An Economics of Justice & Charity, subtitled Catholic Social Teaching, Its Development and Contemporary Relevance, does something quite remarkable: It makes an exceedingly complicated topic understandable to the average reader. Thomas Storck traces the modern development of economic aspects of Catholic teachings on social justice (roughly from the Industrial Revolution to modern day), largely by analyzing papal documents, and he needs only 150 pages to do it.
This book will be of interest to anyone searching for solutions to the intense social problems we face. What may surprise people, non-Catholics in particular, is the degree to which Catholic social justice teachings, rather than being “extreme,” are a solid middle ground between unbridled capitalism on the one hand, and oppressive socialism on the other. Many of us have reached the conclusion that capitalism and socialism have serious flaws, and we find ourselves groping for a better, more equitable, more humane system of social organization. Such a system exists, and it has been laid out for us, there for the taking.
While it is impossible to sum up Catholic social justice in a pithy phrase or two, this passage from St. John Paul II’s encyclical Centesimus Annus, which Storck quotes in an appendix, comes close to doing it for me:
“Another kind of response, practical in nature, is represented by the affluent society or the consumer society. It seeks to defeat Marxism on the level of pure materialism by showing how a free-market society can achieve a greater satisfaction of material human needs than Communism, while equally excluding spiritual values. In reality, while on the one hand it is true that this social model shows the failure of Marxism to contribute to a humane and better society, on the other hand, insofar as it denies an autonomous existence and value to morality, law, culture and religion, it agrees with Marxism, in the sense that it totally reduces man to the sphere of economics and the satisfaction of material needs.”
Social systems are a means to an end, but what is the end? In the Catholic view, the end is the spiritual development of the human being. When the pursuit of material gain fosters spiritual development, it is good; when it becomes an end in itself, it is bad, because it diminishes our humanity. We cannot be fulfilled by acquiring more stuff, nor can we do society justice when we pay an inhumane wage. Socialism, while stressing material gain less, inhibits personal freedom more. Striving for economic fairness is good when it helps the weakest among us, but it is bad when fairness becomes an end in itself and deprives us of our spiritual and intellectual freedom.
Many people — Catholics and non-Catholics alike — believe the popes should stick to religion and leave economics and politics to the economists and politicians. Storck explains why this is wrong, and why it is in fact just as necessary for the Church to teach on social topics as on those that affect individual faith and morals. People, he points out, are social beings as well as individuals. By nature and of necessity we form groups; if the groups we form (businesses, governments, sports teams, etc.) operate contrary to that which nurtures the soul, then these groups thwart us from reaching our earthly potential, and even more important to those who believe, present obstacles to eternal salvation. Furthermore, Storck points out that the walls we’ve created to separate religion from politics and economics are a relatively recent development. He quotes Pope Pius XI from his encyclical Quadragesimo Anno:
“We lay down the principle long since clearly established by Leo XIII that it is Our right and Our duty to deal authoritatively with social and economic problems … not indeed in technical matters, for which she has neither the equipment nor the mission, but in all those that have a bearing on moral conduct. For the deposit of truth entrusted to Us by God, and Our weighty office of propagating, interpreting and urging in season and out of season the entire moral law, demand that both social and economic questions be brought within our supreme jurisdiction, in so far as they refer to moral issues, (no. 41)
“For, though economic activity and moral discipline are guided each by its own principles and its own sphere, it is false that the two orders are so distinct and alien that the former in no way depends on the latter. (no 42)”
Catholic teachings on social justice need not and should not delve into the specifics of social organizations or take sides on partisan economic and political issues. Rather, Catholic social teaching should point out ways in which any socio-political system or position that limits or deprives individuals of their physical, intellectual or spiritual wellbeing.
Unfortunately, trying to get a handle on Catholic social justice teachings is exceedingly difficult if one attempts to do so by following commentary in the mainstream (or even the Catholic) media. Commentators on various sides of political and economic debate like to pick and choose which teachings they talk about and then spin their analysis to support their position. As a case in point, Storck takes an entire chapter to demonstrate how Catholic and non-Catholic intellectuals twisted St. John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus into an enthusiastic and permanent endorsement of free market economics, which it definitely is not.
Storck’s book is convincing not only because of his clearheaded analysis, but also because he extensively quotes relevant papal documents. I have found that there is nothing like going to the source — papal encyclicals in particular — to really understand Catholic teachings, and to really appreciate the consistency, clarity intellectual depth they contain.
While Storck does a terrific job of explaining and defending economic social justice teachings of the Church, he is not particularly optimistic about any short-term, wholesale implementation of these teachings in our political and economic systems. Among the reasons he cites:
- Economic and political systems have taken on a life of their own, with too many people unable or unwilling to see how they are connected to religious, moral and ethical considerations.
- Too few people understand even the basics of Catholic teachings on social justice.
- One reason so few understand it is that we face social issues even more pressing than economics.
- Economic systems in particular are so intertwined and interdependent that applying Catholic principles to one component could throw the overall system out of whack.
Nevertheless, Storck believes we can make progress in attaining a more just social order, and the starting point is to process the teachings. As a society, we can’t make progress exchanging nasty tweets or absorbing spin-laden soundbites in the media. The problems are serious and the solutions are difficult, but we owe it to ourselves and future generations to make a real effort.
(Image Credit – Wikimedia Commons)