Labor Economics and the Development of Papal Social Encyclicals

By Barrows, Stephen P. | Journal of Markets & Morality, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Labor Economics and the Development of Papal Social Encyclicals


Barrows, Stephen P., Journal of Markets & Morality


Introduction

Catholic social teaching has been the subject of debate among Catholics and non-Catholics alike for over a century. The Catholic Church has instructed and exhorted in the social realm since its existence, yet Pope Leo XIII's encyclical letter Rerum Novarum (1891) is typically identified as the inaugural Catholic social encyclical. Since then, other encyclical letters commonly included under the rubric of Catholic social teaching (CST) are Pius XI's Quadragesimo Anno (1931); John XXIII's Mater et Magistra (1961) and Pacem in Terris (1963); Paul VI's Populorum Progressio (1967); John Paul II's Laborem Exercens (1981), Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (1987), and Centesimus Annus (1991); and most recently Benedict XVI's Deus Caritas Est (2005) and Caritas in Veritate (2009). (1) Economists, philosophers, and social scientists have seized on these documents in an effort to support or attack various economic ideologies. While some have expressed frustration at an apparent lack of economic understanding in the encyclicals, leading to tensions with certain economic laws and laissez-faire principles, it is evident that the social encyclicals as a whole manifest a development in economic understanding, emphasis, and context. This article analyzes the development of economic understanding in the social encyclicals as it pertains to labor concerns. Specifically, it seeks to demonstrate that the encyclicals shift their emphasis from a rather one-sided focus on the responsibilities of the employer (supply side) in providing just economic outcomes to a greater emphasis on the role of the consumer (demand side) in more recent encyclicals. Indeed, future encyclicals could further mitigate tensions by explicitly acknowledging how both supply and demand factors must be taken into account if socioeconomic goals are to be achieved.

In the past decade, a vigorous and healthy debate among Catholics over the economics of Catholic social teaching has appeared in scholarly journals, books, and Internet blogs and debates. The initiation of this debate can be traced to a conference paper delivered by Thomas E. Woods Jr. (2) Woods' chief contention is that while moral exhortations found within CST are clearly within the sphere of papal authority, specific papal proposals to achieve economic goals do not properly fall within this authority and must be evaluated on the basis of economic law. Thus, particular instrumental proposals made by popes may in fact conflict with economic law (and indeed, occasionally do, according to Woods) and as such go astray. Woods summarizes:

   The primary claim I am making is not that there is no moral
   dimension to the economic order.... My point is simply this: as
   soon as he [the pope] recommends the best or most effective way to
   carry out that intention--via minimum wages, various mandated
   benefits, heavy taxation on the wealthy, or whatever--he is
   entering a field in which his conclusions must be evaluated not on
   the basis of his authority as a churchman but instead on the rigor
   of the argument he makes on their behalf. (3)

Woods' assertions triggered a series of responses from Catholic sources at the online magazine Chronicles led by Scott Richert and Thomas Storck. (4) The following year, Woods published a book supporting his claims entitled The Church and the Market: A Catholic Defense of the Free Economy. (5) Finally, the Catholic Social Sciences Review published a symposium on this topic entitled "The Implications of Catholic Social Teaching for Economic Science," featuring both Storck and Woods with lead articles and followed by four responses from various scholars. (6) The debate continues most recently with Storck and Woods each posting further thoughts on the subject. (7) Indeed, it appears that the discussion will continue for the foreseeable future.

Although the debates over CST and economics cover a wide range of topics, most of the disputes fall into one of three categories: (1) the compatibility of particular economic ideas with Catholic orthodoxy, (2) disputes over the proper role of the state in achieving certain economic outcomes, and (3) the legitimacy or illegitimacy of the economic claims made among the debaters. …

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