fragments of an attempted writing.
Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, Ch. 7, II, 333:

If economic activity is to have a moral character, it must be directed to all men and to all peoples.  Everyone has the right to participate in economic life and the duty to contribute, each according to his own capacity, to the progress of his own country and to that of the entire human family.  If, to some degree, everyone is responsible for everyone else, then each person also has the duty to commit himself to the economic development of all.  This is a duty in solidarity and in justice, but it is also the best way to bring economic progress to all of humanity. When practiced morally, economic activity is therefore service mutually rendered by the production of goods and services that are useful for the growth of each person, and it becomes an opportunity for every individual to embody solidarity and live the vocation of "communion with others for which God created him."  The effort to create and carry out social and economic projects that are capable of encouraging a more equitable society and a more human world represents a difficult challenge, but also a stimulating duty for all who work in the economic sector and are involved with the economic sciences.

So when those Catholic academics wrote neo-con politician and playboy John Boehner a letter asking him to consider how unCatholic his economic policy positions were, and with the letter sent him a copy of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, I decided to read the Compendium.  I expected to be disappointed.

The language above is typical - vague.  I suppose many a Catholic First Things reader can read the above and think that their neo-liberal economic positions are perfectly compatible with what we read above.  I don't know how they can hold that complicity with actually existing capitalism can be seen in any way as friendly to that "solidarity" as expressed above, but I know American neo-con and libertarian Catholics do this very thing in a manner that is as natural to them as breathing, not that wraiths really need oxygen to survive but you get my drift.

On the other hand, when I read the above passage I am inclined to interpret it as a long-winded way of saying the old Marxist maxim: From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.  But I know as I write this that this is no different a maneuver than what the neo-con Catholic has done, an eisigetical hermeneutic and so forth.  The problem, as I see it, is that passages such as the one above are not hermeneutically stable without specific instruction as to what each term means in concrete economic circumstances, and the Compendium is not quick to provide such concreteness, which is frustrating, as the whole point of a Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, I would think, would be to provide concrete teaching with regard to what the Church teaches to be binding parameters of behavior for Catholics in the sphere of human social relations.

Now, that said, in its 583 paragraphs there are perhaps several dozen instances of specificity and clarity where I believe the Compendium clearly condemns economic activities which are supported by neo-conservatives and some libertarians.  I plan on writing an entire post about this later but I will briefly mention as a "for instance" that the Compendium goes into surprising specificity regarding biotechnologies that seems custom written to condemn Monsanto's use of intellectual property laws to coerce peoples into the use of its biotech crops.  Given the amount of anti-Monsanto press in Europe I suppose it possible that those paragraphs were written with Monsanto in mind (a boy can hope anyway).

I think that the Compendium does provide enough clarity to assert that a Novak or a Woods position seems pretty damn untenable for a Catholic, but generally speaking anything from crunchy con (or moderate on fiscal issues Republican) leftwards until you get to completely controlled economies seems to be something which could coherently be said to be compatible with the Compendium.  But all the while there is language which suggests that these issues are grave and that we have a high calling to subsidiarity and solidarity in the economic sphere.  One would think that with such gravity and such a high calling at stake, more specificity would be provided, but oh well.  My next post on this matter will deal with that wee bit of specificity the Compendium gives us to work with regarding human economies.


  1. Didn't Fr Robert Sirico edit the Compendium? Vagueness is to be expected, when the Church's doctrine can't be doctored to serve the libertarian ideal.

  2. I'd love to know if he did. My copy doesn't say who edited the English edition.

    Cardinal Sodano, the quite questionable character mentioned in the Jason Berry article I interact with below, wrote one of the "presentations" at the beginning of the thing. Sodano was Vatican Secretary of the State and the guy who accepted the bribes which the Legionaries of Christ used to get special access to the Pope and Vatican officials. Sodano was apparently chummy with LoC founder Fr. Marcial Maciel. In his Presentation Sodano talks sweetly about natural law and "moral values." Ugh.


  4. It's not Ex Cathedra. Therefore . . . abortion is evil?

    Sarcasm aside, the Vatican is thoroughly European, and this translated into Amurican-speak in the oddest ways imaginable.

    Sigh. I wish B16 would at least say it's o.k. to put a rubber bullet in their heads. Then surely Bart would follow suit--as long as we include the seals.

  5. The bald Mexican05 June, 2011 20:13

    Looking to the Vatican in political issues is sort of like asking sex workers for relationship tips. Of course, they are going to tell you whatever you want to hear. Aside from that, it's a good thing that the Church has been stripped of secular power in most parts of the world. Anti-clerical and damn proud of it.

  6. Vague bureaucratic language in an official Vatican document? Surely you jest! ;)

  7. You know, a few weeks ago I tried (again) to read the Compendium, but the language (the paragraph above is a good example) is so insipid that I once more put it off for another day. The vagueness doesn't help either. OTOH, I found that Rerum novarum is pretty vague, too.

    Slightly off-topic...

    I'm curious: a quick search of the online version of the Compendium reveals that the word "rights" appears 225 times. I know that Marx was critical of bourgeois rights. I'd be interested to hear what you have to say about that.

    I always thought the Catholic idea of "dignity" (184 times) had a bit more traction. One could claim that it is an affront to human dignity to force people to work 12 hours a day or in dangerous conditions, or for CEOs to make 1000 times more than their employees, but not a violation of their rights. But I haven't given it much thought yet.

  8. Anthony,

    That's a difficult one. I've wondered what is all is getting translated as "rights" but don't have the will to look it up because I'm probably afraid of the answer. Perhaps the writers are simply grabbing the socio-political language at hand. On the other hand it is possible that they are applying the Latin canonical sense of "rights" which is distinct and more clear a category than its use in political matters. But the use of "rights" in the Compendium is in keeping with contemporary popular uses so that is probably not the case - I guess it is too hopeful to think of some old Cardinals and their middle aged secretaries not thinking canonical rights when writing political/economic rights. That might have been the case 2 generations ago.

    Of course the usual use of rights language is in keeping with bourgeois empowerment. Political and economic rights are derivative of power. In this sense, in the realm of economics, only workers properly have rights, because only workers control production.

    But of course "rights" can be perceived any which way. So can subsidiarity. They are useless terms unless you define them very precisely, and in going to all that trouble why even bother with those terms.

    One of the most dismal aspects of contemporary politics is the obsession with rights - right to life, right to abortion, right to gay marriage, right to work, etc. What a waste of language.

  9. I think the problem with this document is that it assumes a Catholic world which would be answerable to Catholic teaching. But you can't really abide by many of these teachings because the capitalistic vehicle is poisoned. Much of Chapter 7 is simply untenable because it demands morality, ethics, decency, and assumes that capitalism is a worthy vehicle for such things.

    On the one hand, you get this (from 7.IV.350): "Economic freedom is only one element of human freedom. When it becomes autonomous, when man is seen more as a producer or consumer of goods than as a subject who produces and consumes in order to live, then economic freedom loses its necessary relationship to the human person and ends up by alienating and oppressing him".[732]

    Great, all well and good. I really like this passage. However, how can the free market NOT perpetrate this violence against the human person? It seems impossible--if not theoretically impossible, then no doubt demonstrably impossible (cue all of the objections from the frontporchers).

    From 7.IV.347:
    The free market is an institution of social importance because of its capacity to guarantee effective results in the production of goods and services. Historically, it has shown itself able to initiate and sustain economic development over long periods. There are good reasons to hold that, in many circumstances, "the free market is the most efficient instrument for utilizing resources and effectively responding to needs".[726] The Church's social doctrine appreciates the secure advantages that the mechanisms of the free market offer, making it possible as they do to utilize resources better and facilitating the exchange of products. These mechanisms "above all ... give central place to the person's desires and preferences, which, in a contract, meet the desires and preferences of another person".[727]

    This is why so many Catholics (and Orthodox) are so interested in a third-way. We want our free market and our personhood too. In fact, the passage I've cited here is a favorite of Catholic Austrians. The only hope you have here, Owen, is that your eisigesis is simply more compelling or that the world all becomes Catholic and will have to answer to an central authority that can demand and enforce the dignity of persons. Good luck with that.

  10. "This is why so many Catholics (and Orthodox) are so interested in a third-way. We want our free market and our personhood too."
    ***I don't mean to imply that I am interested in a third way.

  11. "I've wondered what is all is getting translated as "rights" but don't have the will to look it up because I'm probably afraid of the answer."

    In Gaudium et Spes, the word used repeatedly is ius (iuris, iura, etc.). Ius is simply a right conferred by law, but in this document this is a Natural Law: "In inceptis oeconomicis personae consociantur, homines scilicet liberi et sui iuris, ad imaginem Dei creati" (III.2.68).

    I've found a passage in Gaudium et Spes remarkably close to the one you've cited. So here's the Latin:
    In inceptis oeconomicis personae consociantur, homines scilicet liberi et sui iuris, ad imaginem Dei creati. Ideo, attentis muneribus uniuscuiusque, sive proprietariorum, sive conductorum operis, sive dirigentium, sive operariorum, atque salva necessaria directionis operis unitate, promoveatur, modis apte determinandis, omnium actuosa participatio in inceptorum curatione (145). Cum autem saepius non iam in ipso incepto, sed altius a superioris ordinis institutis de oeconomicis et socialibus condicionibus decernatur, e quibus sors futura laborantium eorumque liberorum pendet, etiam in his statuendis partem habeant, et quidem per seipsos vel per delegatos libere electos.

    Inter fundamentalia personae humanae iura adnumerandum est ius pro laborantibus consociationes libere condendi, quae eos vere repraesentare et ad vitam oeconomicam recto ordine disponendam conferre possint, necnon ius earum navitatem sine ultionis periculo libere participandi. Per huiusmodi ordinatam participationem, cum progrediente formatione oeconomica et sociali iunctam, in dies augebitur apud omnes proprii muneris onerisque conscientia, qua ipsi eo adducantur ut, secundum capacitates aptitudinesque sibi proprias, totius operis progressionis oeconomicae et socialis necnon universi boni communis procurandi socios se sentiant.

    Cum vero conflictus oeconomici-sociales oriuntur, ut ad pacificam eorum solutionem deveniatur enitendum est. Licet autem semper praeprimis ad sincerum inter partes colloquium sit recurrendum, operistitium tamen, et in hodiernis adiunctis, ad propria iura defendenda et ad iusta laborantium quaesita implenda, adiumentum necessarium, etsi ultimum, manere potest. Quamprimum vero viae ad negotiationem et conciliationis colloquium resumendum quaerantur.

  12. Owen:

    Thanks for your thoughts. I long ago came to the conclusion, in my analytic philosophy days, that the notion of rights didn't make sense. It took a bit more sympathy for Continental thought to begin to see how power is a driver of much of this discourse, and thus why it is so vacuous.

    Anyway, from pretty much any standpoint, I think that "rights" talk in a Vatican document about social doctrine should worry any Catholic who realizes that Locke was full of shit. Perhaps a sufficiently interested well-read blogger could look into it.

    ~hint, hint~ ;-)

    But of course "rights" can be perceived any which way. So can subsidiarity. They are useless terms unless you define them very precisely, and in going to all that trouble why even bother with those terms.

    It was the recent gay right to marry controversy that finally made me realize on a visceral level, in a way that reading MacIntyre never could, that rights talk is nonsense. (For the record, I support gay marriage, but not because I think they have a right to it.)

    OTOH, I'm not sure the problem is that the word itself is not defined with sufficient exactitude. As a good Wittgensteinian I think that's a pipe dream. Perhaps the problem is that we are not vigilant enough in detecting the ways that even superficially rational expositions of the subject are informed by the agendas of those in power (and here I really like Marx's analysis of classical political economy).


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