Economy for the Common Good: Catholic Teaching Offer Moral Perspective on Current Crisis

By Fox, Thomas C. | National Catholic Reporter, June 12, 2009 | Go to article overview

Economy for the Common Good: Catholic Teaching Offer Moral Perspective on Current Crisis


Fox, Thomas C., National Catholic Reporter


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Catholic social teachings, grounded in principles aimed at providing guidance to moral decision-making, played little, if any, role in preparing the nation for the 2008 economic meltdown, according Catholic educators, some of whom are calling for an examination of the teachings' place in Catholic educational institutions.

David O'Brien, who next fall will be professor of faith and culture at the University of Dayton, Ohio, is among the educators who feel Catholic social teachings are not being adequately taught. An emeritus professor at Holy Cross University in Worcester, Mass., O'Brien said the social teachings need to be more widely integrated into Catholic curricula. At the moment, he says, with few exceptions, they are limited to Catholic theology and religion departments

By most accounts, the economic forces that spawned the worst economic collapse since the 1930s were both personal and structural. They included greed, the failure of financial institutions to adequately consider the common good, and the failure of government to provide for some of the most vulnerable in our society.

These forces have moral considerations and Catholic social teachings speak to them. However, few Catholic voices were prominent in the months and years leading up to the economic collapse.

Catholic educators contacted by NCR generally agree that Catholic social teachings, had they been taught and disseminated more widely, would have added an important moral component to U.S. political and economic discussions.

These educators say that the teachings stress solidarity and the involvement of government, when necessary, in assuring the common good. By contrast, since the 1980s U.S. politics and economics have been fueled by laissez-faire attitudes and individualistic values that have stressed the need to minimize government controls.

Catholic social teachings date back to the late 19th century, and are contained in papal encyclicals and other episcopal documents. Over the years they have attempted to apply Catholic moral teachings to social, political and economic issues.

These teachings call upon Catholics to stress the sanctity of human life, the dignity of the person, the call to community and participation, a preferential option for the poor, the rights of workers to organize and earn a fair wage, and the care for God's creation.

While such teachings have evolved over the decades, their economic components reached prominence in the United States in the mid-1980s when the U.S. bishops, under the leadership of Rembert Weakland, then archbishop of Milwaukee, worked to draw up a pastoral letter on economics. It was published in 1986 and called "Economic Justice for All."

The pastoral invited Catholics to use the resources of Catholic faith "to shape a society that better protects the dignity and basic rights" of all. It offered six principles that Catholics could apply to evaluate economic matters:

* Every economic decision and institution must be judged in light of whether it protects or undermines the dignity of the human person. "We judge any economic system by what it does for and to people and by how it permits all to participate in it. The economy should serve people, not the other way around."

* Human dignity can be realized and protected only in community. "Gross national product, per capita income, stock market prices, and so forth: The Christian vision of economic life looks beyond them all and asks, 'Does economic life enhance or threaten our life together as a community?'"

* All people have a right to participate in the economic life of society. "Basic justice demands that people be assured a minimum level of participation in the economy."

* All members of society have a special obligation to the poor and vulnerable.

"As Christians, we are called to respond to the needs of all our brothers and sisters, but those with the greatest needs require the greatest response. …

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