The Christian Vision of Economic Life

Most of the defects that show up in the second draft of the U.S. Catholic bishops’ pastoral on the American economy arise from the inadequacies of its foundational second chapter, “The Christian Vision of Economic Life.” This chapter does not really represent “the” Christian vision (nor even “the” Catholic vision). It is only one Catholic version of this vision, and it is seriously wanting. There are, to be sure, many good things in it and many propositions with which all would agree. But there are also many partial statements, several new (and highly questionable) elements, and several crucial and damaging omissions.

Chapter 2 is divided into five parts: “Biblical Perspectives”; four short paragraphs on “The Christian Vocation in the World Today”; almost thirty paragraphs on “Ethical Norms for Economic Life”; a briefer section on “Persons and Institutions”; and two paragraphs on hope and realism.

To its credit, Chapter 2 is explicitly reformist in approach and (much more so than in the first draft) moderate in tone. Many criticisms of the first draft have been incorporated into it, but serious deficiencies remain.

A. The Biblical Section

There are two chief difficulties in the biblical section, both of which spring from a methodological defect. In consulting the meaning of Scripture, one cannot simply consult the present status of biblical research. What scholars now have to say about the meaning of Scriptural texts is useful. But it is not nearly so useful as a study of how devout persons reflecting on the Bible down the centuries have come to think about institutions of political economy. It is a species of fundamentalism to go directly from biblical texts to present-day institutions. The Bible was written for all the ages, but its precise language arose in a pre-democratic, pre-capitalist, pre-developmental era. As one of the architects of Catholic social thought, the great Heinrich Pesch, S.J., once wrote:

Religion cannot produce grain; it cannot do away with physical ills. Morally advanced peoples will, no doubt, profit economically from the active, especially the social, virtues of their citizens and will be better prepared to endure physical evil and hard times. But this does not mean that the economist should theologize or moralize in the treatment of his subject matter or, what is worse, try to derive an economic system from Holy Scripture.

The biblical section overlooks three fundamental biblical ideas decisive in the invention of the U.S. political economy. These three ideas are part of the “new science of politics” of whose originality the Founders were so aware. They inform every part of the “new order” described on the Seal of the United States as “NOVUS ORDO SECLORUM—the new order of the ages.” These three crucial kernels are: the doctrine of sin, holding that men are neither beasts nor angels, but sinners whose power must be checked by the division of social systems and powers; the vocation of humans to become images of God the Creator, and thus to pursue discovery, invention, enterprise, and ingenuity to create new goods and services for the betterment of human life and the elimination of poverty; and the new principle of community proper to the new political economy, voluntary and energetic association.

Missing these three biblical themes, and their awesome power in generating a “new world” in a “new land,” the biblical section loses its anchorage in history. It is, as it stands, a piece of “non-historical orthodoxy.” It fails to touch the living biblical reality of the American experiment, the first of the undeveloped nations to achieve development in “liberty and justice for all,” and named by Jefferson “The Second Israel.”

B. The Christian Vocation in the World Today

This section speaks well of “conversion,” worship, prayer, and the call to holiness. It thoroughly misses, however, the point so eloquently made by Jacques Maritain in Christianity and Democracy. By long gestation in human reflection, the biblical message gradually altered the way human beings thought about institutions, in order to make them reflect the images instilled in their hearts by Judaism and Christianity. To defend “the dignity of the human person, realized in community with others,” men had first to invest institutions that regularly, routinely, and reliably express the innate reality of the human person and the common; good.

These institutions include not only the political institutions of human rights, so dear to Maritain, but also the separation of the economy from the power of the state, as a realm of individual enterprise and voluntary collaboration, and above all as a realm of discovery, invention, and creation. Through this new conception of a free, associative, and creative economy were launched three projects crucial to the contemporary world: the task of development; the interdependence of nations, to be achieved through peaceful and lawlike commerce and industry; and the obligation, now that the means of doing so had been discovered, of eliminating poverty.

All these essential matters are neglected in this brief section.

C. Ethical Norms for Economic Life

This long section is the least satisfactory. Its major premises and distinctions are foreshadowed in consultant David B. Hollenbach, S.J., Claims in Conflict, his doctoral dissertation at Yale (Paulist Press, 1979).

The first of this section’s three parts, “The Responsibilities of Social Living,” includes only three sets of values (far too few for the responsibilities under consideration). The second deals with “Human Rights,” offering a dubious theory of “economic rights.” The third considers “Moral Priorities for the Nation.” Each must be examined in turn.

The values discussed under “Social Responsibilities” are love and solidarity; justice and participation; and overcoming marginalization and powerlessness. No one will fault “love” and “justice.” But as justice means more than “participation,” so love means much more than “solidarity.” Indeed, solidarity is a dangerous notion. It was used by the Fascists as a way of criticizing liberal societies. The kinds of love proper to a “social animal”—friendship, community, and public life—are not adequately expressed as “solidarity.” Over against the power of the totalitarian state, one might aptly express the resistant will of the Polish people as Solidarnosc; but that is not a good name for the will of a democratic, pluralistic people. In the words of Madison, “Liberty is to faction what air is to fire….” The Catholic people of the U.S. are not in “solidarity” with those of their fellow citizens who favor abortion, for example.

Ordinarily, “solidarity” is a more proper term for the hive, the herd, or the flock than for the democratic community, since a genuine human community must allow for dissent, a loyal opposition, debate and dialogue. In a democracy, “closing ranks” is not good enough. Even in friendship, true friends do not hesitate to tell the truth to one another, to differ strenuously, and even at times to take diametrically opposed positions on political, economic and moral matters. To assert, as the second draft does, that “Solidarity is another name for [the] social friendship and civic commitment that make human moral and economic life possible,” is to go too far. “Solidarity” is not a good name for friendship or civic commitment; and it does not well express the American civic ideal of being “free to disagree,” of dynamic civic dissent, of argument and public contestation in a civil manner. The name “Solidarity” swings the balance too far from legitimate dissent toward social cohesion. Solidarity? Some leftists cannot bear even to converse with conservatives. “Solidarity” is not the accurate word for a free community. “Association” is far more realistic.

The paragraphs on “justice,” (commutative, social, and distributive), despite their brevity, raise many questions. For instance, any treatment of “social justice” that neglects the role of specific social virtues, through which persons associate themselves in activities directed to the common good, is gravely deficient. In many countries, persons cannot count upon such virtues as are indispensable to a democracy: honesty, reliability, a sense of civic responsibility beyond familism, and a spirit of realistic compromise. Thus, voluntary efforts at social action and civic responsibility fall woefully short. The fund of social virtues in the U.S. is one of the main strengths of our evident social activism. To ignore these virtues, as James Madison saw, is to ignore the heart of the matter.

The five paragraphs on distributive justice confuse two separate moral issues. And they also smuggle several dubious empirical assertions into what is supposed to be a statement of moral principles. Those who do not at all agree with these smuggled assertions should not be accused of denying the principle of distributive justice. Even that principle is not accurately stated in the second draft, which states: “Distributive justice requires that the allocation of income, wealth and power in society be evaluated in light of its effects on persons whose basic material needs are unmet.” This is an idiosyncratic definition. It is not deeply rooted in the Catholic tradition, which arose in societies far more hierarchical and far less democratic than our own. It confuses two separate principles. Meeting the basic needs of all is one moral principle, quite well established. The allocation of income, wealth and power in society is another moral principle, totally different in scope. A society may meet the basic needs of the poor—satisfying principle one—under many diverse schemes of allocating income, wealth, and power; this was the basis of Belloc’s defense of earlier Catholic societies. A feudal society might do so; a socialist society might not. One scheme of allocation may be egalitarian and still fail to meet the basic needs of its population (particularly according to U.S. standards). Another scheme of allocation may be inegalitarian and still meet the basic needs of the poor in due and proper measure.

The text, understandably, makes no attempt to define “basic needs.” If it means the official poverty line in the U.S., that line stands far above the international standard of basic needs, today or in earlier periods. The U.S. official poverty line is defined (1984) as an annual income of $10,609 for a non-farm family of four. It is arrived at by computing the average cost of a decent (not “subsistent”) diet for a family of four, currently $3533 ($68 per week), and multiplying it by three. By this standard, more than four-fifths of the world lacks “basic necessities.”

The draft speaks of “that drive for solidarity and participation that is at the heart of social justice.” But these names by no means denote the exact drives “at the heart” of social justice. Where is it said that “solidarity” and “participation” are the “heart” of social justice? These are novel elements.

Many Americans will deny any commitment to “solidarity,” for they live in communities in deep dissent from the moral views of others—on abortion, prayer in schools, etc. And since at least the time of Plato, “participation” has been recognized as a highly ambiguous term, covering many different sorts of concepts. For example, the second draft supports “judiciously administered affirmative action programs” as one form of “participation.” But to many moral and religious Americans, some forms of “affirmative action” violate the fundamental norm of justice: equal opportunity rooted in personal achievement. Many Americans properly reject any form of “participation” that depends on group entitlement or on categories of sex, race, religion, and the like. They believe that every citizen should have the opportunity to participate. Millions of immigrants arrive each decade to “participate” in American opportunity, no favors asked. The Catholic people of the United States should not be put in the position of accepting the dubious novelty of forced participation by affirmative action of any other kind.

Distributive justice,” the draft adds (para. 78), “also calls for the establishment of a floor of material wellbeing on which all can stand.” True, but this vision was first expressed by Adam Smith, who showed how a nation could systematically create wealth in such a way that the elimination of poverty would become not only possible but morally obligatory.

Proceeding so, the draft is suddenly derailed: “This duty calls into question extreme inequalities of income and consumption when so many lack basic necessities.” No proof is offered that inequalities in the U.S. are “extreme.” By international standards they are among the best in the world. They are governed by equal opportunity. Further, the distribution of income in the U.S. would retain its current shape even if each of the poor actually received sufficient money to place each above the poverty line. (Non-cash benefits—$113 billion in 1984—are intended to do just that.) More than enough money is spent by government each year, purportedly for the poor, simply to give each poor family $10,609 per year. The problem in U.S. social programs is not the amount of money given, but the design of its disbursement.

The draft also asserts that “great disparities lead to deep social divisions and conflict.” This assertion is contrary to fact. It does so only where the economy is static, a zero-sum, and the poor see no way of bettering their condition. When those at the bottom sense the real possibility of improving their condition—as the grandparents and parents of many of us did—there is no envy, broadly tolerable division, and comparatively little conflict.

Again, the draft asserts that “Americans are challenged today as never before to develop the inner freedom to resist the temptation constantly to seek more,” which the draft then defines as “greed.” But the desire to create more and to do better is not necessarily greed. The poor of the world depend upon those who dream great dreams; and the Catholic church is no killer of dreams of creativity and service. In America, millions of citizens seek work that is personally satisfying to them, rather than work that merely pays better. Our people are not, in general, a greedy people. Indeed Stephen Thernstrom at Harvard has shown in several studies that Catholics, compared to Protestants, are less ambitious and less successful than the American norm. That, if true, would represent a vice among Catholics. In every parish, there are parents dismayed because their children are “dropping out,” seeking “communes,” and otherwise developing their “inner freedom.” Is this what the second draft wants? Again, the draft uses horrible words, without citing any evidence at all, to describe the American system: “The concentration of privilege that exists today results far more from institutional arrangements that distribute power and wealth inequitably than from differences of talent or lack of desire to work.” Where is this “concentration?” Which American inherits “privilege?” Is this a rhetorical flourish, or a truly considered indictment of American “institutional arrangements?” Consider the poverty of American Jews fifty years ago. They are now one of our top ten ethnic groups in income (West Indian blacks are another). Did successful Jews get where they are today by “privilege?” Did successful Catholics? Or poor white Southerners or Westerners? This sentence is an outrage. It is wholly unsupported by evidence, because it cannot be. It is a species of “blaming America first.”

The next sentence says “these institutional patterns” must be “revised” if “we” are to meet “the demands of basic justice.” Has Catholic social thought ever experienced a more open, equitable, dynamic and just system? “For example,” the paragraph concludes lamely, “a system of taxation based on ‘assessment according to ability to pay’ is a prime necessity for the fulfillment of these social obligations.” Progressive taxation! As if we did not already have it. In 1982, the last year available, the wealthiest 20 percent of all Americans paid more than 66 percent of all federal income taxes paid, and the next 30 percent paid another 27 percent.

The next “moral norm” concerns those Third-World words, “marginalization” and “powerlessness.” The draft reads: “The ultimate injustice is for a person or group to be actively treated or passively abandoned as if they were nonmembers of the human race.” American law places no American in that position. No society in history has ever been more open to the tired, the poor, and the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Ours has been a land of opportunity, as all our families well know. It still is such for the millions of immigrants of the 1970s and 1980s. “Stated positively,” the draft says, “justice demands that social institutions be ordered in a way that guarantees all persons the opportunity to participate actively in the economic, political, and cultural life of society.” But U.S. institutions are already so ordered. Why not give them credit accordingly?

The second subject of this section is human rights—more exactly “economic rights.” The introduction of “economic rights” into Catholic social thought is a project dear to many social democrats and democratic socialists. It is a highly controversial project, which many others deem antithetical both to Catholic thought and to the American tradition. To find rooting for it, it is necessary to misstate the teaching of Pope John XXIII, which the second draft does. It is also necessary to use the word rights in a new way, not in keeping with the American philosophic, constitutional, and legal traditions. In the usage of Pope John XXIII, the word rights has a specific Catholic meaning. It would be wise to distinguish it carefully from the traditional American meaning of “rights.” Otherwise our fellow citizens will conclude that the second draft is calling for a constitutional amendment, or new legal rights to tie up the courts.

Here is how the second draft misstates the teaching of John XXIII:

A number of these rights [in Pacem in Terris] are of a specifically economic nature. In the first place stand the rights to life, food, clothing, shelter, rest and medical care.

But this assertion will not be found in Pacem in Terris. On the contrary, in a section explicitly invoking both “rights” and “responsibilities,” these “rights” are listed by the pontiff under “Rights to Life,” and said by him to appertain solely to those who “through no fault of their own” cannot meet these responsibilities themselves. In Catholic thought, each person first has responsibilities, and should fulfill these rights for himself and his dependents. Only when “through no fault of his own” a person cannot meet these responsibilities does the community have an obligation to come to his aid. That teaching opens the only path to full human dignity. Dependency, except when necessary, cannot bring full human dignity.

Only a few paragraphs later does Pope John XXIII mention “economic rights” explicitly and under a bold-face heading. Clearly, he intends a distinction between “economic rights” and “rights of life.” The “economic rights” he lists are classically American: the right to initiative and enterprise; the right to. [not be prevented from] work; the right to humane working conditions; the right to property. The second draft confuses the two types of rights, “rights to life” and “economic rights,” as Pacem in Terris does not.

The second draft is quite explicit about proposing a novelty. “These economic rights,” it asserts, meaning “rights to life,” in Pope John XXIII’s sense, “are as essential to human dignity as are the political and civil freedoms granted pride of place in the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution.” No, they are not. These “rights” undermine human dignity. No one who is a ward of the state can share the same full dignity as persons of self-reliance. The Catholic ideal is self-reliance. Pope John XXIII carefully limited the “rights to life” only to those who could not care for themselves. His is a noble idea, in the Catholic meaning of “rights,” viz., that the needy make a legitimate claim by the virtue of justice upon the community.

Such a Catholic “right” can never be a right in the U.S. Constitution, without altering dramatically the power of the state. “We believe,” the second draft continues, “that these economic rights should be granted a status in the cultural and legal traditions of this nation analogous to that held by the civil and political rights to freedom of religion, speech and assembly.” But “economic rights” are essentially different from civil and political rights. To be exactly like the civil and political rights, American citizens would have to be free to practice religion, speak, and assemble, just as they are free to live, eat, clothe themselves, shelter themselves, take rest, and obtain medical care. The state is not required to give citizens churches, radio stations, and assembly halls. Citizens have both the right to these things, and the responsibility to obtain them themselves. So it ought also to be with “economic rights,” if there is true analogy. Congress is quite correct to rule that, even if the Supreme Court gives mothers the right to an abortion, the state does not have to pay for it. The claims of “economic rights” will not successfully be limited, once entertained.

If the second draft intends a rhetorical declaration of “economic rights,” that will not help the poor. If they intend a “legal” declaration, they are in for a huge constitutional battle, which will bitterly divide the Catholic people. The issue is not whether those in need should be helped by the community, even by the state; that is the basis of existing U.S. social welfare programs. The declaration of new constitutional “rights” would require an immensely divisive ideological battle. By itself, such a declaration would not help the poor. Its sole purpose would be ideological. It would impose the Marxist definition of “economic rights” upon the Western tradition of civil and political rights. That is the aim David Hollenbach, S.J., sets himself in Claims in Conflict. It is not an aim most Americans will support.

Indeed, in para. 86, the second draft backs away from what it has just said. It switches from the language of “rights” to “moral objectives.” The text reads: “There is certainly room for diversity of opinion in the church and in U.S. society on how to protect the human dignity and economic rights of all our brothers and sisters. In our view, however, there can be no legitimate disagreement on the basic moral objectives.” Which is it, then, “rights” or “moral objectives?” The latter concept represents the long tradition of the American people and the Catholic church. The former will cause a huge constitutional controversy in the United States. [To be continued.]


  • Michael Novak

    Michael Novak (1933-2017) founded Crisis Magazine with Ralph McInerny in 1982. He held the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and was a trustee and visiting professor at Ave Maria University. In 1994, he received the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He was also an emissary to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

tagged as:

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on
Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

We must raise $60,000 to fund our work and continue offering the most incisive commentary in the culture wars.

Will you please make a donation today?

Share to...