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.

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