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Pontifical professor: Capitalism ‘improved the living conditions of all social levels’

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A few months ago, a group of protesters decided to vent their frustration by screaming into the sky. Trying to encourage theologians to understand the fundamentals of economics before preaching about the subject sometimes feels just as productive. However, one of the secular media have recognized the efforts of one of the foremost Catholic exponents of the free market.

Fr. Martin Rhonheimer, a professor of ethics and philosophy at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome, shared his message as part of a profile in Expansión, possibly the most widely read business newspaper in Spain.

“The Church is not here to teach economics,” he said, so “pastors should be cautious when it comes to making pronouncements. But unfortunately, they are silent about issues for which they have genuine competence and speak out about issues that basically do not concern them.”

Fr. Martin Rhonheimer.

Worse yet, when they do so, they do so badly.

“This is a world of scarcity, while that of Jesus is the kingdom of Heaven, of grace and divine mercy, a world of abundance, whose laws are not valid here,” said Fr. Rhonheimer, who spoke at Acton’s 2014 conference on Faith, State, and the Economy: perspectives from East and West at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.

Unfortunately, he told Expansión, “theologians have the tendency” to conflate the two kingdoms.

The dividing line between primitive shamanism and the Judeo-Christian religious tradition is that the latter embraces the use of reason. While we believe in charismata and miracles, we understand that God has endowed humanity with free will and typically works His will through natural human interaction. That means that incentives matter. Economic interventionist policies that discourage industriousness and reward idleness lead to scarcity and unmet needs:

“The historical record is clear,” writes Rhonheimer. “Over the past two centuries, the capitalist economy […] has steadily improved the living conditions of all social levels, always and everywhere. On the contrary, all versions of state interventionism [have] deteriorated.”

Fr. Rhonheimer’s list of four “perceptual biases” that stop people from seeing the value of free markets alone makes the article worth reading. His overview of the “ruptures” within Catholic social teaching, as different emphases emerged between papal encyclicals, brings a nuanced insight often missing from the topic.

Acton readers will also appreciate the article’s reference to the School of Salamanca, which recently celebrated its 800th anniversary. At a time when churches preach that “justice” demands that employers pay workers a $15-an-hour minimum wage, the theologians of Salamanca came to radically different conclusions. Fr. Rhonheimer says, according to Luis de Molina, a just wage is:

one stipulated freely by the employer and employee and which corresponds to the service provided, not with what the employee and his family need to survive. This would be the best thing, but it is not economically viable. You can pay more for charity, but not for justice.

For more information on the School of Salamanca, you may enjoy reading Sourcebook in Late-Scholastic Monetary Theory: The Contributions of Martin de Azpilcueta, Luis de Molina, and Juan de Mariana. In addition, Alejandro Chafuen – the Acton Institute’s managing director, international – has written an accessible introduction titled Faith and Liberty: The Economic Thought of the Late Scholastics. (The latter is out of print as of this writing but is sometimes available on Amazon).

You can read the full profile of Fr. Martin Rhonheimer here (in Spanish). You may also enjoy this lecture, co-sponsored by the Acton Institute, about “The Christian-anthropological foundations of a free market economy”:

(Photo credit: Public domain.)

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Rev. Ben Johnson Rev. Ben Johnson is Senior Editor at the Acton Institute.

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