Documentation: Catholic Social Teaching and the Economy


January 1, 1985

My brief and very general remarks are directed to the problem of the relationship between Christianity and the social order, particularly as it bears on matters of economic policy. The importance of this problem, to which no thoughtful Christian can be indifferent, has recently been brought to our attention by the bishops’ decision to issue a pastoral letter dealing with the American economy from a Roman Catholic perspective. That decision and the round of discussions initiated for the purpose of implementing it have again stirred the hopes and fears of a substantial segment of the Catholic community, not to mention others outside of it. The hopes correspond to a desire, shared by all decent human beings, to see justice promoted in our society. The fears have to do with the eventual content of the letter, which some think could be unduly politicizing. Both the hopes and the fears are probably exaggerated. Although it is hard to measure the impact of such documents, recent experience has shown that their persuasiveness tends to diminish in proportion as the bishops are perceived to be talking about subjects that do not fall within their jurisdiction or their acknowledged sphere of competence. Even the National Catholic Reporter admitted in bold type (July 20, 1984, p. 16) that the pastoral on nuclear deterrence, which has been out for barely more than a year, had already “sunk into divine oblivion.” The editors meant “benign” oblivion, or so one gathers from the rest of the article. I leave it to others to judge whether the slip was more divine than benign.

Few people would challenge the bishops’ right to intervene in the current debate in so far as it involves general moral principles which, in their capacity as the official teachers of the Church, they have the duty to expound and bring to bear on contemporary issues. The crucial question concerns the level at which their intervention could most appropriately and most fruitfully take place. How they themselves propose to deal with that thorny question is still anybody’s guess. Strangely enough, the chairman of their ad hoc committee has gone out of his way to indicate that the first draft of the projected statement would not be released until after the November election, lest it should appear to have a direct bearing on it. While one can be grateful for the promise and trust that it will be kept, one is almost forced to interpret it as a tacit admission that the bishops are not averse to taking sides on matters of personal political judgment or preference. As for the claim that in so doing they are merely exercising a right guaranteed to everyone under the Constitution, it is not likely to enhance their stature in the eyes of their readers, for it conveys the vague but lingering impression that they intend to speak as private citizens rather than as bishops. There are better uses to which the prestige of their office can be put.

This said, one can sympathize with their plight, which, when it comes to problems of this sort, is not and has never been an enviable one. The difficulty lies in part with the enormous and ever growing complexity of modern society, but its real roots are to be found in the nature of Christianity itself, which is not first and foremost a political religion. Anyone who reads the New Testament Scriptures carefully from this point of view cannot help being struck by their all but total indifference to questions of a properly political nature. Unlike the Hebrew Scriptures, they do not call for or encourage the formation of a particular political community or lay down a set of laws by which such a community might be governed. Nowhere in them do we find any proposals concerning the structures of civil society, public legislation, the administration of justice, or the production, management and distribution of material goods. Their ruling principle is not justice as ordinarily understood, that is to say, general or legal justice, but love: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:22). Granted, love is a powerful human motive, and there is no reason to think that it cannot inform all of our actions, political or otherwise; but it does not specify the content of those actions save in the most general way and hence fits into the category of what used to be called “common” as distinguished from “proper” principles (see, for ex ample, Thomas Aquinas, I-II, 94.4.) It is significant that the situations envisaged in the Gospel are typically one-on-one situations from which there are few definite conclusions to be drawn regarding the behavior that is in order when the security and welfare of the larger community are at stake. “Love your enemy,” “Be merciful,” “Turn the other cheek,” and the like may be valid maxims for the person who prefers forgiveness to punishment, prizes mercy more than justice. and has only himself to think about, but they are less readily applicable to multilateral situations involving third parties for whom one is responsible and whom one also has the duty to love. To put it bluntly, the God of the New Testament is not a very political animal or, for that matter, a very good economist.

The other side of the story, and it is no less important than the first, is that, in marked contrast to the Gnostic sects of late antiquity, the New Testament does not preach withdrawal from society or demand that its followers turn their backs on it. It simply assumes that Christians will continue to organize their temporal existence in accordance with the requirements of the one to which they happen to belong. Yet it does not dwell on the practical implications of their involvement in the social life or make any effort to explain how, concretely, the lofty moral ideal of the Sermon on the Mount can be reconciled with the duties of citizenship in a society that is always less than perfectly just. Its teaching in that respect, if it can be said to have any, is at best ambivalent. Christians are told to obey their rulers (Romans 13:1), and at the same time they are reminded that they are to obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29). That the New Testament writers should not have been overly preoccupied with this dilemma comes as no surprise since all or most of them were convinced that the end of the world was near. In the interim, Christians, who were still only a handful anyway, had more urgent things to worry, about than the reform of the Roman Empire or the rooting out of its “systemic injustices.” To quote St. Paul once again, “The appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none… and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it” (I Cor. 7:29-31). So much in a nutshell for the political and social program of the New Testament, along with all of the stories that are currently being peddled about it. That program, if I may say so, is not unlike Sherlock Holmes’ barking dog, the most remarkable thing about which was that it did not bark.

Later generations of Christians, who had to face the fact that the world was not about to end and who belonged to a religious community that had since grown to sizable proportions, were therefore compelled to look elsewhere for the practical guidance that the New Testament neglected to provide. They tried the Old Testament for a while and, when that failed, they turned to classical philosophy. The solution that they came up with was later systematized by the great theologians of the Middle Ages and forms the basis of what is now referred to as the “social teaching” of the Church, a teaching which in its present shape dates back to the last part of the nineteenth century.

Adapting that teaching to the contingencies of our time has proved to be an uncommonly difficult task, however, for the simple reason that modern liberal society is founded on principles that are neither specifically religious nor particularly moral. To be sure, the leading theorists and advocates of modern liberalism were not necessarily hostile to religion and morality; but, having concluded that the unity of society had little chance of being restored on the basis of either one, they looked for a scheme that could function successfully even without them. The solution was to restructure the whole of society in such a way as to render its well-being less dependent on the moral character of its members. Once the right social structures were in place, people would best be able to serve their fellow human beings by pursuing their own selfish interests. Any detriment resulting from the depreciation of virtue would be amply compensated for by the untold blessings conferred upon us by what Hamilton called the spirit of unbridled commercial enterprise (cf. Federalist Papers, No. 7). The greatest benefactors of humanity, the true heroes of the coming age, were not the dedicated parish priest or the saintly Christian toiling selflessly for the good of others, but the new captains of commerce and industry who, by enriching themselves, would enrich everyone else as well. Subsequent efforts to temper the heartlessness of the new society by introducing an element of compassion into it—more, I suspect, under the influence of Hume and Rousseau, the true originators of the “politics of compassion,” than under that of the Gospel—have only partially succeeded in removing the inequities to which in time it gave rise. Not only for the sake of justice but in the interest of a more noble or dignified democracy, something more needs to be done.

These, I take it, are the concerns that motivate the bishops and they are concerns that we can all appreciate. There are nevertheless limits to how far one can go in determining the proper Christian response to any given social or economic problem. I. for one, do not know for example whether in the long run the nation would be better off if the combined employer-employee Social Security tax bite were raised beyond the 14.1% level scheduled to be reached on January 1 in order to meet the needs of the elderly. Nor do I know whether the top 40% of our taxpayers should be made to contribute more than the present seven out of every eight dollars collected by the IRS. And I know even less how much of the nation’s disposable capital ought to be reinvested rather than spent for the purpose of generating the funds needed to maintain and improve our welfare programs. These are the types of issues that divide political parties and they are issues over which well informed and well intentioned elected officials and citizens are bound to disagree.

This is not to say that some solutions are not better than others, but only that, when the bulk of the Christian tradition is not clearly on one side, one should think twice before affixing the seal of divine approval on any of them. As I intimated earlier, the New Testament has no definite social or economic agenda of its own. Even though it warns against injustice and evinces a special concern for the poor, its overwhelming emphasis is on spiritual rather than material poverty. Never to my knowledge does it venture to propose that the lower classes be elevated at the expense of the wealthier ones. If the poor are really closer to God, I suppose one should be wary of robbing them of their poverty. Moreover, even when it does speak about the sociologically poor, it is less from their point of view than from the point of view of those who are called upon to help them. The New Testament, it seems, is more interested in the internal dispositions of the doer (or non-doer) of the just or merciful deed than in the social condition of its recipient. The Good Samaritan is the one who is indebted to the man who had fallen among thieves for the privilege of serving him, and not vice versa. In the words of an ancient Christian writer, who was merely echoing what others before him had said, “What kind of people are we if, having received everything from God, we refuse to give anything to others?” (Caesarius of Arles, Sermo 25, 1). Succinctly stated, one does not bear witness to the love of God by closing one’s heart to the victims of misfortune or the worthy poor. The remark merits pondering, inasmuch as it calls attention to the proper theological ground of the Christian position on the sharing of earthly goods. This ground, needless to say, is very different from that of the pagan philosophers, for whom the most noble deeds were prompted by nothing more than a desire to please one’s better self.

By way of a footnote, I might add that, perhaps because of the inherent apoliticism inherited from its origins, the Christian tradition has frequently been inclined to take a dimmer view of the accumulation of wealth than other religious traditions. The long fight against the sole use of money to produce more money—”usury,” as it was termed—bears ample testimony to that fact, although the rationale for the opposition seems to have come more from Aristotle than from the Bible. The famous and seemingly endless late-medieval debate on the subject of wealth and poverty is another case in point. It is interesting to note, however, that in this instance the attacks on wealth were mostly directed against a tithe-exacting Church that cost the villagers a lot of money but did not take care of their souls in return.

Once again, one cannot fault the bishops for wishing to reformulate the social doctrine of the Church in terms that reflect the economic realities of the hour, as long as they do not confuse that doctrine with the private opinions of the carefully selected periti on whose advice they apparently plan to rely. In this connection, the distinction between principle and policy, convenient as it may be as a rule of thumb, has a tendency to break down beyond a certain point and ceases to be operative in areas where one shades into the other. What one has finally to decide is whether the principle and the policy in question are so closely intertwined as to be inseparable from each other, or whether their relationship is such as to leave room for a variety of opinions among which one remains free to choose. If the Church were never allowed to pronounce itself on matters of immediate practical concern, it would be severely restricted in its ability to denounce some of the most flagrant violations of justice and right. Some refinement of that otherwise useful distinction would thus appear to be in order. The problem is not exactly new. It is already implicit in Thomas Aquinas, who shrewdly refrained from drawing too sharp a line of demarcation between the natural law and its derivative, the human law—a wise judgment for which he has often been unfairly criticized.

This still leaves us with the question of the criterion on the basis of which one distinguishes between a general principle and a more or less contingent policy. Here I would simply caution against an excessive reliance on the newfangled and highly ambiguous notion of social justice, that typical nineteenth-century hybrid out of which nobody has yet been able to make such sense. We should all have been spared a good deal of muddleheadedness if Taparelli, who coined the expression in the 1840s, had bothered to tell us what he meant by it. As one well known journalist recently mentioned in conversation, “We cannot talk about social justice any more, it just does not ring a bell.” My hunch is that the time has come to lay the ghost of this ill-fated avatar permanently to rest. Recent popes, beginning with Pius XI in Quadragesimo Anno, have of course used it, but only sparingly and without giving it anything like the prominence that it has lately acquired in the minds of our zealous and increasingly vocal social reformers.

The fact remains that general moral principles, if they are to become effective, must be translated into practical programs for the benefit of those who are required to act on them. Such programs are formerly thought to be the particular province of experienced, well educated, and dedicated lay persons, who, by reason of their status, are in a position to take a reasonable stand on controversial issues without directly engaging the authority of the Church. This, unless I am mistaken, is precisely the task that the newly formed Lay Commission on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy has undertaken to perform, to the obvious if somewhat muted displeasure of some of our bishops. As I see it, there are two ways in which it can proceed. It may wish to counter the anticipated “liberalism” of the bishops by making a strong case for a more moderate position—a case based among other things on a comparison between the undeniable merits of liberal democracy and the now well publicized failures of modern socialism; or else it can do what the bishops perhaps ought to be doing but as yet have given no evidence of wanting to do, namely, stress the need for virtue and the importance of moral character as the true foundations not only of liberal democracy but of any legitimate regime. Liberal democracy may be strictly utilitarian in its deepest roots, but it does not follow that the people who live under it fully endorse its materialistic orientation. The more plausible supposition is that, like most human beings, they prefer to harmonize heaven and earth and are usually happier when, to borrow a phrase from Tocqueville, they can combine material well-being with moral delights. By building on the element of idealism that lies just beneath the surface of American life, one might eventually be able to do more for the poor as well as the rich of our country than by issuing a series of impassioned pleas and counter-pleas for either the maintenance or the transformation of the status quo.


  • Ernest Fortin

    Ernest L. Fortin, A.A. (1923 - 2002) was a professor of theology at Boston College. While engaged in graduate studies in France, he met Allan Bloom, who introduced him to the work of Leo Strauss. Father Fortin worked at the intersection of Athens and Jerusalem.

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