Ten things Pope Francis and Catholic social teaching taught me about the economy
In a world torn apart by headline-popping politics, it’s easy to turn your head away from the real stories—to ignore what is actually happening to people.
That is what made me want to spend a year writing about the economy through the lens of Catholic social teaching, combining my experience as a business reporter with the mission of America, as described in the essay “Pursuing the Truth in Love.”
In a remarkable book scheduled to appear in January, Cathonomics (Georgetown University Press), Tony Annett, a former speechwriter for the International Monetary Fund and an Irish Catholic, traces the roots of Catholic social teaching from ancient Greek philosophy through Thomas Aquinas to Pope Leo XIII’s “Rerum Novarum” (1891). The encyclical declared the church’s support of trade unions and collective bargaining, and established concepts like a living wage, worker safety and regular time off from work.
It is clear that humans need to do the hard work of figuring out how to build an economy that allows us to better love our neighbors.
“Rerum Novarum” also loosened the church’s 19th-century power alliance with the interests of states and big business. The Industrial Revolution had upended life, creating miserable conditions in factories as well as offering miraculous technology for people who could afford it, and Leo XIII’s text acknowledged the church’s duty to stand up for working people as the world changed.
Mr. Annett was compelled to write his book because in his view, Catholic social teaching offers “a middle road people can agree on between the twin rocks of shipwreck, communism and libertarianism.” In other words, it actually has the potential to bring people together. And, he told me, “you don’t need to be a Catholic or you don’t need to really be religious at all to [appreciate] principles like the universal destination of goods or the preferential option for the poor or the common good or integral human development.”
As we reckon with advances in automation, artificial intelligence and technology just as wild and disruptive as the Industrial Revolution, it is clear that humans need to again do the hard work of figuring out how to build an economy that allows us to better love our neighbors.
Here are 10 things I learned in my year of writing about the economy through the prism of Catholic social teaching.
1. Wages need to go up.In almost every column I reported, whether it was about reparations for slavery or the gender pay gap,unions or global trade, the biggest issue that bedeviled people in our economy was insufficient pay. As Ray Miles, an activist and former prisoner in Pittsburgh, told me, the reason that so many people go back to selling drugs after getting out of incarceration is that the jobs available to lower- and middle-class America—whether at Walmart, Taco Bell or Amazon—simply do not pay enough.
In the first column of the year, I chronicled a high-profile effort by some chief executive officers and companies to team up with the Vatican to promote changes to their business practices. Thus far, the Council for Inclusive Capitalism says it has “487 commitments from 200 organizations.” But only two private employers, Bank of America and the energy company BP, have promised the concrete thing that will really make a difference, wage increases.
“However, others have committed to more inclusive practices in other ways,” Amanda Byrd, a spokeswoman for the Council, wrote in an emailed statement. For example, she wrote, members have “made over 150 commitments to dignity and equality through pledges to pay equity and investments in diversity, equity, and inclusion” and “have also committed to investing in their employees and communities through increased education and training programs and access to health care.”
In almost every column I reported, the biggest issue that bedeviled people in our economy was insufficient pay.
In writing his book, Mr. Annett said, he came to believe that “higher wages are essential, although the minimum wage is not the only way to do that.” He said he is a bit skeptical about a universal basic income but favors “worker councils like they have in Germany, where workers help manage the company.” Whatever the solution, everything should be on the table. “The gig economy is a disaster,” he said.
2. Unions are back. Although the effort to unionize an Amazon warehouse in Alabama has so far failed, the decline in wages has stoked support for labor unions in the United States. Some two-thirds of Americans “approve” of labor unions, including President Joe Biden, who draws some philosophical inspiration from Leo XIII’s writings. “Unions lift up workers, both union and non-union, and especially Black and brown workers,” said President Biden, who is the most pro-union president since Franklin D. Roosevelt, according to every historian I interviewed.
Leo XIII “correctly saw unions as necessary for protecting the dignity and rights of workers and their families, given that capitalists, who hold an imbalance of power over workers, often do not give workers their just due,” Gerald Beyer, a professor of Christian ethics at Villanova University, told me.
3. Forgiveness creates prosperity. What really changed the life of Ray Miles, an ex-prisoner and activist in Pittsburgh, was getting a full-time job that guaranteed income for the next 12 months. “To know I’d have a paycheck meant I knew I wouldn’t have to go back to selling drugs,” he said. “That’s what really makes a difference for people: when they know they’re going to have that stability for a while.”
What really changed the life of Ray Miles, an ex-prisoner, was getting a full-time job that guaranteed income.
The gnawing uncertainty of the U.S. service economy and its minimum-wage gigs contributes to people going back to crime, he said. In addition, many companies and governments refuse to hire ex-prisoners, keeping them stuck in a vicious cycle of poverty and crime. Coming out of jail is “like being in critical condition,” said Mr. Miles. “You need life support.”
4. We need to save local news. In a chaotic world, communities need local journalism. As Pope Francis said in a 2019 speech, local news helps citizens address “the same reality” and it spotlights “poverty, challenges [and] sometimes urgent issues” in families, neighborhoods and workplaces.
I was heartened in reporting on journalism to learn about people like Steve Novotney, whose digital startup in Wheeling, W. Va., called Lede News, keeps on building community with a mix of reporting, opinion, sports and consumer tips. That is because people will trust national media only if they see people in their own community practicing journalism up close. “Saying ‘national media sucks’ is a lot easier than looking a local journalist you know in the eye to say that,” John Isner, co-host of the popular West Virginia–based podcast, Appodlachia, told me.
Americans will have to recognize that “a news organization is like the local health care clinic or the local library,” said Ken Ward Jr., a co-founder of Mountain State Spotlight, a digital nonprofit founded in 2020 that covers West Virginia.
5. Learning history can lead to justice. Telling the story of our past can lead to justice. A moving example of this is the private reparations movement, which has led institutions and people to offer reparations to the descendants of victims of slavery, even as the national reparations movement has stalled. This is the result of decades of work by activists, scholars and writers to highlight the wealth gap created by slavery. “I never thought that in my lifetime, we would be having a broad conversation about reparations,” the Rev. Dr. Joe Thompson, a pastor and professor at Virginia Theological Seminary, told me.
The seminary is sending cash payments to descendants of people whom it exploited for forced labor.
Dr. Thompson, who is African American, is in charge of a $1.7 million fund the seminary has created to atone for its past involvement in enslaving people and for the segregation and discrimination that followed. The seminary is sending cash payments—around $2,100 per person this year—to descendants of people whom it exploited for forced labor, as well as to people who worked at the institution during segregation.
6. Urban planning is loving. In reporting about gentrification in U.S. cities, I was surprised to learn of the easy convergence of urban planning and Catholic social teaching’s emphasis on building tighter communities.
Robert Beauregard, for example, in his influential 2006 book When America Became Suburban, takes the moral point of view that modern suburban life lacks “a moral center that would enable people to reach outside their communities and embrace diverse peoples” and also lacks “a widely shared sense of purpose.”
At Georgetown University, Jamie Kralovec, an instructor in the urban and regional planning department, explicitly draws upon his Catholic faith and Ignatian training in developing his current work.
“If we talk about the original sin of slavery and the way that history endures, that’s manifested in a profound way in how Americans live,” he told me. “I grew up in Chicago, and there were two cities in one city.” When he looks at urban planning, Mr. Kralovec said, he sees “this potential to build just and equitable use of the neighborhood, and bring about all these things Pope Francis talks about, like social friendship and solidarity.”
7. Animals are important, too. Pope Francis, along with many theologians, seems to be calling for an increased appreciation for animal rights. “Clearly, the Bible has no place for a tyrannical anthropocentrism unconcerned for other creatures,” he wrote in “Laudato Si’,” also writing, “This responsibility for God’s earth means that human beings, endowed with intelligence, must respect the laws of nature and the delicate equilibria existing between the creatures of this world.”
Our craving for meat has created lopsided animal populations.
Our craving for meat has created lopsided animal populations. There are, for example, over 25 billion chickens in the world. Yet there was no killing of animals for food in the Garden of Eden, theologians point out. One solution, advocates for animals say, is to make meat a delicacy that comes from small farms, instead of a factory-farmed staple of every meal.
8. What and where we buy changes the world. It is easy to forget that we did not always live in a world with one-click shopping. What changed things was the explosion of free trade deals after World War II and the invention of the shipping container in the 1960s. Americans and Europeans went for the cheap stuff, and gobbled up television sets, shoes, washing machines and a million other products from companies like Walmart, Target and the French retailer Carrefour.
These companies helped create hyperglobalization, which is why American highways and neighborhoods have almost all the same big-box chain stores and fulfillment centers for shipping out online orders; why middle-class wages are depressed in the United States while Asia is no longer poor; why China is powerful; why populists like Donald J. Trump and Boris Johnson win elections; and why the United States and Europe face a dramatic crisis of inequality between the people trade has helped and the people it has hurt.
But trade is complicated. As Archbishop Ivan Jurkovic, the Vatican’s envoy to the World Trade Organization, put it in a 2017 speech, global trade “has helped to lift a billion people out of poverty in developing countries and has improved the livelihood in many developed countries.” And as I reported, the fair trade movement has created alternative supply chains that help small businesses around the world.
9. Women still aren’t paid enough. Paying women less than men for the equivalent work has been illegal for over a half-century, ever since President John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act in 1963. And yet in 2020, the median pay for women in full-time jobs was 82.3 percent of that for men. Put another way: In the United States, women, who make up about half of the population, earn only 40 percent of the gross domestic product. And in the last 25 years, the gender pay gap in the United States has shrunk by only eight percentage points.
For modern interpreters of Catholic social teaching, there is little question that women deserve equal pay.
For modern interpreters of Catholic social teaching, there is little question that women deserve equal pay and a chance to build successful careers that align with their desires for family and home life. The Catholic solution to the gender pay gap requires affirming women’s right to equal pay while pushing back against a purely capitalist impulse. “We’re affirming women should be treated equally in work,” said Kate Ward, a professor of theology at Marquette University. “We’re not just saying that women should become better capitalists and have fewer families” and children.
10. There are no utopias. In Cathonomics, Mr. Annett emphasizes that Catholic social teaching resists utopian thinking, which is why the church rejects both communism and libertarian capitalism. “It’s the ‘already but not yet’ dimension of the kingdom of God,” he told me. “We are called to build the kingdom on earth, but it will never be perfected in this life.”
But we can be clear-eyed about what is happening. In his book, Mr. Annett explains that Aristotle divided wealth into two categories. First, there is oikonomia (the root of our word for economics), which is essentially household management. The second, chrematistike, is the pursuit of wealth for its own sake, divorced from care or concern for your neighbor or community.
The first is healthy, in part because it is inherently limited. The second impedes human flourishing because it is unlimited. However rich you are, you can always want more. If anything is clear to me after a year of writing about business and Catholic social teaching, it is that we live in a world ruled by chrematistike, and that is something we should be deeply concerned about as Catholics.
In Cathonomics, Mr. Annett reports that people underestimate or forget how much Jesus talks about money. The only time he gets really angry is at the merchants in the temple. Nineteen of his 31 parables, Mr. Annett writes, “refer to indebtedness, social class, misuse of wealth, the distribution of wealth, and worker pay.”
You don’t have to believe in Jesus to agree with the Gospel’s focus. “Even if you’re just a scientist who doesn’t have any faith beliefs, you will come to the view that we’re a cooperative species,” said Mr. Annett. “And that naturally leans towards the principles of Catholic social teaching. We’re not individualistic agents out to maximize our utility in isolation from everybody else. Trying to just get more stuff is not who we are as human beings.”
This article has been updated.
More reporting from John W. Miller:
- The U.S. economy sets up ex-prisoners for failure. The consequences are disastrous.
- It’s easy to hate ‘the media.’ But local journalism is essential (and holy) work.
- Nursing homes were broken long before Covid-19
- Pope Francis is right: modern poverty in the United States is a scandal. But what are possible solutions?