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The Catholic Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.

Novak states the thesis of his work is this way: "Out of the crucible of a hundred-year debate within the Church came a fuller and more satisfying vision of the capitalist ethic than Max Weber's." For N., Max Weber was certainly correct in his understanding that capitalism requires certain moral and cultural underpinnings if it is to succeed as a system. However, Weber's two mistakes were to limit these underpinnings to Calvinsim and to miss their positive moral aspects.

From the moral persepective the primary advantage of capitalism over known socialist and traditional political economies is not that it serves liberty better; nor its relative superiority in caring for the environment; nor its demonstrated ability to raise the lot of the poor. Its primary moral advantage is brought out by John Paul II, who in recent documents speaks most clearly in favor of an anthropologically sound form of capitalism which recognizes the creative potential of active subjects.

As N. interprets John Paul in Centesimus annus, the free market is the best system today to give reasonable expression to the anthropological truth that the human person is made in the image of God the Creator. Of course, the market must be appropriately guided and constrained by political and cultural forces (libertarianism is excluded). It is ethically wrong and (as the spectacular collapse of socialism demonstrates) disastrously inexpedient to deny this creativity its appropriate expression. There is no economic blueprint here, but a vision which is broad enough to include political economies on the left (e.g. Sweden) and on the right (e.g. the U.S.).

It should noted that although N.'s work is not intended primarily as an in depth review of Catholic Social Thought, it is clear that this tradition is heavily filtered through the lens of its most recent documents. This introduces a certain fragility into the argument since a future encyclical may well (once again) show creative differences from previous ones.

Particularly helpful is a non-ideologically bound interpretation of the difficult term "social justice." For N., social justice is not a principle of social organization but "a specific modern form of the ancient virtue of justice" which is exercised when persons join voluntarily with others to bring about social change for the common good. Given the modern recognition that the common good is only achieved with the cooperation of persons who join in free associations, this virtue need not be the sole possession of those who favor enlarging the central authority. This modern conception leaves room for discussion about the precise nature of the common good and the means to achieve it. It is impossible to do justice here to the full development and elaboration of the concept which occurs throughout the work. I leave this pleasure to the reader.

I believe that the work contains a credible interpretation of the "option for the poor." Put succinctly, N.'s vision is for those outside the system to be given appropriate opportunities so that they may be included in the circle of production and exchange. To his credit, N. offers a concrete twelve-point program to combat economic dependency by strengthening the institutions of civil society and increasing human capital among the poor. For N., those who really meet the test of the option for the poor are those who put in place and strengthen actual institutions which have been shown to promote creativity and development. In these pages I do not always find the sense of urgency with respect to the problem of poverty that I would like, but what N. does say about the problem is very important.

N.'s insights into the moral underpinnings of democratic capitalism, his very helpful discussions of social justice, poverty, race, ethnicity, and moral ecology, certainly deserve serious consideration by Christian social ethicists.
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Author:Bayer, Richard C.
Publication:Theological Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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