Human Dignity, Personal Liberty: Themes from Abraham Kuyper and Leo XIII

By Novak, Michael | Journal of Markets & Morality, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

Human Dignity, Personal Liberty: Themes from Abraham Kuyper and Leo XIII


Novak, Michael, Journal of Markets & Morality


Introductory Remarks

From their inception, capitalism and free markets have evoked outcries from individuals of all stripes. Today, we hear from those on the Right that market forces destabilize society, that they undermine tradition, and that they have a tendency to corrupt culture. Similarly, from those on the Left we hear that market forces oppress and alienate man, turning him into nothing more than a commodity that gets bought and sold on the open market to the highest bidder. Each side of the spectrum voices important concerns that may be reduced to one much simpler: the fear that market forces treat people as objects, not as persons.

A central component of Christian social teaching, and Catholic social thought in particular, is how to best avoid objectifying man, how best to maintain a social order that retains both the dignity and the liberty of every individual, so that they may have the opportunity to develop of their own accord, following in the footsteps of Christ. The effect that economic processes have on man and society is therefore a crucial inquiry. It is a concern that every good Christian has an obligation to take pause and consider.

To better understand this issue, it is essential that Christians have a firm grasp of the theological principles that ground Christian social thought, and similarly, that they may recognize the relationship that exists between these principles, the nature of man, and our economic system. The Jewish and Christian tradition planted the seed of personal liberty, which sprouted during the age of Aquinas, needed to be nurtured during the time of Pope Leo XIII (1810-1903), Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920), and the Industrial Revolution to ensure the continued existence of a worldly order conducive to human dignity; and whose roots are, thankfully, under constant reexamination. The taproots of Christian life run deep into the earth walked by fallen man, and the principles of that life must flourish if the tree of liberty is to bloom.

Whatever the merits of the criticisms of capitalism and free markets offered by my friends on both the Right and the Left, it is imperative that we not forget the important distinction between markets and culture. Like any institution, the market reflects the doings of its participants. And the doings of its participants reflect the fallen state of man made manifest in culture. If an institution is founded upon Christian principles and the Christian view of man, as I intend to suggest that capitalism and free markets are, it need not follow that people acting through such an institution will always behave in a Christian manner. That is ultimately a matter of individual choice, and free beings have the capacity (and fallen man has the disposition) for faulty judgment. As Christians, however, it is our duty to pray for the grace to live a life of virtue, with respect for the dignity and liberty of our brothers and sisters everywhere. Both Leo XIII and Abraham Kuyper fixed this context firmly in our minds.

Beginning in 1891: Leo XIII

When the bishop of tiny Perugia was elected pope in 1878, he was already sixty-eight years old and many expected him to be a short-term transitional figure. Instead, he lived until 1903 and the age of ninety-three, and transformed the Church--not least, its social teaching--more than any pope had done in the previous three centuries. Whereas at the midway point in the nineteenth century, diplomats were reporting that the end of the papacy seemed nigh, Joseph Schumpeter reports in his History of Economic Analysis that, by the end of Leo XIII's reign, the Church had attained an unprecedented vigor. Writing about the years 1870-1914. Schumpeter observed:

   The Catholic Church was on the continent of Europe the object of
   legislative and administrative attacks from hostile governments and
   parliaments.... What could not have been expected was that these
   attacks everywhere ended in retreat and that they left the Catholic
   Church stronger than it had been for centuries. … 

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