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What Authority Does Catholic Social Teaching Have?

The teaching of the Catholic Church is usually divided into two broad areas, teachings on faith and on morals.

The first concerns the Divine Nature, man and his destiny, the Church and the means of grace, and so on.  The second comprises teachings about human conduct.  These latter teachings, while to some extent matters of revealed truth, are for the most part the teachings of the natural law, which the Church has taken over and made more clear and exact.  The Church can speak with the authority of Jesus Christ on both faith and morals, giving authoritative interpretations of the natural law, and a Catholic is bound to accept what she teaches in these areas.  This truth is reaffirmed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “The ordinary and universal Magisterium of the Pope and the bishops in communion with him teach the faithful the truth to believe, the charity to practice, the beatitude to hope for” (CCC 2034).

Now what of Catholic social doctrine?  Is this a third aspect of Catholic teaching?  John Paul II made it clear that the Church’s social teaching “belongs to the field … of theology and particularly of moral theology” (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, #41).  The rationale for this assertion is clear, for social doctrine concerns human behavior, and in this case primarily concerns the complex field of economic activity.  But the mere fact that economic activity is complex or that it involves the interaction of people and institutions or that it is the subject of a secular discipline does not mean that it has no ethical aspects that fall within the competence of the Church’s teaching authority.  Many other complicated fields of human conduct likewise fall under Catholic moral doctrine and there is no reason why economic activity should not do so.  The Catechism again is explicit that the Church’s magisterium extends to the life of society as a whole:

To the Church belongs the right always and everywhere to announce moral principles, including those pertaining to the social order, and to make judgments on any human affairs to the extent that they are required by the fundamental rights of the human person or the salvation of souls  (CCC 2032).

There are, however, certain Catholics who seem to enjoy a reputation for orthodoxy but who openly reject the idea that Catholic social teaching enjoys the binding force of other Catholic moral doctrine.  One common supposition underlying this position is that there is a secular discipline, namely economics, the conclusions of which are regarded by some of these critics to be scientifically certain, and which they believe are often in conflict with the Church’s social doctrine.  This point of view seems to be especially common among those who adhere to the Austrian school of economics, but lately appears to have been adopted by many conservative Catholics.  Sometimes it is asserted that Catholic social teaching is an example of the Church overstepping the bounds of the mandate given to her by our Lord to teach in his name, or it is likened to a pope attempting to give advice on the choice of building materials to architects, or to interfere in any other purely secular discipline or science by prescribing rules that in their very nature cannot be derived from divine revelation or the natural moral law.

What can be said in reply to this?  In the first place, the popes claim the right to teach about economic conduct only insofar as it has some moral bearing.  They are aware that the Church does not have the mission to set forth the technical principles of economics as such.  Pius XI in Quadragesimo Anno addressed this point explicitly:

We lay down the principle long since clearly established by Leo XIII that it is Our right and Our duty to deal authoritatively with social and economic problems … not indeed in technical matters, for which she has neither the equipment nor the mission, but in all those that have a bearing on moral conduct.  For the deposit of truth entrusted to Us by God, and Our weighty office of propagating, interpreting and urging in season and out of season the entire moral law, demand that both social and economic questions be brought within Our supreme jurisdiction, in so far as they refer to moral issues (#41).

And then he proceeds immediately to say:

For, though economic activity and moral discipline are guided each by its own principles in its own sphere, it is false that the two orders are so distinct and alien that the former in no way depends on the latter  (#42).

The analogy of a pope prescribing what building materials an architect should use, though perhaps meant as a red herring, is actually instructive, for in fact there are moral principles involved in choosing building materials and the Church does have something to say about them.  The architect is ethically mandated to choose the best material for the proposed structure, according to the type of building, the wishes of his client, and so forth.  The architect is forbidden by the moral law to choose faulty material or otherwise to defraud his client.  He is told not to charge for granite when sandstone was used or for steel when tin was used.  The Church does not tell the architect which kind of building material is strongest or how much weight a given amount of steel will bear, for these are technical and not ethical questions.  But ethical questions of all types are the business of the Church, and she claims that “both social and economic questions [are within her competence] in so far as they refer to moral issues.”

All areas of human behavior, including politics, war and peace, medicine, or family life, have ethical aspects, and despite the fact that various secular disciplines also deal with these realities, the Church does not hesitate to teach authoritatively on moral questions that arise within those areas.  Why should economists alone be permitted to fence off their subject and prevent the Church from pronouncing on moral questions that concern economic conduct?

An additional twist is that economics is said by these same critics to be a positive not a normative science; that is, it simply describes what happens, not what ought to happen.  If this is correct, how is it that there is any conflict between the merely factual judgments of economics and the ethical mandates contained in the Church’s teaching?

On the one hand, economists, disciples to the supposedly merely positive discipline of economics, frequently make covert normative judgments.  These generally occur because most economists regard economic growth as the summum bonum of social existence, and they praise anything that they believe will further such growth and criticize anything that they hold will inhibit it.  In fact, economics is sometimes understood as the science that allows us to realize as many human wants as possible, wants that are asserted to be unlimited. Thus the production of more and more stuff is seen as a sort of ethical mandate, even if it not labeled as such.

On the other hand, sometimes critics of social doctrine will assert that the means suggested or even mandated in a papal social document for achieving some end will actually be counterproductive to that end, because of papal misunderstanding of economics.  At times this critique itself is simply a misunderstanding.  The popes might state an ethical mandate (e.g., a just wage) and merely suggest one or more possible means toward attaining it, or such means might be suggested by others, but become widely seen as the only means of attaining the end in question (e.g., minimum wage laws).  In such cases the method suggested usually does not have the same doctrinal status as the goal that is mandated.

But another question  can arise with regard to the relationship between Catholic social teaching and the discipline of economics.  This question concerns the papal statements that assume or assert various facts.  For example, in his teaching that “[f]ree competition … cannot be an adequate controlling principle in economic affairs [because of] the consequences that have followed from the free rein given to these dangerous individualistic ideas” (Quadragesimo Anno, #88), Pius XI was enunciating an ethical principle as well as making a judgment about empirical economic facts: “the consequences that have followed from the free rein given to these dangerous individualistic ideas.”  Is he justified in doing so? Does his authority extend to empirical evaluations of historical facts?

Two things should be said here.  In the first place, when the pope spoke negatively about “the consequences that have followed from the free rein given to these dangerous individualistic ideas,” he was evaluating these consequences according to Catholic moral teaching, not according to whatever standards economists might employ.  Thus if many economists claim that free competition will generally have beneficial results, they are judging according to their own standards, which are seldom those of the Church.  What is beneficial in the minds of an economist might not be beneficial according to the mind of the Church.

Second, how could the popes not sometimes mention historical facts or the perceived results of certain kinds of conduct? In many instances in their teaching the popes assume or assert such facts, assess the effects of various actions, and make judgments based on those assessments.  Usually no one objects to this, except when it is done in the field of economic activity.  Thus when in Casti Connubii #90 Pius XI remarks “what an amount of good is involved in the absolute indissolubility of wedlock and what a train of evils follows upon divorce,” are we to accuse him of straying into the realm of contingent facts?  Many would dispute that indissolubility of marriage brings great goods or prevents great evils, and some of those who dispute this assertion undoubtedly claim to base their opinion on the findings of psychology or sociology.  How are they different from economists who assert that their expertise allows them to dispute facts claimed by popes?  In order to operate in the real world the popes must necessarily make statements and judgments that concern contingent situations. Otherwise the Church’s moral doctrine would exist in some realm separate from the real world, with little or no relevance to actual human life, and the Church would indeed stand condemned as having nothing important to say about the realities of human behavior, individual or social.

But additionally one more matter must be considered with regard to the binding nature of Catholic social teaching.  As I mention above, the encyclicals and other documents of the social magisterium contain statements that enjoy various levels of teaching authority.  Both Leo XIII and Pius XI, besides authoritatively teaching on aspects of economic morality, make recommendations and suggestions at times, and generally they clearly denote when they do so.  These recommendations and suggestions are usually not a matter of Catholic magisterial teaching as such.  How do we distinguish those levels of authority?

The rules for doing so are no different from any other area of Catholic teaching.  The Church’s social teaching, like the rest of her moral doctrine, is for the most part an example of the ordinary magisterial teaching.  But the teaching of the ordinary magisterium can be binding and infallibly taught when it is both ordinary and universal.  The First Vatican Council, in its Dogmatic Constitution, De Fide, chap. 3, taught,

Further, all those things are to be believed with divine and Catholic faith which are contained in the Word of God, written or handed down, and which the Church, either by a solemn judgment or by her ordinary and universal teaching, proposes for belief as having been divinely revealed.

Thus those teachings put forward by the ordinary magisterium over a period of time and throughout the world as truths divinely revealed or as teachings of the natural law, can generally be said to be part of the ordinary and universal magisterium, and hence binding on Catholics.  Among the many prescriptions of the Church’s social magisterium it would appear that the following, based on the repeated teaching of the popes, are taught infallibly by the ordinary and universal magisterium:

  1. The necessity for cooperation in economic affairs and the inadequacy of free competition as a general regulating principle for an economy;
  2. The right in commutative justice to a just or living wage, and as a result,
  3. The duty in social justice to organize the economy so that this is possible of attainment;
  4. The state’s duty of general supervision of the economy, but as much as possible actual regulation to be undertaken by lower bodies according to the principle of subsidiarity;
  5. The right of private property and the corresponding social duties of property;
  6. The illicitness of usury. (In view of the condemnation of usury by several medieval councils, it is probable that the injustice of usury has been taught infallibly by the extraordinary magisterium.)

Other matters treated of in the social encyclicals may be authoritative and require adherence by Catholics even if they do not rise to the level of ordinary and universal teaching.  For as the Second Vatican Council’s constitution, Lumen Gentium, put it:

This loyal submission of the will and intellect [in matters of faith and morals] must be given, in a special way, to the authentic teaching authority of the Roman Pontiff, even when he does not speak ex cathedra in such wise, indeed, that his supreme teaching authority be acknowledged with respect, and sincere assent be given to decisions made by him, conformably with his manifest mind and intention, which is made known principally either by the character of the documents in question, or by the frequency with which a certain doctrine is proposed, or by the manner in which the doctrine is formulated  (#25).

Generally by looking at the way in which the popes have phrased specific points in their encyclicals, one can usually have some idea of the level of authority involved.  Moreover, statements by bishops’ conferences and individual bishops are less authoritative, although when they merely reproduce and attempt to apply to local situations the popes’ universal teachings, they doubtless have some degree of authority.  But those writers who decry statements on the social order issued by bishops’ conferences and use them as a means of impugning the Church’s social doctrine as a whole, are only confusing the issue.

Human beings are by nature social animals.  If our lives are to be led within society, then it surely would be odd if the Church, whose precepts we must follow if we hope to reach eternal life, could have nothing to say about one of the central aspects of human social life, our economic conduct.  Those who endeavor to restrict the Church’s teaching are trying to erect an arbitrary and artificial limitation on her authority.  This is not compatible with Catholic orthodoxy.  As Pius XI wrote in his first encyclical, Ubi Arcano (1922), concerning those who do not conform their thinking and writing to the social teachings of the popes:  “In all this we recognize a kind of moral, judicial, and social Modernism, and We condemn it as strongly as We do dogmatic Modernism” (#61).


Readers are invited to discuss essays in argumentative and fraternal charity, and are asked to help build up the community of thought and pursuit of truth that Ethika Politika strives to accomplish, which includes correction when necessary. The editors reserve the right to remove comments that do not meet these criteria and/or do not pertain to the subject of the essay.

  • Thank you Dr. Storck, your works are a treasure. Let us allow no one to think the US Conference is granted special dispensation to draw from the Catechism only as is most suitable to our special, powerful class of “free marketeers”. After all, even our Bill of Rights was correct in its priorities: Life first, Liberty second, Property third!

  • RaymondNicholas

    1. The necessity for cooperation in economic affairs and the inadequacy of free competition as a general regulating principle for an economy;

    How should the Church deal with the inability of the US economic system to create new businesses and new jobs and an ever-increasing dependency on the government as the only solution? How should the Church respond to record unemployment, record decreases in workforce enrollment, and record dependency on welfare benefits as a standard of living? Is not dependency on someone else for you entire life a loss of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? does it not kill the spirit?

    2. The right in commutative justice to a just or living wage, and as a result,

    Is the real issue paying unskilled workers $15/hour, almost comparable to college educated students in many entry level positions, or is it the fact that we do not produce educated folks at the grade school and high school levels capable of doing more than menial, entry level jobs and assigning them to economic ghettos?

    3.The duty in social justice to organize the economy so that this is possible of attainment;

    Have we organized the economy so that those without training and skills are doomed to poverty levels? Why have we shipped off businesses and jobs to Asia and Mexico and elsewhere to the point where we cannot provide decent paying jobs to those who are unskilled and semi-skilled?

    4.The state’s duty of general supervision of the economy, but as much as possible actual regulation to be undertaken by lower bodies according to the principle of subsidiarity;

    Has the central government gone too far in socializing the benefits that businesses must provide to its employees? Businesses have few choices before they close their doors: reduce labor expenses, accept lower profits and return to investors, and increase unit prices and hope that volume does not decrease. Do these options provide a climate for business growth and jobs or just the opposite?

    5.The right of private property and the corresponding social duties of property;

    A right which is illusory if the ways and means to acquire property are not obtainable. A corollary is the lack of business investment (in property) in poverty-stricken areas and the inability of those citizens to provide properly (as persons not in poverty do) for their daily needs as a result.

    6. The illicitness of usury (In view of the condemnation of usury by several medieval councils, it isprobable that the injustice of usury has been taught infallibly by the
    extraordinary magisterium.)

    Where was the Church when CC companies were charging rates of between 20% and 30%?
    And a corollary, when builders, agents and bankers colluded into deceiving lower income families into mortgages for which they could not afford? High lending rates and unpayable mortgages have similar effects on the ability of families to build their lives and participate fully in society.

    IMO, the Church has a lot to account for in blindly going along with the politicians and not really getting to the root causes of our economic ills.

    • Raymond, I am sure once “the inability of the US economic system to create new businesses and new jobs and an ever-increasing dependency on the government as the only solution” is an actual reality rather than a talking point, the Church might have something to say. But why answer an hypothetical?

      • RaymondNicholas

        I am disappointed that you did not grasp my first point. All you would have to do is study the key economic indicators and demographic trends over the last ten-twenty years to see the unfavorable trends. If the Church is to be an advocate for the poor and marginalized, and to uphold Christian faith and morals, then it is no good to relinquish those goals to government bureaucrats and politicians. We, as Christians, do not fulfill our Christian duty by paying taxes, then turning away and hoping that the government properly distributes our contributions in accordance with our beliefs. The Good Samaritan was not a government official.

        • Raymond, I read your statement at face value: you claimed that the US Economy has an inability to create new businesses and new jobs. That on its face is simply not a sustainable statement, even in the light of statistics which, in fact, do show the opposite (have you seen negative growth, even under President Obama?). That’s quite different from an optimal or desirable situation.

          • RaymondNicholas

            Again, I think you misread my post. The concern is the relative shift of employment away from the standard definition of full employment to compensating for the lack thereof with an ever-increasing dependency on government subsidized benefits. This is not in line with traditional Church teaching on the dignity of work, self value, and in effect, taking what does not belong to you, called stealing, taking without earning. The Church may deem it necessary in the short run and I would agree, but it has not raised one bit of concern for generational dependency on government handouts and its demeaning effects on the individual.

          • I asked you to defend your statement and instead you change the subject and accuse me of not understanding anything. Got it.

          • RaymondNicholas

            No I did not change the subject, but added more explanation to my original post hoping that would bring clarity. Since it has not, let’s end the discussion.

  • Dylan Pahman

    This is all a bit abstract. A few clarification questions:

    1. If those who disagree with your interpretation of Roman Catholic social teaching are basically heretical, what should be done? Should they be excommunicated? If so, why haven’t they been? If not, should anything be done? If nothing, why complain?

    2. What about bishops of the church that argue that freer markets are compatible with the social teaching of Rome, such as Cardinal Dolan? Is he in error? Or is his nuance sufficient to keep him from error?

    3. You make a lot of general statements about economics and economists, could you cite a source or two that you believe demonstrates your claims. As it is, your claims are far too broad to be empirically accurate, but some sort of concrete example would at least be helpful to understand better what you have in mind.

    4. Can you think of an economy, at any point in history, that actually functioned in a way similar to what you believe the social teaching requires? It need not be perfect, of course, but again, some concrete touchstone would be helpful.

    • Gabriel S. Sanchez


      Instead of going through each of your questions, I think it may be best to start with noting how insincere they come across, particularly the first one with respect to declarations of heresy. While I am not particularly happy with the current state of affairs, both you and I know full well that neither the Catholic Church nor the Orthodox churches are particularly swift or vigorous about identifying heretics within their respective ranks and censuring them. And for Orthodoxy especially, such declarations are often ignored across jurisdictional boundaries.

      Since you have cited him favorably in your earlier work, I will assume you know the case of Fr. Sergius Bulgakov and the declarations of heresy that were directed at him from both the Moscow Patriarchate and the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia. Bulgakov, and the jurisdiction he was a part of, blew them off. Given that Bulgakov’s works are now widely translated and read both within and outside of Orthodox circles, it seems clear that no one is kicking up much dirt over the heretical status of his work (at least as it concerns “Sophiology.”) Politics also plays a role as well. Pavel Florensky, for instance, was no less a “Sophiologist” than Bulgakov, but he died a martyr’s death and so “heretic” is a word rarely mumbled when his name comes up.

      Anyway, the Catholic Church has not been particularly vigilant about tending to its own garden either, which is why these sorts of discussions have to proceed in public forums. And even if Rome was more on the ball about upholding its magisterial teachings, there would still be a role for both the clergy and the laity to discuss — hopefully calmly and charitably — the teachings of the Church and whether or not they are being followed or interpreted properly. That is exactly what Storck is doing here, and it is exactly what he has done over the course of his many years writing on CST. While there is certainly plenty of room to continue this discussion in an open and honest manner, the way in which you approach it strikes me as unbecoming, especially since you profess fidelity to a schismatic body and couldn’t give a hoot one way or the other what Rome teaches or does with respect to socio-economic matters.

      As for your point about citing economists, that’s a smokescreen. His article is meant to outline the magisterial authority of CST, not engage with the economics profession writ large. If you think that his claims fail to contemplate some economists or school of economics, then please share. Given your affiliation with the Austrian-intoxicated Acton Institute, surely you must have one or two in mind of your own, yes? But even beyond the Austrians, the entire discipline of welfare economics is predicated on making normative judgments in line with either Pareto or Potential Pareto (Kaldor Hicks) efficiency. Indeed, the entire sub-discipline of Law & Economics is moored in efficiency analysis and has ever shied away from normative claims. Surely you and your friends at Acton must realize this, especially since one of the leading lights of the L&E movement — Richard Epstein — has been hosted by Acton and even debated (albeit lightly) Fr. Robert Sirico on the role of religion in markets. Methinks you are being a wee bit disingenuous here.

      The disingenuousness does not end there. Your last question compels me to ask, “Can you think of an economy, at any point in history, that actually functioned in the libertarian manner the Acton Institute agitates for? It need not be perfect, of course, but again, some concrete touchstone would be helpful.”

      • Dylan Pahman

        You can read whatever tone you want into them, but my questions are sincere. I think addressing them would clarify what Storck means here.

        If “[h]is article is meant to outline the magisterial authority of CST, not engage with the economics profession writ large,” why all the broad statements about economics and economists? Hence my question to him.

        The Acton Institute is held together by its core principles. People who work with Acton may have a variety of positions that fit with those principles. That includes some libertarians, but also some people who would not be caught dead being called a libertarian (e.g. Joe Carter).

        As for the last question: modern day Switzerland, Canada, and New Zeeland, among others, all do quite well in my point of view, but I don’t speak for everyone at Acton. I am interested to know a concrete example of what Storck has in mind. Patrick Deneen recently said, in an interview here on Ethika Politika, that he thinks we should be more like Germany. That’s helpful. That’s the sort of thing I am looking for. (Incidentally, for different reasons, I wouldn’t mind if we were more like Germany either.)

        • Gabriel S. Sanchez


          The broad statements draw attention to a fairly well-recognized reality — a reality you haven’t bothered to refute with a single counter-example. I offered up a pretty stark example of a wing of the economics discipline which consciously renders normative judgments throughout their work. The fact that this wing has had a sizable influence both within and outside of the academy over the past 50 years, it’s hardly inconsequential. If all that Storck had in mind was just the Law & Economics wing which emanated out of the Chicago School (but has since metastasized), he would be standing on very firm ground indeed. Perhaps he will provide his own list of examples down the line, but even if he doesn’t, it doesn’t take a whole lot of effort for any reasonably informed reader to supply some themselves. So I suppose my question to you stands: Which economists or school of economics has Storck failed to contemplate here?

          • Dylan Pahman

            I don’t know, because he doesn’t cite any sources. Hence my question to him. I expect he will respond in his typically cordial manner and offer a source or two, and I suggest waiting for him to speak for himself.

          • Thomas Storck

            My previous reply was perhaps a bit laconic. But your questions surprise me somewhat, since one would have to be quite unaware of the current Catholic climate of opinion not to realize that various free-market approaches – no doubt not all the same – are being vigorously advanced by a variety of individuals and institutions. You may be aware of my criticisms of specific individuals, Thomas Woods or George Weigel, for example, the latter here on Ethika Politika earlier this year. You’ll find plenty of quotations from economists in the articles I cited to in my previous post.

            And by the way, are you really offering Switzerland, Canada, and New Zealand as examples of the kind of economy that Acton recommends? So Acton favors government health care or (as I understand Switzerland has), heavily regulated private insurance companies? I am surprised.

          • Dylan Pahman

            As I said, I can’t say that I speak for everyone else at Acton. But if it is their healthcare *and* everything else about their economies (including non-economic factors such as more freedom of the press and religion), I think that’d be an improvement in line with Acton’s core principles. I’d take Germany too. All four countries, if I’m not mistaken (and I know it is the case for the first three), have a better rating than the US on the Heritage/WSJ 2014 index of economic freedom. So, in the case of Germany, at least, we have some common ground! That’s exactly what I was looking for with my questions. Thanks for your responses.

          • Thomas Storck

            Germany in recent years has become more neo-liberal and to some degree abandoned the social market system created in the 1950s. I’m thinking of the social market economy, with mandated workers’ councils, industry-wide wage agreements, etc. I’m only vaguely aware of what’s been happening there more recently.

            But I’m intrigued, so you would not agree with Fr. Sirico’s statement, “So long as individuals avoid forceful or fraudulent actions in their
            dealings with one another, government is to stay out of their business” (Acton Notes, January 1998)? And do you still endorse what you yourself have written, e.g., ?

          • Dylan Pahman

            Yes, I still endorse what I have written. You’d have to ask Fr. Robert if he still endorses what he wrote sixteen years ago in a newsletter. I’m not sure of the context, so I can’t say either way what I think of the statement.

            I was able to look up Germany’s score on the Heritage/WSJ index: “mostly free,” the same as the US, but I think better in some ways (such as monetary policy). I suspect (West) Germany was more liberal in the 1950s than you realize (to say nothing of the present), as the post-war reforms came mostly from Freiburg school economists, who were generally pro-market. Their reforms focused on stabilizing the currency, ending price controls, and lowering tax rates, inter alia. See, e.g.,

          • Thomas Storck

            Well, I think there’s more to it than what you’re saying.

            In Germany what is called “codetermination,” an organized system of cooperation between workers and management, was established beginning in 1951. The German attitude can be summed up as follows: “Employers’ associations and trade unions do not see themselves as opponents but as partners in an agreement that forms the basis of the economic development of the country. Each side is fully aware that it is dependent upon the other. Both know that at the end of negotiations, agreement must be reached. Furthermore, both sides affirm their responsibility for finding solutions to existing social problems. This results in a basic consensus that is not destroyed by occasional
            industrial disputes. For this reason, employers’ organizations and trade unions in Germany are usually referred to as social partners.” Under codetermination, the chief board of a German industrial concern is comprised of “an equal number of shareholders’ representatives and employees’ representatives….”
            Uwe Liebig, “Dialogue Instead of Confrontation : the German System,” Canada-U.S. Outlook, vol. 3, no. 4, May 1993, pp. 56-57.

            In addition, when a certain percentage of firms in a particular industry have reached a contract with the union for that industry, this contract then becomes mandatory for the entire industry. But again, this is what the system was in its heyday. Globalization has put pressure on all countries to water down standards in the interests of global capital.

          • Dylan Pahman

            I’m aware of the labor system in Germany. But certainly the extent to which a country is economically free doesn’t boil down to labor organization, does it? Again, I’d encourage you to look into the Heritage/WSJ index. For what it is, it is very thorough and breaks down its rating into four categories with ten total criteria: If I’m getting the whole package of the German economy, I’ll take their labor laws.

            Among other reasons to admire Germany’s economic policy, in 2009 they passed a balanced budget amendment, something I’d strongly support in the US:

          • Thomas Storck

            You’re surely aware that when we speak of economic freedom in the U.S., the discourse is primarily about freedom of competition, freedom in hiring, firing and wages, a consequent lack of power by organized labor, etc. In general I support a balanced budget myself, I don’t see how any sane person can think we should spend more than we take in, as a general rule. But what does that have to do with economic freedom? You speak of limited government – if you have strong intermediary institutions, which historically Germany has had, you can get away with more limited regulation by the government. That’s why distributists advocate guilds to do the regulating, not the central government, which is what Pius XI did also. But you say you’re aware of the German labor legislation. I’m sure then that you know that in Germany the labor agreements were backed (if necessary) by the force of the state, which was true of the acts of the medieval guilds as well. Otherwise they’re merely benevolent and voluntary institutions, and can’t restrain the competitive acts of individuals and corporations.

            If you and by extension the Acton Institute really want to say that all along by economic freedom you’ve only meant a balanced budget, lack of government/corporate cronyism, etc., then you’ve done a very poor job of communicating your ideas. Why, in reading your material, one would somehow get the idea that you believed pretty much in free competition as the fundamental regulative force in an economy, in fact, in most of the ideas that in the U.S. are associated with libertarians and most conservatives. How in the world did the Acton Institute get the reputation of being pretty much libertarian?

            So – why don’t you write an article saying that you want a German-style government health care system, that you want worker representatives on corporate boards, mandated industry-wide labor agreements, etc. Then we can talk more. Why, you might even find yourself becoming a distributist.

          • Dylan Pahman

            So, you didn’t look into the index then? Too bad. Obviously, I did not mean to say that a balanced budget amendment equals economic liberty but, rather, what I did say: “I’d encourage you to look into the Heritage/WSJ index. For what it is, it is very thorough and breaks down its rating into four categories with ten total criteria: If I’m getting the whole package of the German economy, I’ll take their labor laws.”

          • Thomas Storck

            No, I looked into it indeed. And saw material about tax rates,property rights, foreign investments, government budgets, etc. I’ll make no comment on the index except that it seems a bit beside the point in the context of the debate here in the U.S. Meanwhile, I await your article on how you want strong labor unions backed by government, national health care, etc.

          • Dylan Pahman

            Okay. Let me help you follow the conversation that we just had. You claimed that I reduced economic liberty to a balanced budget amendment. I pointed out that, in fact, what I actually did was reference a real study with four distinct categories and ten criteria—that’s the sort of thing I have in mind when I talk about economic liberty. In this study, which you can look up yourself, you can compare the US to Germany and see the differences yourself. I’m not going to do your homework for you, and this is the last time I’m going to repeat myself. You clearly have no interest in listening to what I have to say in the first place. You’d rather mock me than have a real conversation, so I’m not going to waste my time anymore.

          • Thomas Storck

            I’m sorry you lost your temper. I don’t think I said things to you such as “Let me help you follow the conversation” or “I’m not going to do your homework for you” or “You’d rather mock me” etc.

            Look, since its inception the Acton Institute has been known for its espousal of free markets, what we call economic freedom, essentially a neoliberal stance. Not surprisingly, since you work for them and have supported those ideas yourself, you’re associated with that stance. Is one therefore not entitled to be surprised when you say it’s no big deal if the Germans have state health care, significant restrictions on corporate freedom, an important role for workers and unions in running the economy? One might even think you’ve been disingenuous in this discussion, but who knows? In any case, I did look at the Heritage website that you linked to, and as I said, I didn’t even see the issues addressed that in the U.S. frame the debate, issues which I mentioned above.

            But I wonder if you really would accept the German arrangements just so you could get a balanced budget, something which, as you note, was passed only recently in 2009. So, honestly, I don’t get it. Why would you suddenly start saying that so many of the measures that Acton has always opposed are no big deal? And if you really think so, it’s high time that you and Acton announced to the world that you’ve abandoned your previous positions and now want to see market freedom significantly limited by participation of unions, workers, etc.

          • Christopher Zehnder

            But, if you are not getting the whole package of the German economy — if you are getting, say, just the U.S. economy, what labor laws would you favor?

    • Thomas Storck

      Sorry, I’ve been away from the computer all day, but will try to answer your questions now.

      1. I think what Gabriel Sanchez said below is on point. As you know, there’s plenty of heresy and dissent in the Catholic Church, and little enough of it is corrected by anyone in authority.

      2. “Freer markets” could mean most anything. I doubt Cardinal Dolan understands the issue very well, and is probably thinking in terms of statism or free markets.

      3. As I’m sure you know, one can hardly address every point in every article.
      Here are links to some previous articles of mine that cite and engage economists.

      4. The medieval urban economy. Germany’s social market economy is a good case in point also. Probably numerous local economies in Europe or Latin America have functioned fairly justly as well. Costa Rica historically had numerous small businesses and few extremes of wealth and poverty.

    • Tom Flinn

      Let me throw out for consideration, not an entire economy, but at least one segment of the US economy that I believe used to function in a way that corresponded to a great extent with the Papal teachings: that industry is the trucking industry. I worked for many years in trucking back in the days when it was regulated by the Interstate Commerce Commission and also for years after the industry was de-regulated. The industry was organized around carrier associations known as rate bureaus. There were various bureaus depending upon geographic operations of the carriers. For example, there was a New England rate bureau, Central States, Central and Southern, Rocky Mountain,etc. These rate conferences or bureaus were composed of carriers in a particular region and provided services such as establishing rules and regulations and rate levels for the participating carriers. These rules/rates were set cooperatively by the carriers themselves, subject to challenge by the shipping community and review and approval or rejection by the Interstate Commerce Commission. Carriers were required to get a certificate of public convenience and necessity from the ICC to be in business. These certificates spelled out in detail the geographic area the carrier was allowed to serve and the carrier could not venture beyond that without inviting trouble with the ICC This kept competition within reasonable limits and enabled many small carriers to exist and prosper. The system provided (1) a stable trucking industry for the shipping public, (2) protection for smaller carriers and (3) stable and good paying jobs for the employees of the carriers. Carriers were not allowed to discriminate against smaller shippers. The push for de-regulation in the 1970’s came largely from “libertarian-type” economic theorists and mega-corporation shippers who knew they would be able to outdo their smaller competitors by negotiating for much better shipping contracts than the small companies could manage. In 1965 the 100 largest trucking companies in the country were almost all small-to-medium sized companies. Now most of those companies don’t exist,having been driven out by the “free market.” Not a perfect system by any means, but one closer to the papal teachings than we have now. For a detailed study of the effects of deregulation on the industry I recommend “Sweatshops on Wheels” by Michael Belzer.

      • Thomas Storck


        This kind of example is very helpful in our efforts to show that Catholic social principles can work well in the real world. It strikes me that the rate bureaus you mention perform some of the tasks of guilds or occupational groups, regulation by those involved with oversight by the state.

        • Tom flinn

          I believe they very closely approximated the concept of the occupational group as set forth by the papal encyclicals.

  • Thaddeus

    Whenever and wherever Catholic Social Teaching loses its authority, the poor (spiritually and culturally poor, especially) are trampled on and criminals run free. It’s that simple. Any Catholic complicit in subverting the authority of the Catholic Church in economics and politics is complicit with criminality and with the destruction of the poor. Zmirak and Woods will have a lot of explaining to do to Our Lord when they meet him. Storck and Ferrara will be there interceding for them.

    • Guest

      Well, Storck and Ferrara will be there, with God’s grace and their cooperation, interceding for them, we hope!

  • Guest

    I should add that criminals run free whether or not Catholic Social Teaching is supported by Catholics and others, as long as that teaching is not given teeth by law. Of course, unless Lockeanism is rejected tout court, until powerful people realize that Liberty is the god that failed, that will never happen in America. In the meantime, let us not be traitors to our own Tradition, and let us stay close to Christ in the midst of the onslaught of demonic errors and propaganda all around us tempting us to offer incense to the Evil Empire.

  • CatholicLibSoc

    This is why we need libertarian socialism or something close to it. Workers co-ops + local small scale democracy + barter + local markets.

    • Although I don’t prefer the hybrid term Lib-Soc, I agree with Dr. Storck and CatholicLibSoc. The entire system is wrong– civilization has become defined as gobbling up anything and everything, expropriating lives and environment swherever and whenever some twisted notion of “growth” can be rationalized. in fact, what we have is extremely barbaric, and this will later be considered a Dark Age!

  • RoamingCatholic

    Excellent post. I found your example from Casti Conubii a bit ironic – not in a bad way, though I would have to quibble with your statement that the only objections to papal judgments on contingent facts tend to relate to the field of economics – given that the critique made by right-liberals against magisterial authority/expertise on economics is pretty much the same one made by left-liberals on matters of sexuality. Perhaps the one notable difference is that the latter tend to appeal more to experiential expertise rather than teaching authority as such. But the great irony is that neither typically realizes how alike they sound when they tell popes and bishops to keep their teaching to matters that won’t affect how we live.

  • Edgardo Tenreiro

    Almost all the content of the Magisterium with respect to political and economic questions was written within a particular historical context and is therefore contingent, almost all, EXCEPT the essential principles of Natural Law on which those opinions are based. For example, now that the Magisterium is Liberal about the answer to the question of religious freedom, we must conclude that the different degree with which Vatican II and Leon XIII accept religious freedom vis a vis Gregory XVI and Pius IX cannot be “essential” but is instead “contingent” due to the historical context. Benedict XVI took pains to describe a “hermeneutic of continuity” in which Vatican II “with its new definition of the relationship between the faith of the Church and certain essential elements of modern thought, has reviewed or even corrected certain historical decisions, but in this apparent discontinuity it has actually preserved and deepened her inmost nature and true identity.”

    In the same spirit that Lefebvrists accuse the Council and Benedict XVI of contradicting the pre-Vatican II Magisterium’s position and of not being Catholic, third-wayers like Stork accuse Liberals and the Austrian School of Economics of not being Catholic. And not because Lefebvrists and third-wayers are inconsistent, but on the contrary, because they are extremely consistent. Lefebvrists take seriously and quote literally what was written by Gregory XVI and Pius IX and fail to distinguish what is essential from what is contingent in the Popes’ writings. Third-wayers take seriously and quote literally the “international imperialism of money” of Pius XI, the “deteriorating terms of exchange” of Paul VI, “living wage”, “social justice,” “redistribution of income and capital,” etc., etc., as if all of this was essential, the revolutionary social kingdom of Christ, a new absolute dogma that if negated or discussed is heresy.

    • Thomas Storck

      Although I think you’re mistaken about religious freedom, waiving that for the moment (about which I’ve written elsewhere), if you’ve actually read any of social encyclicals of the recent pontiffs, you’ll find the same doctrines repeated and affirmed. It’s true, as I said in the article, that not everything is reaffirmed – that’s why I noted the five or six items that have been repeated with doctrinal force, repeated not just by Leo and Pius, but by John Paul II, Benedict and Francis.

  • CLynch451

    Although this was very well argued and well written, I still find myself saying, “yes, but” at various points. Of the six points proposed here as being infallibly taught, there is some tension between them (e.g. between the rights and duties associated with property), as well as the practical problem of definition (e.g., a living wage for whom and at what standard of living?), which must be solved in particular ways when legislation is being crafted.

    There is also the very real history of instances when particular programs undertaken in a spirit of charity have backfired in dramatic ways. I say this not to prove that the popes can’t say anything at all about matters of political economy, but to offer an explanation of the tenacity with which certain devout Catholics resist some papal statement or other.

    • Thomas Storck

      As regards your first point, about the rights and duties of property, that’s inherent in the subject. Look at Quadragesimo Anno #47-49 and you’ll see what I mean. Here’s part of that, #48, “Those, therefore, are doing a work that is truly salutary and worthy of all praise who, while preserving harmony among themselves and the integrity of the traditional teaching of the Church, seek to define the inner nature of these duties and their limits whereby either the right of property itself or its use, that is, the exercise of ownership, is circumscribed by the necessities of social living. On the other hand, those who seek to restrict the individual character of ownership to such a degree that in fact they destroy it are mistaken and in error.”

      And certainly about a living wage one has to take account of many differences in time and place which is why no one can set a just wage for all times and places. John A. Ryan is the best theologian to consult on the contingencies of this subject. And your last point, “the very real history of instances when particular programs undertaken in a spirit of charity have backfired in dramatic ways.” – I’m not sure what you’re referring to. But for the most part, the subjects discussed here are matters not of charity but of justice.

      • CLynch451

        Thank you for the reference to John A. Ryan — I will look him up.

        My reference to “programs undertaken in a spirit of charity have backfired ” was intended to refer to the any of the things a modern American social conservative might be heard complaining about– things my father’s generation would have scornfully labeled “the ignorant do-gooderism of the bleeding heart liberals”. This would include things only peripherally related to economics but which would be intended to lift up the poor and disadvantaged.

        Finally a note on my use of the phrase “spirit of charity” — I merely meant to point to the fact that the proponents had the best of intentions. I spent the day trying to think of the difference between justice and charity (as I use the terms), and found so much overlap that I gave up trying to distinguish them. I feel personally obligated to approach everyone with charity; this also “feels like justice”, to me.

        Blessings, etc.

  • Marcellino Giovanni D’Ambrosio

    “On the one hand, economists, disciples to the supposedly merely positive discipline of economics, frequently make covert normative judgments. These generally occur because most economists regard economic growth as the summum bonum of social existence.”

    This is very much a caricature of Austrian Catholics. It does not take seriously the arguments we make, but creates a straw man in our place. To say that we hold economic growth and the production of more “things” as an moral imperative and that the good guys “ie the more economically liberal Catholics” are above that desire is totally false.

    The entire attack on free market by social gospel Catholics IS AN ECONOMIC ONE. The Social teaching of the church accuses capitalism of CAUSING POVERTY. Excuse me if that is not an economic analysis, sir. Both schools want the same thing. Both schools want the poor to be lifted out of poverty, want the family to flourish, and for human rights to be respected. We vehemently disagree on the methods that ought to be employed in that regard.

    We need to put this whole “You Austrians are just individualistic materialists opposed to the communal good” thing aside. We are nothing of the sort. We believe the social good of the community is freedom, that freedom is good for the poor, not antagonistic to it.