, which drew together 100 years of history of the Church’s social doctrine.
What Benedict has said on globalization is very much in line with what John Paul II said before him. This may not seem like much, but when one considers the technical nature of economics and finance today, it is a humane and necessary message that supports the positive aspects of market economics.
The journalist and author Will Hutton (described in his Wikipedia entry as “Britain’s foremost critic of capitalism”) was invited by the Centesimus Annus Pro Pontifice Foundation to address the conference. In an article for the Observer he shared his impressions. Interpreting Benedict within the framework of his own left-leaning ideas he failed to understand what the pontiff actually said.
According to Hutton, “the Catholic church is again alarmed by the way capitalism is developing” and has attacked “sweatshop call centres, declining trade unions” and “directors paid tens of millions”.
The Pope mentioned none of this and Hutton offers no evidence of why that should be Church teaching. Nor did John Paul II in his encyclical demand “stakeholder capitalism” as Hutton claims. Besides raising the obvious question why Hutton was invited to speak on a subject that he knows little about, this is a worrying example of how a defense of an ethical grounding of economics is misinterpreted as a call for socialistic solutions.
It’s an otherwise fine story by an AP writer, but I’m on the prowl for media infelicities in the pope coverage, so silly lines get noticed:
After making little headway in his efforts to rekindle the faith in his native Europe, the German-born Benedict will be visiting a country where many of the 65 million Catholics are eager to hear what he says.
I like the “making little headway” clause. As though reestablishing Christendom were a matter of uttering a few well chosen words. Benedict’s been pontiff for three years. The secularization of Europe has been going on for anywhere from fifty to five hundred depending on how you want to look at it. Taking into account the Vatican’s vaunted tendency to “think in centuries,” I doubt the pope expected to rekindle the faith of a continent in a few months. Nor for that matter is it likely that he possesses such power in a post-Christian Europe. I suspect his goals are more modest and realistic.