Modern Insights and Ancient Virtues

Most of the arguments that occur over Catholic social teaching, made by people ranging from well-intentioned laity to very well-placed clergy, take place in an ignorance of economics so profound that I’m tempted to call it Edenic. I say this for many reasons. The first is sarcastic: Too many Christians look at the complex mechanisms by which human beings cooperate to earn their bread in much the way that Adam or Eve would have poked in the guts of a modern jet engine. Except that we’re fallen, and so we are tempted either to curse this mighty complexity as a monster or to worship it as a god.

What’s more, the stark fact is that the need for economics — or internal medicine — is itself a fruit of the Fall. Both scarcity and mortality came as punishments for original sin, and as I’ve written here before, our all-too-human wish to lighten our sentence tempts us to sinful and self-destructive shortcuts. In medicine, these range from contraception to embryonic stem cell research; in economics, they include everything from piracy to socialism.

Catholic social teaching is, in many ways, parallel to her teaching on government or war; the Church proposes goals and imposes bright lines we may not cross, but she does not detail instructions. You would search in vain for a papal manual of infantry tactics (though some of our Renaissance pontiffs surely could have written one), or a model constitution for a Christian state. Likewise, you won’t find a “Catholic” system of economics that flows with doctrinal certitude from magisterial documents. You will find unshakeable principles, stern prohibitions of practices that violate human dignity, and prophetic warnings against the errors of the age — and for all these, frail-brained intellectuals should bend a grateful knee. If only the men of the 16th century had hearkened to the popes’ critiques of colonial abuses, and men of the 19th had (like the popes) shunned social Darwinism, much needless human suffering would have been avoided.

But no pope in any century tried to arrogate to himself the task of lay Christian statesmen: the prudent, just application in complex and changing circumstances of the Church’s timeless principles. For that you’d need much more than infallibility; popes would require omniscience, or at the very least a constant flow of positive inspiration, such as ancient pagans accorded the Delphic Oracle. That is, alas, how some modern Catholics are tempted to treat every utterance from the pope — at least when he seems to echo their private opinions.

The goals the Church lays out in her formulations of social teaching are complexly important and importantly complex. That might sound like a cheap, pseudo-Chestertonian paradox, but it isn’t: The issues entailed in Catholic social teaching are essential to Christian life, touching on everything from whether plumbers can afford to have and educate decent-sized families to the political interactions between the U.S. and Mexico. Hence, like the human brain, the teaching is complexly important.

Conversely, the many factors that must be accounted for in exploring how to achieve the Church’s goals are all interlocking, and a grave misunderstanding of any one of them would produce a system that’s grossly defective. Again like the brain, it’s importantly complex. The estimable Jeff Mirus does a good job of highlighting this complexity in his essay on the seven principles of Catholic social teaching — which, as you read them, will seem as hard to align as the colors on a Rubik’s Cube. And in our fallen state, we will probably never get them perfect. But that does not excuse us from making our bravest effort.


Over the next several columns, I will explore each week one central principle of the social science of economics as laid out by one of its noblest and most balanced scholars, Wilhelm Röpke. Like the discipline that he served so well,  Röpke was a many-faceted figure: a decorated soldier in World War I who rejected the nationalism and militarism that caused it, without lapsing into irresponsible pacifism; a Lutheran who imbibed the deepest insights of Catholic thinkers like Chesterton, Belloc, and Pope Pius XI; a patriotic German who became the first professor fired by the Nazis for his views; a student and admirer of the free-market economy who nonetheless saw its limits and potentially self-destructive tendencies; a marginalized German exile in Switzerland who, after World War II, became the intellectual architect of the post-War German “miracle”; an embodiment of the best of liberal Weimar who, in the post-war cultural tussle, became the most eloquent spokesman in Europe for the timeless principles of Christendom.

Each week, I will take one of these key economic concepts, as laid out in Röpke’s classic The Economics of a Free Society, which he wrote in 1937 as a freshman textbook for Austrian students of economics. That means that nowadays it would be over the heads of many decorated economists who write for major newspapers. So it seems to me an excellent place to start in laying out with sober truthfulness the terrain on which we travel, in search of the destinations laid out for us by scholars, popes, and saints.

Just as Catholic bioethicists require for their work a sound understanding of human anatomy — and so would not rely on medieval textbooks because they somehow seemed “more Catholic” — so we citizens who seek a sound application of the Church’s teachings on society are obliged to truly grasp the discipline of economics. We do so in the conviction that economics is neither a “hard” science, like physics, nor a matter of arbitrarily chosen premises and approaches, like literary criticism. We cannot reduce human wealth-seeking behavior to a set of deterministic rules, like the movement of subatomic particles; nor can we treat it like a poem, which can have an indefinite number of mutually exclusive but equally “valid” interpretations. Instead, in economics as in the ancient discipline of political philosophy, we lay down general principles based in the observed truths of human nature, as seconded by history, and try to make predictions of what men are likely to do under a wide variety of conditions. Given those predictions, we attempt to offer policies grounded in justice and guided by prudence.

However, no economic system, however wisely constructed, can function if men lack either temperance or fortitude. And while certain evil economic arrangements can sap men of these virtues, no system can supply them. The survival of a free economy and free society, as Röpke wrote, depends on such extra-economic virtues — which men acquire through philosophical reflection, religious practice, and virtuous upbringing. What’s refreshing is that Röpke views all economic questions through the lens of this broader, more holistic view of man, one well-suited to pursuing the Catholic vision of the good society. I look forward to pointing out through this summer waystations along that road.


John Zmirak is the author, most recently, of The Bad Catholic's Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins (Crossroad). He served from October 2011 to February 2012 as editor of Crisis.

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