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Making Sense of Papal Economics

Papal Economics: The Catholic Church on Democratic Capitalism, from Rerum Novarum to Caritas in Veritate

By Maciej Zieba, O.P

Publisher: ISI Books

Pages: 239 pages

Price: $26.95

Review Author: Christopher Beiting

Christopher Beiting is Associate Professor of History at Holy Cross College in South Bend, Indiana.

Economics is a maddening subject. It touches everyone’s lives, nobody is neutral about it, and it’s one of the few academic disciplines in which two people can say totally contradictory things and yet both receive Nobel Prizes. Papal economics makes the whole situation worse by adding to a discipline that’s supposed to be a science (yet on which nobody agrees) the singular problem of popes needing to comment on a subject on which they cannot definitively comment, since the Church is no more willing to endorse any one system of economics than she is any one particular system of government. In other words, popes are stuck speaking with authority on a subject on which they cannot pronounce authoritatively. It’s a thankless task, made still worse by interpretations of their teachings filtered not only through partisan lenses but partisan lenses that change over time based on the political and social situations of the day. Maciej Zieba’s Papal Economics is an attempt to make some sense of this situation.

Zieba’s curriculum vitae is intriguing. As a young Polish physicist, he destroyed his late-cold-war-era career by helping to edit a pro-Solidarity underground newspaper. He went on to become a Dominican priest and scholar, serving as an administrator, advisor, teacher, publisher, and media commentator along the way. With a background in economics, theology, and philosophy, he founded the Tertio Millennio Institute, and has worked with the likes of American neoconservatives George Weigel and Michael Novak. He was also a close friend of Pope St. John Paul II, and served as his advisor. Such a background obviously influences Zieba’s approach to his subject. He has a physicist’s desire for practicality over theory, a cold-war-era Eastern European’s dislike for socialism and statism, and a patriotic Pole’s veneration for the Slavic Pope. Although Zieba surveys the major papal encyclicals in the Catholic social-teaching tradition from Rerum Novarum (1891) to Caritas in Veritate (2009), he focuses primarily on Centesimus Annus (1991), which he regards as the clearest and most practical expression of papal social thought. Honesty compels me to admit that while I appreciate Zieba’s focus, many others will not, preferring instead some other document. Caveat lector.

Papal Economics begins with an analysis of each of the social encyclicals. Zieba is at pains throughout to note that papal thought on the subject is a category unto itself and cannot — and should not — be shoehorned into the political schema of “left” and “right.” Where possible, he notes the continuity of thought between these encyclicals, and his model is an evolutionary one. Zieba sees an overall trend toward certain points: an appreciation (if not an actual endorsement) of democratic capitalism; a preference for subsidiarity over statism and central planning; an extended, consistent criticism of socialism leavened by criticisms of capitalism; a variety of different attitudes toward private property; and an overall rejection of the legitimacy of a neither-communist-nor-capitalist “third way” approach to economics.

Where there are contradictions or differing themes among these encyclicals, Zieba expresses a preference for the works that are more detailed and practical in nature over those that are less precise and more philosophical. Thus, Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum gets more attention than, say, Bl. Paul VI’s Populorum Progressio (1967). Zieba is respectful but not shy about pointing out flaws. He notes that Populorum Progressio is imprecise in comparison to earlier encyclicals, but where it is specific it offers suggestions that have proven to be ineffective or counterproductive in the real world. This is due in part, Zieba explains, to the circumstances that gave rise to each of the works: Encyclicals like Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno (1931) are more concrete because the popes who wrote them (Leo XIII and Pius XI, respectively) thought that governments might need to be formed based on their recommendations. Other encyclicals produced at less pressing times were more philosophical and thus less practical. This does not exactly explain why Zieba gives short shrift to Caritas in Veritate, which receives cursory treatment in the last chapter. (Zieba does, however, single out for criticism its infamous chapter 67, which calls for a reform of the United Nations to enable it to serve as a one-world government.)

Zieba devotes much space to analysis of Centesimus Annus. He highlights aspects of John Paul’s thought under three broad headings: political community, economic life, and the primacy of culture. Regarding political community, one of John Paul’s central points is that Christianity is not an ideology but the Truth. As such, it transcends man and does not lend itself to the production of easy guidelines. (Ideologies are simpler to create and implement, and as a result, also tend to be brutal in application.) Many things are necessary for a flourishing political community; chief among them is a correct anthropology which acknowledges that humans have an end beyond this world and that there are many human goods which cannot be understood in economic terms. By contrast, socialism and consumerism, both of which fail to understand the proper anthropology of man, are wrong. Degeneration into totalitarianism can happen in both economically healthy societies and impoverished ones. John Paul offers words of praise for free markets, but notes that correct anthropology means recognizing that humans suffer from original sin and need more than an “invisible hand” to guard against problems. Solidarity and subsidiarity are central principles of political community; the state must be strong enough to guarantee freedom, private property, a stable currency, and efficient public services, as well as prevent the misuse of economies (such as the creation of monopolies).

In the area of economic life, it is worth noting that Centesimus Annus expresses the realization that social development since the invention of the steam engine has not been a long series of workhouses and “dark satanic mills” (as Blake would have it) — there have been many positive developments in economics and society as well, and the world as a whole is better off. Without directly endorsing them, John Paul clearly praises aspects of a business economy and democratic liberalism.

Zieba takes the reader on a brief excursus, examining what Catholic social teaching based on the John Paul II model would look like in practice. This isn’t just pie-in-the-sky idealism, according to Zieba, who offers by way of example the Ordoliberals of post-World War II Germany. Men like Wilhelm Röpke and others tried to rebuild a shattered country with conscious application of Catholic social thought. Their stunning success from 1949 to 1969, which mixed approaches characteristic of both “left” and “right” (as we understand them today), is a fine example of the practicality of Catholic social teaching properly understood and applied, and it deserves greater attention than it usually receives.

The last theme Zieba considers is one of John Paul’s perennial favorites: culture. John Paul stressed the importance of culture throughout his writings, and Centesimus Annus is no exception. A major problem of modern culture is that the liberal societies and market economies of the West act as if they were natural and inevitable institutions, acknowledging neither antecedents nor anything higher than themselves. This is totally wrong and exemplifies the so-called Böckenförde Paradox: that liberal democracy depends for its very existence on a set of cultural assumptions that it did not create and cannot sustain on its own (and usually won’t acknowledge). After all, there is something inherently schizophrenic about a consumerist society that on the one hand expects people to be hard-working, self-sacrificing, and frugal in order to produce a variety of goods, and on the other hand encourages them to be indulgent, selfish, and acquisitive in order to want to purchase them!

The assumption that materialistic terms can explain everything is simply false. Economic success, the likes of which the West has enjoyed, depends on a basis of law and morality that comes from culture. Communism was founded on false anthropology, reminds John Paul, and that was its undoing. Consumerism can be undone the same way.

All of this raises the question with which Zieba ends his book: If the Böckenförde Paradox is correct, and the very existence of Western liberal democratic society depends on social capital that it has largely spent or refuses to acknowledge, is it doomed? Many prominent thinkers worry that it is so. Some point to the rise of religious or cultural fundamentalism in the Islamic or Sinic world and see liberal democracy and capitalism being actively resisted. What, then, of the future? Of course we cannot know, but like his mentor John Paul II, Zieba is cautiously optimistic. It may be that, thanks to papal social teaching, the Church winds up in the unlikely role of salvaging the best of democratic liberalism, much as she has salvaged the best from previous societies. But if not, she will outlive our Western order and go on to shape the development of something new, as she has done so many times before.


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