In my previous post
, I examined the introduction to Oeconomicae et pecuniariae quaestiones
, the new Vatican document on “economic and financial issues.” Now I will examine part one, entitled “Fundamental Considerations.” It is a complete rejection of libertarianism (laissez-faire economics) in favor of what I would call “person-centered” economics. This document does not
contain any detailed policy proposals (7). Figuring those out is our job
, not the Vatican’s. Instead, the document expounds key principles that should form the basis of actions. I identify six principles: human dignity, relational anthropology (“communion”), the common good, the universal destination of goods, solidarity & subsidiarity, and proximate immorality.
1) Human dignity
This is the most basic concept. Over and over again, the document insists that the dignity of every human person be respected by all financial actors and institutions. If the dignity of persons is violated, that is morally wrong, no matter how much money the violation earns. …
It is intrinsically evil to instrumentalize another person: we are subjects, not objects
. The only moral attitude to have toward another human being is to love them, never to use
Money is supposed to be a means to the end of human flourishing. Instead, the “great masses” of human beings have become a means to the end of the luxury and power of a few.
2) Relational anthropology (“communion”)
Liberalism is based on the recognition of the value of the human person and will therefore have no trouble in accepting the first principle. But the Catholic Church binds to this principle a second one, equally indispensable and inseparable: human beings are inherently relational
. That is, we do not and cannot live as isolated individuals, but always in communion with others. …
The whole concept of libertarianism, namely that everyone is an autonomous individual whose freedom from coercion should be maximized, is antithetical to Christianity, which is centered on the concept of “communion” (see, e.g., Acts 2:42-47; Gal 2:7-10; Heb 13:16; 1 John 1:3). …
3) The common good
It follows from human relationality that economic actors and institutions that harm the common good are ipso facto
immoral. It is not enough simply to respect the intrinsic worth of individual persons; one must also contribute to the common good. The two principles go hand-in-hand, and constitute the fundamental “bottom-line” of morality in the economic sphere.
4) The universal destination of goods
The universal destination of goods is a long-standing element in CST. …
The libertarian valuation of “private property” is directly antithetical to this Catholic doctrine. If anyone wants to learn more about this concept, I recommend you purchase the collection of sermons by St. Basil the Great called “On Social Justice
.” He is a Father and Doctor of the Church, and this paragraph cites one of his sermons translated in this volume.
5) The integral role of governments (solidarity and subsidiarity)
According to libertarianism, the government’s job is to secure the life, freedom, and private property of individuals. This means that governments serve only the wealthy, since the poor have neither property nor the economic means to be free. The Catholic Church, in contrast, sees the common good as the collaborative goal of every sector of society
. That includes individuals, businesses, NGO’s, religious communities, and all levels of government.
Of all the principles I have outlined so far, this may be the one most widely and routinely denied
by many Americans, including Catholics who either do not know better or reject CST. (Just yesterday I saw a Tweet decrying “outsourcing” charity to the government.) Over and over again, one hears someone saying that helping the poor is the job of individuals and churches, not the government. This is true according to libertarian doctrine
, but it is false according to Catholic doctrine
Two extremes are avoided here: libertarianism, which denies the principle of “solidarity” (the common good) and communism, which denies the principle of “subsidiarity” (all levels working together instead of a top-down, big government solution). This is the essence of CST, and why it is sometimes called a “third way” between libertarianism (or individualism) and communism (or “collectivism”).
6) Proximate immorality
The final principle is a direct counter to the standard apologetic response that wealthy capitalists use to justify their exploitation of their workers, the poor, and the planet. The profiteers claim they are doing nothing wrong because the acts in which they engage (e.g., lending money at interest, paying someone for their labor, merging two corporations), considered individually as if in a vacuum are not “intrinsically evil.” If each individual action is per se
legitimate (at least in theory), then the entire financial system built on the repetition of those acts trillions of times must also be morally right. Right? Wrong
The principles outlined in this document are bedrocks of CST, which rejects libertarianism. As I stated in my previous post, I expect some libertarian Catholics to try to discredit this document by claiming that Pope Francis is a heretic or whatever. Others will simply ignore it, just as they ignored Benedict XVI and John Paul II when they said the exact same things. Lastly, a few will engage in complex apologetics (which could earn them a gold medal in mental gymnastics) that try to spin the document into saying something other than what it actually says. This is mostly accomplished by the sleight of hand they call “prudential judgment,” where they affirm the principles with their lips and then propose standard free-market, anti-government, anti-poor policies that undermine those principles.
It’s a shame that the document is written in complex Vaticanese (with several typos to boot). I had to carefully re-read quite a few sentences, and I have a Ph.D. in theology! We need more Catholic clergy and teachers, especially here in America, to explain these principles in ways ordinary Catholics can understand. That’s what I’ve tried to do here. Many libertarian bromides circulate in Catholic parishes with nary a word of contradiction. At times, they are even presented as though they were Catholic teachings (for example, that it’s the church’s, not the government’s, job to help the poor)! This situation must change, and Pope Francis can’t do it single-handed.