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).