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Is there a Christian economic system?

Many approaches could be taken to this theme. Given the limitations on time, and the general setting for this series of lectures (i.e. the centennial of "Rerum Novarum") I will concentrate on how Catholic Christianity has approached the question of a Christian economic system in the papal encyclicals. Though one could hardly claim that what is taught at this level automatically represents the attitudes of all Catholics, it is certainly fair to say that given the hierarchical nature of Catholicism, these documents have an impact far beyond the writings of an individual theologian or a local conference of bishops.

The issue of whether there existed an inherently Catholic economic system occupied the attention of those church leaders, theologians and lay people known collectively as the Fribourg Union whose meetings beginning in 1884 paved the way for the emergence of "Rerum Novarum" in 1891. Throughout the course of its deliberations, the Union directed its attention to a general discussion of capitalism as an overall socio-economic system. In some of its conversations, the Union clearly leaned towards a basically negative view of Capitalism seeing it as inseparably entwined with egotism and usury. Its view of socialism was even more condemnatory.

The Fribourg Union's critique of capitalism, however, was never carried to any substantive conclusion. Rather The members devoted their energy to the creation of a more moderate social model termed the regime corporatif. This model was described by the Union as rooted in natural human groups that correspond to natural interests and common social functions. It was to find its way into the first two social encyclicals as the Catholic substitute for capitalism and socialism. With its roots extending back into medieval visions of the just and tranquil society, it was fervently hoped by the Union, and later by Leo XIII and Pius XI, that Catholic support of this regime corporatif would help overcome the social chaos then rampant in Europe which the union attributed to rationalism, capitalism, and above all to Protestantism which the Union members saw as having generated the decline in political authority and the rapid spread of individualism.

Ultimately the Fribourg Union must be said to have chosen the road of social reform rather than social revolution. The appeal of its final declaration to Leo XIII and his aristocratically-oriented milieu lay in the fact that its proposed economic reform was encased in a social model solidly standing on scholastic philosophical foundations. As Normand Paulhaus has rightly observed, the Union's purpose in proposing the establishment of a corporative system "was simply to reform the contemporary socioeconomic order and rid it of its worst defects. The Medieval Spirit, not its institutions, served as the |old wine' which they now tried to pour into|new wineskins'".(1)

The society envisioned by the Fribourg Union depended on the reemergence of natural organic units which were to serve as the cornerstone of the reformed, more just society of the future. The medieval notion that duties prevailed over rights (if, in fact, the latter existed at all) basically remained intact, though in modified form. But the modification was critical. For the social system to reacquire its viability, for social chaos to end, natural social units would need to receive a new legal status. In addition, members of these groups must be accorded freedom of speech and must enjoy political representation. Here was the basis for the new Catholic commitment to the justice of union organizing. Here as well, even if somewhat implicitly, was a decisive rejection of the notion of class struggle, an attitude that has remained firmly entrenched in papal social teachings until today.

This brief overview of the genesis of the Fribourg Union's vision of economic justice within a Catholic context is crucial for a proper understanding of the directions the church has taken during the last century. The Fribourg Union had clearly established certain parameters for the Catholic commitment to economic justice that have tended to remain firm and consistent. They are the following: (1) no rejection of private property; (2) no endorsement of class struggle; (3) no formal support of capitalism (only the recent "Centesimus Annus," to be discussed later, approaches such an endorsement); (4) a preferential option for the rights of workers because it is their class whose allegiance the Church stands to lose, a position which evolves in later encyclicals into a broader option for the poor; and (5) firm support for unionization based on a reinterpretation of the classical organic model of society.

The ideas of the Fribourg Union first received papal approval in January, 1888, in the context of a meeting between Union leaders and Leo XIII. The Union's strong attachment to the scholastic tradition coupled with their fervent attacks on the social dangers of Protestantism convinced the Pope that the economic vision they espoused qualified as truly "Catholic." Paradoxically, by the time of the actual issuance of "Rerum Novarum," the Union had basically fallen into disarray. It would make no further contribution to the development of Catholic social teaching.

It might be noted at this point that the economic justice model proposed by the Fribourg Union arid largely accepted by Leo XIII in "Rerum Novarum" had only minimal impact at most on the American church. In two Depression-era statements on economic matters, in 1933 and 1940, U.S. Bishops introduced some of the principal ideas associated with the Fribourg Union's regime corporatif. The 1940 statement even called for the establishment of guilds in direct imitation of the Fribourg model. But the Bishops also made it quite clear in these two statements that in the end the Church prescribed no set model of economic organization. And when the suggestion of guilds generated little interest in the United States, even among Catholic workers, the idea was quickly forgotten by the Bishops. Never again would they push an explicitly "Catholic" model in their statements on economic justice.

Returning to the development of the Catholic encyclical tradition relative to economic justice, we should focus for a moment on the second of the social encyclicals, Pius XI's Quadragesimo Anno." Its vision is very similar in most aspects to that in "Rerum Novarum." But one problem did become more acute in the mid-thirties: economic concentration. In a number of addresses prior to the encyclical itself, Pius XI denounced those who had accumulated invested funds and were using them solely for the sake of personal dominance. They were destroying the free market and rendering the economic system harsh and cruel. To counter this trend, "Quadragesimo Anno" gave special emphasis to a theme that would become central to Catholic social teaching in subsequent years, namely, subsidiarity. Though this theme has roots in "Rerum Novarum," it received its classic formulation from Pius XI.

In recent years the principle has become a source of some controversy in Catholic circles. Some conservative Catholics have used it as the backbone of their attack on the liberal welfare state and any type of governmental intervention in the economy. Within the more left-leaning Catholic peace and justice movement, where some variation of socialism is generally a preferred substitute for capitalism, the principle has largely fallen into disuse. This abandonment of the principle of subsidiarity has elicited a sharp rebuke from certain Catholic writers such as Andrew Greely and John Coleman.

One person who has attempted to reinvigorate the principle of subsidiarity in recent years is Msgr. George Higgins. Higgins has tried to defuse "subsidiarity" as an ideological issue by arguing that it is erroneous to assume, in light of this principle, that voluntary associations always take precedence over state institutions or that "government is best which governs least." Rather, the principle demands a far more balanced outlook. On the one hand, state institutions need to respect the roles of individuals and voluntary associations in a given society. But equally governments must be prepared to adopt those programs that are required by the common good and which "are beyond the competence of individual citizens or groups of citizens. The principle of subsidiarity is concerned with the relationship of the state to other societies, not with the nature of the state itself."(2)

Whether "subsidiarity" will return to its position of former glory within the Catholic economic vision, or whether it has been effectively replaced in more recent papal encyclicals by the strong emphasis on the principle of participation, remains an open question in my judgement. Clearly all of the Vatican II era encyclicals (including "Centesimus Annus") insist on a central role for government in fostering economic justice. The final verdict on whether this principle can encompass a central governmental role, as George Higgins insists it can, is not yet available.

Pope Pius XII did not issue any encyclical dealing with economic matters, but it would be erroneous to think he made no significant contribution to Catholic teaching in this regard. In a series of Christmas sermons broadcast to a war-weary European population at the beginning of the 1940's Pius XII laid the groundwork for a major turn in Catholic thinking on economic questions. First of all, he clearly withdrew any further Church support for efforts to preserve the old social barriers and aristocratic privileges in Europe. He stood willing to make a move which the Fribourg Union, Leo XIII and Pius XI had all resisted. For Pius XII, nothing short of a fundamental reconstruction of the international economic order would bring about human dignity for all, a dignity which every person enjoys as a birthright and whose ultimate source is God. In Pius XII'S view the regime corporatif was too locked into the old social order to be able to produce the necessary international economic revolution.

Specific themes in the Christmas sermons include the following: (1) the economically advantaged nations must assume major responsibility for creating a new economic order devoid of the disequilibrium of past systems; (2) the religious dimensions of human existence cannot be fully grasped apart from an understanding of the profound impact of economic realities on this existence; (3) no analysis of war can bypass an appreciation of its economic dimensions; and (4) susidiarity ought to remain central in a reconstituted international economic system. Clearly here was the seedbed for many of the principal themes of the social encyclicals which have appeared in the four decades since the end of World War II.

The election of John XXIII opened up a whole new era in Catholic social teaching on economic matters. While the first two social encyclicals had basically tried to repair the existing social order of Europe in a way that would enhance the rights of the working class, John XXIII took up the challenge which his predecessor in the papacy had sketched in his Christmas addresses.

Nothing in John XXIII'S writings suggests that he favored a wholesale abandonment of the prevailing capitalist system in the restructuring process. But he did call for a major overhaul of this system that went well beyond the reformist impulses of Leo XIII and Pius XI.

John XXIII's thinking on economic justice was also marked by a spirit of pluralism. Absent from his writings are the harsh condemnations of socialism that were a hallmark of the earlier encyclicals. There is also a greater recognition that economic schemes must be related to specific conditions prevailing in a given nation. The Church cannot endorse one economic model for all social settings. Clearly John XXIII saw no value in pushing the "regime corporatif" suggested in previous encyclicals. John XXIII's papacy brings to a close the effort launched by the Fribourg Union to create a distinctively Catholic alternative to existing economic theories.

Pope Paul VI further intensified John XXIII'S call for economic pluralism in Catholicism. Paul VI definitely did not believe that the Church is wedded to any specific economic system rooted in natural law. His letter Octogesima Adveniens, issued for the eighteenth anniversary of "Rerum Novarum," underscored this point.

It should also be noted that this pluralistic approach to economic problems owes much to the change in ecclesiastical vision endorsed by the II Vatican Council. Paul VI refers to this change in Octogesima Adveniens. In the new conciliar vision the local church assumes a much greater responsibility for providing moral guidelines for its specific socio-economic situation.

Another important feature of Paul Vi's approach to economic justice was his emphasis on the centrality of political participation in the process. Economic inequalities were not merely the result of technical flaws in the economic system, but were rather directly caused by the lack of meaningful participation and power in the political system. Paul VI thus continued in the footsteps of John XXIII in his focus on participation as a vital ingredient of the struggle for a just international economic order.

Without question the most controversial aspect of Paul VI's teachings on economic justice in Populorum Progressio and Octogesima Adveniens concerned his attitudes towards Marxism and private property. On one hand, Paul VI employed strong language in criticizing the ideologies behind many socialist economic theories. Similarly, he warned Christians against adopting idealist models of socialism while ignoring the abuses widespread in specific socialist societies. Any attempt by Catholics to introduce Marxist analysis into a consideration of contemporary economic affairs met strong resistance in Paul VI's writings. He terms such efforts "illusory and dangerous." Yet, after all these warnings, he nonetheless endorses the idea of some cooperation between Catholics and Socialists in Octgesima Adveniens.(3)

The fear among some Catholics that Paul VI, despite his critical rebuff of Marxist ideologies, was in fact turning Catholicism towards socialism came especially from his statements on private property. He went considerably beyond his predecessors in speaking about legitimate restrictions on private property. In Populorum Progressio he acknowledged the right of the state to expropriate certain property which is underused, poorly used, whose present use results in hardship for the people of whose use is detrimental for the overall well-being of the nation. He also regards as morally unacceptable the practice of the rich of transferring their wealth outside their own country without any regard for the detrimental effect this may have on the national economy.(4)

Paul VI's "socialist" reputation was further enhanced in the eyes of some by his general hostility towards the renewal of liberal ideology in economic affairs in the name of economic efficiency. This was seen by many as the most trenchant critique of the capitalist system ever to appear in a papal document. While many Catholics, especially those in the financial world, took strong exception to what they considered a virtual endorsement of socialism, other Catholics, especially in developing countries, saw it as an endorsement for their personal involvement in anti-capitalist movements.

Moving to the current papacy, John Paul 11 has issued three major encyclicals largely devoted to economic questions. They are "Laborum Exercens," "Sollicitudo Rei Socialis," and most recently "Centesimus Annus." In addition, his very first encyclical "Redemptor Hominis," though it did not directly focus on economic issues, did establish an overall theological framework which the Pope has subsequently employed in arguing his case for greater economic justice in the other three letters. This framework revolves around a vision of the Christological basis of human dignity.

Three themes in particular emerge as central in the first of John Paul's specifically economic encyclicals, "Laborem Exercens." The first is the centrality of work to the whole social question. The second major point is the more creative one - work is considered not only for its potential to dehumanize, but as the means whereby the human community assists in the sanctification of creation through exercise of its gift of co-creatorship.

Third, John Paul II joins his immediate predecessors in the papacy by emphasizing that a just wage does not exhaust the justice question relative to workers. Beyond insisting on a just wage, he calls for new forms of profit-sharing, co-management, and co-ownership of productive property as an inherent part of workers' rights. His views here bear a strong affinity to the early Solidarity vision for economic justice in his native Poland.

The theology of "Laborem Exercens" has generated considerable controversy in Catholic circles. Michael Novak has argued that it represents a firm papal endorsement of some central themes of democratic capitalism.(5) Msgr. Higgins, on the contrary, reads it as containing a far greater challenge to western capitalism than people like Novak would admit. The Pope's strong reaffirmation of the union movement together with his call for a direct role for workers in the ownership of the means of production raise serious questions about classic capitalist positions. When John Paul speaks of workers as fully entitled to regard themselves as part owners of the great workbench at which they labor, he seems to be standing much closer to socialism than to capitalism. Polish philosopher, Fr. Jozef Tischner, a close friend and advisor to John Paul II and a probable source for some of the ideas in "Laborem Exercens," has stated that in this encyclical the Pope espoused a moderate form of socialism rooted in the Solidarity movement's plan for Polish economic restructuring.

John Paul II's two more recent social encyclicals "Sollicitudo Rei Socialis" and "Centesimus Annus" focus far more directly on particular socio-economic questions than the more theologically-oriented "Laborem Exercens." All three encyclicals must also be placed in relation to the many talks the Pope has given during his extensive travels in which he has often spoken about specific conditions of economic injustice. I make this point because certain commentators such as Michael Novak on "human creativity"(6) and George Weigel(7) on "freedom" tend to isolate a particular emphasis by the Pope in such a way that it ultimately distorts his overall position on socio-economic justice. Without question John Paul II places high priority on both human creativity and human freedom. He knows quite well how devastating its absence can be for human initiative and productivity. Nevertheless, to say that human creativity or human freedom stand by themselves as the cornerstone of John Paul's teaching on economic matters is to misread seriously his ultimate message.

Throughout his pontificate John Paul 11 has defended the principle of participation in economic life. Without it an economy ultimately not only stagnates, but also likely results in forms of economic concentration that leave millions in, or near the edge, of poverty. The right of economic initiative is strongly affirmed in "Sollicitudo Rei Socialis." And in "Centesimus Annus" John Paul affirms free market mechanisms more strongly and directly than any of his predecessors. He likewise raises specific criticisms of the operation of the welfare state bureaucracy, seeing it as a threat to subsidiarity and participation.

Yet there is need to underscore the point that though John Paul is philosophical by nature, he is not merely interested in proclaiming the intellectual triumph of one ideology over another. His primary focus is the impact of a particular system on the body politic. And in this context he warns that capitalism in the third world today is not much better in terms of its effect on the people than in Leo XIII's day. He has spoken in similar vein in a North American context in his Yankee Stadium address in 1979 and in various addresses in Canada. In this context neither of the two recent social encyclicals, nor John Paul II's many regional addresses on economic questions, justify such triumphant language relative to capitalism as Novak, Weigel or Richard John Neuhaus have used. Speaking in Edmonton, Alberta, John Paul was as blunt as possible: "The poor peoples of the South - poor in different ways, not only lacking food but also deprived of freedom and human rights - will sit in judgement of those of the North who take these goods away from them, amassing to themselves the imperialistic monopoly of economic and political supremacy."(8) And in an address on May 15, 1991, shortly after the release of "Centesimus Annus," the Pope told a group of international economic and political experts gathered in Rome to commemorate the anniversary of "Rerum Novarum" that growing economic imbalances among the nations of the world brought on by large concentrations of wealth must be ended. He also cited the ravaging effects of pollution (which he links to capitalism) in the same speech echoing a theme found in the encyclical itself.(9)

John Paul has spoken of disturbing links between capitalism and increasing world militarization (epitomized for him in the recent Gulf War) as well as of the dangerous affects of "capitalist-generated" culture on human consciousness. And, while staunchly upholding the traditional papal opposition to the notion of class conflict, John Paul has laid to rest in "Centesimus Annus" claims that Catholics must always work in a harmony model of society and eschew all social conflict. He clearly recognizes that at times social conflict may be demanded in order to make the economy more responsive to the demands of human dignity cf. #14).

As we reflect on the contour of papal social teaching on economic justice over the past century, we can say that there exists no sustained vision of a Catholic economic system as such. The first two encyclicals tried to promote one, but that effort failed. Subsequent papal writings have been rather adamant in rejecting one Catholic model. John Paul Il went to great lengths to make this point (by criticizing die so-called "third way") in "Sollicitudo Rei Socialis."'i Certain values do remain constant: the just wage, subsidiarity/participation, the dignity of the human person as the final barometer of an economic system, and the necessity for Catholics to actively participate in economic life as part of the process of human salvation (Catholics cannot be content with merely a countercultural or prophetic approach to economic life even though these may be necessary at time). In the main the Popes have recognized the market system as having the best potential for the achievement of global justice. But this potential will not be realized without a healthy dose of state intervention. And until human dignity around the globe is restored, Catholics are called by the social encyclicals to constructive repentance rather than celebration in terms of the present international economic order.


1. Normand J. Paulhaus, "Social Catholicism and the Fribourg

Union," Selected Papers-1980, The Society of Christian

Ethics, 79. 2. George Higgins, "Religion and National Economic Policy:

A Catholic Perspective," in Eugene J. Fisher and Daniel F.

Polish (eds.), "Formation of Social Policy in the Cadiolic

and Jewish Traditions." Notre Dame, IN: University of

Notre Dame Press, 1980, 92.

3. 31.

4. 24. 5. Michael Novak, "Creation Theology--John Paul Il and the

American Experience," This World, (Fall 1982). 86. 6. Michael Novak, "Creation Theology." 7. George Weigel, "The New, New Things. Pope John Paul

11 on Human Freedom," American Purpose, 5:5 (May-

June 1991), 33-40. 8. cf. David M. Byers (ed.), "Justice in the Marketplace:

Collected Statements of the Vatican and the United States

Catholic Bishops on Economic Policy, 1891-1984," General

Introduction and Documents Introductions by Rev.

John T. Pawlikowski, OSM, Ph.d Washington, D.C.:

U.S. Catholic Conference, 355; also cf. Gregory Baum,

"The Anti-cold War Encyclical," The Ecumenist, 26:5

July-august 1988), 65-74. 9. cf. Catholic News Service, "Pope, criticizing Capitalism,

laments widening rich-poor gap, ecological damage,"

National Catholic Reporter, 27:31 (May 31, 1991), 8. 10. Gregory Baum, "The Anti-cold War Encyclical," 69.
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Title Annotation:Symposium: Ethics in Business
Author:Pawlikowski, John T.
Publication:Review of Business
Date:Dec 22, 1991
Previous Article:'Economic Justice for All': the 1986 US bishops' pastoral letter.
Next Article:Is there a Christian economic order?

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