The title of the book Cathonomics: How Catholic Tradition Can Create a More Just Economy is intriguing, since it highlights that the Church has much to offer in the line of economics. The author tries to merge two fields that generally do not mix, although they should.
However, it is one thing to mix the two subjects; another to fuse clashing perspectives.
Thus the book reads like its dramatic title. It is a forced merging of old and new, religious and ecological, St. Thomas Aquinas and Pope Francis. In the name of “tradition,” a Cathonomic hybrid emerges that is a spectacular clash of contraries, which ends up being neither one element nor the other.
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The author, Dr. Anthony Annett, seems to revel in paradoxes that shock traditional sensibilities. Reading his work sets off red (and eco-green) flags everywhere. The Irish-born economist boasts of working for twenty years at the International Monetary Fund. Liberal economist Jeffrey Sachs, known for his pro-abortion and population control advocacy, wrote the foreword. A sympathetic Georgetown University Press published the 2022 book with glowing promotional blurbs from liberal notables.
The impossible goal of the book is to put together what might be called a hermeneutic of economic continuity where there is no continuity. The author, for example, reasonably expounds on traditional Church teaching (which he calls the Old Stuff). He criticizes, even brilliantly, the sorry economic theories of the Enlightenment and liberalism that destroyed Christendom.
However, things get messy when he tries to integrate social justice proposals, Green New Deal goals, and Keynesian economic theory into traditional Catholic models. The author argues for one side and then the other, all the while insisting the ripped fabric of these views forms one seamless garment.
There are three major errors in the presentation of “Cathonomics” that prevent the paradoxical proposal from providing solutions.
The first error is that it is not Catholic. Dr. Annett cites Catholic authors, popes, and documents. He uses some Catholic concepts, especially subsidiarity and solidarity. However, he builds something that is not specifically Catholic. However, one need not be Catholic, practice Catholic virtues, or even believe in God to be part of Cathonomics. His proposal targets the “human person” and thus is meant to apply to everyone indiscriminately. The field might be better expressed as “personomics,” “humanomics” or even “human-personomics.”
Thus, the new science is extremely limited since it must express itself in secular and naturalistic terms addressing “the fullest development of the whole person and all peoples.” The author seems to think that appealing to “a common good with a common destiny, which entails protection of our common home” is enough to motivate people to sacrifice for others. He even adds an ecological solidarity that extends across species bound by the “notion that all creatures have value and worth in their own right.”
The book, which begins with sublime theological expressions from the “Old Stuff,” morphs into modern economic, sociological, and ecological jargon. Without a supernatural or transcendental end, the call to solidarity is far from compelling. Thus, the book has all the appeal of the naturalistic rhetoric found in United Nations’ documents or the Democratic Party platform.
Indeed, the author presents the seventeen liberal aims of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals almost as a new set of commandments introducing a new economic paradigm “with social inclusion and protection of nature.” He suggests “a world authority” to implement decisions that would require “a reform of the United Nations oriented toward justice and universal fraternity instead of being co-opted by the powerful.”
This broad platform leads to Cathonomics’ second error. There is really nothing new in his program, despite its fancy name. One finds a wide selection of bad economic considerations packaged anew. The enemy is “neo-liberalism,” which he criticizes with a similar lack of originality.
The author describes all the effects of an imbalanced economy but not the cause. Like the Marxist analysis that informs most leftist economics, everything is in the structures that force people to live in misery and nothing about the misery of fallen human nature that builds those sinful structures. Thus, there is no call to personal conversion in the traditional sense.
Dr. Annett’s invitation is for all nations to become Scandinavian, with high taxes and broad social welfare programs stuffed full of solidarity and subsidiarity. The program reflects much more Thomas Piketty than St. Thomas Aquinas. There is an obsessive condemnation of all inequality, even when proportional.
Thus, an explicit proposal of Cathonomics is “high and progressive taxes” as a means that “might inculcate virtue, given the evidence of less solidarity, generosity, and empathy among the rich in more unequal societies.” He also calls for punitive and “confiscatory tax rates,” especially on billionaires. Finally, significant inheritance taxes will be needed to support the common good and integral human development.
The State plays a major role in these proposals, including as employer-of-last-resort and supplier of supplemental income. Throwing other people’s money at problems seems to be the preferred way to resolve things. Dr. Annett casually throws around “insignificant” figures that would solve problems. All can be remedied by allocating $100 billion a year for one program, a trillion dollars for another, and $50 billion for yet another. “The bottom line is that, in the context of a $128 trillion [world] economy, these amounts are small—sometimes even minuscule.”
A strong ecological component of Cathonomics is especially notable. He has a special animus toward the oil and gas sector (which must be destroyed at all costs). While the author admits it is hard to quantify the number of deaths due to climate change, he goes to great lengths to paint the worst possible picture based on models and estimates. Thus, the reader is told that mental issues caused by climate change are responsible for an estimated 59,000 suicides in India, many of them poor farmers. Premature deaths from pollution are estimated at five million people a year. Experts predict “a staggering 200 million climate refugees by 2050 alone, with a high estimate of a billion.”
Such Greta-Thunberg-like presentations are at best debatable but hardly dogmatic. In addition, there is nothing new about the Green New Deal solutions Cathonomics proposes.
Finally, the most painful error is the absence of God in Cathonomics. There is no appeal to the love of God as a means to obtain human flourishing. God need not get involved in the development of His creatures. In a book about Catholic economics, there should be something about Divine Providence that highlights God’s loving care over humanity, even in the face of an eco-disaster. However, there is nothing to suggest God’s interest in humanity…or even vice versa.
So much talk in the book is about solidarity that should unite everyone but nothing about what must lie in the center. Solidarity becomes impossible without the love of God. All are called to love their neighbors as themselves out of the love of God—the highest motivation. Thus, the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals/Commandments, for example, become empty philanthropic calls for ending poverty, hunger, and other needs since they have nothing transcendental to sustain them. Self-interest and fallen nature (also not mentioned) will always win when God is not in the center of things.
Likewise, Cathonomics has no room for grace, which enlightens the intellect and strengthens the will so that people become capable of doing things (which includes economic acts and charitable works) that go beyond human nature. The author’s narrow vision is a cold, mechanical program that locks out the supernatural and locks in the State.
In the world of Cathonomics, personal sin has no consequences. Hence, there is an ominous silence about abortion or other sins that drag society and economy down and diminish the love of God that must sustain everything. The role of prayer and living a virtuous life, free of sin, also cannot be underestimated as powerful forces in securing human flourishing.
However, all these things, essential to a Catholic economy, are absent in Cathonomics.
Indicative of the author’s perspective is his ending quote taken from Pope Francis’ 2015 address at the World Meeting of Popular Movements: “the future of humanity does not lie solely in the hands of great leaders, the great powers and the elites. It is fundamentally in the hands of peoples and in their ability to organize.”
This naturalistic approach is the problem with Cathonomics. Any future of humanity (and economy) must lie in the hands of God, not humanity. When humanity puts itself in the center, it is a quick recipe for disaster.
The author forgot yet one more important element. Alas, how can anything be called Catholic without mentioning Our Lady? The Blessed Mother has everyone’s material well-being in mind. Our Lady at Fatima said it best: Humanity must not offend God anymore. Only then will the world find peace and prosperity.