The Economy and Catholic Church Social Teaching
The global economic structure, which, for a time appeared to give us wealth beyond our dreams, is a profoundly unjust one. It is unjust for two reasons:
First, this economic system is incapable of giving everyone on our planet a decent standard of living. The economic growth that would be required to lift the billion people living in dire poverty up to anything approaching our standard of living would destroy the planet with pollution and CO². The standard of living which we enjoy is at the expense of the poor: the poor, the homeless and the unemployed are the collateral damage of the global economy.
Even in Ireland, during the Celtic Tiger, the economic system was, at best ineffective, at worst incapable, of giving everyone a decent, secure standard of living.
Secondly, it is unjust because it is unsustainable. Although our real needs are limited, the economic system uses the resources of our planet to produce, for those who can afford them, an ever-increasing range of goods and service which are nice but superfluous, while the basic needs and services which others require, but cannot afford, are not provided.
The Roman Catholic Church has, for over 100 years, criticised the injustice of the economic system and outlined the elements of a just economy.
Meet the needs of all
The most fundamental criterion for a just economic system is that it must meet the basic needs of all. That is, after all, the whole purpose of an economic system.
Pope Benedict, in his most recent encyclical, Caritas in Veritate (2009), recalls that
“The truth of development consists in its completeness: if it does not involve the whole man and every man, it is not true development. This is the central message of Populorum Progressio (1967), valid for today and for all time... the essential element of “authentic” development (is that it) must be integral, that is, it has to promote the good of every man and of the whole man” (No. 18)
The Moral Flaw
The basic flaw in our economic structure, which fails to meet the needs of all, is that
“profit is considered the key motive for economic growth” (Populorum Progressio, No.26).
While profit is, of course, necessary, an exclusive focus on the financial return to capital - using employees and others merely as a means to that end - determines what is produced, how much is produced, where and how it is produced, whether workers are employed or laid off, regardless of the real needs of people. Even back in 1891, in “Rerum Novarum”, Pope Leo criticised an economy that was focused exclusively on profit making, using workers simply as a means to making money.
“The first thing of all to secure is to save unfortunate working people from the cruelty of men of greed, who use human beings as mere instruments for money-making”. (No. 42)
In Caritas in Veritate, almost 120 years later, Pope Benedict still had to remind us:
“Once profit becomes the exclusive goal, if it is produced by improper means and without the common good as its ultimate end, it risks destroying wealth and creating poverty.” (No. 21)
Fixing the Moral Flaw - The Priority of Labour over Capital
But it was Pope John Paul II’s remarkable encyclical “On Human Work” that inverts the fundamental principle of the modern economy, namely the priority of capital.
“In view of this situation we must first of all recall a principle that has always been taught by the Church: the principle of the priority of labour over capital.” (No. 12)
Produce basic goods and services
An economic system that gives priority to meeting the basic needs of all is one that will generate growth and employment. Again, Caritas in Veritate reflects:
“It was timely when Paul VI in Populorum Progressio insisted that the economic system itself would benefit from the wide-ranging practice of justice, inasmuch as the first to gain from the development of poor countries would be rich ones.”(No. 35)
Requires a strong sense of solidarity
To reform our economic structures to ensure they produce the basic goods and services which everyone needs requires a strong sense of solidarity between the wealthy nations and those that are poorer. It would require us to share our wealth, using it to produce, not the superfluous goods and services that we can now enjoy, but food, shelter, health and education for the poorest. It would involve a war on poverty. In “On Human Work”(1981), John Paul II noted:
“In order to achieve social justice in the various parts of the world, in the various countries and in the relationships between them, there is a need for ever new movements of solidarity of the workers and with the workers. This solidarity must be present whenever it is called for by the social degrading of the subject of work, by exploitation of the workers and by the growing areas of poverty and even hunger. The church is firmly committed to this cause for she considers it her mission, her service, a proof of her fidelity to Christ, so that she can truly be the "church of the poor." (No. 8)
To divert the resources of the more economically developed world in this way would of course reduce our standard of living. But there is no alternative: if the world’s poor are to find a proper standard of living, then we will have to reduce ours.
We have been persuaded – perhaps seduced by the comfortable life-style it affords most of us - that our economic model is the only model possible. For the sake of a billion people, and the future of our planet, we have to begin to think the unthinkable.
Posted in Church Structural Renewal Reflections