Is Economic Justice Possible in This World? (Is Chastity?)

October 1997By Thomas Storck

Thomas Storck is a librarian in Washington, D.C., and a Contributing Editor of the NOR.

I first became aware of the existence of Catholic social teaching when I was in high school and read R.H. Tawney’s Religion and the Rise of Capitalism. Later I discovered the papal social encyclicals and the voluminous secondary literature of commentaries and studies. And later still I became sufficiently acquainted with it so that I began to talk to others and eventually to write about it.

Speaking only of those Catholics who manifest a desire to be orthodox and to conform their beliefs to the Magisterium, I encounter some who know and wholeheartedly accept Catholic social teaching. But even among orthodox Catholics there are many who, in effect, undercut it in various ways. There are, first, libertarians, or near-libertarians, who attribute to the free market some quasi-divine ability to sort out the rights and wrongs of human behavior and who oppose any, or almost any, interference with its workings. A few of this group do not disguise their rejection of Catholic social teaching. Because it does not accord with their own ideas, they regard the papal teaching with open derision. Despite this, they manage to retain a reputation for orthodoxy.

A larger group is less forthright. They, though equally attached to laissez faire, are not so bold about their rejection of the Church’s social teaching. Sometimes, by selective quotation or by silence, they even attempt to make it seem as if the popes agreed with them. This group also maintains a reputation for orthodoxy.

Last, there are the Catholics who clearly indicate, sometimes openly, sometimes by implication, that Catholic social teaching, while laudable, is unworldly and impractical, altogether impossible to implement in this life. It is with this last group that I am chiefly concerned in this article. And although I do not agree with this group, I will concede them one point, namely, that it is very difficult to bring about any kind of just social order.

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