Academic journal article Journal of Markets & Morality

Poverty, Dignity, Economic Development, and the Catholic Church

Academic journal article Journal of Markets & Morality

Poverty, Dignity, Economic Development, and the Catholic Church

Article excerpt

Private Property and Free Markets


Human dignity has always been of grave concern to those interested in the plight of all peoples especially the Catholic Church. Indeed, many of its social teachings revolve around ways in which to ensure the dignity of all human beings, with special concern for the poor. This focus is commonly known as the preferential option for the poor. For most, the belief that it is our duty as human beings to help those in need is not disputed. However, the methods to accomplish this daunting task vary widely and are hotly debated. Some believe that it is the government's role to intervene and that this is the only way to ensure that people maintain their dignity. This view is especially favored when considering the development of poor nations. Here, the Catholic Church is certainly no exception.


Pope Paul VI's encyclical Populorum Progressio (On the Development of Peoples), speaks of the need for "planned programs" and competition that is "kept within limits so that it operates justly and fairly" (Pope Paul VI 1967, 16). (1) This document calls for the rich nations of the world to unselfishly support their poor counterparts. Although this encyclical was first published in 1967, when government intervention was held to be the only way for poor nations to develop, the underlying philosophy of this view is still supported by many today. Pope John Paul II acknowledges capitalism to be the most efficient economic system in Centesimus Annus, however, it is constantly tempered with admonishments to keep the poor in mind and not let them become "marginalized" (Pope John Paul II 1991, 14). Thus, the question remains how best to help the poor maintain their dignity, or, perhaps first, what is it that constitutes human dignity?

Some argue that a specified standard of living is the key to humanization: If a person does not have to beg for food or sleep in filth he is more human. The problem, however, is not figuring out how best to humanize people. It is, rather, deciding how not to dehumanize them. It is not possessions or poverty or riches that give us the quality of being human, it is, instead, free will. God gave us free will as the difference between man and animal. We are free to choose good or bad, right or wrong. When government tells us who to give money to or what we should spend our money on, we are not acting of our own free will; therefore, we are neither good nor bad. Like the animals, we have no choice.

Moreover, it is our claim that the natural situation for humankind is not poverty but wealth. The only reason we are all too often afflicted by the former is that the state intervenes into what would otherwise be a wealth-creating free-enterprise economy. If the regulators, bureaucrats, and politicians would leave off "humanizing us" into poverty, the marketplace would ensure we could overcome such debilities.

Thus, the best way to help the poor of underdeveloped countries (2) is not to violate the rights of the rich or to allow the poor to merely wait for financial aid with no thought of being self-sufficient. The way to attain human dignity is to promote freedom in all economic and political realms. It is only by doing this that we provide for the betterment of the poor in underdeveloped countries and allow both rich and poor to maintain their human dignity.

There are three topics that are generally spoken of when dealing with the development of nations and the preferential option for the poor: fair trade, workers rights, and foreign aid. On each of these topics, the Catholic Church advocates policies that are intended to help the poor but actually result in harming them. Our aim is to shed economic light on these issues that are more often evaluated in terms of emotions. (3)

Fair trade

The idea of fair trade is something that most would support. However, as is often the case, the definition differs with opposing ideologies. …

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