Dr. Alejandro Chafuen serves as president of the Atlas Foundation, a non-governmental organization. The foundation aims to promote “a free, prosperous and peaceful world where limited governments defend the rule of law, private property and free markets.”
Dr. Chafuen spoke with ZENIT on the impact of the Social Doctrine of the Church on economic policies.
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Q. In the Apostolic Exhortation, “Evangelii Gaudium” Pope Francis underlines the risks of an empty nominalism which brings directly to the lures of nihilism. A response seems to be a practical realism and a serious engagement – beyond any ideological reductionism – at the service of humanity. How can we read this statement and what does it imply?
Dr. Chafuen: As a worker in the field of ideas, in policy think tanks and the academy, I believe the Pope provides a valuable warning: we need to get better at connecting ideas with realities. He provides examples of “disconnection” such as promoting “angelic forms of purity, dictatorships of relativism, empty rhetoric, objectives more ideal than real, brands of ahistorical fundamentalism, ethical systems bereft of kindness, intellectual discourse bereft of wisdom.” (231)
Take “angelic forms of purity.” Nothing against angels and purity, but real humans struggle with purity. Men are not perfect angels. Saints have struggled in this arena. As a teacher, the Church can’t weaken the truth, but as a “mother” it accepts and loves people who fail but struggle. Canonized saints also failed, but their heroic struggle is what elevated them to a higher plane. Saint Josemaría Escriva wanted to write a book about “The defects of Saints,” in order to ground the effort for Holiness in reality rather than on an ideal that it is impossible to reach, and therefore becomes an empty word, leading to a “formal nominalism.”
Going of politics and economics, areas where I have a more training: there are no perfect economic systems. It is easy to find “ahistorical fundamentalism” in many cultures. Hiding facts about national heroes, picking and choosing historical facts, in order to justify our ideology is common. The Pope says that “realities are greater than ideas” and he is right, but ideas are essentials to understand reality.
The Pope states: “We have politicians – and even religious leaders – who wonder why people do not understand and follow them, since their proposals are so clear and logical. Perhaps it is because they are stuck in the realm of pure ideas and end up reducing politics or faith to rhetoric.” Many ideological advocates espouse theories that go against the requirements of a good theory (on this topic I like a paper by Christensen & Raynor) they do not explain what causes an outcome, they just describe attributes empirically associated with that outcome, picking the statistics that fit with their a-priori conclusions. One side says “the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer” the other “the freer and economy the richer the people.” Depending the circumstances both can be true. Good economic and political theories are circumstance contingent. In addition, as Christensen and Raynor explain, good theories answer the question ‘When doesn’t it work?’ Both left and right tend to violate these principle. Many socialists claim that socialism did not fail, the problem were the corrupt leaders who violated socialist principles. Some on the right, argue in a similar fashion, if you point to a capitalist that seeks government favors or privileges, they say: “he is not a true capitalist.”
In economics, for example, the Pope has experienced the reality of Argentina. Good social science has to focus not on the apparent, on “what is seen,” but, as the Catholic economist Frederic Bastiat (1801-1850) explained, on what is not seen. And is in these explanations that it is difficult to achieve Pope Francis wish that we work to replace formal nominalism by a “harmonious objectivity.” Today there is harmonious objectivity that, against first appearances, the earth goes around the sun. As long as economic and political reality is interpreted in widely different fashion, even by Nobel Laureates in the same discipline like economics, this harmony will be impossible to achieve.
Q. The Catholic Social Doctrine is a very useful instrument to analyze the economic problems from an ethical perspective trying not to ignore the personal and anthropological quests behind any political decision. Which challenges is it facing in a context of epochal geopolitical, cultural and social changes?
Dr. Chafuen: The main challenge faced by Catholic Social Doctrine is the prevalence of mistaken notions about the human person. Some regard humans as a collection of chemicals that click on and off, others as mere individuals, neglecting spiritual realities. The Church, and all of us who are ministers by baptism, should be prime teachers about the truth and richness of what it means to be human. Learning how to communicate this with actions and words is another major challenge. Pope Francis with his new style, almost appearing mundane, especially when compared with his predecessors, has surprised the world.
The two basic institutions of the free society, private property and the family, which have an important place in social doctrine, are also under attack. The growth in geopolitical power of the BRIC countries, where some capitalist structures coexist with high levels of corruption, is challenging the notion of rule of law. This in turn feeds the view that profit at all costs is all that counts, independent of the human costs.
The growth of the government, which in most countries is three times larger than a century ago, is another main challenge. The state has grown as a provider of services and the so called “welfare-state,” especially in several European countries, has weakened the sense of responsibility and solidarity. The model of the Good Samaritan has been replaced by the search for perfect bureaucrats and technocrats.
Another challenge is the aggressive attack against the family and to effort to push governments to redefine social institutions. Families have been the best ministries of welfare. The children who are brought up during most of their life with the same father and mother have a much larger chance of flourishing. This is a loud reality which the dictatorship of relativism tries to hide. As human beings have social needs, if the families continue to be destroyed, the state will likely occupy that space.
There is also an internal challenge, well expressed in Gaudium et Spes (36:7), which deplored “certain habits of mind, which are sometimes found too among Christians, which do not sufficiently attend to the rightful independence of science and which, from the arguments and controversies they spark, lead many minds to conclude that faith and science are mutually opposed.” If the Social Doctrine of the Church is seen as teaching a false economic theory, it might put into question the credibility of the doctrine not only in economics, but also in other areas where the Church has more knowledge and authority. CSD needs to keep abreast and incorporate of all the recognized advances in hard and social sciences.
Q. You are the author of a famous book on the “Economic thought of the Late Scholastics”. How can those thinkers help us to find better solutions for a free and flourishing society in the light of the common good, natural law and human dignity?
Dr. Chafuen: The merit of the book, Faith and Liberty, in the last English edition, goes to the brilliance of the Late-Scholastics, the late middle ages scholars who pushed reason illuminated by faith as much as possible. There are already 11 editions in several languages. When I first stumbled into the economic writings of the Late Scholastics, at the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina, I was a narrow individu
alist. Reading dozens of books on moral philosophy, law and justice, theology, and manuals for confessors, my view about the human person was greatly enriched. My goal was to write a book on each of the chapters and economic and social issues studied by these moral philosophers.
These authors taught me that the free economy, within a legal framework respectful of human dignity, was completely consistent with Christian doctrine and Christian love. I also learned that they had a great influence in the development of the economics of the free society in areas as diverse as private property, free trade, sound money, and many others. Only their doctrine on interest rates seemed counter to freedom.
Their writings influenced the great Scottish and European economists that created the intellectual climate for the greatest leap in economic flourishing which took place in the XIXth century. In the “West” there was a good degree of consensus about the human person. The human person was seen as a Creature of God, social, spiritual, rational, free, and individual. When during the end of the XIXth and the beginning of the XXth century the human person began to be regarded as a mere individual, a number, or a fact, we saw a growth in collectivism. In a game of numbers the many win. That is why we saw cruel collectivism grow in the twentieth century. We need new scholastics, who will bring the best economic science, the best social science to the classrooms, the pulpit, the corporations and the institutions of civil society. By staying loyal to the truth about the human person and the best science, their teachings should lead to a flourishing society. Catholics need to be better at becoming the best professionals, academics, scientists, businessman and helping impregnate the culture with a sound anthropology and attitude toward our fellow beings. But for this to become a reality, we will need to confront and overcome the challenges mentioned in the previous answers.