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The Church: Economies Always Depend on Moral Decisions

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Dec 02, 2013

Have you ever wondered about the constant bickering over which economic viewpoint is being “endorsed” each time a pope makes an observation about economic affairs? Indeed, every time a pope addresses socio-economic problems, pundits immediately attempt to prove he has sided with one party or another in a purely economic debate. But this is nonsense, and profoundly unhelpful nonsense at that.

The points made by the Church on these matters have varied from one period to the next and from one pope to the next. Accordingly, it is necessary to discern not so much their specific differences as their deeper agreement. Viewed in this way, the one thing all comments have in common is their insistence that, within any social context, the blameworthy features of what we might call economic abuse arise not from impersonal forces but from human persons making decisions that are essentially moral in nature.

The Church has very little interest in questions of economic theory per se. She does not seek to explain how money works, but how morality works.

For example, insofar as socialism carries within it a denial of the freedom and dignity of the person, by completely subjecting ownership and economic activity to the control of the State, socialism comes in for criticism and even condemnation. And insofar as the theory of capitalism is used to render personal moral economic decisions irrelevant in the face of allegedly inexorable economic laws, then capitalism also comes in for criticism and even condemnation. In broader and far less purely theoretical strokes, we can paint socialism to include all systems of exploitative government intervention, and capitalism to include all exploitation of the mechanisms of markets and finance. Moreover, when the rich miraculously develop political power and the politicians miraculously grow rich (as seems to happen within all systems), then a predictable and self-serving theoretical posturing becomes even more poisonous.

Against all this, you will find that the key to the Church’s judgments is her insistence that, even when economic decisions properly take into account the very best understanding of how economies actually work, economic decisions inescapably possess a moral dimension. Economic decisions, in addition to being structurally sound, always require right moral judgments which take into account the well-being of all those who are affected by those decisions. In other words, you will find that what the popes condemn again and again in a hundred different forms is the use of economic theory or economic ideology to obscure or deny the need for moral judgment and moral action.

That’s the common thread. Ancillary papal comments about different schools of economic thought are relevant only insofar as they help to shed light on the moral dimensions of economic action, which all persons are obliged to honor. Every time the Church speaks on economic issues, it is this that she wishes men and women of good will to understand. The Church’s brief is not to explain how to get the best possible understanding of pure economics. She simply insists that, within the human community, we use that understanding morally. The Church knows when our theories go false by ignoring what is proper to man, and she wants us all to stop pretending that economic theory renders morality irrelevant, or that economic theory generates its own ineluctable moral rules.

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  • Posted by: jg23753479 - Dec. 02, 2013 9:57 PM ET USA

    I assume you have in mind Pope Francis' comments about "trickle-down economics" in Gaudium Evangelii. "Free market" enthusiasts in the US are quick to explain away what he said by asserting that, in fact, "that isn't really what the pope was saying," or to point out that Catholics can disagree with his economic opinions, etc. Personally, I rather liked what he said, just as I liked his recent speech in Sardinia. It's refreshing to hear our pope boldly denounce greed, even capitalist greed.

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