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Why the Neoliberal Catholic Approach to Social Ethics Fails

Ryan Shinkel’s response to my last article opens the opportunity for a deeper discussion about social ethics. I wish to pursue that opportunity in order to attain further clarification, in view of more adequate responses to certain urgent contemporary challenges, responses to which we as Catholics can, I believe, contribute in an important way.

First, however, I should address a misunderstanding: My last article was not primarily about “two camps of Catholics,” as Shinkel writes, but rather about what I called the “rough sociological divide with which we are all familiar,” a divide that we can observe in the wider culture. I explored the relationship between fragmented worldviews and ethical persuasions that overemphasize a certain set of values and concerns at the expense of others, and argued that such one-sidedness often owes to an unbalanced relationship between the role of feeling or fideistic belief on the one hand and the role of reason on the other.

In the context of the “conservative” side of this sociological divide, I particularly emphasized the strand of Catholic thought that favors a strongly laissez-faire approach to economics and cited two articles representing this strand: one by George Weigel, the other by Martin Rhonheimer.

Weigel’s article applies a very selective hermeneutic to the documents of Catholic social thought, in particular Benedict XVI’s encyclical Caritas in Veritate. The strategy is to portray large parts of the encyclical as being not truly “Benedictine,” but rather owing to the “gauchiste” influence of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. These passages, emphasizing the need for elements of “gratuitousness and communion” in the economic sector, redistribution of wealth, and global political measures in order to adequately respond to contemporary global challenges, Weigel then simply rejects. By the same hermeneutic, the entire encyclical Populorum Progressio is apparently dismissed as not truly Catholic. By contrast, Weigel accepts the pro-life passages of Caritas in Veritate, and welcomes Catholic Social Teaching where it recognizes the role of free markets for the common good.

Rhonheimer’s article (see esp. pp. 120-131) has a similar drift: Free market solutions are always and everywhere good, and all forms of state intervention are always and everywhere bad. Managers and entrepreneurs in principle contribute more to the common good than the non-profit sector. The state’s responsibility for the common good is limited to ensuring a legal framework; it is not meant to take an active role in creating job opportunities or ensuring just wages. Indeed, the idea that workers are entitled to a living wage is “alien” to Catholic social thought, and even less is the worker entitled to a wage by which to support a family. The popes were wrong about this, having been too influenced by trade unions, and the “school of Salamanca” was in fact much closer to true Catholic teaching. The role of global institutions in promoting the common good is viewed with a similar skepticism, and even their activity for the protection of the global climate is set on a list of “highly ideological agendas.”

Nor are these articles merely two extreme examples of a marginal phenomenon. Rather, they represent a large and influential school of thought, as has been well documented by Thomas Storck.

Given all this, it is hardly an “oversimplification” on my part—as Shinkel writes—to speak of a marked tendency in conservative Catholic thought toward laissez-faire capitalism. This school of thought does recognize rule of law in areas other than private property rights, as Shinkel mentions, and many neoliberal Catholics make praiseworthy efforts to support pro-life causes and the protection of the family against relativistic onslaughts. However, as regards the economic sphere, we find very little by way of an acknowledgement of ethical limits.

By contrast, my intention is not to argue in favor of a “leftist” approach. I make this clear in my last article, in which I argue in favor of the indispensable contribution of free markets to the common good, against excessive state-intervention and taxation, and against ethical systems that prioritize the environment above man’s good. In this context, I need to correct a slight misrepresentation in a recent article by Storck: I do not find it “strange” to see “liberal democracy and a competitive market economy” as “consistent with Catholic teaching,” for I believe that they are consistent, provided that certain non-negotiable ethical requirements are observed.

However, I wish to highlight two of these ethical requirements that in my view challenge the tenability of the tenets of the neoliberal Catholic school: the worker’s right to a living wage, and the obligation of protecting the natural environment for future generations. Where these are explicitly denied—a rare phenomenon—it is hard to see how this denial is compatible with an ethic derived from the transcendental dignity of the human person. Where they are simply ignored—a much more common phenomenon—a social ethic so constructed fails to take crucial aspects of contemporary reality into consideration.

A frequent conservative response to these objections acknowledges these ethical requirements, but declares that they are best met by leaving their realization to private initiative and to the spontaneous activity of the market, rather than to top-down regulation. I agree that exaggerated regulation can undermine personal responsibility and thereby pose a threat to the common good. However, a lack of rules and of social organization does so as well. For without them, free-riders who pay no heed to social and environmental standards gain a competitive advantage over more responsible agents. The latter are then forced to either likewise lower their standards or to perish, a dynamic that results in a detrimental “race to the bottom.”

We see the effects of this dynamic in the undermining of labor standards across the globe. For example, the free private initiative of entrepreneurs has proven unable, and indeed all too often unwilling, to prevent exploitation of workers in the textile industry, whereas trade unions, the International Labor Organization, and NGOs have produced a sustained effort to improve the situation. Moreover, the global circumvention of labor standards produces increasingly adverse effects against the possibility of dignified work and of a living wage even in the rich countries.

The idea that the free activity of markets alone, without an active role of governments for the realization of the common good, and in particular without redistribution of wealth, is the best recipe for overcoming poverty and inequality is untenable historically and sociologically. As a newly released study by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development shows, increasing inequality has hampered economic growth, whereas wise measures of redistribution implemented by governments have beneficial effects both for the poorer segments of society and for the economy as a whole.

Similarly, the lack of global rules is causing a systematic failure to address the current environmental crisis, and all too often leads to a concomitant refusal by companies, consumers, and governments to pay for the pollution that they are causing.

Thus, many social ills indicate how a lack of rules at a high level of social organization does not enable the exercise of personal initiative and responsibility in favor of the common good, but rather stifles it. This is why the tenets of the neoliberal Catholic school are not only deeply problematic ethically, but also highly implausible as far as social and economic science is concerned.

As to the relationship of this school with the social teaching of the Church: Clearly, faith is a matter of free assent, and nobody can be obliged to believe what the Church teaches. Also, not all that is contained in the social encyclicals enjoys equal authority, and we can expect intelligent debate to lead to deeper understanding. Furthermore, the wisdom of the social teaching of the Church becomes especially evident when close attention is paid to the social, economic, and environmental challenges of our age, and to the results of the respective sciences that investigate them. Hence, the cultivation of a two-wings approach, which takes both faith and reason on board, is more helpful than simply demanding that neoliberal Catholics adhere to the social teaching of the Church.

However, selective hermeneutical applications that dismiss unwanted passages as being of additional and not original composition are misleading, as is claiming—as Rhonheimer does—that the school of Salamanca is somehow more congruent with Catholic thought than what the popes taught. These strategies run the risk of misrepresenting the social teaching of the Church ad extra and effectively hiding under a bushel what has been fittingly called the Church’s “best kept secret.” Thus, the social teaching of Pope Benedict, which could have provided urgently needed wisdom for a world struggling with the consequences of globalization, has been swept under the carpet and did not get through to a wider public that all too often perceived Benedict simplistically as “conservative.” In a similar vein, the Acton Institute has recently promoted efforts to interpret Pope Francis’s social teaching in such a way as to make it compatible with the tenets of neoliberalism.

Shinkel writes that we as Catholics “are needed in the heart of the secular city because Christ must be seen there, independent of historically contextual political disputes.” Indeed we are. But this witness will be more effective if we bring in the whole picture of the social, economic, and environmental challenges of our age and, corresponding to it, the fullness of the social teaching of the Church, rather than selected parts thereof.


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.

  • Gus

    I think that neither Weigel nor Rhonheimer, not any of the ‘conservative’ thinkers are suggesting that a free market should be entirely devoid of government intervention, but that there just needs to be better and/or less intervention. Understand too, that because thus far over the last 100 years or so intervention by the various governments of the world has focused on gaining a competitive edge over other governments/countries, that less of this intervention might indeed have been a good thing, especially where the intervening government was corrupt or socialist.

    In any case, until the world is made up of all good people leading virtuous lives, no economic system or government will be free from
    abuse. Instead of debating the relative merits of distributism and capitalism a better use of one’s time would be to do what Popes have been asking Catholics to do for ages – evangelize.

    • Thomas Storck

      Those who uphold the notion that merely personal rectitude is a sufficient way to bring about some resemblance to economic justice, strangely, as Mr. Saudek alludes to, change their tune when it comes to other moral questions. They don’t say, Let’s allow same-sex unions, but we’ll dissuade anyone from entering into one by our evangelization and preaching on virtue. No, we rightly recognize that laws are necessary to protect marriage and the family. Catholics used to recognize that the same was true with regard to economic ethics. Here are a couple quotes from Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno.

      ” A new branch of law, wholly unknown to the earlier
      time, has arisen from this continuous and unwearied labor to protect
      vigorously the sacred rights of the workers that flow from their dignity
      as men and as Christians. These laws undertake the protection of life,
      health, strength, family, homes, workshops, wages and labor hazards, in
      fine, everything which pertains to the condition of wage workers, with
      special concern for women and children. Even though these laws do not
      conform exactly everywhere and in all respects to Leo’s recommendations,
      still it is undeniable that much in them savors of the Encyclical, On the Condition of Workers, to which great credit must be given for whatever improvement has been achieved in the workers’ condition.” #28

      “Free competition, kept within definite and due limits,
      and still more economic dictatorship, must be effectively brought under
      public authority in these matters which pertain to the latter’s
      function.” #110

      Really, I don’t see how anyone can read the documents of the Church and of theologians of earlier ages and not see an immense disconnect between what they taught and the neo-liberal or conservatives Catholics of today.

  • Thank you Mr. Saudek. What is astounding, is the free pass given by the neo-Thomists, to giant corporations.. Their bureaucracy and depersonalization has become the underpinning of all violence and oppression of nations to mankind and the earth, e.g. it is clear to sincere conservatives, that they have gained control of all public action. To believe that people will be able to voluntarily shun them cannot be considered sincere.

    To deny basic CST since Rerum Novarum and subject the entire public sphere to neoliberal compromises, is to let Satan continue to have his way.