In a new document released this week, the Vatican asks those in charge of the economy to consider humans not just dollars and euros. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) published Oeconomicae et pecuniariae quaestiones: Considerations for an Ethical Discernment Regarding Some Aspects of the Present Economic-Financial System. The document has many details for specialists, but I will focus on a few paragraphs relevant to us all. These paragraphs point out several truths. They show a person is more than an economic producer and consumer. They develop our understanding of how our actions always imply a vision of man and we shouldn’t reduce man just to economics.
Section 9 outlines this vision of the human person.
It is evident that without an appropriate vision of the human person, it is not possible to create an ethics, nor a practice, worthy of the dignity of the human person and the good that is truly common. In fact, however neutral and detached from every basic concept one may claim to be, every human action, even in the economic sphere, implies some conception of the human person and of the world, which reveals its value through both the effects and the developments it produces.
In this sense, our contemporary age has shown itself to have a limited vision of the human person, as the person is understood individualistically and predominantly as a consumer, whose profit consists above all in the optimization of his or her monetary income. The human person, however, actually possesses a uniquely relational nature and has a sense for the perennial search for gains and well-being that may be more comprehensive, and not reducible either to a logic of consumption or to the economic aspects of life.
After this introduction on different visions, it gets to what I see as the key section.
The fundamentally relational nature of the human person is characterized essentially by a rationality that resists a reductionist view of one’s basic needs. In this regard, it is impossible to be silent in the face of today’s tendency to reify every exchange of “goods” as if it were no more than a mere exchange of “things.”
In reality, it is evident that in the transmission of goods among persons there is always something more than mere material goods at play, given the fact that the material goods are often vehicles of immaterial goods whose concrete presence or absence decisively determines the quality of these very economic relationships (for example, trust, equity, and cooperation). It is at this level that one can well understand that the logic of giving with nothing in return is not an alternative to, but rather is inseparable from and complementary to the exchange of equivalent goods.
A few paragraphs later in section 10, the document draws out a general conclusion.
For this reason, progress within an economic system cannot measured only by quantitative and profit-driven standards, but also on the basis of the well-being that extends a good that is not simply material. Every economic system is legitimate if it thrives not merely through the quantitative development of exchange but rather by its capacity to promote the development of the entire person and of every person. Well-being and development both demand and support each other, calling for sustainable policies and perspectives far beyond the short term.
If you want to read through the document, you will see how this it presents nuanced judgments. It isn’t a wholesale judgment of any one system or any financial product but a set of guidelines they should stay within to remain moral. Here’s one point from section 17.
What is morally unacceptable is not simply to profit, but rather to avail oneself of an inequality for one’s own advantage, in order to create enormous profits that are damaging to others; or to exploit one’s dominant position in order to profit by unjustly disadvantaging others, or to make oneself rich through harming and disrupting the collective common good.
Catholic moral theology often comes to such nuance and discussing the economy is no different. Economic activity is moral activity and like all moral activity, it has limits. We must remember that – like the sabbath – the economy is for man, not man for the economy.