Category Archives: Politics

The “Awesome” ‘80s: Remembrances of Fear and Excellence

[This originally appeared at The Imaginative Conservative]

It’s hard not to laugh when my students think they’re imitating or comprehending the zeitgeist of—whether to honor or mock—the 1980s. 

Though, in almost every way, it’s impossible to fault them for this.

The individual members of the incoming freshman class will have entered this world sometime in 1996 or 1997, a full seven to eight years after the collapse of the Berlin Wall.  To their active and eager minds, the 1980s meant lots of repetitive electronic pop music, an MTV that actually played music videos, leg warmers, bright colors, big checks and plaids, baggy pants and oversize shirts, top siders, goofy hair styles, televangelists, “duck and cover” safety from nuclear weapons, general happiness and prosperity, and John Hughes movies.  It was a time before time, an era without wardrobe malfunctions, wacky chief executives, or reality TV.

Not all of these memories are wrong, of course, just selective. 

From what I can tell, most current students idealize the decade in much the same way my generation—coming of age in the 1980s—viewed the 1950s.  That nearly perfect decade represented peace, prosperity, primitive rock music, American assertion of power without lots of consequent deaths, innocence and naiveté, white t-shirts with packs of cigarettes rolled up in one’s sleeve, poodle skirts, leather jackets, James Dean shades, motorcycles, Marlan Brando cool, and tail fins on huge cars. 

Everything, of course, was in black and white as well in the 1950s.

Well, so we thought.

But, two things must be remembered by those of us who lived in the 1980s and who want to teach our students the truth. 

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Socrates on Doing Wrong

From The Crito:

Soc. Are we to say that we are never intentionally to do wrong, or that in one way we ought and in another way we ought not to do wrong, or is doing wrong always evil and dishonorable, as I was just now saying, and as has been already acknowledged by us? Are all our former admissions which were made within a few days to be thrown away? And have we, at our age, been earnestly discoursing with one another all our life long only to discover that we are no better than children? Or are we to rest assured, in spite of the opinion of the many, and in spite of consequences whether better or worse, of the truth of what was then said, that injustice is always an evil and dishonor to him who acts unjustly? Shall we affirm that?

Cr. Yes.

Soc. Then we must do no wrong?

Cr. Certainly not.

Soc. Nor when injured injure in return, as the many imagine; for we must injure no one at all?

Cr. Clearly not.

Soc. Again, Crito, may we do evil?

Cr. Surely not, Socrates.

Soc. And what of doing evil in return for evil, which is the morality of the many-is that just or not?

Cr. Not just.

Soc. For doing evil to another is the same as injuring him?

Cr. Very true.

Edmund Burke Against the Antagonist World

Liberty Fund Edition of Reflections.

[Originally published at The Imaginative Conservative]

Should one generation ever consider itself greater than any other generation, past or future, Edmund Burke warned in his magisterial Reflections on the Revolution in France, the entire fabric of a civilization might very well unravel and, ultimately, disintegrate.  Our modern ears have no right to discount Burke’s argument as simple hyperbole.  What takes centuries to build and hone, however, can take moments to undo.  We have witnessed numerous generations since Burke wrote this, and we have seen the arrogance of several, but most especially the Vatican II generation and the so-called “counter-culture” generation of the 1960s.  To this day, we suffer from the arrogance of each.  They each, in the name of toleration, progress, liberalism, and humanitarianism to submit to their teachings blindly.  As one great Canadian and Stoic man of letters argued in the early 1980s, “They shout about love, but when push comes to shove, they fight for things they’re afraid of.” 

Once a generation succeeds in separating itself from past and future, it harms not just civilization but the very dignity of man.  The individual man, unanchored, becomes, Burke noted darkly, “would become little better than the flies of summer.”

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Movement is Life

Year of social distancing! But a lot of that was on a motorcycle, we all try to make the best out of the situation! There is this 50 mile stretch west of Olympic forest which always eluded me, but managed to explore that this year. In that process also experienced a sunset at Ruby beach, one of those moments forever engraved in mind. Stayed at this rather rustic lodge after a six hour ride through the peninsula, well-furnished but no wifi and erratic cell coverage. Realized some cheap wine, decent fish n chips, and some silence makes for a great evening.

There is definitely something inexplicable about riding, there are actual full length documentaries/books detailing explanations, but most of it seems dreamed up romanticism. Reasons have to be simpler, because it’s just one of those visceral impulses, just like a lot of other recreational activities. More than the sights, with a motorcycle we essentially get to absorb the journey, and not just the final destination.  And yes, that journey often includes cold bursts of shower, gravel and dirt, unstable truck drivers, snapchating drivers and anything else nature might decide to fling. But, it’s again that simple visceral impulse, to experience the delights and also the travails of a journey. It’s something our ancestors endured every day before the comforts of modern civilization, now we get a glimpse of that from riding a well-engineered machine. In general, there must be something innate prompting us to journey, may be exploration must have aided in our survival within an ancient primitive environment.

Brad Pitt states in that apocalyptic movie – “People who moved survived… Movement is Life”. Needless to say, we cannot take it literally. But, in general movement can aid in adaptation. Whether it’s moving for work, or learning a new skill, or reading a new theory to solve that problem. All qualifies as movement, because they help us adapt in a changing world. Such an adaptation requires some planning, and that planning mandates at least some stable factors. What differentiates modern civilization from the primitive past is simply the existence of some stable social factors in an otherwise unstable system.

Simple example would be contractual agreements. If you order grocery, there is a near 100% probability that it will be delivered. On top of such simple and stable factors we construct complex plans, something which enables adaptation to unexpected events. Essentially that grocery might help us study for a test, run a marathon, or become a chef. In other words, law provides that stability in an unpredictable world. We actually don’t know whether we will pass the test, or win the marathon, or become a super chef. But law anyway provides us tools to pursue elaborate goals constructed on simple reliable norms. When applied equally to all, it enables the best of the plans, best of the minds, and in that process most complex of civilizations to emerge.

 “Of all multi-purpose instruments it is probably the one after language which assists the greatest variety of human purposes. It certainly has not been made for any one known purpose but rather has developed because it made people who operated under it more effective in the pursuit of their purposes” — Friedrich Hayek

Forthcoming: Angelico Book on Christian Humanism

I’m very excited to announce that I have a forthcoming book (sometime this fall) from Angelico Press.


(initial) table of contents if you’re interested:
PrefaceIntroduction: Beyond Tenebrae

Section I: Conserving Christian Humanism• Humanism: A Primer• Humanism: The Corruption of a Word• The Conservative Mind• Burke and Tocqueville• What to Conserve?• Conserving Humanism
Section II: Personalities and Groups• T.E. Hulme: First Conservative of the Twentieth Century• Irving Babbitt’s Longings• Irving Babbitt and the Buddha• The Christian Humanism of Paul Elmer More• The Order Men• Willa Cather• Canon B.I. Bell• The Conversion of Christopher Dawson• Christopher Dawson and the Liberal Arts• The Gray Eminence of Christopher Dawson• Nicholas Berdyaev’s Unorthodoxy• Theodor Haecker: Man of the West• The Inklings• Two Tolkiens, Not One• Sister Madeleva Wolff• Peacenik Prophet: Russell Kirk• St Russell of Mecosta• Eric Voegelin• Eric Voegelin’s Gnosticism• Eric Voegelin’s Order• Flannery O’Connor• Clyde Kilby• Friedrich Hayek’s Intellectual Lineage• Ray Bradbury at His End• Shirley Jackson’s Haunting• Wendelin E Basgall• Julitta Kuhn Basgall• Ronald Reagan’s Ten Words• The Optimism of Ronald Reagan• Walter Miller’s Augustinian Wasteland• Alexander Solzhenitsyn as Prophet• The Ferocity of Marvin O’Connell• The Good Humor of Ralph McInerny• The Beautiful Mess that is Margaret Atwood; Conclusion: Confusions and Hope

The Road to Serfdom at 75 Years Young

Peter Boettke writes

“Key to his argument is that in a democratic liberal society, there’s no overarching single scale of values. Society cannot achieve a single hierarchy of ends we all agree on. In fact, the great strength of democratic liberal societies is a multiplicity of values that are respected among diverse and often divergent, even distant, individuals”

I used to have this bumper sticker on my Jeep — ‘If we are on a road to serfdom, hope it’s bumpy and bureaucrats are driving lowriders’




The Hayek Auction

You will find them here, for instance Hayek’s copy of Wealth of Nations went for almost 200k, it was estimated in the 4k to 6k range.

“Desktop ephemera and personal effects” were estimated at 200-300 British pounds, went for 87,500 British pounds.  Crazy!  Many of the items went for 10x or 20x their original estimates.

From Marginal Revolution


The original uploader was DickClarkMises at English Wikipedia. [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Libertarian Transformers

For some reason people gasp when I mention the dominant Libertarian themes in Transformers 4 : Age of Extinction. Buried beneath inane comedy and not so sleek Budweiser advertisements are some stunning Hayekian/Misesian ideas. Contrasting to the first three Transformers movies, Age of Extrinction refuses to glamorize military. Instead of Marines fighting evil aliens in Middle-East, we have CIA black ops oppressing a Texan inventor. From Cade Yeager (played by Mark Wahlberg) emphasizing to the black cloaked agents to get off his property, to ignorant bureaucrat Harold Attinger (played by Kelsey Grammer) destabilizing planet with his foreign policy, Michael Bay’s U-Turn on politics is evident.

Govt propping up bad guys in an alien war, or private firms profiting from war, or having an elected US President become subservient to career bureaucrats – this movie cuts close to reality. How a private weapons manufacturer, Joshua Joyce (played by Stanley Tucci), changes his mind when confronted with reality. But, a bureaucrat constantly refusing to confront his own folly is worth noting. Hollywood illustrating how private sector can get corrupted by govt incentives is not so common. Not to mention, Kelsey Grammer comforting the US President by claiming the all-powerful alien bounty hunter as his “asset”, a genuine black comedy moment!

An individualistic inventor honestly trying to stabilize the world, while govt busy-bodies propping up chaos, sounds like the movie appeals to all our civilized human instincts. Café intellectuals might disagree, but Hollywood is among the best Western institutions, they spread liberal ideas across the globe. Niall Fergurson’s interesting work ‘The West and the Rest’ quite aptly quotes the French philosopher Régis Debray — “more power in blue jeans and rock and roll than the entire Red Army”.


Bjoern Kommerell [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Catholic Social Thought: Economics and Politics

I am currently doing background research for some essays on distributism.   I have written on distributism in the past; I am excited to delve into it further.  Because distributism was developed explicitly against the backdrop of late 19th century and early 20th century Catholic social thought, I first needed to see what this tradition has to say about economics and politics.  Below is an initial essay I wrote to organize my thoughts, which I also hope I can use as introductory material in future writing projects.


Disclaimer: While I have a very high regard for the intellectual and moral contributions of the Roman Catholic Church, I am not Catholic.  I hope the readers of this blog, many of whom know much more about these topics than I do, will help me by correcting any errors of commission or omission!


Church, Property, Liberty


  1. Introduction

In some ways, the label “Catholic Social Teaching” is misleading.  The Roman Church has always applied its moral teachings to social issues.  But with the economic and political upheavals in the West caused by the Industrial Revolution, the Church recognized the need to provide more specific guidance.  The resulting papal encyclicals whose principles are now expressed in the Church’s Compendium of Social Doctrine[1] addressed important social questions of the day, including the relationship between labor and capital and the proper scale and scope of political institutions.  While each encyclical contributes something new and invaluable to this collection of teachings, the first two—Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum novarum[2] and Pope Piux XI’s Quadragesimo anno[3]—are the foundational documents upon which the Church’s teachings rest regarding the moral dimension of economic and political modernity.

These encyclicals were motivated by the revolution in the production and distribution of goods and services stimulated by industrialization.[4]  The transformation of agricultural economies into industrial economies throughout the West entailed rapid economic growth.  Large industrial concerns, which were able more efficiently to organize lines of production and capture economies of scale, began to replace smaller agricultural and craft enterprises.  Contrary to popular perception, this was not an era of “robber barons” cartelizing industry and causing mass impoverishment.  New employment opportunities in urban centers absorbed much of the labor force that was released from traditional modes of production.  Many voluntarily left the countryside in pursuit of wage employment in cities, which was becoming increasingly more remunerative compared to work in rural areas, even for property owners.  However, while economic growth through industrialization greatly increased living standards, it also entailed new and troubling social consequences.  The conspicuousness of new capitalist fortunes caused many to overlook the accompanying enrichment of workers, focusing instead on inequality.  For workers, mass wage employment was occasionally accompanied by mass unemployment, as the developing capitalist economic systems were subject to periodic but unpredictable recessions.  Factory employment often entailed long hours, uncomfortable conditions, and physical danger.  These unpleasantries were undoubtedly accounted for in workers’ wages.  But the moral and aesthetic concerns with society-wide ‘creative destruction,’ which changed the representative citizen from a poor yet propertied yeoman to a wealthier but less secure laborer, still attracted widespread attention.  Modern political movements, such as the Progressive movement, arose to combat these perceived ills.  That the cures these movements offered were often worse than the disease does not invalidate ethical reservations about industrial society.

Rerum novarum was the first papal encyclical to address these economic and political circumstances.  Addressing capital-labor relations specifically, Pope Leo councils that employees and employers each have rights and duties in service of social justice and the common good.  Workers must faithfully execute the tasks to which they have contractually agreed and refrain from individual and collective acts of violence against their employers.  Employers must pay workers a wage consistent with human dignity.   More generally, the encyclical strongly affirmed the Church’s commitment to recognizing the right of private property, but also cautioned that this right was not absolute.  The state has both the right and duty to regulate ownership and its attendant privileges in the interests of the common good.  At the level of economic and political systems, the Church does not mandate any specific sociopolitical regime, but strongly condemns both the coerced collectivism of socialism and the unbridled individualism of industrial capitalism.

Quadragesimo anno, issued forty years after Rerum novarum, elaborates on many of the former’s themes while also covering new ground.  Whereas Leo’s encyclical dealt primarily with capital-labor relations, with broader social conditions receiving relatively less emphasis, Pius brought moral evaluation of the political-economic order itself to the forefront.  Perhaps the most important contribution of this document is the principle of subsidiarity: the duty of higher-order communities, such as national governments, not to interfere with the operation of lower-order communities, such as families and local governments, without just cause.  In addition, Pius reaffirmed the importance of private property and condemned the totalitarian regimes that were developing in Europe at the time, and called for cooperation between social classes as a way to ameliorate conflict without infringing on man’s associational freedom.

The principles elucidated in these encyclicals continue to find expression in the Church’s teaching on the moral aspects of economics and politics.  Many have been explicitly incorporated into the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which summarizes Church doctrine and lays out the beliefs of the faithful.  The following exposition of Church teaching on political economy draws upon the relevant tenets specifically from the Catechism.  I intend the survey to be representative, but not exhaustive.  From this survey we will acquire a clear picture of the Church’s universal principles, which must be applied anew to the specific challenges confronting each society.


  1. Authority, Order, and the Common Good

Man is social by nature.  He becomes most fully himself when living in community.  “The human person needs to live in society. Society is not for him an extraneous addition but a requirement of his nature. Through the exchange with others, mutual service and dialogue with his brethren, man develops his potential; he thus responds to his vocation.”[5]  Importantly, society is not just an aggregate of individuals.  Forms of society at various levels of social distance, from the family to the state, are real, and are not reducible to the sum of their members.  “A society is a group of persons bound together organically by a principle of unity that goes beyond each one of them. As an assembly that is at once visible and spiritual, a society endures through time: it gathers up the past and prepares for the future.”[6]

A healthy civilization will be characterized by multiple societies, frequently overlapping.  In terms of helping persons to develop their potential and orienting them to their true good, these societies are complements, not substitutes.  “Certain societies, such as the family and the state, correspond more directly to the nature of man; they are necessary to him. To promote the participation of the greatest number in the life of a society, the creation of voluntary associations and institutions must be encouraged…This ‘socialization’ also expresses the natural tendency for human beings to associate with one another for the sake of attaining objectives that exceed individual capacities. It develops the qualities of the person, especially the sense of initiative and responsibility, and helps guarantee his rights.”[7]

Human communities bestow gifts on their members, but while these gifts are apparently gratuitous from the perspective of any one person, the communities that provide them require cultivation.  Thus the rights and duties attendant upon persons in society exist at a deeper level than those requiring explicit consent.  “By means of society, each man is established as an ‘heir’ and receives certain ‘talents’ that enrich his identity and whose fruits he must develop. He rightly owes loyalty to the communities of which he is part and respect to those in authority who have charge of the common good.”[8]  Loyalty to communities also requires loyalty to the authorities—those who give orders and expect obedience[9]—duly constituted to sustain those communities and advance their interests.  “Human society can be neither well-ordered nor prosperous unless it has some people invested with legitimate authority to preserve its institutions and to devote themselves as far as is necessary to work and care for the good of all.”[10]  Obviously, the Church herself is such an authority.  As the continuing presence of Christ in the Holy Spirit, the Church has a unique mission to uphold the natural and Divinely Revealed moral law.  Other sources of authority, with their own proper spheres, are the family and the state.

No authority is self-justifying.  Its rights depend on it upholding some good that the authority cannot define nor alter.  “Authority does not derive its moral legitimacy from itself. It must not behave in a despotic manner, but must act for the common good as a ‘moral force based on freedom and a sense of responsibility.’”[11]  Thus authority is only justified if it promotes the common good.  “By common good is to be understood ‘the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily.’ The common good concerns the life of all. It calls for prudence from each, and even more from those who exercise the office of authority.”[12]  Every human community possesses a common good.  A community’s common good is the essential factor that constitutes the community qua community.[13]

There are three chief elements of the common good.  First, the common good requires authorities to respect the fundamental rights all persons possess in virtue of their bearing the imago Dei: the image of God, and the source of intrinsic dignity.[14]  Second, the common good requires authorities to steward the community, preserving its interests by arbitrating disputes among members, giving each member of the group that which is their due, and reconciling each to the good of all.[15]  Third, the common good requires authorities to maintain peace and order in society, both within and between communities.[16]

Closely linked with authority and the common good is the concept of social justice.  This idea often draws opprobrium from those who otherwise honor the Church’s principles of communitarian personalism.  But this is due to the perversion of the concept resulting from decades of misuse, stemming ultimately from divorcing social justice from its theistic and ecclesiastic roots.  “Society ensures social justice when it provides the conditions that allow associations or individuals to obtain what is their due, according to their nature and their vocation.”[17]  An important tenet of social justice is the promotion of solidarity, which can also be thought of as “social charity.”[18]  Solidarity is an implication of respecting persons’ rights qua persons.  It also, in part, derives its importance from its necessary role in ameliorating social conflict. “Socio-economic problems can be resolved only with the help of all the forms of solidarity: solidarity of the poor among themselves, between rich and poor, of workers among themselves, between employers and employees in a business, solidarity among nations and peoples.”[19]  Respecting rights and pacifying social tension require, first and foremost, giving to each their due.  Social justice is thus not a repudiation, but an extension, of the fundamental tenet of justice dating back to classical antiquity.  This is why social justice inherently concerns “the distribution of goods and remuneration for work.”[20]  Social justice is the link between the Church’s teaching on authority, order, and the common good and her teaching on the proper organization of economic and political life.


  1. The Bounty of Creation: Order in Economy

The cornerstone of the Church’s teaching on economic matters is the universal destination of human goods.  The earth and its bounty were created by God for the whole of humanity.  Enjoyment of the fruits of creation is man’s right.  However, the universal destination of human goods does not preclude private property.[21]  In fact, the Church has always affirmed that “the appropriation of property is legitimate for guaranteeing the freedom and dignity of persons and for helping each of them to meet his basic needs and the needs of those in his charge. It should allow for a natural solidarity to develop between men.”[22]  Ownership is both permitted and encouraged.  But the rights of ownership are circumscribed by the natural and Revealed moral law.  “Goods of production – material or immaterial – such as land, factories, practical or artistic skills, oblige their possessors to employ them in ways that will benefit the greatest number. Those who hold goods for use and consumption should use them with moderation, reserving the better part for guests, for the sick and the poor.”[23]  Economic rights are properly under the purview of political authorities, whose duty it is to regulate the legitimate use of these rights in the interests of social justice and the common good.[24]

The Church is insistent that economic issues cannot be isolated from moral issues.  The production and distribution of goods is ultimately a moral enterprise whose goal is human flourishing.  Economic rights, including rights of property, are properly subordinated to this end.  For example, the Church forbids theft, meaning the use of property against the reasonable will of the owner.  However, “[t]here is no theft if…refusal [of the use of property] is contrary to reason and the universal destination of goods. This is the case in obvious and urgent necessity when the only way to provide for immediate, essential needs (food, shelter, clothing…) is to put at one’s disposal and use the property of others.”[25]  Property rights are similarly restricted in the interests of the common good by declaring the following illicit: paying unjust wages, taking advantage of another’s hardship or ignorance, attempting to manipulate the market, corrupting the judgment of those who make legal decisions, evading taxes, and spending wastefully.[26]

As part of its teachings on private property, the Church recognizes the importance of respecting contracts.  “Promises must be kept and contracts strictly observed to the extent that the commitments made in them are morally just. A significant part of economic and social life depends on the honoring of contracts between physical or moral persons – commercial contracts of purchase or sale, rental or labor contracts. All contracts must be agreed to and executed in good faith.”[27]  As with other property rights, contractual rights are viewed primarily through the lens of justice.  “Contracts are subject to commutative justice which regulates exchanges between persons in accordance with a strict respect for their rights. Commutative justice obliges strictly; it requires safeguarding property rights, paying debts, and fulfilling obligations freely contracted. Without commutative justice, no other form of justice is possible…”[28]

Respect for property and contracts thus derives from the rights due to all persons in virtue of their dignity.  Because of this property rights or contractual arrangements that infringe on human dignity are not permissible.  Forbidden are “acts or enterprises that for any reason – selfish or ideological, commercial, or totalitarian – lead to the enslavement of human beings, to their being bought, sold and exchanged like merchandise, in disregard for their personal dignity. It is a sin against the dignity of persons and their fundamental rights to reduce them by violence to their productive value or to a source of profit.”[29]  Likewise, economic rights must be constituted to recognize the integrity of creation itself.  Man is a steward of the earth, not its master.  “Animals, like plants and inanimate beings, are by nature destined for the common good of past, present, and future humanity. Use of the mineral, vegetable, and animal resources of the universe cannot be divorced from respect for moral imperatives. Man’s dominion over inanimate and other living beings granted by the Creator is not absolute; it is limited by concern for the quality of life of his neighbor, including generations to come; it requires a religious respect for the integrity of creation.”[30]

The Church’s circumscription of economic rights has several implications for the purpose and limit of economic activity more generally.  “The development of economic activity and growth in production are meant to provide for the needs of human beings. Economic life is not meant solely to multiply goods produced and increase profit or power; it is ordered first of all to the service of persons, of the whole man, and of the entire human community. Economic activity, conducted according to its own proper methods, is to be exercised within the limits of the moral order, in keeping with social justice so as to correspond to God’s plan for man.”[31]  This contributes to a unique perspective on the rights and duties of labor.  Man has a duty to work—as St. Paul wrote, “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat,”[32]—but labor is neither curse nor drudgery.  Through labor man cooperates with God in the continual unfolding of creation.[33]  It must be remembered that work is not just a duty, but a right.  “Everyone has the right of economic initiative; everyone should make legitimate use of his talents to contribute to the abundance that will benefit all and to harvest the just fruits of his labor.”[34]  The spiritual dimension of work is at least as important as the economic.  Ora et labora—prayer and work—have always been linked in the Church’s tradition.

Owning and operating a business is also a legitimate form of work.  Just as employees have rights and duties, so do employers.  While employers “have an obligation to consider the good of persons and not only the increase of profits,” the Church recognizes that profits are both essential and proper in economic life.  “Profits are necessary…They make possible the investments that ensure the future of a business and they guarantee employment.”[35]  The rights of profit are tempered by the duty to pay just wages.  “A just wage is the legitimate fruit of work. To refuse or withhold it can be a grave injustice. In determining fair pay both the needs and the contributions of each person must be taken into account. ‘Remuneration for work should guarantee man the opportunity to provide a dignified livelihood for himself and his family on the material, social, cultural and spiritual level, taking into account the role and the productivity of each, the state of the business, and the common good.’ Agreement between the parties is not sufficient to justify morally the amount to be received in wages.”[36]

Another important principle of the Church is special concern for the poor.  Efforts to ameliorate poverty are an ancient tradition of God’s people dating back to the Old Testament welfare laws: the jubilee for the forgiveness of debts, the ban on usury, the wages of day laborers, and the right to glean fields and vines.[37]  But the Church is concerned for more than material poverty.  The preferential option for the poor “extends not only to material poverty but also to the many forms of cultural and religious poverty.”[38]  These other forms of oppression that afflict the poor are just as concerning as material poverty.  “‘In its various forms – material deprivation, unjust oppression, physical and psychological illness and death – human misery is the obvious sign of the inherited condition of frailty and need for salvation in which man finds himself as a consequence of original sin. This misery elicited the compassion of Christ the Savior, who willingly took it upon himself and identified himself with the least of his brethren.”[39]  Providing for the poor is not only an act of mercy.  It is an act of justice.  As St. John Chrysostom argued, “Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life. [sic] the goods we possess are not ours, but theirs.”[40]  Love for the poor also requires an appropriate attitude towards created goods on the part of those who would give.  However much one donates, one cannot love the poor while also immoderately partaking of wealth in one’s personal life.[41]


  1. The Responsibilities of Authority: Order in Polity

How goods and services are produced and distributed depends on the institutions that govern economic life.  Thus production and distribution are not autonomous, but under the direction of various authorities, including political authority.  “‘Economic activity, especially the activity of a market economy, cannot be conducted in an institutional, juridical, or political vacuum. On the contrary, it presupposes sure guarantees of individual freedom and private property, as well as a stable currency and efficient public services. Hence the principal task of the state is to guarantee this security, so that those who work and produce can enjoy the fruits of their labors and thus feel encouraged to work efficiently and honestly…. Another task of the state is that of overseeing and directing the exercise of human rights in the economic sector.”[42]  Achieving moral order in the economy requires achieving moral order in the polity.

But this is easier said than done.  The Church recognizes that those in authority often fall prey to the trappings of power.  This has been particularly dangerous since early modernity and the rise of the centralized state.  With the relative weakening of other sources of authority, additional duties to maintain the common good have fallen to the state.  But excessive state intervention, a perpetual temptation by those who wield government power, can trespass on human dignity  In response, “the teaching of the Church has elaborated the principle of subsidiarity, according to which ‘a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to co-ordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good.’”[43]  When families and civic organizations can solve social problems, government ought not to interfere.  If a public sector response is necessary, it ought to occur at the most feasible local level.  National government should only intervene if lower-order communities are inadequate to the task, and if it can implement a solution that respects human dignity and upholds the common good.

Subsidiarity also places bounds on the range of permissible political orders.  “The principle of subsidiarity is opposed to all forms of collectivism. It sets limits for state intervention.”[44]  Totalitarian states, with their forced socialization and regimentation, are irreconcilable with the Church’s teachings on authority and the common good.  “‘The Church has rejected the totalitarian and atheistic ideologies associated in modem times with “communism” or “socialism.’”[45]  In addition, the Church does not approve regimes that implicitly substitute the moral order for whatever order happens to be generated by the market.  “She has likewise refused to accept, in the practice of ‘capitalism,’ individualism and the absolute primacy of the law of the marketplace over human labor.”[46]  The Church can tolerate from political authorities neither tyranny nor passivity.  “Regulating the economy solely by centralized planning perverts the basis of social bonds; regulating it solely by the law of the marketplace fails social justice…Reasonable regulation of the marketplace and economic initiatives, in keeping with a just hierarchy of values and a view to the common good, is to be commended.”[47]  But beyond this the Church pronounces no dogma; she does not make specific positive sociopolitical mandates.  “‘If authority belongs to the order established by God, ‘the choice of the political regime and the appointment of rulers are left to the free decision of the citizens.’ The diversity of political regimes is morally acceptable, provided they serve the legitimate good of the communities that adopt them. Regimes whose nature is contrary to the natural law, to the public order, and to the fundamental rights of persons cannot achieve the common good of the nations on which they have been imposed.’”[48]


  1. Conclusion

“The Church receives from the Gospel the full revelation of the truth about man. When she fulfills her mission of proclaiming the Gospel, she bears witness to man, in the name of Christ, to his dignity and his vocation to the communion of persons. She teaches him the demands of justice and peace in conformity with divine wisdom.”[49]  The Church’s possession of the truth entitles her to make moral judgments about economic and political life.  Whatever the physical and social sciences discover about human behavior as it pertains to these spheres, the Church retains its right to teach and guide.  This does not obviate the need for political authority, however.  “In the moral order she bears a mission distinct from that of political authorities: the Church is concerned with the temporal aspects of the common good because they are ordered to the sovereign Good, our ultimate end. She strives to inspire right attitudes with respect to earthly goods and in socio-economic relationships.”[50]  The Church’s social teaching “proposes principles for reflection; it provides criteria for judgment; it gives guidelines for action…”[51]  These doctrines are not ideologies.  The Church commands neither a specific economic system for the production and distribution of goods, nor a political system for governing nations.  In her capacity as teacher and guide, the Church actively promotes solidarity between society’s classes and interests, for the betterment of each and all.[52]  In these roles, the Church serves as the guardian of human dignity, on guard against economic or political forces that, if left unchecked, result in persons reducing others to means, instead of honoring them as ends in themselves.

[1] Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, “Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church,” 2004.  Available online:

[2] Pope Leo XIII, “Rerum Novarum: Encyclical of Pope Leo XIII on Capital and Labor,” 1891.  Available online:

[3] Pope Pius XI, “Quadragesimo Anno: Encyclical of Pope Pius XI on Reconstruction of Social Order,” 1931.  Available online:

[4] “The social doctrine of the Church developed in the nineteenth century when the Gospel encountered modern industrial society with its new structures for the production of consumer goods, its new concept of society, the state and authority, and its new forms of labor and ownership. the [sic] development of the doctrine of the Church on economic and social matters attests the permanent value of the Church’s teaching at the same time as it attests the true meaning of her Tradition, always living and active.”  Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2421.

[5] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1879.

[6] Ibid, 1880.

[7] Ibid, 1882.

[8] Supra note 5.

[9] Ibid, 1897.

[10] Supra note 8.

[11] Ibid, 1902.

[12] Ibid, 1906.

[13] Ibid, 1910.

[14] Ibid, 1907.

[15] Ibid, 1908.

[16] Ibid, 1909.

[17] Ibid, 1928.

[18] Ibid, 1939.

[19] Ibid, 1941.

[20] Ibid, 1940.

[21] Ibid, 2401.

[22] Ibid, 2402.

[23] Ibid, 2405.

[24] Ibid, 2406.

[25] Ibid, 2408.

[26] Ibid, 2409.

[27] Ibid, 2410.

[28] Ibid, 2411.  On the several classifications of justice, the Church adds the following: “One distinguishes commutative justice from legal justice which concerns what the citizen owes in fairness to the community, and from distributive justice which regulates what the community owes its citizens in proportion to their contributions and needs.”

[29] Ibid, 2414.

[30] Ibid, 2415.

[31] Ibid, 2426.

[32] 2 Thessalonians 3:10.

[33] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2427.

[34] Ibid, 2429.

[35] Ibid, 2432.

[36] Ibid, 2434.

[37] Ibid, 2449.

[38] Ibid, 2444.

[39] Ibid, 2448.

[40] Ibid, 2446.

[41] Cf. James 5:1-6; Matthew 6:24; Catechism of the Catholic Church 2445.

[42] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2431.

[43] Ibid, 1883.

[44] Ibid, 1885.

[45] Ibid, 2425.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Ibid.

[48] Ibid, 1901.

[49] Ibid, 2419.

[50] Ibid, 2420.

[51] Ibid, 2423.

[52] Supra note 19.