The Vatican’s Statement on Economics

by Professor Steve Schneck, CACG Board Member
October 26, 2011
The Church, which has long experience in human affairs and has no desire to be involved in the political activities of any nation, seeks but one goal: to carry forward the work of Christ under the lead of the befriending Spirit. And Christ entered this world to give witness to the truth; to save, not to judge; to serve, not to be served.

Cardinal Peter Turkson

This quotation from Paul VI’s encyclical Populorum Progressio prefaced Monday’s release of an extraordinary document in Rome. Authored by the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace it is a breath-taking analysis of the moral failing behind the current economic crisis. Even more, signed by the Council’s head, Cardinal Peter Turkson, and by its secretary, Bishop Mario Toso, the document charts what might be called a Catholic way forward from the present morass.

The analysis of the intrinsic moral failing of modern economic life is particularly compelling. For while the authors detail how the economic crisis of our day has revealed behaviours like selfishness, collective greed and the hoarding of goods on a great scale, it is not the greedy sinfulness of individuals that is emphasized. Instead, analysis here focuses on certain structural aspects of contemporary civilization that have abetted and facilitated such greed. Greed no doubt is an endemic temptation for our fallen nature, as it were, but special failings of current institutions, practices, and ideology corrupt the process of human formation in a fundamental way.

What practices and ideologies are to blame? First and foremost, we’re told is an economic liberalism that spurns rules and controls, an approach unsympathetic towards public intervention in the market. The European terminology might confuse American readers (who’d likely call such ideology conservative, not liberal). But, this is what Blessed John Paul II once called the idolatry of the market, which is described in Monday’s release as a system of thought, a form of economic apriorism that purports to derive laws for how markets function from theory, these being laws of capitalistic development.

Such thinking is neither radical nor new. Radical as it might seem to Americans, this analysis from the Pontifical Council fits comfortably within magisterial traditions. From the 19th century onward encyclicals and other Church teachings, including the writings of Blessed John Paul II and Benedict XVI, have preached that unregulated market forces endanger the common good. Valuable as they are for economic development, without moral safeguards markets are perceived to foment attitudes toward others and toward the community that not only oppose Christian values but also are unsustainable for an enduring and just social and political order. Market operations incline us to valorize the self and self-interests and to do so in opposition to and competition with others. In individual moral terms, the worry is selfishness, greed, and pride. We’re nudged by market forces, as the document puts it, to live like a wolf among our fellow men and women. Understood more broadly, the Church’s long-standing argument is that the unregulated market’s invisible hands erode caritas and concern for others (especially concern for those Jesus called the least of these) and militate against the primary purpose of our public life as citizens which is the common good of the whole community in light of salvation. More of Schneck commentary here.

Full text of Vatican document here.

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