The Latest Debate Over Catholic Social Thought

Pope Francis’ statements about economics (and related questions, such as environmentalism and “fracking”) have caused much consternation among conservative Catholics in the United States. The Holy Father’s comments on the “greed” of capitalism and his seeming belief that capitalism causes income inequality rather than providing explosive growth and increased prosperity historically seem without nuance at best, and ignorant at worst. They seem worlds away from the appreciation for wealth creation and private enterprise evidenced by Pope John Paul II in his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus, or even the more measured statements by his successor Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. Journals considered conservative have published attacks on the Pope as an “ideologue,” while Catholics no one would mistake for American-style liberals are rushing to the Pope’s defense. Writer Damon Linker, who is more of a religious liberal, has gone so far as to say that Francis’ seeming position on economics has caused a “war” between the Republican Party, especially its Catholic elements, and the Pope.

Recently two prominent Catholic authors have entered the fray. John Zmirak finds in much Catholic reflection a rejection of the” bourgeois mind,” a mind that for him has been a great boon and benefit to human flourishing. A faithful Catholic need not be antibourgeois, and Catholic teaching need not be authoritative on economics. Indeed, we should be “loud and proud” bourgeois citizens. Zmirak has expanded on these reflections in a recent article titled “The Myth of Catholic Social Teaching,” in which he argues that the effort to piece together the statements of popes and bishops to create a coherent social teaching that demands some level of religious obedience is simply a mistaken project, and in fact supports those whose ideas are simply a warmed-over radicalism that is actually hostile to the Church. Rather, we should see Catholic Social Teaching “not as analogous to Eucharistic doctrine and Marian dogmas, but as something much more akin to the Catholic literary tradition—a treasure trove of often-brilliant insights and deep investigations into the best ways for men to live which claims our respectful attention.”

Zmirak is actually fighting two opponents here: first are the Catholics who confuse socialism with Christianity; and second are the reactionary Catholics of the last century or so who have advocated an amalgam of “third way” alternatives, which tends to elevate the noble and peasant over the shopkeeper and entrepreneur, even though—when faced with the alternatives—people prefer bourgeois civilization, which has created unsurpassed material advantages. Zmirak argues for the vision of the economist Wilhelm Röpke, for whom “the common good was best served by leaving sovereignty in the hands of consumers, allowing individuals to choose among a wide variety of goods and services offered by many suppliers. The principle of competition, he believed, must be sacrosanct, since it served to police the behavior of businessmen better even than a strict, impartial legal system (which he also insisted was needed).”

On the other hand, Catholic Social Teaching, or “CST,” has resulted in a wide raft of academic and other literature, attempting to do what Zmirak says is impossible: discern a coherent set of themes based in Catholic teaching applicable to contemporary social and academic questions. Economists like Luigino Bruni have explored the connections between economics and happiness, which is strikingly different in some respects from a pure market economy, and one that seems to be more in align with human flourishing. Law professors have a group blog devoted to exploring the particulars of a “Catholic Legal Theory.” And most recently Anthony Esolen has published a book strongly defending the uniqueness and consistency of Catholic Social Teaching, and that there is in fact a unique way of “being” Catholic that must affect larger social and economic questions.

Like Zmirak, Esolen believes that the Catholic tradition must be given respectful attention, but unlike Zmirak Esolen argues that the truths of the Faith extend into non-theological questions, and those “brilliant insights and deep investigations” are more than that. Drawing on a range of papal documents, Esolen argues that if the statements Catholicism makes about man are true, then its statements about economic matters, such as the nature of work, the need for economic systems to be in service of the family, and the moral obligations of employers, must also be true. And although he freely admits to not being an expert in the niches of economic or monetary policies, he states forthrightly that a “Catholic society must always remain wary of worldly prosperity. Riches may be a blessing—may be—but whether they are or not, they carry a grave duty. The love of money is the root of all evil.”

Each of these positions has sharp questions for the other. For those seeking a definitive and distinctive Catholic contribution to social order, Zmirak’s position seems too instrumental. Using Catholicism’s rich tradition simply for “brilliant insights” for whatever position you may already support seems underwhelming. Zmirak’s references to pure competition and bourgeois capitalism seem to have no, or arbitrary, limiting principles, and so there seems no assurance that such a society, protective of its middle classes and respecting economic growth, to change into a society based on a simple consumerism. Jesus advised the rich young man to go and give away what he has; surely those admonitions should guide not just private behavior but also the expectations of society? And Zmirak’s analyses do not fully address some strong consistencies in CST and is not exactly clear on how to interpret levels of teaching authority; to the average Catholic, Humanae Vitae and Rerum Novarum are both encyclicals. Why should one praise the first and disdain the second?

But Esolen’s argument, for those in Zmirak’s camp, seems equally problematic. First, it smacks of a weird sort of absolutism—that there is a platonic Catholic socio-economic order, which flies in the face of the Church’s actual experience. Even now, she lives in a variety of economic and social systems. Her purpose is to lead people to heaven, not the counting house. Further, the Church cannot possibly know about economics what She knows about theology and besides, too much of the hierarchy and presbyterate is of a generation that has been infected by a twentieth-century economic “liberalism” that prefers central planning and government largesse over entrepreneurial wealth creation and individual charity. Given that such positions are problematic at best and dangerous at worst, why should Catholics, especially lay Catholics out there in the world of business, pay them heed?

These are tough questions, and one not made easier by the lack of specificity in much of this debate. It is all well and good to say Catholic social thought should not mean government control over the economy, but what does that really mean? The debate over the applicability of Catholic principles too often in the United States stays at the federal level. But one principle of Church teaching is subsidiarity, that is, that social problems should be addressed at the lowest level of government possible. Is there anything wrong, from a zmirakian view, with “blue laws” at the township level? That would seem to be an appropriate exercise of subsidiarity if the people closest to that law vote on it and can change it without too much trouble, yet it does conflict with a principle of “pure competition” in some respects. The state in Catholic thought is rooted in a the principle that “authority must be guided by the moral law,” and, according to the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, must “recognize, respect and promote human values.” Allowing a range of government action would allow that principle to be expressed. Further, it would protect against an overarching state that engages in massive wealth transfers via a welfare state. Such a focus on subsidiarity could also allow an Esolen-like community to grow in accordance with their members’ substantive vision.”

For example, the just wage is a question that vexes both Esolen and Zmirak. For the latter, a just wage is presumably what the market would bear. Church teaching cannot tell the world what to pay in the varied and changing markets across geographic areas and industries; relying on some abstract formula for a “just wage” would seem to be the kind of socialist tinkering that can be nothing less than disastrous. But Esolen sees the Biblical injunctions about the rich man and the eye of the needle as positive injunctions to society; of course the rich must pay a just wage to their employees, but if a society will not expect that of them—indeed, if such a society simply encourages “profit maximization”—then many employers will not. And not only would that be disastrous to the employees whose families now have to work harder and perhaps have both parents leave the home, causing familial disruption (and still further social problems) but it also endangers the souls of the rich. Catholics cannot shrug their shoulders at such results and mumble something about the “invisible hand” or “spontaneous order.” But taken seriously, Esolen’s position raises further questions: what if a factory owner reduces a “just” wage, not from a race-to-the-bottom type materialism, but to hire other workers to try, even if barely, to save more from destitution?

Or take the question of licensing. Esolen speaks approvingly in his recent book about some sort of a guild system. His point, to be fair, is not only economic; the guilds played a large role in culture formation as well as economic activity. For Zmirak this would seem to be simply romantic nostalgia: as a practical matter, guilds can harm consumers by limiting their choices. But we already do have an extensive licensing culture—everyone from lawyers to yoga teachers can seek certification—which does perform some modest guild-like functions, and that has cramped opportunities for those seeking a living. And the state never loses an opportunity to insert itself as the “accrediting body,” thus increasing its control over our lives.

There is, however, a piece missing from each of these analyses, and this is what makes analyzing the applicability of Catholic principles to mundane economics so difficult. Zmirak, drawing on Röpke, recognizes that market exchanges are an “ethically neutral method by which, in virtue of a contractual reciprocity between the parties to an exchange, an increase of one’s own well-being is achieved by means of an increase in the well-being of others.” If that is the case, the ethical culture surrounding these neutral exchanges is paramount; a Catholic culture will condition that free market in certain ways. For Esolen, he sometimes elides over the notion of individual vocation in his desire to preserve family and community. The free market has allowed individuals to pursue great and good projects that traditional cultures might have stifled, and this sense of vocation should be encouraged. Some, for example, are called to be molecular biologists or astronauts or creators of new products that are beneficial to humanity. An economic culture must allow that sense of vocation to flourish.

Esolen and Zmirak both have the right targets: a secular culture that treats citizens as pawns of the state, and church leaders who mistake the tax collector for a charity. But the last century has definitely shown that a misunderstanding of man can lead to horrific economic and political conditions. The Catholic tradition offers rich resources as to what man is, and his proper end. The positions of Zmirak and Esolen are themselves rich interpretations of that tradition.

Editor’s note: The image above is a Depression-era mural painted by Seymour Fogel in 1938 and located in the Department of Health and Human Services building in Washington, DC.


Gerald J. Russello is a Fellow of the Chesterton Institute at Seton Hall University and editor of The University Bookman. He is also the editor of the 2013 edition of Christopher Dawson’s Religion and Culture from Catholic University of America Press.

Join the conversation in our Telegram Chat! You can also find us on Facebook, MeWe, Twitter, and Gab.