Church Social Teaching: An Inconvenient Truth

Edward Hadas FAITH Magazine March-April 2010

Edward Hadas takes George Weigel to task for criticising Caritas in Veritate concerning the context of the free-market and technology. Mr Hadas is Assistant Editor of the leading source of financial commentary Reuters BreakingViews.

Many American, and a few British, Catholic intellectuals have long believed that the Church should stand firmly to the right on almost all political and economic matters. In the United States, their views can be found in the National Review and First Things. In the UK, the Institute for Economic Affairs is a sympathetic think-tank.

This approach has two big problems. First, it is wrong. The Magisterium has, from the 1891 Encyclical Rerum Novarum onward, consistently endorsed many left-wing ideas: the rights of workers, the value of international authorities, the virtue of sharing wealth within and across political borders, the futility of war, the need to constrain "market" forces. Even in his 1979 speech repudiating the Marxist political-theological matrix of liberation theology, Pope John Paul II reminded the bishops of Latin America that "internal and international peace will be assured only when a social and economic system based on justice takes effect".

Second, it is confused about reality. In a world of huge bureaucratic governments and highly regulated bureaucratic economies, calls for "free markets" are little more than Utopian fantasies. Complaints about the intrusive and demoralising welfare state have more validity, but these social programmes do much good and could not be eliminated without threatening the whole social order.

The weak thinking of the right was all too evident in the response to Benedict XVI's Caritas in Veritate. George Weigel, writing in National Review Online, explained that the document was written by two hands, the Pope's and that of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. He has no time for the latter's supposed contributions.

His complaint is centred on the right's shibboleth: free markets. The document does not endorse them. In fact, it suggests that the commutative justice of free exchange is not a sufficiently strong foundation for a successful economy. The justice that comes through enforced sharing (found in the tax and benefit systems of welfare states) is higher - since it reflects a consensus of social solidarity - but still not enough. As befits men made in the image of a freely loving God, something more generous is needed:

"When both the logic of the market and the logic of the State come to an agreement that each will continue to exercise a monopoly over its respective area of influence, in the long term much is lost: solidarity in relations between citizens, participation and adherence, actions of gratuitousness, all of which stand in contrast with giving in order to acquire (the logic of exchange) and giving through duty (the logic of public obligation, imposed by State law).

In order to defeat underdevelopment, action is required not only on improving exchange-based transactions and implanting public welfare structures, but above all on gradually increasing openness, in a world context, to forms of economic activity marked by quotas of gratuitousness and communion. The exclusively binary model of market-plus-State is corrosive of society ... The market of gratuitousness does not exist, and attitudes of gratuitousness cannot be established by law. Yet both the market and politics need individuals who are open to reciprocal gift." (39)

According to Weigel, the call for gratuitousness is "clotted and muddled", carrying the danger of "a confused sentimentality". That is silly. The language may not be stirring, but the thought is a clear development of John Paul II's observations in his great social encyclical, Centesimus Annus: "[P]rior to the logic of a fair exchange of goods and the forms of justice appropriate to it, there exists something which is due to man because he is man, by reason of his lofty dignity" (35).

Weigel is right to ask for more thought about what "gift" might mean in the big, bad world of the modern economy. He is wrong to suggest that it means nothing. Without freely offered gifts, there could be no marriages, families, schools, hospitals, churches or police forces. Unless economic activity is completely different from all other human endeavours, it too must be marked by gratuity.

For the most part, the right-wing critique simply ignores Chapter Six of Caritas in Veritate, "The Development of Peoples and Technology". Perhaps this important statement about a key element of modern society is too European and complicated. For those of a philosophical bent, this chapter looks like a Magisterial response to Martin Heidegger's 1953 essay "The Question Concerning Technology", which suggested that the modern fixation with technology has made men think falsely that they can control the mysteries of Being.

Unlike Heidegger, the Pope sees much that is good in all technology: "In technology we express and confirm the hegemony of the spirit over matter" (69). Like Heidegger, Benedict sees something wrong in the intense modern interest in technology. It can be a search for a non-existent "absolute freedom", which "seeks to prescind from the limits inherent in things" (70). Benedict explains why the refusal to show wonder and gratitude towards the Creator leads to disregard for the environment, the horrors of bio-technology and a limited instrumental approach to such apparently non-technological challenges as peace and psychology.

Caritas in Veritate is a remarkable document. It offers a unified analysis of the challenges of contemporary society. As one should expect of a statement of the Church's Ordinary Magisterium it is also soundly based on the tradition of Catholic Social Teaching and anthropology. The right-wing critics of the encyclical seem to miss the point.

Faith Magazine

March - April 2010