In 1986, the U.S. Catholic bishops issued a pastoral letter on the American economy that amounted to an attack on the Reagan administration’s economic policies. As such, it was entirely consistent with the critical view of free market capitalism that had characterized Catholic social teaching at least since Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum.
Titled “Economic Justice for All,” the letter got a pat on the back from the economics columnist for the New York Times, Leonard Silk, who happened to be my father. Dad, who would have celebrated his centenary a week ago, came of age during the Depression, and was drawn to the study of economics as a means of understanding and preventing another collapse of the world economy.
He earned his Ph.D. in economics amidst the Keynesian revolution in economic thought, and embraced the postwar orthodoxy that an advanced capitalist economy needs to be managed via regulation and enlightened fiscal policy. As far as he was concerned, the bishops shared that orthodoxy.
“This report cannot by any means be called a radical document,” he wrote. “It urges rather the continuation of the ‘mixed economy,’ with both private enterprise and government having important roles to play.”
That, however, wasn’t the reaction of a new breed of prominent American Catholic. Well before the letter appeared, a group led by former treasury secretary William E. Simon and writer Michael Novak mounted an assault on the critique they expected the bishops to level. The bishops, their Lay Commission on Catholic Social Teaching claimed, put ”far too much faith” in the role of government in helping the poor.
This bit of ancient history is worth recalling as we contemplate the latest example of Catholic social teaching—”Oeconomicae et pecuniariae questiones: Considerations for an Ethical Discernment Regarding Some Aspects of the Present Economic-Financial System,” issued by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development.
As my RNS colleague Tom Reese points out, the document is a less than scintillating read. But in focusing on the financialization of capitalism in our time, it represents an important updating of the Church’s ongoing effort to insure that all economic activity be subject to ethical standards of human development.
I wonder, however, how much of an impact it will have, especially in the United States, where the movement started by Simon and Novak has only grown in strength. These days, its ideology is embedded in a host of institutions, from research outfits like the Acton Institute to media outlets like EWTN and on into the very heart of Catholic higher education.
Consider, for example, the Busch School of Business and Economics at the Catholic University of America in Washington. Established with millions from the Charles Koch Foundation and from conservative Orange County businessman Tim Busch, its commitment to what it calls “virtue-based free enterprise” is not exactly equivalent to a commitment to Catholic social teaching as we know it.
The Vatican’s new document declares that “it is particularly desirable that institutions such as universities and business schools both foresee and provide, as a fundamental and not merely supplementary element of their curricula of studies, a formational dimension that educates the students to understand economics and finance in the light of a vision of the totality of the human person and avoids a reductionism that sees only some dimensions of the person.”
A good place for such a fundamental element would be master’s programs in business management, and when it comes to the Busch School’s M.S.M. in leadership and management, the relevant course would appear to be “The Spirit of Enterprise,” described as follows:
Develops a comprehensive view of the contributions of business and not-for-profit enterprises, from a historical perspective. Examines to what extent the principles of solidarity, subsidiarity, and human dignity have been observed in the practice of commerce across the centuries. Draws implications for their application today through discussion of specific, complex and multi-faceted ethical and social issues in business.
I recommend that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith tell whoever’s teaching the course to get Oeconomicae et pecuniariae questiones into the curriculum asap. Inasmuch as Catholic U. is a pontifical (i.e. approved by the Holy See) Catholic institution of higher learning, the CDF pretty much has the authority to do so.