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


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.

  • Pammie

    I’m looking forward to this series. The only economic lesson I’ve ever mastered is not to spend more money than one has. The whole subject is a bore (to me) but I’m hoping the talented Dr. Z can keep me interested enough to learn more .

  • Steve N.

    The problem that’s leading us to ruin is; The brightest leaders believed the growth of economy outpaced the idea of -as Pammie says- not finding it neccessary …”not to spend more money than one has.”
    The predicted increase in the speed of gathered wealth outrun the need to balance budget. Isnt that about it?

  • Nick Palmer

    A much needed “project” Dr. Z. I look forward to your take on these issues. I’m expecting more than a few “yuks,” and at least a groan or two. And a few challenges to my ironclad certainties.

    And, for all who intend to take the journey with you, I highly recommend a short op ed piece by Harvard’s Harvey Mansfield in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal (5/31/11), “Sociology and Other ‘Meathead’ Majors.”

  • TeaPot562

    One may hope to find economic principles that allow for actual human behavior. When a government enforces laws that penalize certain behavior, rational people will tend to reduce that behavior. When government pays subsidies or rewards certain behavior, rational people will do more of it, sometimes much more than the politicians who enacted those subsidies anticipated.

  • Rich Browner

    “That means that nowadays it would be over the heads of many decorated economists who write for major newspapers.” Obviously, Dr. Z needs to make a dig at Paul Krugman.

    Statements like this seem to serve only the author, and possibly those who have an unhealthy appetite for this lack fo charity. Once again, Dr. Z’s piece is the worse for this kind of thing.

    It is interesting that Wiegle has a column here today that takes on the professors who addressed Boehner and calls them smarmy. I pray the editors here will continue to grow in charity, calling all who publish here to a deeper sense of humility.

  • John Zmirak

    Since Rich Browner has assumed the spiritual authority to decide which statements on this site amount not to legitimate political rhetoric, but to evidence of grave sins against charity and humility, I will answer: Mr. Browner, you are a master operator of the Amazing Catholic B.S. Generator (TM), whose operations I outline here:

    I delight in the clumsy, ill-suited products of the Generator, which for me have a kitsch appeal, like old Eastern German consumer products, or broken-down, collectible Yugos.

    Please keep those Commie tschotskes coming!

    • Rich Browner

      Hey, whatever you say, John. I never stated anything about grave sin, but you tend toward hyperbole, so again, as you say, that must be what I meant.

      I will go ahead and use your tone and sarcasm as a blueprint for sainthood.

      The title of this post was about ancient virtues, I will refrain from posting here so as to not add to the bs.

      • Let’s return the discussion to Ropke. Thank you.

  • Tom

    Another good source you might consider adding to the materials is Jane Jacobs’ take on Plato, called Systems of Survival, wherein Jacobs talks about what Austrian economists would describe as the Political and Economic ways to wealth. Jacobs started out by disparaging politicians and the moral leaders necessary to a properly functioning society (original title for the book was “Traders and Raiders”), but she soon realized that the two ways of living were required for each society to thrive and grow. She echoes Roepke’s point well in this.

    Find me through my comment email if you’d care to discuss.

  • Mitchell Button

    I’m currently a Masters student in Economics, so I look forward to reading this series.

    Most people defend an economic viewpoint because it supports there established political viewpoint. As such, I hope more people start questioning the injustices of the current order and why they exist, indeed why they were DESIGNED to exist. A civilized economic order must be rooted in the strength and weakness of human nature.

    The current system grows increasingly bankrupt and I hope the the Holy Church can provide a compelling answer before its too late.

  • Because all knowledge is good, and since I want the good, therefore I want knowledge. And conjoining this to the fact that anything I don’t know is interesting, and since I don’t know the thoughts of W. Ropke, I am very interested in this series.

    A question: 1) Why study Ropke and not say Mises or Hayek, or any number of other free market economists?

  • crazylikeknoxes

    Economics makes me sleepy. Remember to keep working on that book about New York. Keep the focus on the literary, the theological, the historical, and the culinary. It will be your finest hour. (N.b. Milton is read today for his epic, not his defensiones.)

  • Francis Wippel

    It’s nice to see someone acknowledge that the lack of a perfect economic system is in fact a product of the Fall of Humanity. The many attempts to impose (most often against an unwilling public) the perfect economic system, while perhaps well-intentioned, have caused more harm than good.

    I’m looking forward to the series of columns on this. Thanks for posting.

  • MartyTC

    I have not read this text book yet. I have been a bit worried about picking up a textbook and reading on my own.

    I am glad that Dr. Zmirak is taking this project on and will not only give a good introduction to econmics, but an introduction to a most important economist.

    Ropke’s free market and Catholic economic thought was not only good in theory but worked in real world applications.

    Thanks to Crisis and Dr. Zmirak.

  • Bob G

    Mr. Zmirak is nothing if not intrepid. This will be something to see. Will he come up with concrete proposals or stick to safe generalities? Anything new here would be immensely valuable.

    I know little about Ropke. I understood that the 1950s “German miracle” was produced mainly by Ludwig Ehrhart, the economics minister whom Adenauer trusted implicitly. Was Ludwig E. influenced by Ropke?

    One hopes that Mr Zmirak will relate his apercus to the main theories contesting the field: classical neoclassicism, Keynesian theory, and Austrian economics especially. What else is left?

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