Francis and Catholic Social Teaching

Debates About Economy, Equality and Poverty Sure to Continue

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With barely a month as the Church’s new leader, Pope Francis has made clear his concern for the poor and his desire for a simpler approach.

Questions related to the social teaching of the Church, such as poverty, the distribution of wealth, and the management of financial institutions, have certainly been at the forefront in these last few years of turbulent economic times.

Jerry Z. Muller, professor of History at the Catholic University of America, published a reflection on this topic in the March/April issue of the magazine Foreign Affairs.

In “Capitalism and Inequality: What the Right and the Left Get Wrong” he observed that inequality is increasing almost everywhere in the post-industrial capitalist world. He commented that if this continues then it could generate a backlash against the capitalist system in general.

Mullor gave credit to capitalism and how it has “generated a phenomenal leap in human progress,” but he also noted that it has brought with it insecurity and with the latest developments in financial and international markets growing risks for not only the lower classes but also the middle class.

Barriers to equality of opportunity have been very much reduced, he acknowledged, but not everyone has an equal opportunity to exploit this opportunity. One factor Mullor cited was the role of the family. Children raised by two parents in a stable union are more likely to develop the qualities needed for success in life.

After analyzing various factors Mullor concluded that “inequality in advanced capitalist societies seems to be both growing and ineluctable.”

What to do

What can be done, he asked. Redistribution or government subsidies seem attractive at first glance, but both have substantial drawbacks. He recommended encouraging innovation, maintaining government safety nets and improving access to education.

Mullor urged finding a middle course between the politics of privilege and the politics of resentment, which means neither worshiping nor demonizing capitalism.

Other interesting reflections on these topics were published in the latest edition of the Acton Institute’s “Journal of Markets and Morality,” (Vol. 15, No. 2).

Antonio Pancorbo, of the Spanish Association for the Study of Catholic Social Teaching, called for greater dialogue between economics and Catholic social teaching in his essay, “Illustrating the Need for Dialogue between Political Economy and Catholic Social Teaching.”

Commenting on Benedict XVI’s last encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, Pancorbo observed that the resolution of the current economic crisis is not an easy matter and that there is debate over whether the solution is a greater or lesser role for the state.

Pancorbo expressed a number of criticisms of the welfare state, but he also acknowledged that it is commonly accepted that society should provide for people’s essential needs. He admitted that Caritas in Veritate referred to inequality as a social evil, but then also argued that maybe it is more productive to reduce poverty, rather than trying to eliminate all inequality.

“Sound economic thinking should collaborate with the Church in establishing guidelines for action that are morally acceptable, that do not ignore economic laws, and that propose technically feasible solutions to economic and political matters,” he concluded. A statement that most would agree with, but not so easy to put into practice.

A subsequent essay, by Ryan Langrill and Virgil Henry Storr, of George Mason University, was titled, “The Moral Meaning of Markets.”

Markets are often defended on pragmatic grounds, for their economic efficiency, they noted. They appealed, however, for a broader view, to consider the role of virtues within the operation of markets.

Markets and virtue

Markets function better, they affirmed, when the participants possess virtues beyond prudence. Markets both depend on and promote virtue, they argued.

Greed can indeed become prevalent in a market economy, they acknowledged, but this is not an inevitable consequence, nor is it the only way to achieve prosperity.

“Celebrating the selfish does not help the cause of the market,” they affirmed, but they also argued that it is wrong to see markets as morally inferior as compared to alternative forms of coordination.

A third essay drew attention again to the topic of inequality in “Biblical Warnings to ‘the Rich’ and the Challenge of Contemporary Affluence,” by Clive Beed, retired from the Department of Economics at the University of Melbourne, and Cara Beed, retired from the Department of Social Science at the Australian Catholic University.

There was no middle class in Biblical times and the levels of wealth have drastically changed since then, they observed. They also admitted, “The existence of wide gaps between rich and poor is anathema to God’s designs.”

The Bible’s warnings to the rich do not apply to modern middle class people, they affirmed. Nevertheless, Christians do have a responsibility to help those who are poor and this applies much more so to those who are rich.

With economic problems that continue to affect many countries and a new Pope who will surely continue to call attention to those in need, the market economy and the Church’s social teaching will continue to be a subject much debated.

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Fr. John Flynn

Australia Bachelor of Arts from the University of New South Wales. Licence in Philosophy from the Pontifical Gregorian University. Bachelor of Arts in Theology from the Queen of the Apostles.

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