Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Dr. Samuel Gregg: "Pope Benedict on Morality, Economics and the Market"

Dr. Samuel Gregg, Director, Center for Economic Personalism, addresses Benedict XVI's thought on the issue of the market economy in a recent article "Morality, Economics and the Market in the Thought of Benedict XVI", Economic Affairs, (2005-09-01) [.pdf format]:

. . . But does any of this suggest that Pope Benedict XVI has ever been or is likely to be an outspoken supporter of the market economy? The answer to this question is 'no'. As a theologian and Vatican official, Ratzinger has always recognised that, within the limits established by the principles of Catholic social teaching (e.g. the dignity of the person, the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity etc.), the precise configuration of the economy or the degree of government intervention in the economy are matters for prudential judgement by Catholics. One cannot repeat enough that Catholics are free to disagree among themselves about those matters that the Church identifies as being within prudential judgement territory. This embraces the vast majority of economic questions. Thus, because he is content to let Catholics discuss prudential matters among themselves, it is not surprising that very few direct discussions of economic matters are found in Ratzinger's writings.

A rare exception to Ratzinger's reticence to examine economic questions in any detail is a 1986 article entitled 'Church and Economy' [Communio 13, no. 3 (1986): 199-204]. Keeping in mind the context and time of the article, it provides a number of interesting insights into Ratzinger's thoughts about economic issues.

The first point to note is that Ratzinger underlines the failure and counterproductive effects of development programmes promoted by Western aid agencies and governments throughout the developing world (Ratzinger, 1986, p. 200). He goes on to suggest that new economic ideas will need to be considered if the developing world is to escape material poverty. If one recalls that much of the world in the 1980s still believed in the efficacy of such programmes (which even many on the political left now disown), it is possible to view Ratzinger as one of that relatively small number of intellectuals (secular or religious) who were willing to question the redistributionist orthodoxy that reigned in many political, government and church circles.

The most significant part, however, of Ratzinger's 1986 article was its analysis of some of the philosophical questions raised by free-market economies. Importantly, at no stage does Ratzinger question the market's superior wealth-creating capacities. Indeed, he stresses that market economies have facilitated much prosperity throughout the world (Ratzinger, 1986, p. 201). Rather, Ratzinger devotes his attention to the moral, cultural and philosophical assumptions that may or may not underpin such economies. Ratzinger is, for instance, quite critical of what he describes as the deterministic tendencies that underlie the thought of some free-market advocates (Ratzinger, 1986, pp. 200-201). He argues that it is a mistake to assume that market exchanges in themselves provide sufficient moral validity for the nature or outcome of the exchange. The fact that an action is efficient or maximises utility is not, to Ratzinger's mind, sufficient to qualify it as morally good. Morality, to his mind, is not defined by utility. The market, in other words, does not somehow 'create' morality. Nor does the market render the demands of the moral life superfluous, and Ratzinger criticises those business figures who think and act as if it does. Significantly, Ratzinger notes that the tendency to substitute morality with economics is equally characteristic of Marxist thought in so far as figures such as Lenin accepted that 'there is in Marxism no grain of ethics, but only economic laws' (Ratzinger, 1986, p. 202). The expression of anti-determinist and anti-utilitarian views is hardly novel for an orthodox Catholic theologian. Indeed, many free-market promoters would join Ratzinger in insisting that the moral life cannot be reduced to economic analysis or market transactions. Many free-market supporters would also support Ratzinger's opposition to those who regard economics as the lens for understanding everything. Like all ideologies, 'economism' is deeply reductionist and thus anti-human in its implications.

Ratzinger further notes, as a historical irony, that many people dissatisfied with 'economistic' approaches have tended to embrace centrally planned economies as a way of attempting to bring moral guidance to economic life. This is despite the fact, as Ratzinger notes, that 'it is a fundamental error to suppose that a centralised economic system is a moral system in contrast to the mechanistic system of the market

None of this, however, is to suggest that Ratzinger believes that economics can be safely ignored. On the contrary, Ratzinger concludes his article by stressing that economics, as an intellectual discipline, enjoys a legitimate autonomy of its own. He even states that 'a morality that believes itself able to dispense with the technical knowledge of economic laws is not morality but moralism. As such it is the antithesis of morality' (Ratzinger, 1986, p. 204). He immediately adds that 'a scientific approach that believes itself capable of managing without an ethos [i.e. the demands of morality] misunderstands the reality of man. Therefore it is not scientific' (Ratzinger, 1986, p. 204). Synthesising these points, Ratzinger states that 'today we need a maximum of specialised economic understanding, but also a maximum of ethos so that specialised economic knowledge may enter the service of the right goals' (Ratzinger, 1986, p. 204). One suspects that those familiar with the commentaries of many Catholic intellectuals on economic matters will recognise that, on the basis of his 1986 article, few have come as close as Ratzinger to integrating an authentic Catholic approach to the moral life with an appreciation for the real technical knowledge yielded by modern economics into particular problems. It is a grave error, Ratzinger believes, for those thinking about how to address poverty to ignore what economics tells us about poverty. He is, however, insistent that economics in itself is not capable of determining the correct moral response to problems. Though a powerful instrument of analysis that can tell us how to do certain things, economics qua economics is incapable of telling us whether we ought to do certain things.

Our Holy Father was interviewed recently by Zenit News Service on the person and legacy of Pope John Paul II, in which he remarked:

. . . Initially, in speaking of the Pope's legacy, I forgot to mention the many documents that he left us -- 14 encyclicals, many pastoral letters, and others. All this is a rich patrimony that has not yet been assimilated by the Church.

My personal mission is not to issue many new documents, but to ensure that his documents are assimilated, because they are a rich treasure, they are the authentic interpretation of Vatican II. We know that the Pope was a man of the Council, that he internalized the spirit and the word of the Council. Through these writings he helps us understand what the Council wanted and what it didn't. This helps us to be the Church of our times and of the future.

Given his specific interest in realizing the thought of his predecessor, it seems to me that the Holy Father will likely draw from the riches of John Paul II's encyclical Centesimus Annus, with its commentary on economic affairs and liberal and socialist philosophy, especially in issuing a necessary corrective to neoliberalism along with a qualified approval of the "market economy" or "free market." It seems to me that Pope Benedict XVI is very much of the same mind as his predecessor on these matters.

Dr. Samuel Gregg concludes:

. . . In a 2002 speech, for instance ["Eucharist, Communion and Solidarity" L'Osservatore Romano, 13 November, 2002], he reminded his audience of the evils committed in the name of the atheistic 'Marxist socialist system' (Ratzinger, 2002, p. 8). Ratzinger then added: 'It is undeniable that the liberal model of the market economy, especially as moderated and corrected under the influence of Christian social ideas, has in some parts of the world led to great success' (Ratzinger, 2002, p. 8). The then future pope went on to suggest that the absence of such moral-cultural forces in market systems could have profoundly damaging effects, especially in developing nations. Hence, he insisted that the 'globalisation in technology and economy' needed to be accompanied by 'a new opening of conscience', so that individuals become more conscious of the global demands of Christian morality (Ratzinger, 2002, p. 9).

Here again we see that Ratzinger did not dispute or disparage the market's superiority in wealth-creation. Nor does he engage in knee-jerk anti-globalisation rhetoric. Rather, his concern remains with the moral-cultural context in which free enterprise and free exchange live, move and have their being. On this basis, we can safely assume that any combination of a market economy with cultures predominantly shaped by variants of libertinism, materialism and utilitarianism is going to worry Benedict XVI as much as it concerned John Paul II.

Given, however, that these are cultural rather than economic problems per se, it seems reasonable to suggest that Pope Benedict is unlikely to be insisting that the state ought to be the institution to address such matters. Certainly the Catholic Church does not teach that moral problems, be they 'personal' or 'social', somehow enjoy an automatic immunity from the law or state authority. Nevertheless, Ratzinger has insisted throughout his writings that any society's moral-culture is primarily shaped by individuals, families and civil associations, especially the Church. Nor should we underestimate the effects of Ratzinger's experience of the state-worship promoted by Nazi totalitarianism, not to mention his very Bavarian Catholic consciousness of the Kulturkampf (literally 'culture-struggle') waged against the Catholic Church in Germany by the Bismarckian state in the wake of German unification in 1871.

As many know, the founder of Western monasticism, St Benedict, is credited even by many non-believers as saving Western civilisation from the chaos that followed the Roman Empire's collapse. In a similar fashion, attention to renewing the sources of Western culture is likely to be a priority in Benedict XVI's pontificate. To this extent, the papacy's attention to economic questions under Pope Benedict is likely to be focused upon the relationship between the market and culture, an area that, until John Paul II, remained relatively unexamined by Catholic social teaching. If in doing so, Benedict XVI continues to make the same careful distinctions that he did as the theologian and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, there is every reason to hope for thoughtful contributions to thinking about economic subjects from the new pope. Above all, we can expect the character of any such contributions to be neither 'right' nor 'left', but rather distinctly Catholic.

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Dr. Gregg is Director of Research at the Acton Institute and an Adjunct Professor at the John Paul II Pontifical Institute for Marriage and the Family within the Pontifical Lateran University. He is author of several books on Catholic social doctrine including Economic Thinking for the Theologically Minded (2001), Challenging the Modern World: Karol Wojtyla/John Paul II and the Development of Catholic Social Teaching (2003) and On Ordered Liberty (2003).

Related Links:

  • Market Economy and Ethics translated by Stephen Wentworth Arndt, and republished by The Acton Institute -- courtesy of Dr. Johannes Stemmler, secretary emeritus of the BKU (Federation of Catholic Entrepreneurs) and secretary of Ordo socialis in Köln, Germany. This article appeared previously in English under the title "Church and economy: Responsibility for the future of the world economy," Communio 13 (Fall 1986): 199-204.

  • Pope John Paul II Memorial Page, Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty.

  • Review Essay: Challenging the Modern World: John Paul II/Karol Wojtyla and the Development of Catholic Social Teaching, by Gregory R. Beabout (Markets & Morality Vol. 4, No. 2, Fall 2001): "[Samuel] Gregg's work, which flows out of his doctoral research at Oxford under the direction of John Finnis, is perhaps the most careful scholarly effort in English to date that aims to show the influence of Wojtyla's prepontifical writing on the social encyclicals produced by John Paul II."