Catholic Social Teaching and the Market Economy: A Reply to Daniel K. Finn

By Booth, Philip | Journal of Markets & Morality, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

Catholic Social Teaching and the Market Economy: A Reply to Daniel K. Finn


Booth, Philip, Journal of Markets & Morality


In a contribution to a controversy in the Journal of Markets & Morality, Daniel Finn discussed what he described as "Nine Libertarian Heresies Tempting Neoconservatives to Stray from Catholic Social Thought." (1) This is an inauspicious title for an article in an academic journal. To begin with, it is not obvious why libertarian heresies would tempt neoconservatives. Neoconservatives are not libertarian, and they tend to believe in using the state to achieve neoconservative aims. This is one reason why George W. Bush ranks with Presidents Roosevelt and Johnson as one of the three presidents who expanded the scope of the state most rapidly. There are libertarian contributors to Catholic social thought, such as Thomas Woods; there are Austrian contributors (Woods again, and Jeffrey Tucker); and there are neoconservative contributors too (perhaps Michael Novak falls into this category, but I am less familiar with his writing and less familiar with the neoconservative school of thinking). However, these are three different groups.

Second, it is not clear that there can be a "straying" from Catholic social thought. Yes, there can be a straying from the principles of the social teaching of the Church--and this is what Finn seems to mean. However, academicians are entitled to contribute to the development of the body of thought that may then influence teaching in the course of time. The principles of Catholic social teaching are clear, but their precise application to most economic issues is usually prudential and often provisional. Much Catholic social teaching leaves room for prudential judgments to be made, and development of Catholic social thought is one of the methods by which this occurs, hopefully in a liberal--in the best sense of the word--and charitable atmosphere.

To clarify, it seems that we should be interested in libertarian errors that stray from Catholic social teaching rather than neoconservative errors that stray from Catholic social thought. In short, Finn's way of presenting the apparent problem is confusing and conceptually inexact.

After this confusion, however, Finn is clear in what he is trying to achieve in the article. He argues that scholars with whom he disagrees wrongly and selectively use Catholic social teaching for their own purposes by integrating their ideas with those of Catholic social teaching. (2) Finn also seems to be concerned that such scholars are claiming Catholic social teaching for their cause and expressing libertarian views that are not in accordance with Catholic social teaching proper whilst writing and talking about the subject.

Taking Economics Seriously

Although this is not my main complaint about Finn's article, we should be careful not to close off discussion. There is nothing wrong with conservative scholars in Catholic social thought contributing to two (or more) kinds of debate. First, without in any way suggesting disloyalty to the tradition of social teaching, they may use economic reasoning to shed light on prudential judgments. For example, the Church does not say that there should never be a state-mandated minimum wage and neither does it say that there always ought to be one. Liberal economists--in fact, any economists studying the economics of wages--can help our understanding of whether it is prudent to legislate for a minimum wage. To give another example, scholars might use public choice analysis to show why increasing the power of international law-making bodies as currently constituted might not be a prudent way of realizing the common good on an international level--even if Catholic social teaching has expressed favorable views of such bodies in principle.

Second, the Church may make statements on particular policy issues within its social teaching that are quite definitive--though this is unusual. To give one example, the Church has made specific statements about rich nations' providing international financial aid. …

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