A Listening, Learning Church

I attended, in mid-October, in Rome at the Pontifical Council of Justice and Peace, a quite spirited three-day symposium on the topic of " Caritas ihn Veritate and the American Church and Society". Besides the Pontifical Council of Justice and Peace, the meeting was co-sponsored by the Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. That institude actually pretty much programmed the meeting, chose the participants and saw to it that the agenda for carrying on the actual gathering was much more frank and open-ended than is usual in such Vatican gatherings. The 29 invited participants had all written and read each others' back-ground papers in advance, so the sessions were much more give-and-take discussions than the usual long droning reading of papers at one another, more typical of European symposiums. A book based on these conference papers will eventually be published by Oxford University Press. An insider Vatican watcher said that few earlier Pontifical Coouncil of Justice and Peace symposiums had ever been quite so frank, quite so critical ( while, at the same time, also respectful), quite so animated.

Among the twenty-nine invited participants were specialists on developmental economics ( a main topic of the 2009 papal encyclical, Caritas in Veritate), lawyers, ethicists of note ( e.g. David Hollenbach S.J. and Kenneth Himes O.F.M. of Boston College, Bryan Hehir of Harvard's Kennedy School) and a bevy of economists: Matthew Slaughter, dean of the School of Business at Dartmouth; Daniel Finn of Saint John's University in Minnesota; notably Stefano Zagmani, economist at the University of Bologna who, as a member of the Pontifical Council of Justice and Peace, is reputed to have written large sections of Caritas in Veritate. Two well-known journalists, John Allen from The National Catholic Reporter and Clifford Longley, a columnist for The Tablet were also present. Both have written their reflections on this meeting.

The papal encyclical was written to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Paul Vi's earlier social encyclical on economic development, Populorum Progressio. Unlike most earlier social encyclicals whose language resonated with ' natural law' and focused in a key way on the motifs of justice and the common good, Caritas in Veritate is much more explicitly Christian and theological.  It takes love ( and the gift character of grace) as the key to understanding Catholic Social Teaching. The advantage in this choice ( not surprising coming from a theologian of the stature of Benedict XVI) is that the encyclical does not mask the theological grounding for Catholic concerns for justice, economic fairness, care for those in need. Its disadvantage, at times, is that the language may be either too specialized or arcane ( invoking, for example, the Trinity) for economists, social scientists and policy makers or may sound too triumphal. In the words of one participant, the key to judging the success of any social encyclical is its reception and influence on policy makers.

Thus, the claim in # 4 of the encyclical that " adhering to the values of Christianity is not merely useful but essential for building a good society and a true integral development", struck some of the participants as not only far-fetched but off-putting for any dialogue about economic development, global governance and care for massive world problems of poverty and war which, by their very nature, would demand cooperation across national cultures and religions for any serious address or useful steps forward.

Not surprising for a document on economic development, a long list of items get treated: aid, immigration, agricultural and food policy, transfer of technology, global governance, ethical financing. Some felt that this laundry-list lacked any clear punch of prioritizing. Clearly, for me, three things stand out in the encyclical. The first is the polemic against the usual, abstract and reductionist, notion of homo economicus: a basically atomistic individual who maximizes his or her interest and profit. Against this stereotypical view of market mechanisms, the encyclical stresses that the human is essentially relational. The logic of gift ( grace; the gift of Christ as the Word or Logos of God and as the embodiment of God's Agape or love; the world itself as a gift and a kind of common patrimony of all humankind; the very gratuitous character of our lives) lifts up notions of reciprocity, solidarity, mutuality, gratuitousness.

In a sense, the encyclical faults most economic thought which places all these as mere externalities to the market. Against that flawed logic, it argues: " The Church's social doctrine holds that authentically human social relationships of friendship, solidarity, reciprocity can also be conducted within economic activity, and not only outside it of ' after' it... The traditional principles of social ethics like transparency, honesty and responsibility cannot be ignored or attenuated, but also in commercial relationships the principle of gratuitousness and the logic of gift as an expression of fraternity can and must find their place within normal economic activity...Every economic decision has a moral consequence.. Space also needs to be created within the market for economic activity carried out by subjects who free choose to act according to principles other than those of pure profit, without sacrificing the production of economic value in the process." ( #'s 36, 37)

Another key element in Caritas in Veritate is its insistance that the environment is also not an externality to the economic order. For the first time, a long and deftly crafted treatment of the environment is a part of a social encyclical dealing with economics, politics and issues of peace. The third element in the encyclical is a subtle treatment of globalization as, per se, neither good nor bad but needing, to be sure, regulation and governance. One participant wondered why the issues of gender ( most development economists argue that educating women or focusing micro-financing schemes on them is key), education and health were not much dealt with in the encyclical-- especially surprising since the church has such a vast network of institutions in the developing world devoted to education and health care.

One of the journalists asked Mario Toso, the Bishop Secretary of the Council, whether the Vatican was listening and learning from dialogue with social scientists? The meeting itself seems to show that they are. But an equal challenge is to the church in America. Can it hear what the papal teaching is saying ? In an article written about Caritas in Veritate, James Hug S.J. argued that the papal vision  "conflicts head on with many American cultural assumptions". In particular, he notes, Benedict XVI's view of the market, business and politics might be, in places, hard for Americans to swallow. " The market must integrate more relational principles into its working. Trust and a sense of gift or gratuity in relationships between producers and consumers need to replace cut-throat competition and a philosophy of caveat emptor. Creation of wealth is not businesses' only responsibility. Every business must recognize its responsibilities to its stakeholders, including workers, clients, suppliers, consumers, local communities and the environment."  The good bishop might well have retorted to the question posed at him: to what extent do American Catholics, also, represent a listening, learning church ?


John A. Coleman, S.J.





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8 years 1 month ago
Vince -

I don't disagree that the desire for profit is problematic; my point is that we try to separate business from people, when they are one and the same.  We portray workers and consumers as victims of corporate greed when many of those "victims" are the stockholders and/or consumers demanding cheap goods who are driving the businesses to be ever more profitable.
Vince Killoran
8 years 1 month ago
We need to return our focus to people as producers and not consumers-before WWII "the Labor Question" dominated but it has, sadly, receded since then.  I would add "the Environmental Question" alongside it.
8 years 1 month ago
There's an uprising in liberal circles against the mean old greedy businesses that are all that is wrong with this country.  But one needs only to look at his workplace, his own business, or the businesses that he patronizes to know that "caveat emptor" is hardly the sole operating principle in business in this country.  Honesty and integrity are part of the free market; unethical businesses do not last long.  My worst business experiences have been in foreign countries.

Big business gets a lot of press when allegations of ethical misconduct are made; it's difficult to determine, though, the extent of such misconduct over the thousands and thousands of businesses worldwide.

I wonder whether the encyclical mentions stockholders' demand for profit and the pressure it puts on businesses to cross ethical and moral lines?  

8 years 1 month ago

This may sound like a flip comment but it is meant to be serious.  And that is, does Catholic Social Justice efforts hurt the poor?  Does the intervention in the market place to help the poor end up hurting them instead?
Fr. Coleman and all the rest of the authors here should take that thought seriously.  By  trying to intervene in the efforts of others and dictate how they should behave, does that through secondary and tertiary effects end up hurting the poor.   Let me provide a case in point.  The current financial crisis started as an attempt to help the poor with housing.  This distorted the normal supply and demand relationships of the housing market till it eventually collapsed.  Along the way it created all sorts of liquidity problems and short term incentives to make large profits by side players in this phenomenon.  The net result is that the economy almost collapsed in late 2008 from these ''noble'' ideas and who is paying for it now.  The answer is the poor.
So social justice in the sense or artificially interfering in the housing market has created mayhem for the poor.  Similarly the Great Society led to a 70% illegitimacy rates among Black Americans and the destruction of any viable family culture within this demographic group.  Again, an intervention to help actually has destroyed.
There are other examples.  So when I see the words governance, I cringe at what next social evil that do gooders in the name of social justice will create.   Conservatives and capitalism seen to get a bad name around here, but I see them as more effective in providing real social justice than any other philosophy I know of.
Vince Killoran
8 years 1 month ago
Michael's final question caught my eye, i.e., "I wonder whether the encyclical mentions stockholders' demand for profit and the pressure it puts on businesses to cross ethical and moral lines?"

That demand for ever-increasing profit is exactly the problem: and the true cost are borne by workers and the environment.   


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