Economic Policy Absolutely Has a Moral Quality

“I would strongly urge Sen. Rubio to go back and reread ‘The Sermon on the Mount,’” de Blasio said on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday. “Clearly, the core of Catholic teachings and Christian teachings talks about the economic realities that people face, and has for thousands of years.”“I’m surprised Mr. Rubio doesn’t understand that,” he added. (The Hill)

Bill DeBlasio Pope Francis Marc RubioMayor DiBlasio was responding, of course, to Senator Marco Rubio’s assertion that while, as Catholics, we must listen to the Pope in matters of faith and morals, but are free to disregard the pope in matters of politics and economics. DiBlasio cited scripture as proof, in Christian thinking, of the moral quality of economics and concern for the poor. Bill BiBlasio is right and I applaud his swift response!

Marco Rubio is absolutely wrong to assert that economics does not have a moral dimension and, so, is immune from the Magisterium of the Church; but it is not an original argument, as if Rubio were capable of one. The notion that economics is amoral was pushed in the early 2000’s by the Heritage Foundation and by certain right-leaning Catholic theologians as a push-back against social-justice oriented Catholics. Their aim was to give cover to the Republicans and Conservatives in the political debate; primarily, it was aimed at protecting George W. Bush in the midst of a reelection campaign.

One particular theologian wrote an article that was published in First Things at the time [I currently don’t have the name of the theologian or the article. My internet is limited at the moment. When I get more internet access, I’ll research to find the article. If someone else finds it first, let me know]. The theologian argued that economic policy was not a moral policy subject to the teaching authority of the Church, but a matter of prudential judgement. His argument was a theological sleight-of-hand.

In Catholic teaching, there are differing degrees of assent a Catholic has to make to assertions of faith and morals by the Church’s magisterium (teaching authority). Prudential judgement refers to a matter over which a person with an informed intellect and conscience is free, absent the magisterium’s interference, to choose the best course of action. But those judgments are not morally neutral, which is why an emphasis is placed on prudence. The Church emphasizes that such a judgment is made by a person with an informed intellect AND an informed conscience, because the course of action has to aim at a moral good or justice. When a judgment or course of action achieves an injustice, the judgment is either not very prudent at all, or the judgment, itself, has a morally negative quality. We have a responsibility, then, to assess the moral outcome of economic policy and the judgment behind the policy.

That is why Pope Francis is doing, as did Saint John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI did before him. Social justice-oriented Catholics were doing just this during the 2004 Presidential campaign season, and they were citing both the assertions of Saint John Paul II and Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger at the time in doing so. Social justice-oriented Catholics citing the teaching authority of the Church in challenging American economic policy, at the time, is what moved Heritage Foundation and right-leaning Catholics to bend themselves into a pretzel to argue away the moral quality of economic policy. That is what Senator Marco Rubio (not to mention Senator Paul Ryan and other right-leaning Catholic politicians) build on when they challenge the Pope’s authority to make moral assertions about economic policy.

The heat is turned up at the moment and it will be interesting to see how things unfold. Saint John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI both challenged the justice of American economic policy; but the tone of their assertions emphasized a questioning of the prudence of  American economic policy. Saint John Paul II was satisfied reminding them of the just aim of economic policy. Pope Benedict XVI emphasized that the economy was supposed to serve the human person and society, not the other way around; again encouraging people to consider whether American economic policy is prudent and achieving the desired aim.

Pope Francis in tone, on the other hand, seems to be challenging the moral quality of American economic polity – the judgment – itself. In his encyclical, Laudato Si, Pope Francis pointed out that free market, trickle-down economics has proven not to achieve the end it claimed to achieve. So the economic policy has already been established as imprudent. But Francis went on in his encyclical to argue the unjust imbalance in the effects of America’s free market economic policy; that some are profiting and hoarding at the direct expense of others. The assertion, then, is not just that policy makers made the wrong, i.e. imprudent, economic policy choices; but that the economic policy choices were aimed at unjust ends.

I can see, then, why those on the right are up-in-arms over Pope Francis’ encyclical and why they’re very intent on keeping control of their economic narrative in the wake of Pope Francis coming to the United States. I think, though, it is very important that those of us who are social justice-oriented need to join Pope Francis and work so much harder to wrestle control of that narrative away from them.