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Legatus Magazine

Cover Story
Paul J. Voss | author
Oct 01, 2014
Filed under Ethics

The free market & the Catholic faith

PAUL J. VOSS examines the Church’s relationship with the free market and business through four quotes from Church documents. He quotes from Pope Francis, Pope Benedict, Pope Leo XII and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Voss writes that the Church should have an official Catechism of Business. Legates, he said, must to rise to the challenge . . .

Paul J. Voss

Paul J. Voss

The Catholic Church has not historically engaged intellectually with matters of business and economics. There is not, for example, an official Catholic “theology of business.”

The Church reasons that such activities largely fall outside the realm of faith and morals and thus, the judgment of the Church is limited in scope and comprehensiveness. I respectfully disagree. Conducting business necessarily involves morals and ethics — as well as a measure of faith. I submit, for your consideration, four discrete quotes on the topic. I ask readers to attempt to construct a unified argument presented by the Church (if such a unity can be found). The first is from Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum (On Capital and Labor).

“It is surely undeniable that, when a man engages in remunerative labor, the impelling reason and motive of his work is to obtain property, and thereafter to hold it as his very own.

“Thus, if he lives sparingly, saves money, and, for greater security, invests his savings in land, the land, in such case, is only his wages under another form; and so, consequently, a working man’s little estate thus purchased should be as completely at his full disposal as are those wages he receives for his labor. Socialists, therefore, by endeavoring to transfer the possessions of individuals to the community at large, strike at the interest of every wage earner, since they would deprive him of the liberty of disposing of his wages, and thereby of all the hope and possibility of increasing his resources and of bettering his condition in life” (#5).

The Catechism of the Catholic Church has little to say about specific matters of business and industry. However, this quote is insightful.

“The Church has rejected the totalitarian and atheistic ideologies associated in modern times with ‘communism’ or ‘socialism.’ She has likewise refused to accept, in the practice of ‘capitalism,’ individualism and the absolute primacy of the law of the marketplace over human labor.

“Regulating the economy solely by centralized planning perverts the basis of social bonds; regulating it solely by the law of the marketplace fails social justice, for ‘there are many human needs which cannot be satisfied by the market.’ Reasonable regulation of the marketplace and economic initiatives, in keeping with a just hierarchy of values and a view to the common good, is to be commended” CCC #2425.

The next quote comes from Pope Francis’ 2013 encyclical Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel).

“In this context [the disposable culture], some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting” #54.

The final (slightly edited) quote is from Cardinal Timothy Dolan (Wall Street Journal, May 22, 2014). “Yet the answer to problems with the free market is not to reject economic liberty in favor of government control. The Church has consistently rejected coercive systems of socialism and collectivism, because they violate inherent human rights to economic freedom and private property. When properly regulated, a free market can certainly foster greater productivity and prosperity. But, as [Pope Francis] continually emphasizes, the essential element is genuine human virtue.

“Business can be a noble vocation, so long as those engaged in it also serve the common good, acting with a sense of generosity in addition to self-interest.”

Each quote presents compelling and thought-provoking ideas. Yet how can the individual Catholic find a coherent argument — not to mention practical guidance — for conducting business from these various quotes?

Both The Vocation of a Business Leader (Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, 2013) and A Catechism for Business (Catholic University of America, 2014) attempt to provide a framework, and they have added greatly to our understanding of just, ethical business practices. Yet more work remains. Certainly Legatus members will rise to the challenge of integrating theory and practice.

PAUL J. VOSS, PH.D., is president of Ethikos, a professional organization offering ethics training, and an associate professor of literature at Georgia State University.


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