Economic Apologists?

Two years before his death, renowned Catholic social scientist Dr. Rupert Ederer wrote a book entitled Economics as if God Matters. In this book, he endeavored to explain over a century of Catholic magisterial teaching regarding economic matters. Ederer titled his book as such in response to a 1973 book by E.F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Matter.

Ederer reasoned Schumacher was following in the footsteps of the somewhat obscure German Jesuit economist, Fr. Heinrich Pesch, who tried to “reconcile the need to satisfy temporal human wants in the face of limited means, with the inherent religious need in human nature.” Ederer recognized that Pesch, “along with the popes who wrote encyclicals on the economic order,” went one step further and developed economic thought “as if God mattered,” thereby replacing “mere humanism” with “Christian humanism.” Ederer would argue that if people matter, then God matters, too, “because He is their Creator who seeks to lead them to Himself as well as to the ultimate Destiny.”

Interestingly, each of the monotheistic religions claim important theological aspects in the understanding of the economic order. In this article I will explore “economic apologetics” from Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and Islamic perspectives.  Economics—because God matters.

Catholic Economic Principles

Catholic Social Teaching in the area of economics is derived from four core principles: the primacy of the human person, solidarity, subsidiarity, and respect and protection of the common good. Each of these principles guides the Catholic approach to the formulation of just economic policies.

For the Catholic economist, what is meant by the primacy of the human person is that the human person is endowed with an inherent dignity because of his relationship to God as his creator.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church notes that it is essential that “a human being freely… directs himself to this fulfillment [his vocation to divine beatitude]. By his deliberate actions, the human person does, or does not, conform to the good promised by God and attested by moral conscience. Human beings make their own contribution to their interior growth; they make their whole sentient and spiritual lives into means of this growth.” (CCC 1700)

The notion of solidarity is more than merely sympathy for our fellow man. This core concept of Catholic economic theory is rooted deeply in faith. It is the manifestation and extension of what Catholic theologians refer to as the “Body of Christ.” Each person is connected to and collectively dependent upon all humanity. Pope John Paul II wrote in Sollicitudo rei socialis, “[Solidarity] is not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far. On the contrary, it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say, to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all.”

The third conceptual component of Catholic economic theory is the notion of subsidiarity.  Simply understood, subsidiarity is the expression of individual human freedom and is the principle by which authority figures respect the rights of all members in society. The principle of subsidiarity maintains that larger institutions and governments should not interfere with the legitimate decision-making of smaller or lower-level organizations. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church the notion of subsidiarity “…sets limits for state intervention. It aims at harmonizing the relationships between individuals and societies.” (CCC 1882)

The Second Vatican Council’s constitution on the modern world, Gaudium et spes, gives definitive guidance on the nature of the “common good,” the fourth core principle of Catholic economic theory.   The Common good is “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as group or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and easily.”

The Protestant Ethic and View of Economics

Protestant economists are indeed indebted to the early 20th century German sociologist and economist Max Weber for his enduring contribution to a uniquely Protestant approach to understanding of the theological principles inherent in capitalism. In his seminal work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Weber wrote that it was a Protestant (specifically, Calvinistic) work ethic that was responsible for the inadvertent development of modern capitalism. Weber argued that religious profession is typically accompanied by a renunciation of worldly goods and material excess, but he also opined that work held a sacred quality. He believe that the Protestant reforms dignified even mundane work because work adds to the common good and is thereby a blessing from God. Work, Weber believed, was a sacred calling. Weber concluded: “Calvinist believers were psychologically isolated. Their distance from God could only be precariously bridged, and their inner tensions only partially relieved, by unstinting, purposeful labor.”

Methodist pastor and scholar J. Philip Wogaman in Economic and Ethics notes that the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA sponsored scholarship in the Protestant communion to consider economic issues from a pastoral and theological perspective. Wogaman confessed that the conclusions of this work at the time were “regarded as controversial.” However, Wogaman concluded that it was important to “first [get] straight about what economic activity is supposed to accomplish.” Then Protestants, Wogaman reasons, should “confront the problem of how to achieve those goals economically with greater efficiency.” Wogaman argues that economic priorities should put an emphasis on social interaction: “it is to argue both that human beings are inescapably social in their very nature and that society inevitably is involved in the setting of priorities. It can be argued that economic life should be organized in such a way that individual freedom and creativity are truly supported.”

For Protestants, work is a calling to build up God’s kingdom on Earth. However, in doing so, man must not only be mindful of maximizing his own gifts, but he must also be mindful that he is a member of a community of others who are also called to do the same.

Jewish Economic Axioms

According to research by the Action Institute “very little work by orthodox Jewish scholars on the relationship among socialism, capitalism, and Judaism” has been done.  However, it is suggested that that the current literature supports five core “axioms of Jewish economic theory from which many economic policy implications can be deduced.” These five axioms are (1) man’s participation in God’s creative action, (2) the essentiality of private property, (3) the accumulation of wealth is a virtue, (4) an obligation to care for the needy through charity, and (5) the inefficiency of government and the dangers of concentrated power.

Conservative Jewish scholar Seymour Siegel in his chapter entitled “A Jewish View of Economic Justice” in the book Contemporary Ethics and Morality notes that “the theology of economics in Judaic thought is based on a concept of the human responsibility to use creation to ‘complete’ it, to create wealth and abundance.” He also argues that “the anthropology of economics in Judaism recognizes the dual nature of man. The drive for ego enhancement, though founded in ‘greed’ leads to the creation of wealth and thus can be seen as ‘good.’”

Much like other faith traditions, Judaism agrees that the “free-market economy that leads to the production of wealth… [and] is, so far, the best system human beings have found to share in God’s work of creation.”

The Economic Principles of Islam

Shia cleric Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr is the author of one of the most influential works on Islamic economics.  In Our Economy, al-Sadr argues that Islam offers alternatives to both capitalism and socialism, as each are the result of their own unique ideologies. He is clear that Muslims can never disassociate their faith from their economics: “Islam is the only suitable source for the organization of the spiritual life. Thus, it is necessary to have one basis for both the spiritual and social sides of life, particularly since the two sides are not isolated from one another….this interaction makes there being one basis for the two more sound and more harmonious, considering the definite intertwining of spiritual and social activities in the life of man.”

The three primary features of an Islamic approach to economics include (1) adherence to the moral teachings of the Quran and Sunnah (verbal teachings), (2) the collection of Islamic taxes—including zakat (for community-based charity), and (3) the prohibition of interest lending—riba. These components seek to discourage the hoarding of wealth and the equitable distribution of risk in business. Unique features include an equity-based approach to capital investment and a deliberate distribution of inheritance that seeks to prevent high concentration in wealth transfer. Sayyid Abul A’la Mawdudi, in his text First Principles of Islamic Economics, notes the importance of the Islamic Shari’ah in the important work of seeking to reduce significant disparity in wealth and income equality, noting the significance it plays in “ensur[ing] that, even if somebody piles up riches… following his death its concentration should gradually give way to dispersal and a wider circulation.”

What Faith Tells Us About Economics

What is clear, in each of these monotheistic faith traditions, is that God matters. Each tradition understands and accepts the burden of man’s responsibility to God to not only be faithful but also be resourceful with the God-given gifts with which each has been endowed. Each faith tradition also recognizes that man is destined to live and thrive in a community, and that man has a responsibility to both God and his fellow man to care for and nurture those in their community through charity/love.  The hope in Ederer’s writing of Economics as if God Matters was to spur a “renewed interest in the study of those teachings as addressed specifically to the economic order.” Perhaps maybe Ederer’s hope extends to a bigger ambition of seeking to promote a mechanism for true ecumenical exploration—because God matters.

[Feature image by Denisse Leon via Unsplash]