The Monk & the Market

Not so long ago, I was sharply criticized by a priest during a public debate. “Isn’t it paradoxical,” he said, “that a member of a begging order promotes free enterprise in his writing and speech? What is more, that he is a confrere of Saint Thomas of Aquinas, who was so critical with regard to economics?” I tried to refute the first charge with the help of logic: “Before I start to beg, I must do my best to win over the person, whom I may then ask for alms.” I tried to refute the other charge with the help of history: “Another saint, Saint Anthony of Florence, whom Schumpeter called ‘presumably the first man who formulated a holistic vision of an economic process in all its aspects,’ was a member of my order. Moreover, the famous school in Salamanca founded by a Dominican, Francesco de Vittoria, where my confreres played an important part, acquired its fame not only by constructing a theory of human rights, but also by having come out with a subjectivist theory of the value of currency, the external entitlement to interest, and the principles of credit.”

It is clear, though, that the problem posed by my questioner is serious. Why does a priest need to pry into economic matters? Such prying is approved neither by liberal economists and entrepreneurs, nor by the Church community. For the former, it violates the autonomy of the free market and tends to a naïve sentimentality, or else a supposedly totalitarian interference with somebody else’s business.

To many fervent members of the Church, being involved in economic matters is a deviation from the proper course, the preaching of the Gospel, or a waste of priests’ energy for the secularization of Christianity. Since each of these charges is supported by serious arguments, and both the dangers of clericalizing the economy and of selling Christianity off are equally threatening, I would like to give some thought to the issue of why, as a Dominican who works in the Poland of the 199os, I write and talk a lot about economic matters.


A Distorted Understanding of Economic Reality Increases Poverty and Social Frustration

This statement, trivial in its obviousness, is of enormous social importance. Within a democratic system and a free-market economy there can never be a community able to make full use of the capabilities of all its members. However, it is extremely important how big a part of the population will feel put outside the pale of society and rejected by the system. If a large part of society feels outside the pale, it poses a threat to democratic harmony. By contrast, in the free market — an institution more stable than democracy — such a phenomenon means, first, an increase in the range of poverty.

Poverty and related unemployment are only to some extent the reflection of the economic conditions. They result also from misunderstanding the mechanisms of the free market or from assuming them to be inhuman, “cold,” or even dehumanizing powers, within which a human being cannot realize himself without the loss of his identity. Thus, first of all, the inability to operate, or the rejection of operating, in the free market should not lead to the social marginalization of man. The Church should always remind the rest of society about this fundamental truth through the preaching of the Gospel and its living testimony.

The free market is the institution that is the fastest and the most effective generator of goods (according to statistical data, within the last 2oo years the population of Europe increased four-fold, while workers’ salaries rose about 15 times, with the work time shrunk by half). Thus, showing people the possibility of growing rich in an honest way is strongly connected with the charity work of the Church. I would call it a pre-charity activity. Saint Augustine reasoned in his Commentary on the Letter of Saint John: “We should not wish that the poor and the unhappy exist for us to perform acts of charity. You give bread to the poor, but it would be better that nobody hungered for it and that no one was needed to give it. You dress the naked. May everyone be dressed and may there be no such need!” Poverty always provokes social ills. The increase of poverty always means an increase of alcoholism, drug addiction, abortions, and crime.

If the above statements are generally true, the situation in the post-communist countries is, without a doubt, much more serious. In a couple of years it will become dramatic. The widespread misunderstanding of the logic of economic, political, and cultural changes, the fear of an unpredictable and dangerous future, as well as nostalgia for the stability of the past will constitute a huge social pressure which may make the process of change in Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia extremely difficult and slow. As for the remaining countries of the region, such misunderstandings, fears, or nostalgia may pose the threat of a renewed nationalist socialism.

In popular belief there exists a deeply rooted conviction that the basic means for solving economic problems is the intervention of the state (such a belief is not completely groundless if, as minister Jan Maria Rokita says, 88 percent of the national budget income is distributed by the government). This is strongly connected with the opinion that the remedy for poverty is a strongly progressive system of taxes, together with the control of the economy in a tight network of laws, which make any abuse impossible. Add to this public ignorance of such mechanisms of the market as the laws of accumulation and credit, or public fear of capital investment, and you have a horrifying picture of a country that may become stuck in the corset of post-socialist pre-capitalism. Clearly these sorts of problems, which should be the subject of education on the scale of the whole society, should first of all be of interest to the state, which is the owner of a significant majority of the mass media and of almost the whole system of education. Next, they should concern local governments and certain foundations.

I should add that, as a priest, I cannot be indifferent to the political and economic system in which the people to whom I come to preach the Gospel will live. And post-socialist pre-capitalism means a system in which people’s talents and abilities are to a large degree wasted. The system squanders honest work and evokes a wave of emigration, especially of the most gifted individuals. It also means a system of widespread corruption, bribery, populist hatred, and aggression, and brings about the likely introduction of an autocratic regime. None of these things is unimportant from the moral point of view.


The Absence of Moral Reflection in the Economic Life

A few decades of irrational and amoral “socialist economics” have resulted in a lack of moral evaluation of economics in terms of human cost. Throughout these decades a “semi-moral” behavior was characteristic of the lives of millions of people. Naturally, this caused the escalation of essentially immoral attitudes, such as common theft, called an “extra salary,” “damages,” or “a dispensation of justice.” In Czechoslovakia — which was believed to be the next country after the German Democratic Republic in which all the middle-class virtues were most deeply rooted — according to the Czechoslovakian Chief Board of Supervision about 40 percent of salesmen cheated their clients in the mid-1970s. Ten years later, this number had increased to 55 percent. The numbers in Poland were comparable, to say nothing of the USSR, where probably they were higher.

The lack of respect for property is particularly acute in the domain of intellectual property. It could not be otherwise, for I can remember that in the ’70s, when I was a young physicist, I might spend my whole salary on an American handbook of quantum mechanics, or I might buy an “official” but copyright-violating version printed in the USSR. Since this was, supposedly, a promotion of Russian culture, the price of the copy amounted to half the price of a cinema ticket. It is hard to expect that the problem of paying taxes should be easily found within the sphere of moral evaluation, for, until recently, it was very difficult to identify with the state, which was run by “them.” Indeed, the taxes of the majority of citizens of the Polish People’s Republic were paid by the state itself. It may also be added that various systems of irreclaimable loans, coupons, and interest-free credits to be paid back by social funds effectively undermined the notion of reliable credit-taking and credit-repaying.

Today, when we live in a free state of participatory democracy, this decay of public morality is a grave disease which undermines the health of the society. The Church cannot remain indifferent.


Capitalism at the Cost of Secularization?

Numerous authors, from Berger to Dawson, from Tawney to Kolakowski, and from Guardini to Arendt, have paid attention to the links between the evolution of capitalism and the weakening of religion. Countless hypotheses have been constructed and a multitude of analyses and comparisons concerning that matter have been made. The essence of this process may be summarized as making economics autonomous and religion private. The free market excuses itself on grounds of efficiency. It has its own laws and criteria, to which religion is redundant. The forms of behavior inspired by religion cannot facilitate anything in economics, while they may make matters worse. Such a view is now deemed axiomatic. The view is shared by both theorists and practitioners, by atheists and believers. Another conviction is that religion is a private affair.

It is hard to deny the reason in such views: it did sometimes happen that theological theories either formulated the rules of management, or they provided a moralizing critique of economics, without the knowledge of such rules. Undoubtedly, religion is first of all a personal encounter with God; undoubtedly, too, the clericalization of social life may pose a threat to individual freedom. While we understand this anxiety, we have to state clearly, as Cardinal Ratzinger did, that “the Church is not going to impose anything like a new respublica Christiana. It would be absurd to return to the past and to a system of politicized Christianity.”

At the same time, to leave the whole sphere of social life — in which economics plays such an important part — outside the scope of Christian reflection and the fulfillment of Christian vocation would mean the erosion and, consequently, the decay of faith. To deem religion only a private matter means, in fact, its destruction. As Romano Guardini noted,

there is a growing demand that different aspects of life, such as politics, economics, sociology, science and art, philosophy and education develop and are derived from their own internal norms. Thus arises a way of life which is non-Christian and frequently anti-Christian … while, when the Church demands that life be guided by the truths of Revelation, it is considered to exceed its competences…. Just as we cultivate purely scientific science and purely economic economics, religion, too, is to be purely religious. Thus, religion is less and less connected with actual life.

To avoid an erroneous interpretation of this quotation, it should be stressed that Guardini does not mean to negate either the inner laws or the specific autonomy of science, politics, art, or economics. What he opposes is the principle that a Christian, operating in the world of politics, science, and economics, should put his Christianity aside, for secularization is not a process of closing down empty churches or unnecessary seminaries. Nor does it begin with the diminishing of the number of practicing believers. Secularization begins the moment religion loses touch with actual, real human life, when in the lives of individuals and societies there disappear the patterns of behavior inspired by faith; and, even more precisely, when the religious description of reality which evokes such patterns of behavior is no longer adequate.

It is true that the truths of Revelation when brought to bear upon public affairs may result in conflict with people who do not identify themselves with Christianity (let us call them the “liberal party”). Yet, such a conflict is unavoidable only between the religious and the liberal fundamentalists. Apart from the fundamentalists’ standpoint, there exists the possibility of a fruitful, though admittedly difficult dialogue. I believe that this dialogue lies not only within the scope of interest of the Church. It is needed by both sides.

From the perspective of the Church, it should be noted that the Church’s basic mission of evangelization is connected with the working out of a realistic Christian view of economics, as well as of politics, mass-media, and education. However, it should be kept in mind that what is meant here is a realistic Christian approach to modern economics, which adequately describes specific human experience and is not an attempt to create a Christian economics. For if the Church does not adopt such an attitude, it will mean that a huge sphere of human activity will be acknowledged as non-Christian, implying that a Christian can fulfill his vocation through prayer, family life, or charity work, but not through running a business, administering services, or performing any other activity in the free market.

A danger of another kind is possible (and there are, in fact, many advocates of such a viewpoint), namely, the free market may be recognized as an anti-Christian institution, an institution based on egoism and the lust for profit, which will destroy the common welfare and interpersonal solidarity. In such circumstances, if an orthodox Catholic enters the sphere of free-market economics, which to some extent involves every man, he will continually experience an inner conflict. Thus, if the Church does not offer its worshippers an “alternative” vision of economics, this will mean a consent to rapid and widespread secularization. This is why the question whether and how a Christian who operates in the free market may fulfill his vocation is such an important one.


A Beautiful Stranger

For the centennial of Rerum novarum I wrote a text entitled “A beautiful stranger.” I made Catholic social education the heroine. Over two years later, I may define this “beautiful stranger” in a more specific way: she is the encyclical Centesimus annus, a document that is underappreciated by the Polish Church. As a matter of fact, the question of “the Christian in the free market” already has been powerfully formulated by John Paul II. This was done within the context of the changes in Middle and Eastern Europe. “Can we say,” asks the Pope, “that the defeat of communism means the triumph of capitalism as a social system? And, thus, should it be aimed at by all the countries which undertake the task of social and economic restructuring?” And though his answer is complex, at the same time it is explicit: “If the term ‘capitalism’ de-notes an economic system which recognizes the fundamental positive role played by businesses, the market, and private property, as well as by responsibility for the means of production, which results from the above, the answer to this question should definitely be positive…. Yet, if capitalism be understood as a system in which economic freedom is not restrained through a framework of legal systems, which would make it serve the integral human freedom and treat it as just one aspect of this freedom, which is first of all of ethical and moral nature, then the answer is definitely negative.” In other words, there exists a capitalism in which a Catholic should feel a stranger, but there also is a variant of the free-market economy in which he should feel at one with the Church.

The whole of Centesimus annus is devoted to the specification of this distinction. The great innovative power of the encyclical, consists in the fact that, until now, the popes who wrote social encyclicals were only describing and evaluating the social reality. Centesimus annus is the first document whose author gives up the judge-and-witness attitude, since the encyclical includes also a positive exposition of how a Christian may fulfill his vocation through being engaged in the free market. The Pope avoids making a moralizing evaluation of economics, which has sometimes happened in Church documents. He stresses the positive part played by the principal institutions and mechanisms of liberal economics, such as the free market, enterprise, profit, and private property. Moreover, the Pope concentrates on delineating “anthropological compatibility,” as I would call it; that is to say, a concurrence of the teaching of the Church and the vision of man as an individual operating in the free market, which is implied.

A person, understood as a free, reasonable, and creative individual cooperating with others for the common good, both belongs to the Christian tradition of understanding human beings and is a subject capable of creative activity within the free-market economy. This does not mean that there are no differences between Catholic anthropology and the “anthropology of the free market,” but, as John Paul II stresses, that the differences appear not on the level of free economics or the democratic political system, but on the level of culture. This is why the Pope, choosing the positive aspects of the free market and democracy, writes also about the possible dangers and degeneration of democratic capitalism, which may result from over-valuing such phenomena as production (as the only measure of development), market (as the mechanism which automatically solves all the problems), and property (which does not come under any restrictions). The dangers may also result either from “anthropological reductionism,” the assumption that man is solely Homo economicus and so counts mainly as a producer or a consumer of goods, or from treating a human being like an atomized set of separate sensations.

To conclude, John Paul II cites serious dangers in the modern world which may be caused by economic and political liberalism. Yet, he stresses that these dangers are rooted in liberal ideology, rather than in the functioning of the free market and democracy itself. He also shows a positive vision of fulfilling a Christian vocation in the world of democratic capitalism. This positive exposition is not an attempt to “baptize” liberalism in order to hold back secularization; it is the result of an anthropological reflection rooted in theology.


What Do Liberals Need Theology For?

For a reader who is not connected with the Church, the fulfillment of vocation, which concerns Catholics so much, may be an unfamiliar problem; for him the process of secularization may seem to be a positive phenomenon: “this is how a strange empire slowly ceases to exercise its influence.” From this point of view, a dialogue with Catholicism or, more generally, with Christianity, is unnecessary. But the matter is not that simple. One more question should be answered, namely, whether the free-market economy is a self-sufficient system and whether it is in possession of all the indispensable means to reproduce itself over a longer period of time. The majority of liberal thinkers are very doubtful of this. That is why, beginning with Adam Smith and ending with Friedrich Hayek, thinkers have stressed the importance of non-economic motivation in human life, as well as the significance of the moral component in economics. As was rightly noticed by Hayek, “the system [of free enterprise] itself is not more than a means, and its countless advantages must serve to achieve the goals which exist outside of it…. A society which does not have any norms other than effectiveness is definitely going to lose its effectivity.”

Thus, although the free market itself is an amoral institution, it still may function effectively only within a moral environment. It demands justice, honesty, and basic social agreement with respect to right and wrong, as well as a theory of the human being in society. For liberals at the turn of the eighteenth century, the conviction that liberalism could develop only on the grounds of Christianity was firm. Later, the belief in an evolutional moral self-development of the human species became more and more widespread. But, as Lord Ralf Dahrendorf stressed, the Hayek who is profound and precise when he analyzes a free society and the free market stands in sharp contrast with the naïve and doctrinaire Hayek who puts forward hypotheses about the evolutionary development of morality.

More and more observations and arguments support another thesis, and a growing circle of thinkers is prone to agree with Wilhelm Roepke, who wrote in his Crisis of Modern Times that it “has long been believed that the economy of the market, based on competition and the division of labour, is an excellent educational institution. Through an appeal to egoism, it may push people into peace, decency and all the civil virtues. Today, however, we know something that may have always been known, namely that an economics based on free competition is a consumer of morality. You must be really blind to facts to consider it a purveyor of morality. The existence of a free-market economy assumes the existence of moral reserves outside of it.”

What is more, the liberal institutions are “cold,” that is, they do not promote the feeling of identity, community, or of being rooted. They need the complement of the “warm” institutions, such as family, the Church, neighborhoods, and the nation. This is a new element in liberal thinking and another possible meeting point with Christian thought and the Church. If Eric Voegelin was right when he criticized liberals in From Enlightenment to Revolution for not being “intelligent enough to understand the issue of institutionalizing spiritual matters,” we still have to admit that years ago we, within the Church, also lacked the intelligence to understand the problems of the spiritual dimension of social institutions. Yet after nearly two centuries of struggle and evolutions the time has come, I think, for a difficult but inevitable dialogue. The underground press author “Jdrzej Branicki” (who turned out to be the future minister Janusz Lewandowski) observed half a century ago that there were differences between the liberal understanding of economics and the social teaching of the Church, differences which apparently could not have been overcome.

Today, after Centesimus annus and in the face of all the changes connected with modern democratic capitalism, we can see the wide plane of their constructive confrontation. “The aim of the dialogue of all political and intellectual powers, to which I urge everyone, is a definition of a common economic minimum,” said Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger in his conversation with Henri Tinque. “We want the basic Christian values and the liberal values, which dominate in the contemporary world, to have a chance to meet and fertilize each other.” Because of unfortunate previous encounters, there are many opponents of such an encounter, and there are still more circles that do not perceive the need for such a dialogue.

Still, I am convinced, and this view is shared by more and more people towards the close of our century, that the discussion about what separates us and what unites us is necessary for the efficient functioning of democratic capitalism. The discussion is indispensable also for the Church, to help her in the fruitful accomplishment of her mission. Thus, this is one more reason for which I, being a monk, read and try to talk about the free-market economy.


  • Maciej Zieba

    At the time this article was published, Maciej Zieba, O.P., was a Polish Dominican priest who ran the publishing house "w drodze" and lectured at the Pontifical Academy in Krakow.

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