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Catholic Economics, Part 6: How Much We’ve Lost

Marcin Mazur/UK Catholic

Daniel Schwindt - published on 05/07/14 - updated on 06/08/17

Letting our Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI have the last word.

This is the final part of a six part series on economics and Catholic social teaching.​ (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5)

In the earlier parts of this series we’ve tried to get at Catholic Social Teaching using broad strokes: First, we examined the distorted lens through which we tend to view economic history. Next, we tried to overcome that historical prejudice by taking a look at the economic arrangements of the Middle Ages. Then we moved through several foundational concepts like rights, property, and the lost distinction between justice and charity.

In this final piece, we’ll proceed through a few reflections from the 2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate. This will allow us to mention a variety of principles with brevity, even though they each deserve a study all their own. Also, because Caritas in Veritate is the most recent addition to that body of Catholic Social Teaching, it represents a timely and comprehensive synthesis. Emphasis in all quotes is original. And so, in numbered fashion…

1) There is such a thing as the “common good,” and it is not okay to ignore it:

Besides the good of the individual, there is a good that is linked to living in society: the common good. It is the good of “all of us”, made up of individuals, families and intermediate groups who together constitute society…To desire the
common good and strive towards it 
is a requirement of justice and charity…The more we strive to secure a common good corresponding to the real needs of our neighbours, the more effectively we love them. Every Christian is called to practise this charity, in a manner corresponding to his vocation and according to the degree of influence he wields in the
pólis. (p. 7)

2) Vast inequality is bad, not just for the poor, not just for the aforementioned common good, but even for the economy itself. It is bad for everyone:

Through the systemic increase of social inequality, both within a single country and between the populations of different countries (i.e. the massive increase in relative poverty), not only does social cohesion suffer, thereby placing democracy at risk, but so too does the economy, through the progressive erosion of ‘social capital’: the network of relationships of trust, dependability, and respect for rules, all of which are indispensable for any form of civil coexistence. (p. 32)

3) Usury is still a thing. We might be wise to have more conversations about what this means for us. Also, there is a connection here with the so-called “preferential option for the poor”:

…financial difficulties can become severe for many of the more vulnerable sectors of the population, who should be protected from the risk of usury and from despair. The weakest members of society should be helped to defend themselves against usury, just as poor peoples should be helped to derive real benefit from micro-credit, in order to discourage the exploitation that is possible in these two areas. (p. 65)

4) The notion that “the threat of unemployment is necessary because it motivates men to work who would otherwise remain unproductive” is a piece of stultifying propaganda. Don’t get played:

Economic science tells us that structural insecurity generates anti-productive attitudes wasteful of human resources, inasmuch as workers tend to adapt passively to automatic mechanisms, rather than to release creativity. On this point too, there is a convergence between economic science and moral evaluation.
Human costs always include economic costs, and economic dysfunctions always involve human costs. (p. 32)

5) There is no invisible hand. In order to guide its progress, ensuring that its goals remain healthy and its means appropriate, political authority plays a necessary role in the economy:

Economic activity cannot solve all social problems through the simple application of
commercial logic. This needs to be 
directed towards the pursuit of the common good, for which the political community in particular must also take responsibility. Therefore, it must be borne in mind that grave imbalances are produced when economic action, conceived merely as an engine for wealth creation, is detached from political action, conceived as a means for pursuing justice through redistribution. (p. 36)

6) On that note, it is also important to re-emphasize that purposeful “redistribution” is a valid pursuit, although, just like any other valid pursuit, it can be pursued improperly. See also paragraphs 36, 37, 39, 42, and 49.

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