New Distributism 4 — Why The Church Needs A Prophetic Economic Voice

I am writing a series of columns on Catholic social doctrine. Here’s all of them.

In my previous column, I argued that in formulating its social doctrine, the Church should focus on two main modes of action : on the one hand, a relentless empiricism and, on the other, a prophetic voice.

The empiricism is the product of the Church’s Tradition, which sees man’s rational nature as part of its Divine image, and God’s law inscribed in His good creation, and therefore has the highest respect for rational and empirical inquiry.

But why is this prophetic voice necessary?

The first, obvious, and sufficient reason, is that it is the voice of the Bible, the voice of Jesus Christ, and the voice of the greatest preachers from Saint Paul on down to Pope Francis.

But there’s another reason.

Presumably the goal of the Church’s social doctrine is to improve the lot of man on this vale of tears—it is not eschatological, and it does not exist for its own sake, just as man was not made for the sabbath. This means that whatever social doctrine the Church formulates, the hope is that it filters through to society, in the form of policies, economic endeavors, cultural change, and so on.

But these ideas, policies, endeavors and initiatives will be filtered through flawed, sinful humans. There is and cannot be any utopia this side of the Kingdom. Therefore, even if Catholic social doctrine is as great as it can be, and even if a society should most earnestly tries to follow it, that society will still have injustice. And the Church would not be the Church if it did not call attention to that injustice. Hence, any social doctrine worthy of the name must still use the prophetic voice.

This is particularly true in corrupt and/or non-democratic states. Benign dictatorships that have good economic policies are still dictatorships (and are never truly benign).

But, particularly for supporters of free markets, among whom I count myself, the way this plays out in advanced democracies is very relevant for the Church. In all bourgeois democracies, a similar story plays out.

In democracies, the government is primarily run by political parties. And in democracies, political parties are primarily coalitions of social group interests, and only secondarily bound together by ideology.

The way that narrowly-construed self-interest—that is to say, our sinful nature—works makes it so that in most polities the party or parties that will most publicly adopt pro-market ideas will be the party or parties whose coalition includes the “winners” in the economic landscape, that is to say, the upper and upper-middle class. The consequence of all of this is that the facially “pro-market” party or parties will, all else equal, at best, tend to promote the versions of pro-market ideas that are most congruent with the interest of this core constituency, as opposed to the polity as a whole, and at worst promote anti-market policies under the guise of facially pro-market rhetoric.

We see this most obviously in the US Republican Party, with its support of hard-money policies, top-rate tax cuts, “job-creator” and “47%” rhetoric, etc. We see this with the French right, which occasionally claims the mantle of pro-market ideology but uses the government to defend the class interests of the upper slice (e.g. regulatory protections for high-earning professions such as pharmacists and notaries, cutting inheritance taxes, etc.).

Because this is a fundamental tendency of bourgeois democracies, even if the Church were to embrace free markets, even from a pro-market perspective, it would still become corrupt if it were to identify its doctrines with the particular, nominally pro-market ideologies of various parties or factions. For proponents of free markets, if the Church were to embrace free markets more than it does at present, then, the prophetic voice would become particularly salutary as a check on becoming identified with necessarily-corrupt political structures, or ideological fads. The Church’s vision of markets can never be identified with the faculty lounge’s, or with Davos’s, or Wall Street’s, or Silicon Valley’s—even or especially if those visions have elements of truth in them.

No matter the excellence of our economic system, the poor are still blessed, and Jesus’ Kingdom is not of this world.

Like Patheos Catholic on Facebook!


  • Theodore Seeber

    My new column in the Papal Economics book club is up:

    Turns out I had completely missed reading a very important encyclical, but in my defense, I was 11 years old when it was published, and it was at a time when Papal Encyclicals were de facto censored in the United States (NOBODY read them back then, the political backlash to Humanae Vitae would mean an entire generation of American Catholics would grow up without the benefit of the teachings of the Popes at all).

    • Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry

      That’s great, thank you very much.

  • Floyd Alsbach

    This article is not as clear to me as the first three, especially in the second half of the text. Maybe because I lack understanding: 1. I’m not sure what you mean by “bourgeois democracies” perhaps because both words have become so broad and loaded with implication that they often seem almost meaningless, or gratuitous or even both. 2. Then there is the word “facially” not sure what you mean there. 3. In the US both dominant political parties are soft democratic socialist in practice, although their rhetoric differs quite a bit, their fruits (as in Mathew 7:16) are quite similar. Just as an example; Democrats claim to be the party of the poor and middle class while passing a great deal of legislation that results in exerting ever more stringent control over the everyday lives of the poor and middle class. Over the last 5 years the wealthy have gained a great deal financially while the poor and middle class have lost a great deal of economic ground. Also, despite the hype to the contrary, most of the wealthiest people in the US are Democrats. (To be fair GW Bush’s presidency didn’t help much either.) Of course I am a libertarian so…

    • Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry

      By “bourgeois democracy” I meant democracies where the most numerous constituency is a bourgeois middle class. So, basically, today, the “rich world.”

  • brianmacker

    “We see this most obviously in the US Republican Party, with its support of hard-money policies, top-rate tax cuts, “job-creator” and “47%” rhetoric, etc. ”
    What a strange selection of examples. How is a hard money policy in any way a to the benefit of a narrow special interest? Did republicans push for “top rate tax cuts” or merely tax cuts for everybody who actually pays taxes? What’s “job-creator” have to do with special interest? The 47% rhetoric addresses the issue of freeloaders on the system so I’m not at all sure how that related to special interests either.

    • Paul S.

      I thought it was just Ron Paul and his folks that were for hard-money. Sure some Republicans have shouted “audit the fed” but that’s a different matter.
      Nota bene @pegobry: 47% was an out of context pull quote the Dems jumped all over. It seems based on the idea of some pollster that a certain percent of the population is die-hard Democratic and won’t ever consider voting Republican. (just as the right has their 47% or so… then the rest are independents in theory) It was then made into “Romney hates 47% of the country and wants them to die horribly.”

      Buuuuut, as politics is all about perception – if the American people perceived Romney that way, then for all purposes, that is the Republican party platform.

      • Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry

        The idea that lower income Americans don’t pay enough taxes is quite the enduring meme on the Right.

        • Paul S.

          huh. Well I’d never seen much of that, short of a segment on MSNBC maybe. I’ll take your word for it!

      • brianmacker

        No, actually German Democratic Socialists also believe quite a bit in hard money, or used to. You got the Romney issue wrong. I suggest you read the transcript or listen to the tape. He was referring to the 47 percent who pay no federal income taxes and then expect entitlements they didn’t fund.

        My problem is that has zero to do with support for special interests. In fact, it is the exact opposite. He’s complaining about special interests, like welfare moochers.

        Here’s the transcript.

        “There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what. And I mean, the president starts off with 48, 49, 48—he starts off with a huge number. These are people who pay no income tax. Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn’t connect. And he’ll be out there talking about tax cuts for the rich. I mean that’s what they sell every four years. And so my job is not to worry about those people—I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives. What I have to do is convince the 5 to 10 percent in the center that are independents that are thoughtful, that look at voting one way or the other depending upon in some cases emotion, whether they like the guy or not, what it looks like. I mean, when you ask those people…we do all these polls—I find it amazing—we poll all these people, see where you stand on the polls, but 45 percent of the people will go with a Republican, and 48 or 4…”

    • Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry

      It’s because of people like you that I’m writing this.

      Of course hard money is a policy in favor of the rich:

      I think it’s hard to claim that Republicans are more interested in tax cuts for lower earners than for high earners, although that is changing. As someone who has been advocating in the US conservative camp for payroll tax cuts for a very long time, it’s an uphill climb.

      And yes, “job creator” rhetoric is special interest pandering: not everyone wants to be an entrepreneur! By the way, I am an entrepreneur.

      And if you think people in the lower half of the income spectrum are freeloaders, well, I would say that that is an inaccurate, and un-Gospel-like vision of the world.

      • brianmacker

        In fact, soft money policies hurt the poor. Your article is full of economic fallacy. For one thing, the rich are actually debtors too. It’s a myth that the rich lend to the poor. Often the rich borrow the savings of the poor to invest, and then get to pay extra low interest rates set buy the fed to the poor. Here’s a better article:

        Who said it was restricted to the lower incomes? Sorry but if you are not paying federal income tax and are receiving the benefits of federal programs then you are in fact a freeloader. There are a lot of rich people freeloading off the government to in different ways, not just the poor. However, anyone not paying any federal taxes, ever, is a freeloader, poor or rich. There are lots of rich democrats in that 47%. Like the movie producers/actors who benefit from all sorts of tax subsidies.

        • BT

          The poor generally DO pay taxes. FICA is a tax. They pay sales taxes.

          It’s not accurate to portray them as non tax paying.

          • brianmacker

            I said “federal income tax”. It is perfectly accurate to portray them as not paying this tax. They don’t. Your reply was the thing that was not accurate, to what I wrote. FICA taxes are actually overpaid back to the poor to support them in their old age. Sales taxes do not cover the federal programs that the freeload off of.

          • BT

            I think your FICA comment that it’s an overpayment is a bit erroneous as well.
            Taxes pay for benefits.  That’s true for all of us.  Some of us will benefit more than others.  You can make a pretty good argument that our legal system is a huge benefit for me that far eclipses what I pay for it.  The $35k or so I pay in taxes is woefully small compared to the income I get by having world class financial markets which are the result of strong (if imperfect) regulatory bodies and contract law.  The fact that my benefit exceeds my cost doesn’t mean that my $35k isn’t a tax.
            I’ll stick with my opinion. FICA is a federal tax.  It’s based on income.  It is AN income tax, but maybe not THE income tax.

          • brianmacker

            Believe what you want. There’s no reasoning with you. You just want to rationalize your assumptions. By your reasoning any benefit you get is way more than you pay for it. That $3000 oil bill, well you would have frozen to death without it, so what’s your life worth to you, millions. Therefore you are way underpaying for your fuel. It is well known that our tax system is redistributive with the poor as net recipients. They get way more in direct benefits than they pay into the system. They are net moochers.

          • BT
          • brianmacker

            Your beliefs are also dopey because they could be used to justify slavery. Just find a slave who feels he’s better off as a slave than he would be otherwise, that he gets more out of his master than he puts in, and you would use that to justify the slavery of everyone.

          • BT

            No that would not be true since you have completely misunderstood what I intended to say.
            Enjoy the day.

          • BT

            I’m also not sure it matters a whole hill of beans if a tax is an income tax or some other form of tax.  If it’s money leaving my pocket, it’s a tax.  Period.  You can call it a purple donkey tax if it makes people feel better.
            Bottom line, the poor benefit from government programs but also pay a pretty fair share of the total tax load at the combined state, local, and federal levels.
            Plus, if you measure taxes paid against the excess of what it takes to actually live (income less food/housing costs), then I think the poor actually pay a pretty healthy load.

  • Dagnabbit_42

    Here’s a prophetic statement the Church ought to make:

    1. Of the true real goods required for human thriving, health care and food and shelter are among them…but so are intact families, a culture of chastity, healthy-and-fruitful marriage, and family-building, a culture of entrepreneurship, a culture of honest work valued as a true expression of human dignity, classical education, sound moral education, and detailed religious catechesis.

    2. These latter items are actually of greater importance than the former, becuse IF intact families, chastity, healthy-and-fruitful marriage, family-building, entrepreneurship, the dignity of honest work, classical education, sound moral education, and detailed religious catechesis are in place in a society, THEN such symptoms of social health as good health care and food and clothing and shelter for the poor tend to be produced spontaneously by voluntary associations within the society.

    Now, that would be prophetic. It’s true, and it’s a sign of contradiction against the conventional wisdom of the folk who claim to care most about the poor in our culture.

    Those folk are usually only interested in a particular showy form of caring for the poor; namely, publicly advocating increasing taxpayer expenditures on assistance for the poor.

    That’s all very well, but it reduces “the poor” to non-humans: For humans are entities with dignity and minds and moral consciences and the ability to procreate through their sexual powers and the ability to envision good ideas and pursue them for the benefit of themselves and others.

    Handing them a welfare check treats them as animals needing to be fed; handing them government housing treats them as animals needing to be put up in a kennel. But encouraging their moral education, their religious upbringing? Encouraging marital fidelity and premarital chastity? Encouraging them to disdain unfettered consumerism in favor of good stewardship of their money and time? That’s how you relate to a human qua human. Animals eat; animals need shelter. Humans need culture and education and morality and initiative and family and sexual sanity and God.

    Let’s deal, for example, with the phrase “unfettered capitalism,” as seen through the lens of the fullness of humanity qua humanity:

    “Unfettered”…by what? Government regulations? No, that’s not the issue; or if it is, it’s only the issue because of the failure of what should be the primary constraint upon a man’s business and consumer decisions: His Well-Formed Conscience.

    The production of pornography: THAT is “unfettered capitalism.” The consumption of pornography: THAT is “unfettered capitalism.” The voluntary participation of an attractive model who enjoys making pornography, is paid well for it, and is making a career of it: THAT is “unfettered capitalism.”

    The production of movies and television shows which inculcate in the viewer an amoral vision of the world, but become popular because they titillate the viewer with meaningless (not just vs. injust) violence or with meaningless (not justified or justly condemned) flouting of worthwhile cultural convention or taboo: THAT is “unfettered capitalism.”

    It is “unfettered”: And this is unrelated to how much money is made. Even if little money is made, it is still “unfettered.” (Money is so very small a part of the real goods needed for human thriving!)

    No, it is “unfettered” because, like slavery, all these things ought to be restrained by the consciences of the participants, but are not. The result is exploitation…often MUTUAL exploitation. We think of exploitation as a unidirectional thing: Pimp and john exploit sex-slave, for example. But “unfettered capitalism” is TWO-WAY or MULTI-DIRECTIONAL exploitation. In pornography, the producer corrupts his models with monetary enticements and gives his customer something that harms and addicts them and wastes their time and money; the models don’t care that they’re harming and addicting their viewers so long as they’re paid well enough; and the viewers don’t mind that the model’s reputation and modesty are destroyed, or that the producer is complicit in this evil, so long as she’ll perform for his gratification. It’s exploitation all the way around: Each party treats the others as objects for selfish gratification rather than as human beings to be encouraged towards sainthood.

    Will the Church come out and say all of this?

    THAT would be prophetic.

    • Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry

      Dagnabbit! I don’t disagree. And by the way, this is not that far from the visions of Rerum Novarum and Centesimus Annus.

    • BT

      Then again, hungry and poorly sheltered people aren’t productive either.

      It’s not an either/or thing.

    • Donalbain

      . These latter items are actually of greater importance than the former, becuse IF intact families, chastity, healthy-and-fruitful marriage, family-building, entrepreneurship, the dignity of honest work, classical education, sound moral education, and detailed religious catechesis are in place in a society, THEN suchsymptoms of social health as good health care and food and clothing and shelter for the poor tend to be produced spontaneously by voluntary associations within the society.

      When did this happen? At what point in history, and in which society?

      • BT

        Never. At least not well. And it would be worse today.

        Makes a great story, but the reality isn’t there.

  • Razo Bravo

    I respectfully disagree with the idea that we will never get THIS world right. It goes against logic (and faith) to believe that we will FOREVER de fallen. Sooner or later, with the help of Christ, we WILL get it right and THIS world is going to change. When that moment arrives, will it be a different world? Yes and no. Yes, it will be different in the sense that it will be definitively, chronologically saved. But no, it won’t be any different in terms of the physical and moral laws that have always governed the planet. Christ entered into this world following the laws of this world – even if we can’t yet understand how he performed miracles. In my view, the miracle of redemption, when it becomes evident in space and time, and is no longer simply a matter of faith, will make sense according to laws that have always governed space and time (we simply have not been able to see them). This reasoning must necessarily apply to Catholic Social Doctrine, even if we can’t at the moment see the way out of the current mess.

    You are talking about, it seems to me, the quintessential human predicament: our ineluctable tendency to divide. In the present case, you talk about the divide between the haves and the have-nots, which is not the only divide, but which is perhaps the most universal and consistent across space and time. I am reminded of the “paradox of freedom”, which is something that is being ignored in the U.S. and Europe as if by ignoring it, the problem will go away. The paradox goes something like this: the more free and equal we make the world, i.e., the more we eliminate the historical barriers to social mobility (race, class, heredity, education, etc), the more unequal the world inevitably becomes, and the more it does so along genetic lines. This is the central thesis of a groundbreaking book by a Harvard psychometrician called “The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life” The book is well worth a read. One enormous indication of the deep schitt we are in is the fact that despite the irrefutable science and logic behind “The Bell Curve”, nobody (outside of Catholic circles) can talk about it publicly without risking getting their professional head handed to them on a silver platter.

    The author of the Bell Curve was a good friend of mine and I can tell you that he had no idea what could be done about this troubling gap between the world’s most talented and least talented people. In fact, below is a panel of Siebel scholars, with some of the biggest and brightest men in the world, weighing in on the topic. Don’t bother watching the whole thing because I can sum it up in one sentence: Nobody has the slightest idea what to do about it. The harder we try to fix the problem, the worse the problema actual becomes (it’s the paradox of freedom). It will be interesting to hear what you propose as a solution.

  • BT

    On the poor not paying taxes:

    When all federal, state, and local taxes are taken into account, the bottom fifth of households pays about 16 percent of their incomes in taxes, on average. The second-poorest fifth pays about 21 percent.

    Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) Tax Model, April 2012.