Click here if you don’t see subscription options
Thomas J. MassaroJune 06, 2005

No matter how familiar readers may be with the tradition of Catholic social teaching, they will likely find the two chapters in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church on work and on economic life (Ch. 6 and 7) at once exhilarating and frustrating. They are exhilarating because these pages contain ample reminders of the great strengths of our tradition of social thought. Among the stirring accomplishments of Catholic social teaching recapitulated in these pages are the bold defense of workers’ rights in an age of industrial exploitation (starting with the 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum) and the growing scope and subtlety of church documents on social justice over the past half-century. Particularly since the 1960’s, Vatican sources (popes, synods of bishops, the second Vatican council) have articulated philosophically rigorous positions regarding such social priorities as the promotion of the common good and the taming of economic structures in order to protect the poor and advance social justice.

Ahistorical Truths

But the genre of this volume remains that of a catechism, and such reference works are almost by definition not great works of literature. A majority of the sentences are doomed to be declarative and definitional in nature, rather than narrative or descriptive. The frequent citation of long blocks of material from previous documents further constrains the authorial voice.

One also finds a curious aversion in these chapters to recognizing and describing the historical context of the church’s unfolding teachings on labor and the economy. Admittedly, some contextualization is accomplished earlier, especially in Chapter Two, where Nos. 89 to 103 trace a bit of the relevant history. Nevertheless, the compendium as a whole displays a marked preference to hold up as “timeless and constant teachings of the church” many features of social thought that in fact found expression only very gradually and recently, in response to specific abuses and as a result of the work and influence of particular social movements. The notions of the priority of labor (Nos. 276-80) and solidarity (Nos. 305-9) would particularly benefit from a more explicit appreciation of just how contingent and historically conditioned was the entrance of these terms into their current privileged place in Catholic social teaching.

In fact, both those terms gained prominence because of the writings and life-witness of Pope John Paul II. The late pope, who inspired and commissioned this volume, casts a long shadow on its pages. Nowhere is his commanding presence more evident than in the chapter on labor. The great frequency with which his own words or paraphrases of his ideas are cited here is almost disquieting. Of 133 references to church sources in the chapter’s 110 footnotes (not counting scriptural references), 84 come from encyclicals, addresses or other writings of John Paul II. The number rises to over 100 if we include other Vatican sources that appeared during his pontificate.

The final section of the chapter on labor contains valuable and sometimes novel material. After offering a succinct survey of well-organized but previously available material about biblical perspectives on labor, the dignity of work and the rights of workers, the chapter closes with a look at the dynamics of today’s workplace. Here the reader is treated to insights on globalization, its effects on workers and the radical restructuring of the entire production process. These paragraphs contain important material that should be studied as part of any pastoral reflection on factory relocations, changing job markets and the use of new technologies. If the economic policies pursued by the United States and other developed nations were to heed the protections for labor recommended in this section of the compendium, workers everywhere would find the workplace a more hospitable environment.

Favors the Market

Chapter Seven of the compendium bears the title “Economic Life.” It opens with two brief sections that offer a basic overview of scriptural treatments of wealth and poverty and then a brief collection of insights regarding the general topic of morality and the economy. The next two sections, the centerpiece of the chapter that takes up nine pages of text, attempt to summarize the content of over a century of Catholic social teaching on the neuralgic topic of the merits of free market economics. Readers who are familiar with the entire sweep of our documentary heritage will quickly detect an unfortunate bias in these pages. They overemphasize the praise that the church has extended to capitalism over recent decades and minimize the sustained and substantial criticisms of the reigning system of production and distribution.

These pages are not a faithful enough witness to the felicitous balance that has been struck in Catholic social thought between recognizing the necessity of capitalist-style competition while at the same time reminding entrepreneurs and investors that the proper end of economic activity is the progress of the entire community, especially of its poorest members. In their eagerness to expound the positive aspects of corporate enterprises and the entire capitalist system, these sections too often underplay the necessary caveats about greed, structural sin and the concern for distributive justice. They risk playing into the hands of those who wish to promote a laissez-faire agenda, and who mischaracterize Catholic social teaching as offering an unqualified endorsement of free markets.


Even putting aside reservations about how successfully these sections supply a balanced and representative picture of the documentary heritage, on a more fundamental level the goal of these pages deserves closer scrutiny. There are at least two problems associated with any such attempt to explain the Catholic position regarding free markets. The first is that there is no such thing as “the Catholic position” on market economies. The effort to present the content of the long and varied tradition as a unified whole is an example of the tendency toward the ahistorical approach of the compendium noted above. The shortcomings of this tendency are many.

For example, this approach practically forces the authors of the compendium to turn a blind eye to much of the content of Paul VI’s Populorum Progressio (where the capitalist system comes under especially severe criticism) as well as the advocacy of alternatives to ruthless competition that can be found in Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno. Neither of these important encyclicals receives more than a half dozen references in Chapters Six and Seven combined. Further, to extract from Catholic social teaching certain supposed dogmas about the merits of capitalist-style markets in isolation from the way this tradition was shaped for a century by the competition between capitalism and socialism is a formula for a selective and inadequate reading of a complex body of literature.

The second intractable problem with this ambitious expectation is that there is no such thing as a free market, at least nowhere outside the abstract models in economics textbooks. In macro-economic terms, every national economy is a mixed economy with elements of both market distribution and planning through public policy, with however light a touch. In micro-economic terms, no market bears all the marks of the free play of forces of supply and demand—with the requisite conditions of perfect competition, free entry and absence of monopolistic tendencies.

These pages of the compendium are too quick to accept the simplifying assumptions of economic models, as if they were factual rather than hypothetical. This blind spot prevents the compendium from drawing adequate conclusions about what it means to make an option for the poor in our world today. An improved treatment of ethical issues regarding markets would reflect a more sophisticated appreciation of how government intervention and regulation of economies actually contribute to the efficient functioning of markets. It would not be hard for the authors to find this line of analysis detailed in papal social encyclicals of the past century.

The final section of Chapter Seven picks up again on the theme of globalization and offers further insightful analysis of new economic trends. This is by far the most creative part of the chapter, for it advances our reflection on the risks and opportunities of a globalized economy as viewed through the lens of Catholic social ethics. The challenge is to tame the forces of globalization so that they work for the benefit of all in our increasingly interdependent world.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.

The latest from america

In an interview with Colleen Dulle, Anglican Bishop Jo Bailey Wells talks about attending a meeting of Pope Francis’ Council of Cardinal Advisors where she spoke about her experience as an ordained woman.
Colleen DulleMarch 04, 2024
The troubled Catholic outlet's fate was announced by a law firm representing a priest who had sued Church Militant for defamation.
The new recording of “How Great Thou Art” features a new verse, a different beat and a chance to provide humanitarian aid to Ukrainians and other Eastern Europeans in the midst of war.
Is our intense focus on the form of liturgical celebration placing a disproportionate emphasis upon the Eucharist as the summit of Christian life?
Michael OlsonMarch 04, 2024