The Corner

The Divine Economy: On the New Papal Encylical

On Tuesday, Pope Benedict XVI will release his first social encyclical, Caritas in Veritate. The pre-release buzz from the Catholic Left on each of his two previous encyclicals has so far proven wrong each time, so the rule should be to wait and see what the pope will actually say.

Each time, with previous encyclicals, we have been told that the pope is preparing to lambaste capitalism and call for state measures to heavily regulate it with an eye to redistributing wealth, cleaning up the environment, controlling consumption, etc. Each time, the final text has demonstrated that the pope’s conversion to progressivist causes has been greatly exaggerated. Invariably, his arguments have been highly sophisticated and have defied easy political categorization.

In advance of Caritas in Veritate, Catholic “progressives” are working themselves into a frenzy of predictions, recommendations, and anathemas — and not one of them, to my knowledge, has seen even an early draft of the encyclical which has been two years in the making.

Will the document draw attention to the weaknesses of Western-style capitalist systems? One hopes so. We might expect the pope to call on market forces to be regulated by moral concerns, within a strong juridical framework, and an exogenous apparatus of standards to curb excesses.

But here is the operative question: In what sense would such a call be a blow against the idea of free economic institutions? The short answer is that it will not be.

There are few advocates of market economics who advocate a complete lack of regulation rightly understood. Every transaction in the marketplace is in fact regulated by contract law, reputation, industry standards, competition, certification and monitoring, and profit and loss systems that reward prudence and punish excess over the long term.

Do these need strengthening? Certainly, and it should be noted that a main force for weakening them is not the market as such, but partisan interventions in the market.

Consider the drive for ever-lower interest rates as one of many examples. This is a subsidy for excess because it encourages borrowing at the expense of saving. If Benedict writes of the need for greater prudence and caution in economic affairs, permitting interest rates to rise to a market level would go a long way toward achieving that.

Will the pope overtly call for a global, centralized, state-based management of economic systems about which would-be central planners have long dreamed? I would be very surprised. This is a man who has stood firm against every form of statist control of society. As his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, illustrated, he has a deep attachment to subsidiarity as an essential principle for a free and good society, and I would be amazed to see him give up his love for liberty because the concern of the moment is economics.

But details aside, it is good to step back a moment and reflect on what Catholic social teaching is and what it is not, so that in studying the new encyclical, we gain a deeper appreciation of its intent and scope.

Since 1870, the papacy has explicitly claimed to exercise the charisma of infallibility in the very area that “progressives” — “dissenters” is a more accurate word — have labored to dilute and “episcopalianize” for 40 years: faith and morals. In fact, Catholic progressives will find themselves on the horns of an intolerable ecclesiological dilemma no matter what the contents of the document.

On the one hand (doctrine, liturgy, and sexual morality), progressives tend to take dissenting positions from defined and binding Church teaching. On the other hand (economic and social policy), they want to boast of the Church’s “best kept secret,” especially to the extent that they think it coheres with any number of secular-left platforms, while ignoring those aspects of Catholic social teaching that clearly don’t fit the leftist nostrums.

It is quite a spectacle to see Catholic progressives — who in other circumstances contort themselves into exegetical pretzels when they want to undermine clear, emphatic, authoritative, and repeated magisterial prohibitions on same-sex relations, female “priests,” and contraceptive acts — morph into virtual Ultramontanists on prudential matters such as the precise level of a minimum wage.

Let us be clear: The Church explicitly makes no such claims of infallibility on those policy matters that it considers a matter for prudential judgment (i.e., most policy issues) but allows for Catholics to hold a variety of viewpoints on such questions such as the exact size of the state’s share of the economy. Clearly no Catholic can be an anarchist or a communist — but there is a lot of room for prudential disagreement within these parameters. Benedict XVI has followed the model of John Paul II in saying that the Church has no infallible model of political economy to impose on the world. The Church’s social teaching is not, as John Paul stated, a “third way.”

Further, as pointed out by my friend Michael Novak, the word capitalism is being thrown around in reckless ways these days. Citing Fr. Thomas Reese, S.J., whom Novak charmingly calls “one of our most reliable leftist bellwethers,” in an article in the Washington Post, Novak shows how such thinkers don’t even know what modern capitalism is.

Fr. Reese asks, “If they think that Obama is a socialist, what will they think of Benedict after the encyclical?” and prophesies, “Conservatives will be shocked and disappointed by the encyclical, which will reflect Benedict’s skepticism toward unbridled capitalism based on greed.”

I am not sure who such conservative defenders of “unbridled capitalism based on greed” are supposed to be. Perhaps Fr. Reese has the disciples of the atheist Ayn Rand in mind, but they are hardly representative of those modern defenders of the market economy such as Rocco Buttiglione, Wilhelm Röpke, and William F. Buckley. I think it is a fair prediction to say that any pope would come out against any system “based on greed.” Erecting fictions about capitalism and its defenders — and then criticizing them — might take you a long way in the bubble of the Georgetown Faculty Lounge, but that hardly constitutes a serious argument.

— Father Robert A. Sirico is president and co-founder of the Acton Institute.

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