Monday, March 17, 2008

Is Economic Justice Possible in this World? Part I

By Thomas Storck
I first became aware of the existence of Catholic social teaching when I was in high school and read Richard 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. In the course of this I have noticed again and again the same reactions among that minority of Catholics who have even heard of the Church's social doctrine. Confining myself to Catholics who manifest a desire to be orthodox and conform their beliefs to the teaching of the Magisterium, there are, of course, some who wholeheartedly accept Catholic social teaching. But I am afraid that the larger number does not. Of these, one encounters, in the first place, libertarians, or near libertarians, those 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 make no bones about their contempt for and rejection of Catholic social teaching. Because it does not accord with their own ideas about wealth creation or competition or assorted other economic ideas, they regard the papal teaching - especially before Centesimus Annus - with open derision. Despite this, they manage to retain a reputation for orthodoxy.
The other and larger part is less forthright. Though equally addicted to the same or similar propositions about wealth creation and competition as the first group, they are not so bold about their rejection of the Church's social teaching. Sometimes, by selective quotation or silence, they even attempt to make it seem as if the popes agreed with them. This group also maintains a reputation for orthodoxy.
Then, lastly, there is a group that claims to respect this teaching and to reject its contrary, but nevertheless its attitude toward the teaching is rather strange. For while professing a regard for it, these people maintain, sometimes openly, sometimes by implication, that Catholic social teaching is too unworldly, 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 one point to them, namely, that it is very difficult to bring about any kind of just social order.
Reasons for doubt as to the feasibility of really implementing Catholic social teaching are easy to understand. Aside from the initial problem of persuading the majority, especially those in positions of power, that social justice according to the Church's vision is something to be striven for, the logistical problem of making a transition from what we have now to what we desire is overwhelming. The economy is not something that exists just on paper. The decisions that have been made in the past have created an entire network of economic and legal relationships and an infrastructure of factories, means of transportation, centers of population, and so on. Gigantic sums of money have been invested in certain ways, and the owners of those sums are not likely to meekly accept any diminution of their profits. And, for example, if we decided that one of the things we wanted to do was to foster the family farm, we would have to deal with the fact that such farms are declining in number, their owners are aging, and there are fewer younger people trained and interested in farming. Moreover, because of the complexity and interrelatedness of the economy, as soon as you begin to deal with one sector another sector becomes involved. Banking, for example, and credit touch all the other sectors intimately. Production involves transportation and questions of tariffs and free trade agreements. And since worldwide free trade agreements have been negotiated and signed, one country could only with difficulty institute policies radically at variance with the rest of the world. Altogether it seems like an impossible task.
But I would like to compare the difficulty of the task with the difficulties involved in another area of Catholic morality: Chastity. Is it feasible to expect the world to become chaste? Here the problems seem at least as daunting. In our own country and in most of the West, we have not just indifference to chastity, but outright hostility. Many are convinced that chastity is not just impossible, but psychologically unhealthy, an example of cultural repression, the unfortunate legacy of the "pale Galilean," from whose breath "the world has grown gray." Governments and international organizations are actively working against chastity; it is only pregnancy they disapprove of, not sexual activity, no matter how unchaste or bizarre. Added to this, of course, is the fact that even for those of the human race ardently committed to the preservation of chastity, it is a constant struggle simply to keep oneself and one's children chaste. Without doubt it is a difficult virtue.
All this and more is true, yet you rarely or never find those who are full of doubts about the feasibility of doing anything about Catholic social teaching taking the same view on chastity. Suggest to them that perhaps we should accommodate ourselves to the frailties of human nature, and we are immediately and loudly denounced as modernists, traitors to the Faith, worldlings. Nor do I disagree with that diagnosis. I am as committed as anyone to preaching chastity and doing everything possible to uphold it. All I ask is that we extend the same courtesy to this other and equally important area of Christian morals, the social doctrine of the Church. It would seem to me that, whatever obstacles there are to implementing Catholic social teaching, the obstacles to achieving worldwide chastity are just as great. But in neither case are these obstacles a sufficient cause for us to abandon the struggle.
From The ChesterBelloc Mandate. Original version of article published in the New Oxford Review , October 1997.

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