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Spare us from Vatican economic analysts

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Oct 25, 2011

The Catholic Church does not claim teaching authority on matters of economics and finance. When the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace issues a statement on the world’s financial markets, faithful Catholics are not bound to accept the economic analysis it contains.

However, it would be rash and wrong to say that the Church should remain silent about economic questions. Economic decisions have their moral dimensions, on which the Church does have expertise and teaching authority. There are many lessons that financiers could learn from Church teaching:

  • that neither majority votes nor marketplace decisions can settle moral questions;
  • that utilitarian standards are inadequate to define the common good;
  • that private property carries a “social mortgage”—those who own goods have a moral obligation to use them wisely;
  • that the affluent have a duty to care for their brothers in need.

Good points, all. Yes, the Church really does have lessons to teach the financial world. That’s why Catholic social teaching is important.

However, while economists are learning from the Vatican, perhaps the Vatican might learn a few lessons from economic analysts. Just for instance:

  • that government does not create anything, and therefore does not have funds unless it obtains those funds from ordinary people: taxpayers;
  • that the world’s financial system is currently endangered because of the soaring level of government debt;
  • that regulatory agencies have an abysmal record of failure in protecting the public from market fluctuations, speculative bubbles, and even outright fraud—and it is only reasonable to expect that a worldwide authority would reproduce those failures on a global scale;
  • that government interventions in the markets invariably produce unintended consequences, many of them deleterious;
  • that government regulation invariably furnishes opportunities for powerful corporations to manipulate the market for their own purposes, to the detriment of the general welfare.

Those are the economic lessons. There are some political realities that the Vatican might eventually recognize, too. Say:

  • that the UN, the World Bank, the European Union, and other international organizations are not friends of the Catholic Church, and probably never will be;
  • that any international agency empowered to regulate financial markets will—following a pattern that is now well established—be exploited by social engineers to promote contraception, legal abortion, and legal recognition of same-sex marriage;
  • that liberal politicians will gladly accept and exploit the Vatican’s statements on economic affairs, while continuing to work assiduously to promote the culture of death;

Oh, yes, and most important of all:

  • When an obscure Vatican agency issues a statement that contains 50% solid Catholic social teaching, and 50% flaky leftist theory, the world’s media will ignore the distinctively Catholic content—what the Church should say, what the world should learn—and concentrate exclusively on the leftist theory. So for the great mass of ordinary readers, who will never read the full document, but only scan the headlines, the important message will be lost. What will register, instead, is that the Vatican has not learned its lessons about economic affairs and political realities.

When people reach the conclusion that the Vatican is talking nonsense, they do not ordinarily distinguish between the sound fundamental principles of Church teaching and the questionable economic analysis that follows. Nor do they make fine distinctions on the different levels of Church teaching authority. They conclude simply that the Vatican talks nonsense. So by reaching beyond their field of expertise, Vatican officials undermine their own teaching authority.

Does anyone seriously believe that when the leaders of the G-20 economic powers gather next week in Cannes, whey will spend their time examining the Vatican’s plans for the recapitalization of troubled banks? Of course not. The world’s leaders have plenty of their own expert economists; they need not rely on analysis from Vatican dicasteries. If they think that the new Vatican document is just one more call for international economic regulation—along the lines of many other proposals they have already seen—they are likely to ignore the statement entirely, and thus miss the important messages that a terse Vatican document might have conveyed.

The moral of the story: If you want to promote Catholic social teaching, don’t wander beyond your expertise. Stick to moral principles, and leave economic analysis to the economists.


Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Terri11 - Apr. 10, 2017 6:54 PM ET USA

    "And doctors and the entire medical profession help us." Actually the Pharmaceutical companies are not there to help you, but their stockholders. I wouldn't put your faith in them.

  • Posted by: djpeterson - Oct. 26, 2011 6:40 PM ET USA

    This post is a step down for Mr Lawler. It's overly hasty and arrogant in tone. Much of the Vatican document is sound when it speaks of the dreadful injustices and inequities of the last few decades. The reply tells Rome to 'leave economics to the economists.' This sounds like boiler plate from the anti-Christian libertarians and free market fundamentalists. We need great caution before creating such a global agency, however the post war Breton Woods system had considerable merit.

  • Posted by: - Oct. 26, 2011 9:53 AM ET USA

    Flaky leftist theory mixed in with solid Catholic social teaching -- oops, for a minute there, Phil, I thought you were speaking of something emanating from the USCCB !

  • Posted by: gop - Oct. 25, 2011 8:57 PM ET USA

    I cannot agree more!

  • Posted by: JP810 - Oct. 25, 2011 8:32 PM ET USA

    It occurred to me that the Plight of the Church in the time of Galileo is very similar today with the plight of the Church in time of staggering World debt. Lets the Church fall into the same error in the time of Galileo, it would be wise for the Church to remember what terrible times the Church went through. Pope John Paul II formally apologized on behalf of the Church for falling into a trap of non-expertise (Science) it did not have! I fear the same thing might be slowly happening again!

  • Posted by: - Oct. 25, 2011 8:17 PM ET USA

    Bravo, Phil!

  • Posted by: - Oct. 25, 2011 4:30 PM ET USA

    An absolutely perfect statement of reality!

  • Posted by: - Oct. 25, 2011 2:42 PM ET USA

    "Flaky leftist theory" I like that. The stupidity of this proposal is quite breathtaking - the political realities you cite are bang-on. You'd think the Vatican's experience with the U.N. would educate them.