The Siren Song of “Economic Justice”

With churches and clergy ever more frequently inserting themselves into politics, the faithful among us must deal with cognitive dissonance now and again. Even devout congregants can be deeply troubled when their own politics are at odds with those of their pastors or parishes.

Such is unfortunately the case nowadays with my Catholic Church and me. In fact, any politically conservative Catholics who are paying attention must be increasingly disturbed by apparent Church doctrine on many things, but most notably so-called “economic justice.”

Even in my rural Western Pennsylvania parish, the call for “economic justice” has been a fixture since at least the mid-1980s when the U.S. bishops released their treatise, “Economic Justice for All.” But it certainly seems that there has been a sharp uptick in the last few years, coinciding with the advent of the Obama presidency. Indeed, I cannot recall a single mass in recent years that did not include some kind of call for some form or fashion of social or economic justice, if only in the weekly list of intercessions.

Now, there’s no need here to demonstrate the enormously biased and ideologically charged nature of the “economic justice” mantra. These things are well established. And to be fair, not all of the associated calls for action are equally troubling. I’ll gladly ask God to intercede on behalf of the poor or the unemployed all day long.

But something happened at mass recently that went beyond even the normally disconcerting stuff and really jolted me. Along with an otherwise unremarkable list of intercessions came this one: “That corporations would prioritize people and the common good over profits”—to which we were expected to reply “Lord, hear our prayer.”

Well, I couldn’t and didn’t issue the desired response. Regarding the 99.9 percent of my fellow parishioners who did respond as requested, I wonder: Were they really listening? If they were listening, did they really understand the cosmic implications of what they were asking for? Does the Catholic Church actually grasp what it is effectively advocating?

The only way to put this is bluntly: a call for “economic justice” that includes or implies a demand that private companies “prioritize people over profits” is blatantly, alarmingly anti-capitalist. Just think about the massive political and philosophical transformation that would be required to effect such a change on a grand scale. Such a society would be plainly unrecognizable, as well as unacceptable, to the vast majority of my fellow parishioners. Such a society would no longer be a capitalist one.

Capitalism is an economic system characterized by private or corporate ownership of capital goods, by investments that are determined mostly by private decision, and by prices, production and distribution of goods that are determined mainly by competition in a free market. In this free market, profit is an engine of economic growth and a key source of the individual’s prosperity and, ultimately, freedom.

So it is not surprising that Americans have believed from the beginning that this is not only the best economic system for the nation, but also the fairest and most moral one. As a result, capitalism has been widely revered in this country, not only in absolute terms but also in relation to its main rival, socialism.

The sad part is that the Catholic Church used to understand this. In his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus, Pope John Paul II himself delivered a scathing critique of socialism, declaring that “the fundamental error of socialism is anthropological in nature. Socialism considers the individual person simply as an element, a molecule within the social organism, so that the good of the individual is completely subordinated…. Socialism likewise maintains that the good of the individual can be realized without reference to his free choice, to the unique and exclusive responsibility which he exercises in the face of good or evil.”

My, how times have changed. Instead of ardent defenders of the superior morality of the free market, we Catholics appear to be little more than a clique of mindless followers, numbed by the constant droning of the Siren’s Song of “economic justice.”

In one sense, a “Siren’s Song”, alluding to The Odyssey, is something that carries a deceptively alluring appeal. Against this conception of the term, “economic justice” is the epitome of a Siren’s Song for the Catholic Church and, apparently, for many Catholics. “Justice?” Having to do with things “economic?” What could be wrong with that?

But as we’ve seen, the cry for “economic justice” is not nearly so innocuous. And if we’re more faithful to Homer, we would see that a Siren’s Song is far more than just deceptively alluring. Rather, it’s a sound so irresistible that no one who hears it can escape the pull. Let us hope that the Catholic Church’s “economic justice” song is only deceptively alluring and therefore something that the vast majority of independent thinkers will be able see for what it truly is—and ultimately reject.

— Dr. R.B.A. Di Muccio is a guest commentator for The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. A former assistant professor and chair of the international relations program in the political science department at the University of Florida, he is now vice president of research and advisory services for a global business advisory firm. He received his Ph.D. in international relations from the University of Southern California.

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  • jmb717

    Thank you for this.  I have been hearing similar petitions in Mass: calls for prosperous countries to forgive the “crushing” debts of poor countries.  I reply with “Lord hear our prayer”, thinking to myself that if the debts will truly “crush” the countries, then capitalism will see the benefit of some form of workout.  There was a lot of hulabaloo when the “Vatican” supposedly called for a world economy last year.  Thanks for pointing out the opposite point of view that the Church, through her leaders, has supported in the past.

  • Fred Penar

    Thank you, and I agree.
    But, for some Bishops (not all) this is easier than doing their jobs  –  namely Catechising the faithful.
    I have noted how few Diocesesan websites have a link at all to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd edition.
    If more Catholics read it, they would see the discrepancy between the teachings of the Church and what is sometimes expressed in pulpits.

  • I guess this prayer was for business people to focus on their customers and ethical business practices, so that the profits will follow. Rather than focusing on the profits and cutting corners.

  • I think the basic message of focusing on the rights of each individual person and their dignity and worth should take precedence over wealth and money.  This message, which I would assume is what most people got out of it is truly a good and deserves and needs to be prayed for.  Our country, society, and culture is way to materialistic and money driven and I think this petition is trying to get us back to valuing the human person and almighty God over the almighty dollar.    

  • Joe DeVet

    Very important to remember what the word “justice” means.  It means that each one receives his due. 

    In economics, nothing happens–no goods or services are offered–without land, labor, capital, and enterprise.  The just compensations for these 4 elements of any economic good or service are, respectively, rent, wages, interest, and profits. 

    Those who provide “enterprise”, ie the necessary organizing and risk-taking element of our economy, deserve to be compensated.  We who put up risk capital (most of us, through our pension plans or 401k’s) do so with the idea that we will be compensated.  Such compensation only comes through the profits of the firms we invest in. 

    We also must remember that those profits will only come about if the firms DO put a priority on people and the common good.  For if they do not, there are always competitors close to hand who will do so.  Any company which fails to deliver value to its customers for only a month or two will quickly lose its customers and go under.

  • Chuck

    I finally got a chance to read your piece on “Economic Justice”. A well written article but not one with which I am in step.
    Unbridled socialism is as disturbing as unbridled capitalism. The pendulum seems to constantly swing by its’ nature in favor of debate and so it should i.e.: the Church states “a system that subordinates the rights of individuals and of groups to the collective organization of production is contrary to human dignity (Gaudium et spes).
    Every practice that reduces persons to nothing more than a means of profit enslaves man, leads to idolizing money and contributes to the spread of atheism.
    You cannot serve God and mammon” (Matthew). It goes on further to state ” the Church has rejected the totalitarian and atheistic ideologies associated in modern times with communism or socialism.  She has likewise refused to accept in the practice of capitalism individualism and the absolute primacy of the law of the marketplace over human labor” (Cf Centesimus annus).
     Recognizing that even our bishops seem to be divided on many issues which challenge our Catholic faith it is not surprising to hear a petition from the pulpit as you described. There may be nothing offensive here at all when taken in the proper context. Who of us gives sufficiently to the poor? I speak not just of money but also with deed and time and attention given to those less fortunate. There are no blameless among us.
     Criticisms from within the church are always predictable but must not sway our faith in Catholicism. Soft Catholics on the extreme left can always lower the bar to meet their expectations’ rather than those of Jesus Christ.  Hard right conservative Catholicism can sometimes inadvertently lead to lack of constructive discourse and display intolerance. And so the pendulum swings.
     Our laity must take every opportunity to enjoin and embrace others in positive discourse otherwise the lure of the subtle “siren” may sway one to leave his or her Catholicism for a less challenging religion.
     As I read this article it seems that the author is looking for such a means of escape and may have found more comfort in a fundamental approach to religion. To be enjoined in Catholicism you must train as if running a marathon, a really long marathon, not training as a sprinter who must speed to his or her end.  So much can be missed.
     We must obtain that endurance to meet the constant, worldly challenges presented to us. Some satisfaction and peace should come of that.