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July 04, 2007

Richard D. North wonders, are the Roman Catholic Church's teachings on economics the precursors to the Third Way? Catholic Social Teaching and The Market Economy - (Ed.) Philip Booth

Posted by Richard D. North

Catholic Social Teaching and The Market Economy
edited by Philip Booth
Pp. 277. London: Institute of Economic Affairs
Paperback, 15

This book will be full of surprises, even to most of those who fancy they know a thing or two about the Roman Catholic Church and its thinking about the bad old economic world around it. Mostly, it's good news: even more than I had understood, the Church has been led by a succession of Popes who thought and wrote seriously. Benedict XVI is merely the latest of these. (By the way, Papal wisdom is written in a special Vaticanese. I like it, but then I like the very Catholic writing of Teilhard de Chardin and the renegade Ivan Illich, too. It's perhaps an acquired taste, like loving the Macaulay phrase-making of good Whitehall Mandarin.)

To start at the very beginning, we know that the teachings of Jesus Christ are, to put it kindly, gnomic. A rich man's chances of getting into heaven are notoriously slim, but one should render unto Caesar, and besides the poor are always with us. But this book is not about these contradictions. It assumes that the fortunate have a moral responsibility towards the unfortunate. Hence the easy acceptance of the "preferential option for the poor", a 1960s phrase which came out of Latin America's rebellious liberation theologians, and only bumpily came to be accepted as the language of orthodoxy. Anyway, the basic impulse is as old as Christian duty and it's what flows from that which is of interest to Philip Booth, editorial and programme director of the economically very "dry" IEA and his distinguished Catholic contributors.

About that "rendering unto Caesar" mantra. According to Samuel Gregg, one of the book's contributors, this wasn't a call for accommodation with the temporal authorities. He cites Catholic historians as noting that this wasn't a statement of what Christians owed Romans, but the reverse. It was a radical assertion that what one owed God was different to what one owed the earthly authorities, and the earthly - imperial - authorities had better keep their hands off it. The thought has an offshoot, which Benedict is the latest to articulate, when he writes,

Discipleship of Jesus offers no politically concrete programme for structuring society.
I have stolen that quotation of Benedict's from Edward Norman's Spectator review of the Pope's latest book, Jesus of Nazareth (The Spectator, 16th June, 2007, p. 52).

One writer in our collection, Robert A. Sirico, notes a similar remark by Ratzinger (as Benedict then was) when the proto-Pope stresses:

the real gift of freedom that Christian faith has brought into the world. It was the first to break the identification of state and religion and thus to remove from the state its claim to totality.
Well, that might beg the thought that the Church has got up close and personal with friendly states (and even with wicked ones) when it fancies. Still, it's a profound truth anyway, and matters colossally to several contributions to this rather startling collection.

Things have gone pretty well in the West in times and countries when neither the church nor the state has sought to be totalitarian, and when each has accorded the other respect. Much that is Western springs from Protestantism, but the core of the good had its precursors in Catholicism. The Enlightenment, capitalism and democracy all testify to that. Sirico builds on the argument that the church can only grow when the state both stands aside from and ring-fences spiritual activity. He takes it that the state must similarly stand aside from social activity, not least so as to allow the charitable or voluntary sector to grow.

Here's an interesting minefield. Granted that the Church approves of charity because it is an expression of compassion and even, as Philip Booth insists, of love, then is philanthropy owed to the poor as a matter of justice? In short, are the rich giving the poor what the latter are owed, or are the rich expressing their solidarity with the poor? This matters, since socialism depends on the idea that the state must redress wrongs that capitalism introduces. It has a right to compel taxes though the well-off might prefer charity. It's a delight, by the way, to have many essays discussing the very Catholic idea of "subsidiarity". Long before it became the regionalist fig-leaf of the EU's imperialism, this notion was first used by Popes to describe the merit of people and institutions taking action as near as possible to suffering. It implies that the state should be the last, not the first, source of redress for misery.

The difficulty, of course, is that the transfer of wealth from the "well-off" to the "poor" has become enormous and is far greater than religious societies used to manage. The best these Roman Catholic economists can propose is that we have no idea what voluntarism might have produced since it was superseded by state activity just as mass affluence was developing. In a book which, being Catholic, might have had more casuistry than it actually does, we are nonetheless treated to a bizarre argument (quoted approvingly by Sirico) which suggests that state do-gooding displaces a disproportionate amount of charitable activity. More usefully, Booth's writers remind us that the state's compulsory transfers do a great deal of harm as well some good (or some harm and as well as great good, if you are more of a lefty).

Even more interesting, and less expected, is the degree to which "right-wing" economists can claim that the Church was and is much more supportive of their sort of position than might be supposed. Without being told it by this book's contribution from Anthony Percy, who could possible have guessed that John Cassian (360-435) had already noted that one ill-favoured Egyptian community became brilliant at business and trade precisely because its geography was so baleful? Such insights were still surprising when, hundreds of years later, Walter Raleigh understood the same sort of thing of the Dutch and, later yet, when Julian Simon sought to explain that Singapore and Hong Kong were, like medieval Holland, mercantile because ill-favoured.

The two classic encyclicals (authoritative papal letters) which handle economic relations are Rerum Novarum (1891), by Pope Leo XIII, and Centesimus Annus (1991), by Pope John Paul II. The first deals especially with labour relations (and insists that wages and profits both need to be decently large) and the second deals with the encroaching state, and insists that private enterprise needs to be celebrated but also disciplined. The cynic may say that Leo knew communism to be a competing opiate of the masses and that the Church could only defeat it by stressing its own interest in the rights of workers.

It is harder to be hard-nosed about John Paul. Here was a man scarred by both Nazism and socialism and determined on celebrating the market economy and the strong constitutionalism which could be a bulwark against them. But he was at war with what he considered to be the materialism and secularism of the age, which grew out of the very bulwarks he lauded. He sought to work out what constraints were proper to the capitalism which he was, on the whole, glad to see victorious.

Booth's writers are not cynical, are in favour of the market and charity and find much in the Popes' writing to support their views. But the Encyclicals can't be read as right-wing. The best that we can say, and it is a great thing, is that most recent Popes seem to have triangulated very well their loathing of communism and the worst excesses of the market. Where most men of the cloth seem to avoid discussing the real world in anything like realistic terms, it's great that Popes seem usually to get the right end of the stick.

More than some of the essays in this book suppose, Pope John Paul's work in particular is an endorsement of something not unlike the Third Way. That's to say that it could be read as an endorsement of the left of the Tory party or the right of the Labour party. (And it may be worth noting that Third Way thinking came out of the left as it struggled to catch up with mainstream conservatism and its fairly easy accommodation of capitalist vigour and corporatist welfarism).

It is a stretch to say that modern Popes are of an IEA frame of mind. However, it is useful to be reminded that the Roman Catholic Church officially at least is nowhere near as leftwing as the Church of England. Indeed, where the C of E in its social pronouncements is mostly content with a vaguely soft-left liberal, green gloop, the RCs produce much more rigorous fare (though, as one contributor mourns, Popes seldom reference their work to authorities of any kind, except other occupants of the Vatican).

Many essays in this book are at pains to show that the Church is merely following the Bible in its assertions that the merchant and the market, and profit, are legitimate and necessary to human flourishing. Time and again it is stressed that the Church's dislike of socialism flows from the religious understanding that Christ puts the individuality of the human person and his and her choices at the heart of God's purpose in creating the brainy biped. Human nature is "made for freedom", says John Paul's Centesimus Annus.

It is to be expected that people like Philip Booth mourn the socialistic thinking which informed much middle-rank and even senior Catholic utterance in the mid 20th century, and especially the period of the Second Vatican Council when so many of its voices were trying to catch up with Che Guevara and The Beatles. It is good to hear that the most considered and most authoritative RC utterances usually have an altogether different stamp. It is entirely right that the IEA be tougher-minded even than their Holinesses at their toughest: it was tougher-minded than Mrs Thatcher in all her guises as well.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence and Scrap the BBC!: Ten Years to Set Broadcasters Free.


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What an intelligent, informative and open-minded review. So good to find someone who is prepared to listen to what the Catholic Church actually says, rather than what it is supposed to have said.

James Roberts

Posted by: James Roberts at July 5, 2007 03:52 PM
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