Christian Economics 101: Catholic Social Teaching in a Changing World

Editor’s note: The following primer in Catholic social teaching is based on an address by Rocco Buttiglione to a conference held at Christendom College to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of Rerum Novarum. Mr. Buttiglione is professor of political philosophy at the University of Teramo; he worked closely on the drafting of Centesimus Annus.

On Doctrine versus Teaching

Christian social doctrine is not immediately the same as Christian social teaching. The doctrine is rather a specific, scientific elaboration of the teaching. It is developed when the application of the teaching to a changing and more and more complicated reality becomes problematic. The foundations of Christian social teaching lie in the gospel of Jesus Christ and in Christian anthropology. They are rooted therefore in the very trinitarian life of God and are not subject to change.

On the other hand in the doctrine there is not only this Christian anthropology (which is at the same time a philosophical and a theological anthropology) but also a relation to a more or less clearly defined historical and social situation.

Now this situation may change in time; some aspects which were in a certain time secondary and scarcely deserved to be mentioned, may with time become principal; others, which were decisive, may become less important. Our understanding of a situation, under the impulse of the very activity of Christians engaged in worldly affairs, may grow. For these reasons the doctrine may change while the teaching in itself does not change.

On Liberty versus Communio

John Paul II has re-vindicated recently the theological nature of Christian social doctrine. This means that the core of this doctrine is the human person, with her dignity and rights, with her specific structure, as she becomes known to us through revelation, through the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus is an individual; He possesses an individual human substance. At the same time He lives for both communion with other men, and above all for communion with God. In this communio, mediated by His obedience to truth and to the Father, He accomplishes His destiny. As son of God and God Himself, Jesus continually receives His Being from the Father and exists as free gift of Himself to the Father.

Similarly, the destiny of all men, who accept regeneration through grace, is to participate in the inner life of God, through their incorporation into the Body of Christ, realized through a free act of self-giving to Christ through their brothers. All of this is of course Christian theology, and non-Christians are free not to believe it. Nevertheless they should not dismiss all of it as sheer nonsense. There is at least a part of it that makes perfectly good sense from a purely philosophical point of view. The concept of the person, originally developed in order to understand the relation of Christ to the Father and the intertrinitarian relations of the divine Persons, has also become a cornerstone of human philosophy. It seems that this concept, even if its root remains theological and its deeper meaning can be disclosed only by theology, can nevertheless be brought to evidence with the means of pure phenomenological philosophy. We may say that, philosophically considered, the person has two sides.

On the one hand, a person is an individual substance and like all individual substances aims at self-preservation. On the other hand, the person possesses a rational nature, that is, he can grasp the objective truth and the truth about the good. He is therefore called to realize his own specific good within this framework of the universal objective good and may even be free to sacrifice himself for the objective good. The person, indeed, realizes himself through the free gift of himself in truth and love.

To make a free gift of oneself one needs, first of all, the possession of oneself, that is, liberty. Only a free being can give his property, or his life, or himself. This is the reason why Christianity (all temptations of clericalism notwithstanding) is essentially a religion of freedom.

Freedom is not, however, the highest value, at least if we understand freedom exclusively as the faculty to choose between alternative options. The highest value is love or, rather, communio as the free encounter of individual liberties in love, or freedom accomplished and perfected in love.

On Private Property

Man is, however, endowed with a human body, which not only belongs to him but is himself and enters into the essential constitution of his substantial being. The body can subsist only in a relation of organic exchange with nature and the environment. This relation is mediated by human labor. We work in order to live and to be able to satisfy our needs. It belongs to the teleology of work that we should possess the product of our work or its equivalent.

Our freedom implies the possibility to satisfy through our activity our basic needs. In order to be free we need a certain measure of control over our environment. In the language of law this control over ourselves and over our environment is called “property.” Hegel once wrote that property is the external sphere of the realization of freedom, and whatever we may think of Hegel’s philosophy in general, in this definition there is much truth. If we have no money in our pocket, our freedom to fly to Rome, or even just to take the bus, must remain unrealized.

A man completely dependent upon others lives every moment out of their grace, and therefore is not free. There is of course an interior dimension of freedom, which is quite independent of the exterior conditions of human existence. Man is, however, a being joining in himself an exterior and an interior dimension. Human freedom stands therefore as a rule at the junction of interior and exterior freedom, and these two dimensions of freedom in man condition each other so that, as a rule, one of them cannot develop itself or even subsist without the other. As we have seen, the exterior dimension of freedom is property. For these reasons property has always been seen by the Christian social doctrine as a natural right of man.

On Marxism and Collectivism

The connection between personalistic philosophy, Christian religion, private property, and entrepreneurial spirit has been very clearly explained by Marx. In his Economical-Philosophical Manuscripts Marx explains that it is very difficult to erase from the consciousness of an empirical human being the idea of God, because the empirical subject always adopts as a starting point for his thought his own empirical existence. He is worried about the salvation of his soul, about the meaning of his life, about the origin of his being. He does not see things from the point of view of the Absolute in itself, or of the human essence as such.

This is the reason why religion does not seem to suffer very much under the attack of the Hegelian Left, for instance of Feuerbach. In his own existence as an individual every man finds the starting point of his search for God. My existence is particular and contingent; I do not find in myself the necessary foundation of my being; I am therefore compelled to admit of a similar ground for my existence outside of myself, and that is God. The necessity of this argument, and its evidence, derives from the fact that my particular existence is not existence in general.

Marx links this state of consciousness with a specific social and economical situation. Since he lives in a society in which he must take care of himself through his own work, applying his force to those instruments which belong to him, and since he is made responsible for the success of his work and for his own survival and that of his family, man is compelled to develop an individual consciousness. The real demonstration of the atheist thesis cannot therefore take place through theoretical argumentation. Only a drastic change in the economic structure can produce a new kind of man, who does not experience himself as individual but rather immediately as a collective universal being, because he has no property, does not exercise any individual responsibility, and his individual conscious existence has an immediately social character.

This thesis is of course directly linked to a general presupposition of Marx’s system: the dependence of consciousness upon the forms of economic organization. The thesis maintains, however, a certain value, even if we reject its systematic foundation in Marx’s thought.

Even if we refuse to agree that the forms of consciousness are dependent upon the forms of economic organization, we may still admit that the forms of economic organization can make the perception of a certain truth either easier or more difficult.

In our case it seems to be true that a collectivist system makes it more difficult for men to perceive the unicity and the special value and responsibility of their individual existence. In so far as the individual does not so clearly experience himself as “I,” he does not so clearly experience the desire for a personal salvation or for a transcendent meaning of his existence. If it were possible to produce a completely collectivized man, he would have only a collective consciousness and no existential longing for personal salvation or for God.

Our thesis of an essential connection obtaining between free initiative and private property on the one hand and personal, religious consciousness on the other, seems to be confirmed by the testimony of Marx, even if, of course, our evaluation of this matter of fact opposes his. It is not difficult to show how Marx arrives at the idea of socialism starting from the research of a practical atheism. His collectivist political economy and his atheism cannot be separated from one another so easily as some left-wing Catholics suppose, because the abolition of private property is essentially connected to the idea of the abolition of the private person, that is, of the subject of a religious feeling and of the search for God.

On Entrepreneurship

One of the distinctive features of a free-market economy is that it presupposes free men. The main instrument of this economy is the contract, and the contract is an agreement of two free wills.

This situation does not obtain when there is a too strong disproportion between the two partners of the contract, as in the case of a monopoly. In this situation there is really no free market but rather a situation of slavery, and this is the situation denounced by Christian social doctrine in Rerum Novarum. In addition to this, the monopoly capitalism of the European continent at the end of the nineteenth century was to a large extent dominated by an anti-Catholic ideology, stressing not so much human freedom but rather technology and science. What was emphasized was the technical nature of economic activity, which is therefore exempt from any ethical or theological control. As a consequence, the teaching of the Church concentrates on distribution rather than on production, and underrates the ethical meaning of work as such (production) and of the entrepreneurial activity that spurs it.

This leads to some shortcomings of traditional Christian social doctrine, which have been exaggerated by her critics, but which do nonetheless exist. They can easily be explained by the general situation of the time in which this doctrine was formulated. In an agrarian society the fundamental force of production is the natural fertility of the soil, and this had been thought the main source of the riches of nations by the physiocrats. Just for this reason, they concentrated their attention on the forms of circulation of wealth rather than on its production. The situation did not change very much with the industrial revolution. With the industrial revolution, the cause of riches was seen in the steam engine, in the machine, or in “capital,” understood as the whole of the material instruments of economic consideration. It was a matter pertaining to engineering, which applies to the productive process the knowledge of the natural sciences.

If we consider this background, it is easier for us to understand why the original formulation of Catholic social doctrine does not enter very deeply into the problem of the creation of wealth and has not very much to say, for instance, on the function of the entrepreneur. After all, this doctrine was formulated first of all in relation to European continental experience in Belgium, France, Germany, and Italy.

I do not mean that the Anglo-Saxon experience remains completely foreign to these developments. It should not be forgotten, however, that the Catholics in England were only a tiny minority. Meanwhile, in the United States their number began to grow only at the end of the nineteenth century, and a certain amount of time was needed before they could be completely integrated into American society and contribute to the formation of its ruling political, cultural, and economic elites. There is no reason to be surprised, then, if the capitalism which is mainly criticized in the first documents of Christian social doctrine is a monopoly capitalism of the European continental type.

On Consumerism and Libertinism

In affluent Western societies, it seems that a free economy goes hand in hand with the dissolution of the family and of traditional moral values and with a growing estrangement from Christian religion. This is the well-known phenomenon of “consumerism.” We must now answer the question: Is consumerism necessarily and essentially connected with a free-market economy? If the alliance between the free market and libertinism is essentially necessary, then between the free society and the Catholic Church there must be an opposition in principle. On the other hand, if it can be shown that this alliance is due to particular circumstances and that it can be broken, then it is possible to substitute for the old connection of libertinism and free market a new connection of the free market and solidarity.

In considering this problem we must start from a turn in Western political culture in the 1960s. In this period the struggle against communism began not so much from the point of view of a Christian civilization but rather from that of a more coherent materialism. The capitalist system is more successful in satisfying material human needs and desires, it was said, and in this and exclusively in this consists its superiority to Marxism. This economic success makes moral virtues superfluous; society is not based anymore on a certain set of virtues but rather on the good functioning of the economic machinery and on the fact that individuals are satisfied in their private sphere, well-fed and well-clothed. The only public values generally acknowledged are vital values, the right to the satisfaction of instinctive drives and impulses. So capitalism is deemed to be superior to Marxism within materialism, because it is economically more effective. The idea of the person, in this context, becomes superfluous.

This new trend is closely linked to the myth of automation. The free-market society, as it is described for instance by Tocqueville, is a society of workers and producers. Their ethics is an ethics of work and production. Now it seems that new technical advances will make the old virtues of work and production superfluous. The automated machines—so it is supposed—will take up all work and leave to humans the task of consuming the goods so produced.

We have here the transition from a society of producers and of workers to a society of consumers. This has tremendous ideological and sociological consequences. A society of workers and producers stresses the virtues of self-control and self-discipline that are acquired within a family. A society of consumers does not need these virtues. As Herbert Marcuse put it, the new society can get along with a weaker ego and allow more scope for instinctive satisfaction and irresponsibility. The result comes very close to what Marx wanted: the abolition of the Christian subject and his replacement by a new mass-individual, whose drives and instincts, whose longing and desires are no more unified by a conscious responsible center in the person.

In the ’60s the social analysts dreamed of an organized capitalism with a limited number of extremely large corporations that would have almost no internal competition, be faced with the problem of underproduction, and thus be ready to finance an expanding state expenditure in order to support the demand for their own goods and to avoid social tensions. In this context, a utopia could arise of a society without work or with a limited role for human work.

This same mentality, to some degree, can be found in today’s so-called yuppies, or young urban professionals. Here an extremely competitive standpoint is combined with moral permissiveness. Self-discipline in one dimension of life is the condition for self-indulgence in the other. This implies an attitude which is conservative in economic matters and permissive in the educational and cultural field. But it seems that this mentality does not work. As a rule, one cannot stand the stress of struggle for life without the support of a family and of a well-established set of morals. The ethic of the free society is not marked only by competition. Cooperation is an equally

important part of it. Cooperation requires rules that bring to a coincidence the interests of the individual and of the larger human group to which he belongs. Without cooperation and rules it becomes difficult to make a distinction between competition and criminal behavior.

On the Japanese Example

Even those businessmen who like to act as uncompromising supporters of a business ethic that excludes any state intervention in the economy often ask for state support or restraints on competition in the face of fast-growing Japanese exports. The opinion is widely accepted that competition with the Japanese is impossible today and will also be impossible tomorrow without structural changes in our economies and in our societies. Why?

Japanese competition—says U. Agnelli—is not a competition of individuals or of corporations. It is a competition of systems. I would add: it is a cultural competition.

Japan has fostered a workers’ and producers’ mentality rather than a consumers’ mentality. This does not mean of course that there has not been a tremendous increase in consumption. But the fundamental truth has never been forgotten that in order to consume one has to work. This is already a fundamental comparative advantage against societies where the consumer mentality has prevailed. The educational system educates men and women who will be responsible for themselves and who will work.

The second comparative advantage is that these citizens are not atomized individualists. They can cooperate with one another. They have families. They do not want to become rich tomorrow in order to indulge in a life of pleasures. Rather, they want to construct on a solid basis the future of their families and of their society. They know that if their individual success ruins their society, in the long run they will pay the price for it together with the others.

Extremely hard competition, then, does not contradict cooperation for a common interest. In Europe (and to a lesser degree also in the United States) a large part of the energy and creativity of the people has not been invested in the productive process, but rather in an attempt to overthrow it, or at least to defend against it the rights and the living conditions of the exploited masses. The entrepreneurial class did not succeed in winning the heartfelt cooperation of the workers—or even did not want this cooperation—and organized work in the factories on the principle of control from above, rather than on cooperation and shared responsibility. The right balance between competition and cooperation was not found. The result is a tremendous competitive disadvantage in relation to Japan, where the workers’ organizations wanted to second and not to oppose the integration of the worker in the productive process.

I do not suggest that we should imitate Japan, and I do not consider Japan a perfect model. I do not underrate the present difficulties of the Japanese model, its flaws, the fact that it is not a fixed model but a work in progress whose evolution is not easy to foresee. I only want to attract attention to the fact that many presuppositions of the consumer society are shaken, that Japanese competition (and that of the third world countries entering in the world market) will shake them even more in the future, that we need an ethic of work, connected with an ethic of the free person. The ethic of work and the alliance of competition and solidarity are the factors that propelled the development of the United States and later on of all Western economics, and propitiated an alliance of religion and freedom.

On Centesimus Annus

I have tried to propose some elements of criticism of the conventional thesis that sees a natural alliance between libertinism and the free-market economy. I did this by offering an hypothesis on the historical genesis of this connection. I suggested that another alliance is possible, that of free market and solidarity. Just this alliance stands at the center of the pope’s new encyclical Centesimus Annus. In giving due attention to production and to the human virtues implied in productive action, this encyclical fills the gap between Christian social doctrine and modern economics. By pointing out the possibility of a new alliance between the free-market economy and solidarity, the same encyclical tries to influence future developments. This alliance is a possibility, not a necessity. It is possible to refuse it in the name of the “animal spirits” of capitalism, which do not accept limitation by any ethical, religious, or legal system. Those who refuse this alliance, however, forget that the free-market economy is not an omnipotent and self-sufficient natural force. It is an institution of the free society and can grow only in connection with a balanced growth also of the other institutions, which give to the free market the indispensable anthropological, political, and cultural preconditions. The economic sphere by itself cannot create these preconditions. Economics develop human rationality in our fundamental sphere of human life, in relation to one fundamental but particular good. The science concerned with the good of man as such is not economics but ethics. Without negating the legitimate autonomy of economical considerations, the last decision governing the whole system must be ethico-political. Not by chance according to Aristotle (but also according to Adam Smith), economics is a science subordinated to ethics.


  • Rocco Buttiglione

    Rocco Buttiglione (born 1948) is an Italian Union of Christian and Centre Democrats politician and an academic.

tagged as:

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on
Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...