Catholic Social Teaching and the Market Economy

Article by   August 2007

This substantial book will be of considerable interest to those who have a concern for Christian social ethics and for the economic policies that may underlie it. It is also revealing for the way in which some Roman Catholics currently approaching the pronouncements of the magisterium on these matters. Some of the authors' general attitude to the Roman Catholic Church and social questions have parallels in Protestantism, including in the Reformed community.

The editor provides three chapters, 'Introduction: understanding Catholic Social Teaching in the light of economic reasoning, 'Aid, governance and development', and 'Taxation and the size of the state'. The other contributions are 'Rethinking welfare, reviving charity: A Catholic alternative' (Robert A. Sirico), 'The unanswered questions of the just wage' (Thomas E Woods Jr.), 'Free markets and the culture of consumption (Andrew Yuengert), 'Business and the common good' (Robert G. Kennedy), 'The entrepreneur in the life of the Church and society (Anthony Percy), 'Education and the Catholic Church in England and Wales' (Dennis O'Keeffe), 'Sudsidiarity and solidarity' (Denis O'Brien), and 'Catholicism and the case for limited government' (Samuel Gregg.

The author's basic economic stance is one of support for the market economy as the most efficient generator of wealth and the economic system that, with safeguard, best accords with the Christian values of individual responsibility, the family, social freedom, and property rights and charity. They are sensitive to the criticism that 'the market' is equivalent to 'consumerism'. They counter that consumerism is what you get when the forces of demand and therefore of supply are the products of a materialistic culture. The market is a neutral mechanism. They also oppose socialistic and centralised planning to wealth creation and delivery because such policies flout the Roman Catholic teaching on 'subsidiarity', the principle that in society responsibilities should be devolved to the lowest viable level - to the individual if possible. But not always to the individual, because of the presence of another principle solidarity, which expresses 'the need to bind together in common action to achieve aims that cannot be achieved by single individuals' (223). It should be noted that it is also made clear that solidarity is not necessarily (nor indeed primarily) to be pursued through the political system. The consequence of all this is that a consistent Roman Catholic should support lower taxation and a reduced role for the state, private charity as the preferred medium of aid to the poor, including international aid, and non-state controlled education.

It would have been interesting to have had more discussion of the provenance of subsidiarity. Where has this idea originated and how has it come to have the status of a central teaching?

Finally, the book repeatedly underlines the important distinction; a church, or scripture, may propose certain ends, such as the alleviation of poverty, but it ought not to prescribe means to those ends as if these means were intrinsic to Christianity, for the prescription of particular means to agreed ends goes beyond the realm of Christian teaching into areas of current economic policy and analysis in which the church has no expertise. So it is a important part of the argument of the book that even those Roman Catholics and others who will dissent from its general outlook on economic and social policy cannot properly do so on the grounds that this outlook is not authentically 'Roman Catholic' but their more centralist outlook is.

What is 'Christian' or 'Roman Catholic' are the ends, to be properly established by Christian authority. The means are contingently related to these ends, and so similarly well-intention and faithful adherents to Christianity may legitimately differ over them. The authors thus underscore an important principle of Christian liberty in this area. Nevertheless, they also clear that a market approach to economy, together with the benefits that it promotes, is (by and large) the better way to achieving the ends of Roman Catholic social teaching and the more authentic expression of the authoritative sources of Roman Catholic teaching. So, maybe some ambiguity at this point.

These sources of Roman Catholic social teaching are various Papal encyclicals and (to a lesser extent) the pronouncements of local hierarchies. The authors' understanding of these documents is a fascinating part of the book. Briefly encyclicals providing social teaching began with Leo XIII's Rerum novarum (1891), and Pius XI's Quadragesimo anno (1931), followed by John XXIII's Mater and magistra (1961), and John Paul II's Laborem exercens (1981), Sollicitudo rei socialis (1987) and Centeismus annus (1991) The emphases of these pronouncements is in a distrust of socialism, the defence of private property and economic freedom, the priority of the family over the state, and (I the case of John Paul) the defence of the market and of entrepreneurial activity, and a warning against the development of the welfare state to the point of creating a dependency culture. By contrast Philip Booth and Denis O'Brien are both critical of Gaudium et spes (1965), a product of the Second Vatican Council. The latter author's criticism is particularly strong. He regards it as cliché-ridden and naïve, at variance with Papal teaching.

The authors express three main attitudes to these documents. The first is to claim that there has been some change in emphasis, though never amounting, perhaps, to inconsistency (!), in the encyclical and conciliar teaching over the years, and from Pope to Pope. Second, that these pronouncements have frequently been hijacked by socialists and statists and given an interpretation that is unwarranted. Thirdly, that such reinterpretation has sometimes been a feature of pronouncements by national bishops. In his illuminating contribution O'Brien notes that the Roman Catholic hierarchy of England and Wales has favoured increased taxation and state coercion. (246)

Among the various contributions there is some repetition, and some lacunae. All writers appear to assume that the Reformation never happened or that it was inconsequential in the area of Christian teaching about economic and social policy. The protestant idea of secular calling and the development of the mercantile middle class in Protestant cultures, and the consequences of these for the accumulation of capital and for technological inventiveness, are completely ignored. There are question of historical judgments, among them the assumption that the separation of church and state, a fair recent development in the two millennia of Christianity, is intrinsic to Roman Catholicism, the ways in which, in the past, that Church has sought and gained jurisdiction over nation-states being airbrushed out of the record. Samuel Gregg gets in to a serious tangle over political freedom and free will (258f). These are important failures of understanding. Nevertheless, both the book's general stance and in particular the doctrine of Christian liberty that it enunciates are to be welcomed.

Note that the full text of the book may be downloaded without charge from the publications section of

Edited by Philip Booth / London: Institute of Economic Affairs, 2007
Review by Paul Helm

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