Can We Return To a Truly Catholic Economics — Not One Identified with Any Political Cultural Bloc?

By Thomas Storck

The Giving of the Mantle by Giotto, Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi.

Thomas Storck, author of four books and many articles on Catholic economics

From March 26 to 28 of this year, Pope Francis will be hosting a conference entitled “The Economy of Francesco” in Assisi, the venerable home of St. Francis. The event, which focuses on economics and the environment, is aimed at young people, under age 35, but will include a number of economists and entrepreneurs older than that, the most well known of whom is probably Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University in New York City. Many of the invited economists are known for their economic views outside the mainstream, views which pay more attention to actually existing economies and to economic history, whereas mainstream neoclassical economics works with a theoretical and mathematical model of the economy, which often is little more than a justification for capitalist globalization.

The Francesco Economy conference seems to have received little attention in the United States. The official website,, describes it as “an international meeting between young scholars and activists in the field of economics, convened by Pope Francis.”

The website is a little sketchy about the aims and agenda of the conference, summarizing the agenda with the slogan, “Feel, Ideate and Act.” But the official invitation that Francis issued May 1, 2019, addressed “To Young Economists and Entrepreneurs Worldwide,” speaks in more detail and terms it “an event that will allow me to encounter young men and women studying economics and interested in a different kind of economy, one that cares for the environment and does not despoil it… We need to correct models of growth incapable of guaranteeing respect for the environment, openness to life, concern for the family, social equality, the dignity of workers and the rights of future generations. Sadly,few have heard the appeal… to set in place a new economic model, the fruit of a culture of communion based on fraternity and equality.”

As far as the general theme of the conference, to consider ways to make the economy more responsive to the real needs of humanity, no informed Catholic could possibly object.The Popes since at least Leo XIII have been calling for exactly the kind of profound changes in the economy that are suggested here. In particular, Pius XI’s 1931 encyclical, Quadragesimo Anno, whose formal title was On Reconstructing the Social Order and Perfecting It Conformably to the Precepts of the Gospel, proposed a vast program of Catholic socio-economic reform, a program which was never seriously attempted by the Church as a whole, and is now pretty much forgotten.

Catholic social teaching, as that has been developed and applied to modern economies from Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum of 1891 through Francis’ Laudato Si’ of 2015, offers both a critique of the existing economic order and a blueprint for an economy oriented toward meeting human needs. For example, the Supreme Pontiffs have noted that market forces are not an adequate means of regulating an economy, and on the positive side, they have called for legal structures and organizations to orient the economy toward justice and charity.The term“social justice,” today equally oddly claimed by those entirely unaware of its true meaning,and reprobated by those who are ignorant of its long usage in papal documents, refers to the duty of those active in the economy, especially those who have power or authority in economic matters, to work to restructure the economy on behalf of the demands of justice. Since in most cases “individual employers are helpless to ensure justice,” it is their duty to organize institutions akin to the guilds of the Middle Ages, and “to support and promote such necessary organizations as normal instruments enabling them to fulfill their obligations of justice.” (Pius XI, Encyclical Divini Redemptoris, no. 53)

Pope Francis with a homeless person in Rome

Pope Francis with Greta Thunberg, the 17-year-old Swedish activist who has become a global voice in defense of the environment

The social teaching of the Popes emphasizes that man’s economic activity has an inherent purpose, which is not individual enrichment or the survival of the fittest, but the provision of necessary goods and services to all mankind. Everyone involved in the economic process — workers, suppliers of capital, consumers — deserves justice. In particular, workers are due in strict justice a living wage.

There is a dictate of nature more imperious and more ancient than any bargain between man and man, that the remuneration must be enough to support the wage-earner in reasonable and frugal comfort. If… the workman accepts harder conditions because an employer or contractor will give him no better, he is the victim of force and injustice. (Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum, no. 45)

The social encyclicals and other documents of the Church on social questions provide the authoritative teaching that Catholics are bound to recognize in socio-economic questions. Although addressed to changing economic conditions throughout the whole world and over a period of more than a hundred years, nevertheless they offer “a single teaching, consistent and at the same time ever new,” as Benedict XVI wrote in his encyclical Caritas in Veritate, no. 12.

At one time the Church’s teaching on the social order was pretty much accepted by informed Catholics, and there existed a vast secondary literature seeking to understand, interpret and apply that to the varied conditions throughout the world. Entire economic systems, such as Distributism or Solidarism, were elaborated based on Catholic social doctrine.

Sadly, today, too many Catholics base their economic views not on the teaching of the Church but on whatever political bloc they happen to associate with, giving that priority over the Church of Jesus Christ. A century ago in his first encyclical, Ubi Arcano, Pius XI termed this rejection or neglect of the Church’s social doctrine as social modernism, and proclaimed “We condemn it as strongly as We do dogmatic Modernism” (no. 61).

But what about the Economy of Francesco conference?

Well, as I suggested above, in questioning the foundations of our present economy it is entirely in line with Catholic teaching. On the other hand, one may legitimately wonder, it seems to me, if the focus on those under age 35 is particularly wise, and likewise whether, instead of the threefold theme, Feel, Ideate, Act, a better one might not have been Learn, Apply, Act, which would express well what should be our stance toward the Church’s doctrine, in this or any other matter. In view of the extreme ideological polarization in today’s Church, many will foolishly dismiss this event as simply an instance of socialist influence within Catholicism, while others will embrace it in all respects, no matter what.

Because of the varied problems existing within today’s Church,many Catholics are wandering without clear guidance, “sheep without a shepherd,” while others have latched onto one or another political-cultural bloc in order to provide themselves with some ideological identity.

It is very tempting to take refuge in a Catholicism with a traditional coloring, with an emphasis on customs and practices so largely abandoned in recent decades.

But what must not be forgotten is that traditional Catholicism included a recognition of the Church’s social doctrine.

So while I entirely applaud an embrace of the liturgical and devotional traditions that we have lost, we cannot forget that Catholic social teaching was a crucial part of the life of the Church in the past, and Catholics were more apt to listen to the Church’s voice then than they are now.

The Economy of Francesco conference very rightly calls our attention to an integral part of Catholic teaching. However, unless Catholics become disposed to attend to the Church’s voice in all matters of faith and morals, then it is to be feared that we will take our cues from sources outside of Catholic teaching and tradition.

It is laudable to work on behalf of “the environment, openness to life, concern for the family, social equality, the dignity of workers and the rights of future generations,” but the best way of doing so isto listen to the Church’s heritage of social doctrine, a heritage that is “consistent and at the same time ever new.”

Thomas Storck is the author of four books and numerous articles on Catholic economics. He is a contributing editor of The Distributist Review and amember of the editorial board of The Chesterton Review.

Facebook Comments