Summer 2015

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Catholic Social Teaching: Response, not Reaction

Will we take up the challenge to move beyond reactive charity and instead consider the long-term economics of effective aid?

By David Hammond
Photo credit: Trustees of the Estate of Bernard Lonergan

Modern Catholic social teaching began in earnest with Leo XIII at the end of the 19th century. For over a hundred years, that noble and oft-neglected tradition has been to react to events in the world that threaten human dignity and rights. Communism and fascism have been condemned, laissez-faire capitalism’s exploitation of the worker has been denounced, and the need for justice in the marketplace has been affirmed. Basic principles such as subsidiarity have been put forward. Yet the tradition of Catholic social teaching since the onset of the modern industrial age has essentially been a matter of reaction. In other words, the evils of these modern ideologies have been criticized, but little in the way of an intelligible reconstruction of the social and economic order has emerged from Catholic thinkers.

The exception is Bernard Lonergan, who worked on economics during the Great Depression and again in the 1970s. In a 1973 lecture on the need for evangelization to be more engaged with the problems of this world, he commented:

Cardinal Danielou speaks of the poor. It is a worthy topic, but I feel that the basic step in aiding them in a notable manner is a matter of spending one’s nights and days in a deep and prolonged study of economic analysis.”

At my age and given my mathematically challenged education, I won’t be following Lonergan’s advice. But there are many scientifically and/or mathematically trained Catholics who take the Catholic social teaching seriously yet feel helpless in the face of the complexities of the world’s economic problems. It’s easy to spot the instances of greed or the moneyed interests that control governments, but in Lonergan’s view, real solutions to economic failure are to be found only in the long haul, and that means understanding how the economy works—or, in most cases, doesn’t. And when it doesn’t work, many people suffer, especially the poor.

Lonergan’s work is notoriously difficult, but there is help available. I’ll mention ust one book that I found readable for a beginner in economic theory: Stephen Martin’s Healing and Creativity in Economic Ethics: The Contribution of Bernard Lonergan’s Economic Thought to Catholic Social Teaching. Martin breaks down Lonergan’s complex philosophies, whose original writing can be found in The Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan and Macroeconomic Dynamics: An Essay in Circulation Analysis.

Without an adequate understanding of how the economy actually works (and why it so often fails), the Christian’s mandate to help the poor will largely be a matter of reacting with charity to problems that can seem so intractable as to be like gravity: nothing really to do about it in the long run. Principles and broad generalizations (“justice for workers” or “the right to private property”) won’t get the job done. The attention that Pope Francis has directed to global financial and economic distortions is an opportunity to consider how those who have the appropriate gifts might respond, and not just react, to the crises and challenges of the present day.

Catholic Social Teaching: Response, not Reaction originally appeared on Saint Joseph’s College’s theology blog. For more, visit blogs. sjcme.edu/theology.

Without an adequate understanding of how the economy actually works, the Christian’s mandate to help the poor will largely be a matter of reacting with charity to problems that can seem so intractable as to be like gravity: nothing really to do about it in the long run.

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Religion