The Preferential Option for the Rich

By Daniel Saudek
March 5, 2018

Can the Catholic faith be combined with the tenets of neoliberalism? By the term “neoliberal-Catholic” school, I mean a movement that seeks to do just this. The term “Catholic” in the above designation is used only in this sense, and does not imply that this movement represents Catholicism as taught by the Church. Indeed, it will become clear that it deviates from Catholic teaching in fundamental ways. In what follows, I will first give an overview over the writings and activities of the “neoliberal-Catholic” school, and then proceed to point out its detrimental consequences.

We find a particularly stark example of “neoliberal Catholicism” in the publications of Martin Rhonheimer, professor of ethics and political philosophy at the Opus Dei-run Pontifical University of the Holy Cross (PUSC) in Rome and cofounder of the of the Lord Acton Kreis. In Rhonheimer’s publications of the last seven years, the following views are expressed, which I will quote verbatim for the sake of accuracy:

1) On the right to what is necessary for life (2013, p. 128; emphases in the original): 
When teaching about just wages, especially the family wage, not only PT [Pacem in Terris] but much of Catholic social teaching disregards the tradition of the late scholastics, mainly the School of Salamanca. So Luis de Molina … wrote that the wage the employer is obliged to pay according to justice is precisely the remuneration for the worker’s “services considering all the attendant circumstances, not what is sufficient for his sustenance and much less for the maintenance of his children and family.” Remuneration for one’s services is precisely the market wage determined by the worth of the employee’s servicesand not by his needs…In my view the idea of the “family wage” as an obligation of justice towards employees, as often repeated in the modern social teaching of the Church, is an element alien to this teaching.
And elsewhere (2012, p. 16; emphases in the original):   
It seems to me difficult to reasonably hold that that less well-off people and those in real need have properly a right to corrections of the outcome of market processes by redistributive measures … I rather think that the correction of market outcomes by redistribution is to be grounded on an obligation—a moral obligation—of solidarity of the better-off toward the needy
2) On global inequality and the relation between employers and employees (here):
… it is, in simple terms, 70 million people globally (the much cited richest percent in wealth, to which the large and middle enterprises of the world belong), who make work, income and consumption possible for the greater part of the remaining 99 percent.

The value of the product produced by the worker does not depend on his—i.e. the worker’s—work … The creation of this value is not the achievement of the worker, but exclusively—I say: exclusively—that of the entrepreneur, investor, capitalist. 
3) On the social teaching of the Church: Rhonheimer answers in the affirmative the proposition that “it is not the job of the Church to establish a social teaching”; furthermore: “What Francis advocates is supposed to help the poor. But in reality it doesn’t help the poor, but only makes their situation even worse” (here). Furthermore, Rhonheimer connects Catholic social teaching with anti-semitism, affirming that “antisemitically motivated anti-capitalism has also left its marks on the Catholic social ethics of the 20th century…”

4) On the relationship between the state and the market: According to Rhonheimer, capitalism is “always and everywhere” beneficial, whereas “all kinds of state interventionism” are “always and everywhere” detrimental (2013, p. 122). Redistribution by taxation is described as “compulsory expropriation of better-off citizens in favour of the less well-off” (2013, p. 111).

5) Rhonheimer sees the United Nations’ concern for the global climate as part of a set of “highly ideological agendas” (2013, p. 130).

Rhonheimer may be one of the most outspoken proponents of the “neoliberal-Catholic” school, but he is by no means isolated: the Acton Institute, as has been ably documented by Thomas Storck, likewise advocates a view whereby free markets alone, without government interventions in favor of the disadvantaged, would suffice to bring about the common good. “The economy alone—neither governments, nor global political structures—can solve the problem of poverty in a sustainable way”, as Martin Schlag, likewise professor at PUSC and involved in the Acton Institute, put it [Schlag (date unknown)]. A similar vision was promoted in a “Novak Award” lecture, organized by the Acton Institute and delivered at the PUSC in December 2014: “compulsory contract terms that favor workers” (p. 265) as well as the influence of “vested interest groups” in hiring employees (p. 268) were dismissed, and Pope Francis’ teaching on state intervention politely rejected as “beyond his competence” (p. 262). Instead, in the “virtuous liberal utopia” advocated, people’s needs would be met by private charitable activity alone, without the need for “coercive intervention by a state” (pp. 264-5).

The Acton Institute has furthermore been a leading voice in the opposition against climate science and the Church’s efforts to protect the global climate (see e.g. here and here). According to a report by Greenpeace, it has received funding for promoting climate denialism from foundations of the Koch brothers over many years. In 2015, the Acton Institute organized a conference where, as Vatican specialist Sandro Magister reported, the supposed “unfoundedness of the environmentalist theses of Laudato Si’” was “denounced”. Said conference was, once again, hosted by the PUSC.

In sum, there is unambiguous evidence that the Opus Dei-run university has collaborated with the Acton Institute for several years, establishing itself as a focal point of the neoliberal opposition against the social teaching of the Church. Not only have individuals published radically neoliberal views, but the repeated joint organization of conferences and even the conferral of an award promoting such views prove this point. Three detrimental consequences of these activities must be highlighted:

First, the “neoliberal-Catholic” school attacks the livelihoods of the most vulnerable and of their families. We have seen that Rhonheimer in particular directly denies the rights of the wage-earner and of the poor to the very necessities of life, claiming—an economic absurdity—that workers contribute nothing to value creation anyway. In addition, the above citations show how other representatives of the “neoliberal-Catholic” school have opposed the state’s right to intervene in favor of the disadvantaged, apparently leaving no place for the protection of the vital interests of employees. Instead, the “free” market and an unbridled right to private property are given priority over the fundamental requirements of the natural law, in stark contrast to St. Thomas Aquinas’ teaching (see e.g. Summa theologiae, IIa-IIae q. 66 a. 7). The very right to life is thus portrayed as optional, a move that lays bare the radical ethical relativism behind the neoliberal agenda (cf. Laudato Si’, 123). The same can be said of Rhonheimer’s attempt to justify today’s inequality, which ruins the existences of countless people around the globe. Furthermore, climate change is causing drought and extreme weather conditions that endanger the very basis of people’s livelihoods. The “neoliberal-Catholic” school’s opposition to climate protection is therefore likewise a profound injustice against present and future generations.

Second, the “neoliberal-Catholic” school endangers the salvation of people’s souls: by promoting the above agenda, it justifies sinful practices, in particular the refusal of a living wage, the promotion of inequality and social exclusion, and environmental destruction. That these are indeed grave sins is clear from several theological sources, such as the Bible (e.g. Sirach 34,22; James 5,4; Luke 16,19-31) the Church’s tradition on the “sins that cry to heaven” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1867), and Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’ (e.g. nr. 95).

Third, the “neoliberal-Catholic” school misrepresents the teaching of the Church by attempting to associate Catholicism with positions alien from it, and by promoting the view whereby the Church’s social teaching can be dismissed if it doesn’t serve the neoliberal agenda. By so doing, it risks leading people outside the Church to identify Catholicism with a kind of “special option for the rich” that, in fact, is fundamentally at odds with it. Rhonheimer’s attempts to discredit the social magisterium of the Church (point 3 above) are wildly construed and have no basis in the facts. The “neoliberal-Catholic” school likewise misrepresents the Catholic faith with its irresponsible dismissal of the clear evidence for anthropogenic global warming. St. Augustine decried the promotion of scientifically untenable views for purportedly religious reasons as “turpe nimis et perniciosum” (i.e. “very nasty and dangerous”), harming the salvation of those among the scientifically educated who are outside the Church (De genesi ad litteram, I,19).

In sum, “neoliberal Catholicism” represents, to use the words of the philosopher Maurice Blondel (2000), “une alliance contre nature”, a profoundly relativistic and inhumane agenda under the sheepskin of religious orthodoxy.

All hyperlinked internet sources were retrieved in Feb. 2018. Sources not hyperlinked above:

  • Blondel, M. Une alliance contre nature: catholicisme et intégrisme, Bruxelles: Lessius (2000).

  • Rhonheimer, M. ‘Capitalism, free market economy, and the common good’, In M. Schlag, J. A. Mercado (eds.)Free Markets and the Culture of Common Good, Springer (2012), pp. 3-40.

  • — ‘John XXIII’s Pacem in Terris: the first human rights encyclical’, In V. Alberti (ed.) Il Concetto di Pace: Attualità della Pacem in Terris nel 50° Anniversario, LEV (2013), pp. 103-136.

  • Schlag, M. ‘Papst Franziskus möchte eine Kirche für die Armen: wohin führt er die Kirche?‘ (date unknown).