Posts tagged with: Pope Leo XIII

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).

Father John Zuhlsdorf, who runs the popular Catholic blog “What Does the Prayer Really Say?” has opened a new discussion thread on the work of the Acton Institute. He explains:

In light of what is going on in the world’s economies, and in light of what will be increasing tension between secular governments and the Church, which has her body of teaching on social issues, it is a good idea to have a strong discussion about Acton and the Church’s social teachings.

Fr. Z, who joined us at Acton University as a blogger last year, started the Acton discussion to address comments that were being raised on another entry regarding Fr. Robert Sirico’s letter to Notre Dame President Rev. John Jenkins. Here’s Fr. Z’s summary:

Under that other entry, commenter Sarsfield opines:

Sirico is a dissenter from the social magisterium of the Church in favor of the decidedly un-Catholic philosophy of economic liberalism. The very purpose of his organization is to “correct” the “mistakes” of all the Popes who have spoken on the social question since Leo XIII. His choice of the organization’s name is telling if anyone bothers to read a little history. It was Acton, after all, who not only opposed Vatican I’s proposed definition of papal infallibility but tried to use his considerable influence with the British government to induce the anti-Catholic European powers to intervene militarily to prevent the Council from meeting.

Some responses were given to this:

* You may or may not agree with Fr. Sirico’s affinity for economic liberalism, but it is a gross overstatement to accuse him of dissenting from the Magisterium of the Church.
* You are incorrect to categorize Fr. Sirico as a dissenter from the Magisterium for his economics. Though, without more information, I’m not sure if it’s because you are wrong about the Acton Institute, or if it’s because you misunderstand Leo XIII.
* I think a better description of Fr. Sirico’s politics/economic theories rather than “economic liberalism,’ which is the term you use, would be “economic libertarianism.” Or “free market capitalism.” Excuse me for coining the first phrase, but certainly, as I read through the Acton maxim’s on their web site, they have much more to do philosophically with the right wing, or modern conservativism’s “less is more” view of the government’s involvement with all things that affect capitalistic economies. So it just as well could read, “economic conservatism,” for those listening with ears primed with the current left vs. right paradigm labeling conventions. So, while you may mean to convey exactly the same idea, the labeling must certainly give the opposite appearance to eyes and ears more conventionally tuned.

Join the discussion on WDTPRS. Come back here to link your remarks.