New Distributism 1 – The Real Problem With Vaticanomics—Or Why We Need A New Catholic Economics

New Distributism 1 – The Real Problem With Vaticanomics—Or Why We Need A New Catholic Economics March 25, 2014

An effort I’m going to do here is to try to come up with a distinctive Catholic theology of economics, rooted in the Sacred Tradition of the Church and up to the challenges of the 21st century. I plan to publish 1-2 columns per week. I very pompously call it New Distributism. Enjoy.

There is such a thing as Vaticanomics. Yes, each Pope (perhaps especially Francis) has his own economic thought, but over the decades since Vatican II, the economic language coming from the Vatican has had its own thread, and internal consistency.

It seems that everyone enjoys bashing Vaticanomics and, sadly, I am no exception. But I think the problem with Vaticanomics is deeper than is commonly thought. The main area of contention over Vatianomics is whether it is “too free market” or “not enough.”

But if you read a document like the Compendium of the Social Doctrine, what you are struck with is more than that. First, you are struck by the—sorry to say—bureaucratic style, clearly written by many hands, and with many internecine compromises shaping the text. But, second of all, you are struck that the Compendium paints a very clear picture: to the Vatican, the ideal society looks basically like the post-War Christian democracies of Europe. Some capitalism, but not too much. Some unionism, but not too much. High taxes, but not too high. Some growth, but not too much. This reached, perhaps, an apogee in the economic rhetoric of Benedict XVI, who clearly saw post-War Germany as an economic Eden. And it is hard not to read a sociological explanation into this: could it be that the bishops in the Curia call for one model simply because that’s the one they grew up under? And then, one has to ask, what is the role of the catholic Spirit in inspiring these documents?

Here’s the real problem with this vision. Is it “wrong”? I would dare say that that’s not the most important thing to ask. Our critique of Vaticanomics must start with its being unimaginative and—I will even say—boring.

Say about it what you will, but when Jesus instructed the rich young man to give all his money to the poor and talked about camels and needles, it wasn’t boring.

I am being provocative, but here’s why it actually matters.

The first one is that economics is a science where, by its very nature, many answers are blurred and even impossible to know with certainty. In this context, any consensus that hardens might be wrong. In this context, therefore, the Church has two vital roles to play : to enrich economics with its profound and important social science ; and to have a prophetic voice that can act as a wake-up call to economic faculty lounges and policy bureaus. Both those things call for the opposite of the kind milquetoast, tepid language produced by the Curia.

Pope Francis’ language, for sure, does not have the problem of tepidity. But in terms of economics, he is very clearly an heir of a distinct and clear tradition, which is the anti-globalization and anti-capitalist rhetoric, particularly specific to Latin America and especially Argentina. Again, critique this vision for disregarding the welfare-enhancing effect of the market, or subsidiarity, all you will. But I think the bigger problem is that Francis’ view has been heard before.

This is also true, by the way, of the so-called Catholic neoconservatives, who have done important work in promoting free market thought within the Church. But the Church cannot simply be “for free markets.” The Bible, Holy Tradition and history teach us humanity is too fallen for any one economic system to be perfect. Free markets may be the worst system at the exception of all the others, but the Gospel does not speak the rhetoric of “least bad”, it speaks the rhetoric of God, and free markets are held in judgement before God. Catholic pro-market thought arose during the Cold War, at a time when socialism was seen as a viable alternative to capitalism, and the latter therefore needed a forceful defense, on its own terms. But today, capitalism—under some form or another—is no longer fundamentally questioned by anybody, and the Church needs more than blind acceptance.

In other words, “classical Vaticanomics”, “Francisnomics” and “Catholic neoconservatism” all suffer from the same problem—they are not, in a real sense, signs of contradiction.

Everybody has been arguing about what box to put Catholic economic thought. But the Catholic Church is heir to the richest, most stupendous intellectual tradition of any institution on Earth. And, most importantly, it proclaims a radical Gospel to all nations. The problem isn’t that Catholic economic thought isin the wrong box. It’s that it should fit in any pre-existing box at all!

In future columns in this space, I intend to critique the status quo of Catholic economic thinking but, more importantly, sketch out some ideas for a theology and a praxis of the economy that would give its due to the moment we live in and the incredible intellectual wealth of the Church. It’s time for a new Catholic economics.


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  • Paul S.

    “New Distributism” … I like it. As much as I love subsidiarity, distributists often scare me. I’m more of a mind to side with Charles Carroll (of Carrollton) on economic questions, but I’ll be reading your thoughts with interest.

    • PS Did Carroll write on economics? Do you have anything to recommend?

      • Paul S.

        Apparently he wrote a defense of using interest in finance, something I read about in this book:

        Samuel Gregg presents a convincing case for *not* writing off free markets as the “worst system, but for the rest.”
        The book is titled not for the grassroots American political movement, but for the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence. (Also, this is not a “Libertarian” defense of markets a la Tom Woods. Gregg is better than that.)

        • Thanks!

        • Now I Get It

          A friend I sent your link to recognised Gregg’s name from his work for the Acton Institute, and said he’d always wondered why Wm. Buckley didn’t seem to involve Gregg’s employer, Father Sirico, in “National Review”, “as Sirico seemed to offer the ‘missing link’ between capitalism and Catholicism.” …Thoughts?

          • Paul S.

            I’m afraid I can’t offer an informed opinion.

            Good question!

          • Now I Get It

            Me neither. …Thanks.

          • Percy Gryce

            Fr. Sirico has written quite frequently for National Review:


            I met Fr. Sirico more than 20 years ago. I’m not sure his pretty strict libertarianism is fully compatible with Catholic social teaching.

          • Now I Get It

            I see that most of Fr. Sirico’s NRO stuff was published post-Buckley, but it is definitely there and perhaps there’s even more from before NR went O.

            For my part, I’m certain that libertarianism and Catholicism are incompatible. The former has persisted for years by ignoring matters of the soul, accommodating thereby every expression of freedom no matter how debased, whereas the latter is all about the soul and its foundation.

            Which makes Sirico an interesting figure, as he might yet wrestle out why the two won’t combine. I expect, however, that that process, largely ideational, will be diffuse and take years, as opposed to coming in a single event, largely political, e.g., Obamacare, that proves its failure publicly and all at once.

            I would add only that libertarianism is also incompatible with capitalism, and for the same reason.

          • Paul S.

            I find it distressing that libertarians often beam about how the young are on their side. Of course it will remain to be seen how they decide to vote, but I think if anything the young (of which I’ve seen plenty… 2 years out of college) are interested in the “license” aspect more than the economic aspect of libertarianism. I have nothing against drug legalization. But libertarians seem to think: our issues are anti-war, drugs, gay marriage, economy. The youth are anti-war, pro drug, pro “equality”… and we hope they’re fans of the Austrian school. Ipso facto, they are libertarians!

          • Now I Get It

            I swear I saw the same thing in philosophy, as our B.A.s were ending.

            Thinking ahead to grad school, one of my peers declared himself to be an “issues philosopher,” the implication being that, whereas a scholar treated philosophy as a kind of dead language, an “issues philosopher” was an activist or engineer of important social projects.

            He quit after the first semester of his M.A., but another graduate I knew went all the way, moving, logically enough, out of teaching and into administration to chair a department.

            Her career harmonized with one of my professors, who said that he was waiting for the death of philosophy, yet in the next breath complained bitterly that the university was behaving as though the philosophy department shouldn’t exist.

            So, for him, philosophy was just another activist club on campus. He differed in that his pet project was apolitical, being merely to convince people of philosophy’s uselessness.

          • Paul S.

            Oh philosophy… the love of wisdom.

            You might find this amusing. I was lucky enough to see it live last summer at the 2013 American Chesterton Conference.

  • James

    Look forward to this!

  • I’ve written a good deal on this as of late. Jen Fitz and I have formed a book club around it.

    Here’s the latest post, which brings up the similarity between USA and Argentinian thought on the subject:

    You can just search for “Papal Economics” label for other posts in the book club.


    Having said that, subsidiarity is more about decentralization than it is about economics, and it works in a lot more spheres than just economics. The one most Catholics are used to is how subsidiarity affects liturgy- where some items in the GIRM are universal, the local Ordinary (Bishop) is the Least Competent Authority, but still some freedom is allowed at the local parish level (and, hate to dash the TLM people’s hopes, always was, even before Vatican II).

    • Thanks. I’ll read it with interest.

    • Dagnabbit_42

      Yes, yes, yes!

      Subsidiarity is more about decentralization, for certain. Much of what goes under the heading “Subsidiarity” is a Catholic thinker’s term for a principle articulated by Thomas Sowell in his book Knowledge and Decisions: A very worthwhile read.

      But there is another detail missing on the other side: The misunderstood notion of “Solidarity”; namely, that a group of human beings exercise “Solidarity” when they act together in a voluntary association. To the degree to which an association becomes less voluntary, their union is less like Catholic “Solidarity” and more like the devil’s lame, warped imitation of Solidarity.

      To see this principle clearly, consider the Polish labor union of that name which figured so prominently in the demise of communism in Poland.

      Imagine, for a moment, that the Polish Communist Party had been clever: Imagine that it has said, “Yes, there should be Solidarity between the people. Therefore, in Poland, we will make membership in the Solidarity union mandatory. We will fund meetings of the Solidarity labor union, and provide all the printed materials, yes? We will enact the Solidarity Hour on Polish radio, where workers across the country will listen in to news commentary and educational material relevant to the workers of Poland. The government will pay the salaries of all the editors, commentators, and writers for this show. We are firmly behind the Solidarity movement, yes?”

      You see, immediately, where that would go, don’t you? Had the Polish Communists managed to pull that one off, “Solidarity” would be another slogan for totalitarian oppression, right there with “workers of the world, unite!”

      What matters is that individual persons make individual choices to join or leave voluntary associations with others for worthy common goals, either long-term or short-term.

      THAT is Solidarity, and you know it is working when it forms a dense web of voluntary associations of all sizes, at all levels of society, overlapping to produce thousands or millions of little loci of power and influence and cultural import…and you know it isn’t fake when people are voluntarily leaving and joining these associations all the time, and new ones are emerging all the time, and old ones dying out.

      And THAT, of course, is why a Catholic can preach both “Solidarity” AND “Subsidiarity,” simultaneously. Properly defined, these are NOT antagonistic concepts. For of course every time a family decides to pitch in its own efforts for a community homeless outreach, that’s both Subsidiarity and Solidarity in action: They’re joining with others in common cause (Solidarity), and they’re exercising their own voluntary decision-making power in doing so rather than being compelled to do it by a central government (Subsidiarity).

      Show me a Subsidiarity and a Solidarity that are in conflict, and I guarantee you, at least one of them is not the real McCoy, but the devil’s counterfeit.

  • oregon nurse

    I’m just curious. Are you a French citizen or an American living in Paris?

    • Thanks. I’m a French citizen.

      • oregon nurse

        Thanks for your reply. Your command of the English language is excellent – that’s why I couldn’t tell. I look forward to reading your columns.

  • Thomas Marbson

    What comes to my mind is the question whether we actually should have a ‘catholic economics’ ? From ‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s’ it is possible to argue that economic structures are not in the purview of the church but of society at large (and thereby individuals), so all we need is a catholic ethic and not an economics. In this way it probably would be similar to political structures, as far as I understand the church does neither state that ‘democracy’ is the only morally right form of governance nor which flavor/institutional form of democracy is the right one.

    This would imply that you shouldn’t discuss ‘Catholic economics’ but ‘Catholic Economists’….

    • Of course, saying what you’ve just said would still be “a Catholic Economics”…

      And Catholic Tradition has been pretty consistent in viewing service of the common good, qua common good, as a positive good, and has had for over a hundred years a social doctrine specifically addressed to economic and social concerns.

      • Thomas Marbson

        I think what I am trying to say is that I am not sure whether economics is more law or more like biology. I am much more comfortable with saying it is possible to do law in a catholic way (and it makes a difference in terms of outcomes) than doing biology (where it doesn’t make such a difference). This doesn’t negate that Catholicism implies that morality plays a role in the research process (for example the use of stem cells), but that is the ‘Catholic scientist’ rather than ‘Catholic science’ thing. Now with economics it essentially depends whether you see it (as ‘mainstream’ economists probably emphasize) as something like a tool, pretty much morally neutral or whether the normative character is non-negligible.
        Again this doesn’t negate that economists should be concerned with the common good, the question is whether they only provide the tools to achieve that goal or whether they actively determine what that goal is.

        • Well, to take your analogy, we have the biology of human reproduction. Ie humans have sex and sex often produces babies. What does that tell us about what we should do about it, and what law we should have around that? This is something the Gospel is not silent about.

          Similarly, we live in a world of limited resources. This means we have to have some way to distribute these resources. How do we do that? Etc. Part of the work is descriptive (what do people do in circumstances X?), but part of it is normative (what OUGHT they to do?).

          • Thomas Marbson

            but the gospel doesn’t tell us about the biology of reproduction (i.e. an ob-gyn doesn’t use it during delivery)… and some might claim the same holds for economics, i.e. the gospel tells us what outcome we should target, but what economic tools and policies to use to achieve it is a different, technical (i.e. non-Catholic) matter…

  • Razo Bravo

    Looking forward to the discussion – especially to your proposal for a Catholic economics – and will certainly be offering my thoughts from the perspective of the Spanish scholastics.

  • I am very thankful for this effort! I have been trying, in my own clumsy blue collar way to explain the problems with Catholic economic thought to friends and family and frankly I am not doing a very good job. I hope to use these articles to improve my own thinking and my explanations.

  • Put a little differently: Vatican economics is pretty much the same as Continental European mainstream social policy, because the Vatican is a European institution.

  • Dagnabbit_42

    Mr. Gobry,

    I fear this is going too fast, for there are (at least) two actors who must be addressed in any teaching on economics: The independent voluntary participants in the economy, and the government which wields compulsion to influence voluntary participants in many ways, including their economic behavior. For an economic teaching to be complete, it must address both.

    The Church has long addressed the individual because that’s where Jesus started. The Church’s command to governments is a different matter, however.

    The problem is not that the Church has not spoken to governments; she has. But she has not taught a government how to understand what a government is, where it gets its authority, and the extent and limits of its authority, except in the vaguest of senses. (“All authority comes from God.” Yes, but how, and how much?)

    This is a problem for any discussion of Catholic Economics, because until the Church teaches that such-and-such is the limit of the authority of government and that legislating beyond that limit is usurping power which belongs only to God, or to the people, or to whomever else…until then, governments will simply enact whatever laws they have enough scary weaponry to bully people into following.

    The Church, for example, seems to teach on occasion that the best way to fix inequities in Latin America is for the government to confiscate the property of the wealthiest jefes and distribute it among the poor. (A caricature, I know…but I’m sure you can immediately recall some of the language which comes off that way, and how it is immediately trumpeted by the International Socialist Movement as “the pope’s on our side” and by the Ludwig von Mises crowd as “the pope is clearly not infallible in economics.”)

    Now, notice how different the Church’s teaching would sound if she were to say: “This property should be distributed to the poor; however, if the property was not ill-gained either through criminal activity or by reaping the rewards of an unjust legal system, then the government lacks just authority to confiscate it. It is consequently the moral responsibility of the possessor to do the redistributing.”

    You see? The same outcome is being called for, but to be enacted voluntarily rather than at gunpoint. On the other hand, one presumes that the action actually being taken is less likely. On the other OTHER hand, one presumes that such a statement wouldn’t be the precipitating factor in a populist totalitarian purge of the kulaks that ends in economic ruin and starvation a la the Chavistas in Venezuela.

    And notice how it hinges on what the limits of government authority are.

    Here’s another example:

    In the American Natural Law tradition, as I understand it, all authority comes from God and is delegated to men directly, and to governments indirectly in the following way:

    1. Men have just authority to act as they wish, within their respective spheres, except in violation of the Moral Law. Among the types of just authority God grants to men are such items as (a.) just authority to unite voluntarily with others for a worthwhile common purpose (i.e., to exercise Solidarity), (b.) just authority to hire employees and delegate some of the employer’s authority to the employee in order that the employee may accomplish some task on the employer’s behalf; and, (c.) just authority to to use proportionate force to defend innocent persons against wrongful assaults on their persons, property, rights, and dignity.

    2. When men form a government, they are in effect exercising their just authority in areas (a.), (b.), and (c.) simultaneously: They (a.) unite voluntarily in common purpose; they (b.) hire some folks; and they (c.) delegate to those folks some portion of their existing just authority to use force to defend the innocent. The folks being hired are the police force or armed forces, and the reason they have any just authority to use force is because it was delegated to them by the people, who received it from God. The police force and armed forces only have as much legitimate authority to use force as the people delegated; and any just authority to use force which the people themselves couldn’t have had initially (because it was against the Moral Law) cannot plausibly have been delegated to the police force or armed forces. (One cannot delegate authority one doesn’t have to start with!)

    This is, so far as I am aware, the understanding of the origin of government authority held by the authors of the U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence: You see it particularly in the Declaration, the Preamble, and Amendments IX and X.

    Now, this theory of how government obtains its authority to use force — the “delegation path” by which that authority descends from God — is either true, or false. Which is it? Has the Church said?

    If it’s true, then it stands to reason that an awful lot of things the American government does are usurpations…let alone the kinds of things the Chavistas did in Venezuela, even if they had turned out well. I mean, forget the question of whether, from a Constitutional perspective, the People ever actually tried to delegate to the government just authority to compel persons to pay their employees with contraceptive plans…if a given group of human beings didn’t, in-and-of-themselves, have just authority to compel one of their number to pay her employee with contraceptives, then that group of human beings couldn’t have delegated that authority to their servants, the government: One can’t delegate authority one doesn’t have!

    I believe these kinds of questions must first be settled, because they deal with what a government really is, and how it gets that way, and what it can and can’t justly do.

    Only once those things are established, can one talk sensibly about what a government may justly do in the realm of economic policy.