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June 19th, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)
The goal of economics and politics is to serve humanity, beginning with the poorest and most vulnerable wherever they may be, even in their mothers’ wombs. Every economic and political theory or action must set about providing each inhabitant of the planet with the minimum wherewithal to live in dignity and freedom, with the possibility of supporting a family, educating children, praising God and developing one’s own human potential. This is the main thing; in the absence of such a vision, all economic activity is meaningless. (Pope Francis)
VATICAN CITY (Catholic Online) – I derive such joy from the message of this Pope named Francis. I also love the manner in which he is delivering them. He is keeping observers off balance as they attempt to put him in one of their contrived boxes and try to label him.
The text of a letter which he sent to the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in advance of the G8 Meeting was released this weekend. It is one more example of shaking things up! It can be read in its entirety on the Vatican Website. Here is a quote:
“The goal of economics and politics is to serve humanity”
“The goal of economics and politics is to serve humanity, beginning with the poorest and most vulnerable wherever they may be, even in their mothers’ wombs. Every economic and political theory or action must set about providing each inhabitant of the planet with the minimum wherewithal to live in dignity and freedom, with the possibility of supporting a family, educating children, praising God and developing one’s own human potential. This is the main thing; in the absence of such a vision, all economic activity is meaningless.”
“In this sense, the various grave economic and political challenges facing today’s world require a courageous change of attitude that will restore to the end (the human person) and to the means (economics and politics) their proper place. Money and other political and economic means must serve, not rule, bearing in mind that, in a seemingly paradoxical way, free and disinterested solidarity is the key to the smooth functioning of the global economy.”
Some are already parsing these words in an attempt to criticize market capitalism. Others will attempt to use the comments to attach the Pope to a planned economy approach, to connect him to a particular economic theory. Yet, I suggest his comments were not really about economic applications.
These comments were a reaffirmation of what must precede and inform all economic theory, the human person.
Catholic social doctrine begins with the human person and promotes what the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church calls a solidary and integral humanism. It insists upon the recognition of the human dignity which is present in every person because they are created in the Image of God.
This solidary and integral humanism demands that every human life, whether in the first home of the womb, a wheelchair, a jail cell, a hospital room, a hospice, a senior center or a soup kitchen, be recognized as having human dignity and never used as an end or an object. It is this vision of the human person which must form the foundation of economics.
Catholic social doctrine does not propose or endorse any particular economic theory. Rather it insists that the economic order must be placed at the service of the human person, the family and the common good. That is what Pope Francis reminded the Prime Minister and the G8 leaders of in his letter.
The social teaching of the Catholic Church offers principles to be worked into the loaf of human culture which are meant to assist us in our work of building a more just and human society. That means we need to understand them and seek to apply them. They include principles which can help us to humanize and order our economies.
However, because they are principles, they leave room for the application of prudential judgment.
The Church challenges any notion of human freedom which begins and ends with the isolated, atomistic, person as the measure of its application. We are by nature and grace called to relationship. Only in communion can we be fully human.
Human freedom must be ordered toward choosing what is good and what is true. In other words, there is always a moral basis to freedom, uncluding economic freedom. Our freedom must be exercised in deference toward our neighbor because we have obligations in solidarity to one another – we are our brother and sisters keeper. This is the principle of solidarity or social charity.
The Church calls us to what is called a preferential option or, I prefer a love of preference, for the poor. This is the kind of love which the Lord Himself shows in his identification with the poor. The implications of our response to this command are expounded upon in the 25th chapter of the Gospel of St Matthew.
We are to show in our social relations a concern for their well being. This invites as well the development of a social and economic order which includes them within its embrace and promise of advancement. This is why the Church upholds the dignity of all human work and promotes a living, just or family wage.
In recent papal encyclicals and magisterial teaching the market economy is recognized as having a potential for promoting all of these goods – when properly understood and morally structured. However, the Catholic Church does not take a position on which economic theory is the best among many.
She prophetically stood against the materialism of the atheistic Marxist system. She prophetically cautions Nations which have adopted a form of liberal capitalism that there are dangers in any form of economism or materialism which promotes the use of persons as products and fails to recognize the value of being over acquiring.
She reminds our consumerist western culture that the market economy must be at the service the person, the family and the common good, lest capitalism conflate its claims to offering freedom and become what Blessed John Paul II once referred to as “savage” in its application, thereby promoting practices which devolve into greed and use of persons.
The Church’s social doctrine holds that authentically human social relationships of friendship, solidarity and reciprocity can be conducted within economic activity, and not only outside it or after it. The Church also warns against and rejects collectivism and statist over control of the political or economic order.
As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wrote in Charity in Truth , “The economic sphere is neither ethically neutral, nor inherently inhuman and opposed to society. It is part and parcel of human activity and precisely because it is human, it must be structured and governed in an ethical manner.”
Contrary to what some tried to claim, that letter neither endorsed nor rejected capitalism. As the Social Teaching of the Catholic Church has done in the past it simply did not use the term, preferring the term market economy or free economy. That is because the market is made for man and not man for the market.
Freedom is a good of the person and a free market must be moral, keeping the person, the family and the common good at the forefront. In that letter Benedict addressed economic challenges presented by globalism. He called for the application of a social and economic ordering principle the Church has long proposed, the principle of subsidiarity, within these new contexts.
The word subsidiarity is derived from the Latin word meaning to provide assistance or help, not control. The Pope wrote it is a principle of “inalienable human freedom. Subsidiarity is first and foremost a form of assistance to the human person via the autonomy of intermediate bodies.”
He explained, “Such assistance is offered when individuals or groups are unable to accomplish something on their own, and it is always designed to achieve their emancipation, because it fosters freedom and participation through assumption of responsibility.”
He continued, “Subsidiarity respects personal dignity by recognizing in the person a subject who is always capable of giving something to others. By considering reciprocity as the heart of what it is to be a human being, subsidiarity is the most effective antidote against any form of all-encompassing welfare state.” (#57)
Benedict asserted the inextricable link between the principle of subsidiarity and the principle of solidarity which affirms that we are our brother’s (and sister’s) keeper.
When that Encyclical was released some observers attempted to read it through the prism of political categories such as left and right, liberal and conservative, just as are doing with the comments of Pope Francis with which I began. Efforts to pigeonhole the insights offered in that letter as “for or against capitalism” when it did not even use the word capitalism, missed the directions offered within it. So they do as well when they mischaracterize the insights of Pope Francis on economic development.
Markets can only be free when free people are engaged in them. Freedom is a good of the person. A free economy should also seek to continually expand by opening the way for the participation for as many people as possible, while promoting enterprise and initiative.
Also, though we should show a love of preference for the poor, recognizing our solidarity with them, this call to solidarity is to be applied through the application of the principle of subsidiarity, rejecting all forms of dehumanizing collectivism. Subsidiarity in governance and economic participation rejects the usurping by a larger entity of participation which can be done at the lowest practicable level.
The West, with all of its promise of freedom, flirts with an instrumentalist materialism devoid of any understanding that the market was made for man not man for the market. In this mistaken approach to a free market economic order the accumulation of capital can come to be viewed as prior to the flourishing of the person, the family and the common good. In its wake, the poor can be forgotten and peace threatened.
Pope Emeritus Benedict properly addressed this errant approach to the market economy as do these words from Pope Francis. The market economy can be a force for good when humanized and expanded to offer participation to more and more men and women. However, if Francis and Benedict’s words caused a stir, when Blessed John Paul II addressed the same danger, was even stronger in his language.
On the hundreth anniversary of Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical on economic concerns, he wrote:
“Returning now to the initial question: can it perhaps be said that, after the failure of Communism, capitalism is the victorious social system, and that capitalism should be the goal of the countries now making efforts to rebuild their economy and society? Is this the model, which ought to be proposed to the countries of the Third World, which are searching for the path to true economic and civil progress? The answer is obviously complex.”
“If by capitalism is meant an economic system, which recognizes the fundamental and positive role of business, the market, private property, as well as free human creativity in the economic sector, then the answer is certainly in the affirmative, even though it would perhaps be more appropriate to speak of a `business economy,’ `market economy,’ or simply `free economy’.
“But, if by `capitalism’ is meant a system in which freedom in the economic sector is not circumscribed within a strong juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality and sees it as a particular aspect of that freedom, the core of which is ethical and religious, then the reply is certainly negative.”(Centesimus Annus, n. 42)
Our task as Catholic citizens is not to put literal or figurative proof texts from Catholic Social Teaching around political, social or economic theories rooted in a flawed or limited notion of the person, the primacy of the family, our obligations in solidarity, or a proper application of the principle of subsidiarity.
We must start with Catholic teaching and then inform both our thought and our action. Starting with a political, an economic or a pet social theory and then building a kind of “catholic” proof text for it too often ends up betraying our prophetic call. It can further fail to present the beauty of Catholic Social Teaching as a unified whole.
Pope Francis challenges an age losing its soul to a fresh, new way that is neither left nor right, but rather human and humane.