Catholic Culture Dedication
Catholic Culture Dedication

Eliminating Left and Right: An Economic First Step

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Sep 25, 2009

In my last commentary on Caritas in Veritate (Splitting social and life issues? Can’t do it.), I promised to critique the “sure recipe for blindness” typically followed by the Western mind in reading Catholic social encyclicals. At the same time, I said I’d address the “large, long-standing and debilitating quarrel between left and right about the role of distributive justice”. The two problems are largely the same.

The Capitalist / Socialist West

When conservatives read social encyclicals, they often throw up their hands in disgust: “What does the Pope want us to do? Become socialists?” And when liberals read social encyclicals they tend to ignore everything that is said about ownership and subsidiarity. Both groups reflexively see socio-economic theory in terms of either or, either capitalist or socialist, either right or left. Both instinctively believe that the full range of possibilities is represented by these two concepts, that each of these economic concepts depends on immutable laws and impersonal forces, and that the viewpoint which opposes their own is defined either by selfishness (for the right) or by ideology (for the left).

For this reason, we read the social encyclicals with tunnel vision, and end up blind in the process. Most often we simply want to find out “whose side the Pope is on this time”, and to get ammunition for lobbing at the other side. Unfortunately, we fail to realize that both capitalism and socialism represent fundamentally materialist theories of how the economy ought to work. They are the result of an ongoing debate within a society which was already largely secularized when the debate began, and which has simply ignored large aspects of reality ever since. Neither side pays significant attention to the moral dimension of personal economic action.

One of the most important contributions of Catholic social teaching to economic thought is the Church’s insistence that the economy is not the result of implacable laws or impersonal forces, but of specific moral decisions. The capitalist notion that the purpose of economic activity is profit, and that the greatest good for the greatest number follows automatically from this principle, is in the first place morally false and in the second profoundly arbitrary. The socialist notion that economic activity is not rooted in personal ownership, and that the state alone can bring about equity and peace in the social order is, in the first place false as to its understanding of human nature and in the second inevitably totalitarian. Neither system is based on the full truth about man, and so neither is capable of fostering authentic development or, as the Church puts it, "development of the whole man and of all men."

Unfortunately, each side recognizes the falsehoods contained in the other, but neither recognizes the full range of reality. Because of this tunnel vision, the solution adopted in the West has been shaped by an incessant socio-political conflict in which one group creates wealth and another comes along later to redistribute it. Thus even limited social benefits are accompanied by the evils characteristic of both systems (i.e., irresponsible business and coercive bureaucracy), and all goes forward (when it goes at all) in an atmosphere of mistrust.

In effect, commutative justice—the law of exchange, in which the parties seldom have equal bargaining power—has become the province of the right, operating through business; and distributive justice—through which all are called to share in the goods of this world by virtue of their very humanity—has become the province of the left, operating through the State. I have, of course, over-simplified somewhat for clarity. In fact we are often our own worst enemies, taking one side when doing business and the other when doing politics. But most readers will recognize the split. This split is largely defined by the long-standing conflict between liberal and conservative over the role of distributive justice, to which I alluded in my introduction. For the conservative, distributive justice is very frequently ignored or denied. For the liberal, distributive justice is sought more or less exclusively through political power, at the expense of human freedom.

Transcending the Dialectic

In Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict XVI in effect condemns both sides. To the right, he says:


The market is subject to the principles of so-called commutative justice, which regulates the relations of giving and receiving between parties to a transaction. But the social doctrine of the Church has unceasingly highlighted the importance of distributive justice and social justice for the market economy, not only because it belongs within a broader social and political context, but also because of the wider network of relations within which it operates. In fact, if the market is governed solely by the principle of the equivalence in value of exchanged goods, it cannot produce the social cohesion that it requires in order to function well. Without internal forms of solidarity and mutual trust, the market cannot completely fulfill its proper economic function. (35)

Anyone who is even remotely aware of the causes of the current recession ought to recognize by now how much of our current economic failure has been occasioned by betrayal of trust and pervasive lack of trust. In contrast, observing that God’s relationship with us is characterized by the “law of the gift”, in that everything that surrounds us and that we take for granted is in some deep sense a gift, Benedict argues that this spirit of “gratuitousness” must also characterize all human activity, including economic activity. This gratuitousness takes the form of a definite generosity and friendship in all relationships, which the Church’s social teaching calls “solidarity”.

But if the right often fails in solidarity, so too does the left. And so, to the left, Benedict says:


Solidarity is first and foremost a sense of responsibility on the part of everyone with regard to everyone, and it cannot therefore be merely delegated to the State. While in the past it was possible to argue that justice had to come first and gratuitousness could follow afterwards, as a complement, today it is clear that without gratuitousness, there can be no justice in the first place…. The exclusively binary model of market-plus-State is corrosive of society, while economic forms based on solidarity, which find their natural home in civil society without being restricted to it, build up society. (38-39)

Solidarity, says Pope Benedict, must be found within economic activity, not only “outside” it or “after” it. Solidarity is to be distinguished sharply from “giving in order to acquire” (the logic of exchange, the logic of the right) and “giving through duty” (the logic of public obligation imposed by the State, the logic of the left). To understand this dual indictment, it is necessary to observe that speaking of solidarity by government policy is the same as describing forcible theft on the part of one man as charity on the part of his victim. Whatever gains may be made, the State compounds the initial problem by reducing freedom and breeding distrust.

The Vision of Solidarity

By recognizing first and foremost that the economy is profoundly shaped by moral decisions, the Church insists categorically that economic activity, including market activity, must be marked and impenetrated from the first by solidarity, the concern of “everyone for everyone”. This means that business management must be concerned in every enterprise with the good of all the stakeholders: workers, clients, suppliers, investors and what Benedict calls the “community of reference”, the community within which the economic activity takes place, which provides the resources upon which the economic activity depends, and which is affected in countless ways by that activity and its results.

“Both the market and politics need individuals who are open to reciprocal gift,” says Benedict, and indeed this is the only way to overcome the false economic dichotomy that dominates Western thought, to bridge the economic gap between conservatives and liberals, and even to help transcend the ultimate dialectic between left and right, in which economic attitudes play a major role, and which makes it so hard for Western man to think clearly about reality. This is so important that Benedict ultimately issues a challenge and a hope that we must all make our own:


The great challenge before us, accentuated by the problems of development in this global era and made even more urgent by the economic and financial crisis, is to demonstrate, in thinking and behavior, not only that traditional principles of social ethics like transparency, honesty and responsibility cannot be ignored or attenuated, but also that in commercial relationships the principle of gratuitousness and the logic of gift as an expression of fraternity can and must find their place within normal economic activity. This is a human demand at the present time, but it is also demanded by economic logic. It is a demand both of charity and of truth. (36)


Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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