John Paul II and the Moral Ecology of Markets

By Finn, Daniel R. | Theological Studies, December 1998 | Go to article overview

John Paul II and the Moral Ecology of Markets


Finn, Daniel R., Theological Studies


[Editor's note: John Paul H has addressed the morality of economic life but has not directly addressed the question: Under what conditions would markets be just? An analysis of the "moral ecology" of markets identifies four elements toward an adequate answer: legal restrictions on self-interest in markets, the provision of essential goods and services, the morality of individuals and groups, and a network of voluntary association.]

Debate over the morality of markets took a critically important turn with the collapse of the Soviet Union and Eastern European Communist governments. Many commentators argued that these historic changes marked the death of socialism,(1) This claim is excessive(2) since nearly all socialists in the industrialized world long ago repudiated Moscow's version of socialism; the claims of most socialists remain largely unaffected by the collapse of Soviet Communism. Politically the prospects for socialism have indeed waned because many have concluded that the Soviet Union's demise demonstrated the fundamental impracticality of all socialist options. As a result, much moral debate has now moved away from a comparison of capitalism and socialism and focuses instead on making capitalism, or more accurately the market system, humane.

In this context, and with an obvious awareness of debates about alternative economic systems in Poland and other Eastern European nations, Pope John Paul II has continued to analyze economic life from a Christian perspective. By and large he has assumed that centrally planned socialism is no longer an attractive ideal and has moved on to a helpful, though incomplete, analysis of capitalism.

I wish to offer here a brief critique of John Paul II's analysis of economic life and to argue that the central shortcoming of his perspective is the weakness of his contextual and institutional analysis that is needed to complement his personalist thought. Having demonstrated this, I then propose a constructive framework which I call "the moral ecology of markets," that is capable of encompassing both the pope's personalist insight into economic life and an institutional analysis that up to now he has eschewed. My critique argues that John Paul II has not yet addressed one fundamental and difficult question: Under what conditions could a Christian give moral approval to the market system? Although the framework I propose does not provide a precise answer to many practical policy problems, I do identify four elements constitutive of any adequate answer. This framework I trust will contribute to the ongoing debates even among secular scholars. Among its principal advantages is the interperspectival analysis of contemporary secular debates about alternative economic systems. This assertion however would require argument more extensive than I can offer here.

JOHN PAUL II'S ANALYSIS

John Paul II has addressed economic life and economic institutions more thoroughly and with greater subtlety than any of his papal predecessors. He has enriched contemporary Catholic social thought. Nonetheless, his work exhibits two problems that Catholic moral theologians need to overcome. The first and less important relates to his rhetoric; the second arises out of his understanding of personalism.

The Pope's Rhetoric

Moral theologians are sometimes uncomfortable with John Paul II's rhetorical style in his discussion of conflicting goods. Rather than analyzing conflicts by comparing and contrasting competing goods, he tends to make strong affirmations about goods on both sides of an argument as well as denunciations about the dangers attendant to each. Marciano Vidal has described the pope's rhetoric as a circle or spiral that renders ordinary interpretive procedures problematic.(3) This rhetorical style leaves sharp tensions unresolved.

A vivid example of this tendency is John Paul II's answer to his own question whether capitalism should be the goal of economies in transition in Eastern Europe.

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