D.J. Tice is to be thanked for wrestling with Pope Francis’ statements on the importance of the economy serving the well-being of persons, and not the other way around (“Great pope, that Francis, but as an economist …” Dec. 21).
However, it seems that Tice, like many, is focusing on the media’s favorite Francis sound bites and shoehorning them into the usual left-right framework, instead of diving into the rich tradition of Gospel-centered social commentary upon which Francis’ statements build.
Catholic teaching on the economy defies categorization and transcends the false dichotomy of markets vs. a managed economy. The church’s basic premise is that commerce is a means of fostering the dignity of the human person and, at its best, helps create conditions that enable a diversity of institutions to fulfill their vocation to serve others.
Two key themes from the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church’s section titled “Economic Institutions at the Service of Man” (Nos. 346-60) help provide the necessary background for understanding Francis’ and the Catholic Church’s long-standing insistence that we must not create an “economy of exclusion,” in which people do not have access to jobs, capital or the proper remuneration for their work.
The first important theme is that “[t]he free market is an institution of social importance because of its capacity to guarantee effective results in the production of goods and services.” Similarly, “[a] truly competitive market is an effective instrument for attaining important objectives of justice.”
The church recognizes that, in the words of Francis’ predecessor John Paul II, “the free market is the most efficient instrument for utilizing resources and effectively responding to needs.” Market mechanisms and free economies have lifted people out of poverty and have contributed greatly to the global increase in prosperity and standards of living.
The second major theme of the church’s understanding of the market qualifies the first: “The Church’s social doctrine … points out the need for [free markets] to be firmly rooted in its ethical objectives, which ensure and at the same time suitably circumscribe the space within which it can operate autonomously.”
How should this be understood? Put simply, the church is always calling us to understand economics in terms of relationships between persons and institutions, and not just as a grab-bag of supposedly empirical laws. Those relationships must be governed by justice and charity — what Francis’ predecessor Benedict XVI called “the logic of gift.”
In other words, the “bottom line” must never be the bottom line.
Though seemingly common-sense, such claims are radical. At root they mean judging (and ordering) our economic system not around empirical standards such as “growth” or “GDP” but instead on how they promote the flourishing of individuals, families and communities.