Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Economic Science and Catholic Social Teaching

by Thomas Storck



Even among otherwise orthodox Catholics in the United States there is generally little knowledge of or interest in Catholic social doctrine, that body of Catholic teachings which concerns man in society, especially with reference to the political and economic orders. Since Leo XIII began vigorously to develop and apply this teaching to the changing conditions of the modern world, especially with his encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891), Catholic social doctrine has seemed to many to constitute an alternative both to free-market capitalism and all forms of socialism and communism. But lately an objection to Catholic social teaching has arisen from an unexpected source, in fact, from some of those who claim to be especially devoted to Catholic life and tradition as it existed before the Second Vatican Council. This is ironic, for during that era Catholic social teaching was championed much more than it is today by the hierarchy, including the papacy, and was, I think, much more in the consciousness of the ecclesiastically literate Catholic. But the objection that has arisen from some who call themselves traditionalists is novel in one respect, yet in another respect not. It is novel in that it bases its explicit rejection of such doctrine on the supposed teachings of the science of economics. But it is not novel in that the hallmark of dissenters and heretics throughout the ages has been precisely to take some human science, theology or philosophy often, elevate it above the teaching magisterium of the Catholic Church and pose the false quandary: If I accept such and such a teaching of the Church I must go against my God-given reason. But since reason is from God, I cannot contradict it. Therefore I must reject this teaching of the Church.

The latest among those who take this approach is one Thomas Woods, Jr., who argues that Catholic social teaching and economic science are fundamentally at odds, and that it is the former that must yield to the latter. Woods is not shy about stating his position.

The primary difficulty with much of what has fallen under the heading of Catholic social teaching since Pope Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum (1891) is that it assumes without argument that the force of human will suffices to resolve economic questions, and that reason and the conclusions of economic law can be safely neglected, even scorned.... This attitude runs directly counter to the entire Catholic intellectual tradition, according to which man is to conform his actions to reality, rather than embarking on the hopeless and foolish task of forcing the world to conform to him and to his desires ["Catholic Social Teaching and Economic Law: An Unresolved Tension," paper delivered at the Austrian Scholars Conference at the Mises Institute, Auburn, Alabama, March 2002, p. 4. The entire paper is available here].


And he dismisses as "perfectly nonsensical" the claim that his position "involves himself in `dissent' from Church teaching" ("The Trouble with Catholic Social Teaching," lecture delivered at the Austrian Scholars Conference, Mises Institute, Auburn Alabama, March 2004, p. 2.). Why? Because

In the absence of any attempt to address these issues [i.e., the issues that Woods considers important], it is difficult to see how the economic claims of the social encyclicals can actually constitute authoritative Catholic doctrine binding upon the consciences of all the faithful” ["Catholic Social Teaching and Economic Law: an Unresolved Tension," pp. 33-34].


And he goes on to say:

One hesitates to describe Catholic social teaching as an abuse of papal and ecclesiastical power, but surely the attempt to impose, as moral doctrine binding the entire Catholic world, principles that derive from the popes' intrinsically fallible reasoning within a secular discipline like economics, seems dubious. At the very least, it appears to constitute an indefensible extension of the prerogatives of the Church's legitimate teaching office into areas in which it possesses no inherent competence or divine protection from error [Ibid., p. 35].


This is the question in a nutshell: Thomas Woods believes that certain teachings of Leo XIII, Pius XI, Pius XII, John XXIII, Paul VI and John Paul II, teachings which these pontiffs certainly conceived of as part of their legitimate teaching authority, are wrong because he thinks they contradict the tenets of economics.

Now in the first place, I must agree with Woods, that both cannot be right. If these economic beliefs are correct then the papal teaching is wrong, for truth cannot contradict itself. Otherwise we would be headed toward the notion of a double-truth which was implicit in some of the theories of the medieval Latin Averroists, that is, that the same thing could be true in philosophy and false in theology. But as every loyal Catholic knows, there is not nor can there be any conflict between authentic Catholic teaching and the genuine findings of any human science. Such a thing is not possible.

What can one say in reply to Woods, then? First, that since a whole series of popes has taught certain moral truths connected with economics which they believed was entirely within their competence, it is monstrous for anyone claiming to be a Catholic to argue against this teaching, and second, that what Woods represents as the teaching of economics is in fact simply one economic view among many, and that thus it is not the science of economics that is at odds with Catholic doctrine, but simply one school of thought representing ultimately the fallible reasoning of human beings.

In the first place, then, any instructed and orthodox Catholic will have no difficulty in dismissing Woods' claims at once, even without investigating his arguments. When confronted, for example, with claims by psychologists or sociologists that the findings of their particular disciplines invalidate this or that teaching of the Church, we can know that their claims are not to be taken seriously. Of course, usually it is necessary to refute them in order to show those outside the Church, or those weak in faith, that the teachings of the Church have not been disproven. But in principle, Woods' claims are no different from those made by many another partisan of one pet theory or idea after another. The popes have been quite explicit about their competence to teach in these areas of economic morality. Let us look at just two of their statements.

We approach the subject with confidence, and in the exercise of the rights which belong to Us. For no practical solution of this question will ever be found without the assistance of Religion and the Church. It is We who are the chief guardian of religion, and the chief dispenser of what belongs to the Church, and We must not by silence neglect the duty which lies upon Us [Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum, no. 13].


We lay down the principle long since clearly established by Leo XIII that it is Our right and Our duty to deal authoritatively with social and economic problems. It is not of course for the Church to lead men to transient and perishable happiness only, but to that which is eternal. Indeed "the Church believes that it would be wrong for her to inferfere without just cause in such earthly concerns"; but she never can relinquish her God-given task of interposing her authority, not indeed in technical matters, for which she has neither the equipment nor the mission, but in all those that have a bearing on moral conduct. For the deposit of truth entrusted to Us by God, and Our weighty office of propagating, interpreting and urging in season and out of season the entire moral law, demand that both social and economic questions be brought within Our supreme jurisdiction, in so far as they refer to moral issues [Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno, no. 41].


Mr. Woods may think that they have overstepped the bounds of moral theology into technical economic questions, but that is not what they thought. When not just one, but even more so many supreme pontiffs teach the same truths and consider that they have a perfect right to do so without this constituting an "abuse of papal and ecclesiastical power," then surely any orthodox and loyal Catholic must accept the popes' own notions of the limits of their teaching authority. As I said above, every dissenter and heretic in the history of the Church elevates some idea of his own, which he feels he has good reason to accept, into a principle higher than Catholic teaching. What makes Woods different from them? If a psychologist or sociologist claimed that his knowledge made it impossible for him to accept Catholic teaching on sexuality, we would dismiss his arguments as worthless, and rightly so. But who is Thomas Woods to set up his own boundaries as to what is and what is not acceptable for the Church to teach? What are his credentials to constitute a parallel magisterium? The Catholic Church has been teaching in the area of economic morality for centuries. Mr. Woods' quarrel is not with a few recent popes but with the entire tradition of Catholic teaching on economic morality.

Lest anyone argue that the Church has never defined infallibly the social doctrines stated in papal encyclicals, we should remember that infallibility extends beyond merely the teachings of the solemn magisterium to the teaching of the ordinary and universal magisterium. (The First Vatican Council, in its Dogmatic Constitution, De Fide, chap. 3, taught: "Further, all those things are to be believed with divine and Catholic faith which are contained in the Word of God, written or handed down, and which the Church, either by a solemn judgment or by her ordinary and universal teaching [magisterium], proposes for belief as having been divinely revealed.") At least some of the contents of the papal social encyclicals, for example, the doctrine of the just wage, would seem to have been repeated enough times so that they qualify as part of the ordinary and universal magisterium. And even those matters which may not rise to the level of the universal magisterium, are by no means optional matters for Catholics. Pius XII authoritatively stated in his encyclical Humani Generis of 1950 the following:

Nor must it be thought that what is expounded in Encyclical Letters does not of itself demand consent, since in writing such Letters the Popes do not exercise the supreme power of their Teaching Authority [Magisterium]. For these matters are taught with the ordinary teaching authority [Magisterio enim ordinario haec docentur], of which it is true to say: "He who heareth you, heareth me"... [No. 20].


And the Second Vatican Council, in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium of 1964, taught:

[A] loyal submission of the will and intellect must be given, in a special way, to the authentic teaching authority of the Roman Pontiff, even when he does not speak ex cathedra in such wise, indeed, that his supreme teaching authority be acknowledged with respect, and sincere assent be given to decisions made by him, conformably with his manifest mind and intention, which is made known principally either by the character of the documents in question, or by the frequency with which a certain doctrine is proposed, or by the manner in which the doctrine is formulated” [No. 25].


Moreover, when one looks closely at this matter, one will discover that what Woods solemnly proclaims to be the teachings of economics are in fact only the opinions of one particular sect of economists. In fact, the Austrian school, to which Woods adheres, is a minority school of economists. It is true that many neoclassical economists would agree with many of Woods' criticisms, but there are other schools of economic thought whose findings harmonize well with Catholic social thought. Woods himself mentions, and excoriates, the German historical school. There is also the American institutionalist school, and there are others. Woods has no more right to consider his own economic ideas as equivalent to the entire field of economics than a Kantian philosopher has to regard the teachings of Kant as equivalent to the entire field of philosophy. If such a philosopher were to say, "There is a conflict between the teachings of the First Vatican Council and the science of philosophy on the ability of human reason to demonstrate the existence of God," we could easily point out to him that there are other schools of philosophy, such as Thomism, that have no such conflict, and that he is wrong to claim for his own school the mantle of philosophy as a whole. But this is exactly what Woods has done for economics. His own school says this, therefore economics as a whole says this. The faulty reasoning here should be evident. Woods quotes with approval the following statement of Professor William Luckey:

The fact that Catholic economic teaching, put forth as unchanging and required of belief, did not square with what Austrian economists know to be true, has created an agonizing crisis of conscience for such economists ["The Trouble with Catholic Social Teaching," p. 6, my emphasis].


Woods and Luckey have raised the fallible reasoning of a group of economists, a group which does not even command majority opinion within its own discipline, into an infallible voice of truth which they consider to be able to trump the teachings of the supreme pontiffs! Contrary to what Woods continually asserts, to question Austrian economics is not to question the validity of human reason; it is simply to question the validity of certain dubious conclusions reached by one group of men who enjoy no charism of infallibility.

Woods also makes much of the economic teaching of a group of sixteenth and seventeenth-century Spanish theologians who have sometimes been claimed as precursors of Woods's views, or of something like them anyway. There is some reason to question whether this similarity between their views and his own has not been greatly overstated. (I will instance only one example. In his first paper Woods (p. 8) quotes a passage from Juan de Mariana on the folly and evil of a ruler attemping to set a price of a good "in such a way that the legal price should differ from the natural.... Men are guided in this matter by common estimation founded on considerations of the quality of things, and their abundance or scarcity." Now "common estimation" was a traditional scholastic way of discovering a just price. Common estimation was the common opinion of men in general as to what was a reasonable price, and though it might in many cases be based in part on factors that included certain market forces, such as the "abundance or scarcity" of the item in question, the important point to recognize is that common estimation and the market price of Austrian or neoclassical economics do not mean the same thing. That is, even if in some cases they might coincide, they do so for different reasons. Moreover, this subject opens up the entire question of what is a market price, since all markets are subject to legal and customary rules, and whether in fact it makes any sense to speak of a market price. Rather, the question is: what market price exists under such and such a legal and social regime.) In addition, I will point out two things. First, if it were the case that these theologians agreed completely with Woods, what would that mean? Absolutely nothing. They have no special status above other theologians, and against the teaching of the popes their views carry no weight whatsoever, any more than the myriad of theologians of today whose views are widely quoted against authentic papal teaching. And secondly, if, as Woods avers, the vicars of Christ have overstepped the bounds of moral theology by their teachings on economic morality, what gives these Spanish scholastics, who were theologians not economists, any particular authority in this field? Is Woods making an argument from authority? If he is it fails, for by his own claims theology has nothing to say on these particular questions. If, on the other hand, he is simply claiming them as intellectual precursors, and appealing to the weight of their arguments, then I do not see any reason why I should specially attend to them, particularly as they (according to Woods) teach contrary to the popes and are no more infallible than any other economic writers.

Woods is especially agitated because he thinks that without his own conception of economics it must cease to be a science. Although I know of nothing in scripture or tradition that guarantees that economics is a science, nevertheless what he says does not necessarily follow. Heinrich Pesch, the great Jesuit economist, whose thought provided the background for the encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, and whom Woods criticizes, strongly defended the status of economics to be a science, but a human and a social science, one that depends at least in part on the free acts of human beings. We are not required to give up the claim that economics is a science if we accept Catholic social teaching.

Although it is not my primary intention to engage in an economic debate with Woods, I must say just a word to show how the economic arguments he makes are far from compelling. The model of an economy which both neoclassical and Austrian economics present, and the economic policies which Austrian economists usually champion, are not the obvious conclusions of economic reasoning as they would have us believe. For economic activity always takes place within a legal, social and technological framework, and the structure of that framework to a great degree conditions and determines the shape which economic activity takes in any particular society. There was no economic reason, for example, why the guilds of the Middle Ages, which controlled the urban economies of Europe and severely limited competition among craftsmen, need have come to an end, and the economy which resulted from the demise of the guilds was largely the creation of a changed intellectual climate, not the result of so-called economic laws. Nor are limited liability corporations, which currently dominate our economy and which were created only in the nineteenth century due to emerging state general incorporation laws, the inevitable products of economic forces, but rather were brought into being by the free acts of legislatures. Market forces always work within a certain framework, and economic outcomes depend more on how these frameworks are structured than on the market forces alone. Thus within broad limits human beings have the ability to structure the way in which they conduct economic activity, and the notion that there is only one way which is sanctioned by so-called economic laws is false. Human beings create their legal and social institutions and can alter them. There is no reason why these institutions cannot be designed or reformed in such a way so as to facilitate the application of Catholic social teaching. (A concrete instance of how market forces always work within an institutional framework is the story of the Nova Scotia fishermen from the 1930s. "Their catch of fish and lobsters was handled by local dealers who in many cases kept the fishermen in a state of peonage. While Maine fishermen were getting about fifteen cents a pound for lobsters, the Nova Scotian fishermen were receiving as little as two cents a pound. All other prices were scaled down in the same ratio. For everything they bought, however, from their scanty food purchases to nets and lines, they paid top prices, with the result that they were invariably bowed down with a load of debts. Appalling poverty, illiteracy, poor health and the worst possible housing conditions existed throughout this section." In order to better their condition, priests from St. Francis College helped the fishermen organize cooperatives. By means of marketing cooperatives they were able to bypass the local middlemen and deal directly with wholesalers in large cities. In their first shipment of lobsters to Boston they received fifteen cents per pound net. The distribution of income before the establishment of the cooperatives was not the result of the operation of economic laws, but rather of the legal and social institutions within which these economic forces operated. These institutions were changed and a new set of institutions was created within which market forces could operate. This is an illustration of the freedom men have to change the framework and thus change the way economic forces operate to bring about a more just distribution of income. See Bertram B. Fowler, The Co-operative Challenge (Boston : Little, Brown, 1947) pp. 128-29.)

Lest any reader be tempted to think that I am too exercised over this topic, and my disagreement with Woods is simply a small matter over different interpretations of Catholic social doctrine, let me quote from Pope Pius XI. In his first encyclical, Ubi Arcano of December 1922, Pius introduced the notion of "social Modernism." He spoke of those Catholics who give lip service to doctrine concerning the social order, including "Catholic teaching concerning...the rights and duties of laborers...in industry" but who "by their spoken and written word, and the whole tenor of their lives" disregard and belittle this teaching. Pope Pius says of this, "In all this we recognize a kind of moral, judicial, and social Modernism, and We condemn it as strongly as We do dogmatic Modernism." I am sure that Thomas Woods would not like to be placed among the dogmatic modernists, but Pius XI definitely places him among the social modernists. And thus that saintly and traditional pontiff condemns Thomas Woods' views, condemns them "as strongly as We do dogmatic Modernism."

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