Should There Be A Catholic Economics?

Point Clear Media | April 10, 2020

Well, the short answer — for all of you busy people — is no. But perhaps not for the reasons you think.

The Sciences

In the hard sciences (i.e. the real sciences) such as physics it would be laughable to try to create a Catholic or Christian version. You cannot have a Christian physics that is set apart from the other physics. Gravity is a law that does not change, no matter what the beliefs of the scientist are.

The same goes for the practical sciences such as engineering or home building. I often wonder when I see advertisements for “Christian” general contractors. I suppose they are trying to imply that they are somehow more ethical than non-Christian home builders, but I both disagree with that premise and don’t care about their religious faith if I am hiring them to build a house. I want them to be good at building homes. Period. I want the house to be secure and last for a lifetime. I want the roof and foundation to be strong, and I want the widows to not be drafty.

The Arts

In the arts it is a little different. A Christian painter does not use different paint than other painters, nor does he hold the brush in any different way that is explicitly Christian. The canvas is the same, and the way the sunlight hits any combination of colors is going to be exactly the same among all painters.

However, in the arts there is an added element of meaning that is aside from its techniques. There can be a moral to a story apart from how it is written. This is because the arts are forms of communication whereas the sciences are forms of observation. This being so, the arts still require techniques and methodologies..

The techniques of the arts and their content or meanings are two totally separate things. Let’s say there are two painters. Both are practicing Catholics. Both use acrylic paint on stretched canvas as their medium of choice. But one painter has three decades of experience in the development of his craft while the other only started last week. And both painters want to convey a Catholic message, let’s say for example, that the Trinitarian God is love.

Chances are, not always but usually, the more experienced painter is going to paint something that is more delightful and enters into the mysteries of art and humanity and religion more effectively than the inexperienced painter. It does not matter how sincere or devout either of the painters is — to make good art requires skillfulness and the experience of trial and error.

The philosopher Jacques Maritain addresses this in his work, Art and Scholasticism. He writes:

“If you want to make a Christian work, then be Christian, and simply try to make a beautiful work, into which your heart will pass; do not try to ‘make Christian.’”

Jacques Maritain

In other words, Christianity is a way of being. This way of being will guide your actions, but it is not the work itself. Art is a way of doing. Doing and being are not the same thing.

Unlike science or philosophical truths, the arts are always changing with the times. Aesthetic tastes this year might not be the same as 100 years ago or even last week. Although some works of art do seem timeless, the appreciation of the art from the public’s point of view has almost everything to do with how the public has been educated. For example, a television show from the 60’s, such as Leave It To Beaver, could be produced exactly the same today in 2020, and it would not have much success because even though it is the same exact work, people are different now. By the same token, a heavy metal band such as Metallica, although they are appreciated by some of today’s public, would have a different reception in the 1950’s. If those musicians were transported back in time to play a concert, they would probably get run out of town with pitchforks and shotguns, possibly even put in jail for causing a disturbance.

The Social Sciences

And that brings us to the soft sciences, such as economics. The soft sciences are somewhere in between the hard sciences and the arts. As in the hard sciences, there is some degree of testing and measurement, collecting quantifiable data about human actions and choices, but there is another component, as in the arts, of recognizing the tastes and behaviors of the general public.

This is because people have free will. Not every philosopher will agree with this statement, but as a Catholic I propose that this is an unchanging truth. For more information on this teaching, please see the Catechism of the Catholic Church (Part 3, Section 1, Chapter 1, Article 3). Now, the methodologies and goals of the hard sciences are to test and measure physical phenomena in order to show that they are repeatable. In this way, scientists can abstract that what they have measured and demonstrated and declare that they have discovered something true. For example, a chemical reacting with a solvent or another chemical will always produce the same result in the same controlled environment.

However, human choices and behaviors, because people have free will, are never going to be the proper object of the hard sciences. A person might do something one hundred times the same way and the next time decide to do it differently. This person’s choices can be measured and predicted with probability, but there is no absolute truth that can be abstracted to guarantee any new scientific truth.

A good example of the soft sciences, and not unrelated to economics, is political science. In the same way that someone might ask if there should be a Catholic economics, the question also can be asked if there should be a Catholic political science. I believe the answer in both cases is no.

As an aside, it should be noted that there is a difference between political science and political philosophy. They are not the same thing. There could very well be a Catholic political philosophy — actually many Catholic political philosophies — but never a Catholic political science.

I am not the first person to think this. The poet and thinker T.S. Eliot, in his collection of essays titled Christianity and Culture, written in 1939, discusses what exactly is the nature of a Christian state. To Eliot, a Christian state is not one where everyone has to be Christian. The separation of church and state still exists. Eliot conceives of a Christian society as one in which the Christian is allowed to flourish, one in which people are given every opportunity and encouragement to excel at Christian virtue. He writes:

“[A Christian organization of society] would be a society in which the natural end of man — virtue and well being in community — is acknowledged for all, and the supernatural end — beatitude — for those who have the eyes to see it.”

The Idea of a Christian Society, Chapter 2

He also proposes that, although it has its advantages, the leader of a Christian society does not have to personally be a Christian. He continues:

“The Christian and the unbeliever do not, and cannot, behave very differently in the exercise of office; for it is the general ethos they have to govern, not their own piety that determines the behavior of politicians.

[The leaders] may frequently perform un-Christian acts; they must never attempt to defend their actions on un-Christian principles.

ibid

Now of course, Eliot is not describing the situation of a tyrant or dictator who seeks to dominate with torture and fear or in the case of one nation’s leader taking the rule over a Christian people the the aftermath of war. He is writing in the context of a leader who arises from among a group of one’s own people.

But I do believe he makes a good point. And that point not only applies to political science, but also to economics. Perhaps even more so. Whereas there can never properly be a Catholic economics, there can be an economic system in which people are rewarded for the choices they make that encourage beatitude in themselves and in others. However, you cannot legislate that from above, it has to come from the hearts of the individual people and be reinforced by society as more individual people begin to act in this manner.

Economics, as a social science, shares with the arts a separation of methodologies and meaning. In our economic affairs we have to address both our manner of doing as well as our manner of being. Too much emphasis on the former can lead to unethical practices, and too much emphasis on the latter can lead to inefficient and ineffective collectivism. There has to be a balance between being smart and being saintly.

In conclusion, I would just like to reiterate that striving for a Catholic economics is not a good place to start. Instead, we must strive to become better people while being critical of economic systems that are hostile towards the pursuit of virtue and beatitude. If we want to limit economic injustice in the world, we have to first start with our own hearts and the degree to which we accept greed and other vices as being normal. Then we must pass down what we have learned to future generations so that good and thoughtful people become the leaders of their world.

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