This essay is part of our collection on common good economics. Read related pieces here.  

At a time when the world desperately needs the Church’s social teaching, too many of our academics and public intellectuals lack discernment when it comes to applying such teaching. Rather than creating barriers between public knowledge and Church teaching, we should be integrating the two. All truth, after all, is God’s truth. But how should we successfully integrate public knowledge with Catholic social teaching? It helps to start with what we have learned in the last century.

The Twentieth Century Contest

In their 1998 book The Commanding Heights, Daniel Yergin and Joseph Stanislaw described the twentieth century as a competition between two theories about how to organize society. Roughly half the human race was subjected to command economies, in which political and economic power were concentrated in a centralized state. Another large segment of the human race—especially in the Anglosphere, Japan, Singapore, and Western Europe—enjoyed limited government, rule of law, and private property rights, with independent businesses and civil institutions that were meaningfully separate from the state.

The “command” hypothesis claimed to be based on economic “science.” It reached its purest form in the Soviet Union and Communist China. Many thought the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990 decisively refuted socialist promises to create just and prosperous societies. Globally, communism led to the deaths of at least 100 million people, and it left cultural and environmental devastation in its wake.

In contrast, free economies were far more successful at eradicating absolute poverty and protecting widespread religious and political freedom. The freest economies were (and are) generally the most prosperous and allocate resources most efficiently.

At the same time, most countries in Central and South America and in Africa could not be described as being either free or socialist. Nor do they offer a positive alternative. Most have languished for decades in economic, political, and environmental dysfunction. Across South America, islands of urban wealth exist amid seas of poverty and degradation. Corruption, lack of property rights, and an unhealthy collusion between government and business have frozen these human- and resource-rich societies in amber. Billions still suffer from varying degrees of material poverty. This is especially tragic since we now know that formerly moribund command economies can emerge from absolute poverty, allowing their citizens to create new wealth by opening their markets to competition and innovation.

In the last thirty years, Eastern Europe and China have opened their economies, and their citizens have benefited as a result. Economic reforms in India have allowed hundreds of millions of Indians to emerge from absolute poverty. The International Monetary Fund estimates that some two billion people have emerged from absolute poverty in the last three decades. In the past thirty-six years, global poverty rates have dropped 80 percent, even as the human population has grown by more than three billion. We know why: increasing economic freedom in the form of expanded trade, the growth of entrepreneurship, developments in technology, protection of private property coupled with the rule of law, and access to capital and investment.

But in response to such economic growth, another widespread concern has grown: the natural environment. Many have argued that an increasing population spells doom for our planet and other living species. They assume that the development of some nations will come at the expense of other nations and the environment. If we want to save the earth, they insist, we must reject economic growth—including technological advances—and put strict limits on human reproduction.

But is the relationship between man and the environment really a zero-sum game? What if the needs of the growing human family can be met while also caring for the earth?

Growing evidence indicates that the most economically advanced societies are also the best able to care for the environment. As developing countries such as China and India become more prosperous, they are likely to grow cleaner and more efficient, following the pattern of other developed nations. As Pope Francis insists in Laudato Si, natural and human ecology are inextricably linked. Taking care of the human family should not come at the expense of the natural environment, or vice versa.

The Culture of Death and the Dictatorship of Relativism

But the most prosperous countries are also suffering. Despite these countries’ drastic reduction in poverty and a burgeoning commitment to environmental stewardship, the ideologies of secularism, materialism, and what Pope Benedict XVI called a “dictatorship of relativism” have swept the planet. Virtually no “advanced” country legally protects unborn human life. Marriage, the human family, and human nature itself are facing their greatest assault in history. The societies that have most enjoyed economic and political freedom are in danger of losing their religious freedom.

Perversely, many who defend economic freedom are deeply confused about the nature of the human person and the family. Many support what Saint John Paul II called the “culture of death.” Rather than seeing technology as an extension of the imago dei, many see technology and wealth as the source of meaning and even their hope for immortality.

This is why the Church’s voice is desperately needed, not simply in the poorest and most dysfunctional regions of the world, but in the most prosperous and “advanced” societies as well. Only the Church can teach the proper place of man in the cosmos. Only the Church can properly place individuals, families, and societies within the natural order over which man has been given stewardship. The world needs to develop, in the words of St. John Paul II and Pope Francis, a truly human ecology. If Christ’s Body on Earth cannot make a compelling case for this, who can?

Catholic Social Teaching

During roughly the same period as these global economic “experiments,” Catholic social teaching developed. Beginning with Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum novarum (1891), our Holy Fathers have sought to apply the perennial truths of natural law and the Catholic faith to the concrete social conditions around them.

Despite this longstanding tradition, few Catholics understand or know how to apply the Church’s social teaching. Some claim that the Magisterium proposes a detailed political program that constitutes a “third way” between capitalism and socialism. This is not without foundation. One can find detailed claims in encyclicals about private property, unionization, foreign aid, and wage and employment policies, as well as critiques of socialism, capitalism, and “neo-liberalism.”

Others treat these documents simply as ephemeral attempts by popes to speak about subjects on which they have no special authority or expertise. It is not hard, for instance, to find policy statements in Vatican II documents that now look obsolete or even mistaken. And claims about climate science and resource economics in Pope Francis’s recent encyclical Laudato Si have reignited worries that the papacy has over-extended itself and should avoid public policy issues altogether in favor of a purely “spiritual” message.

The better option is to see this century-old tradition as an attempt to apply certain authoritative principles rooted in Catholic theology and the natural law to changing social and economic conditions. These principles include the intrinsic dignity of the human person from conception to natural death, marriage and family as the fundamental units of society, the common good, subsidiarity, solidarity, reason and natural law, the right to private property, our stewardship of the natural world, and the universal destination of goods.

Framing matters in such ways is tricky, since apostolic letters and encyclicals are rarely limited to such principles. They also contain scientific and economic assumptions, and make positive assertions based on those assumptions. This means the laity can and should distinguish non-negotiable questions of “faith and morals” (over which the Magisterium has divinely protected authority) from the prudential application of those questions. On such application, the Magisterium has no special protection.

Tricky or not, this distinction is rooted in Catholic social teaching itself. In Centesimus Annus (1991) St. John Paul II insisted that “the Church has no models to present” and that “the Christian faith does not presume to imprison changing sociopolitical realities in a rigid schema.” In his 1987 encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, he wrote, “The church’s social doctrine is not a ‘third way’ between liberal capitalism and Marxist collectivism . . . rather it constitutes a category of its own.” Indeed, one will look in vain in any encyclical for a treatment of basic economic concepts such as supply and demand, the price function, marginal utility, arbitrage, comparative advantage, and so forth.

Most recently, in Laudato Si, Pope Francis reiterates “that the Church does not presume to settle scientific questions or to replace politics. But I am concerned,” he writes, “to encourage an honest and open debate so that particular interests or ideologies will not prejudice the common good.”

A Truly Human Ecology

Faithful Catholics in positions of influence are left with a staggering responsibility: to figure out how best to apply Catholic social teaching in real-world situations.

Such a task is not delivered to us prepackaged by the Magisterium. It is one thing to say that everyone should be protected from conception until natural death. It is quite another for a Catholic member of Congress to determine what policies achieve that, or for a Catholic doctor to decide whether a drug is an abortifacient. It is one thing to insist that we should be stewards of the environment. It is another thing for a Catholic oil company executive to figure out how best to develop and use energy resources, or for a Catholic scientist to figure out how sensitive the climate is to carbon dioxide. It is one thing to say that employers should treat their employees fairly. It is another thing to say that lower-income people will benefit from a hike in the legal minimum wage.

Unfortunately, there’s no shortage of well-meaning but misguided attempts to apply Catholic social teaching. Any such attempt that ignores our knowledge of how to reduce widespread poverty—through, for instance, the rule of law, property rights, economic freedom, and innovation—is at best deficient, if not harmful. Any environmental “solution” that fails to separate the empirical wheat from the ideological chaff in climate science and climate policy, or that treats economic growth and environmental protection as a zero-sum game, fails to offer a truly human ecology.

Many faithful Catholics who defend human life and the family fail to see the importance of economic freedom, trade, property rights, the rule of law, and entrepreneurship for eradicating poverty. And many lack discernment when endorsing environmental policies. As a result, they support policies that harm rather than help. In response, many astute observers conclude that the Church has, at best, good intentions but no real solutions to offer to the world’s problems.

Despite 125 years of Church teaching, we are still left with open, practical questions. Answering them will require an interdisciplinary effort at a time when the academy has never been more specialized and confined to disciplinary silos. It will entail teasing apart the discoveries of economics and other sciences from the ideologies that often work their way into these disciplines. It will mean distinguishing theories and evidence, abandoning flawed forms of analysis, and coming fully to terms with the results of economic and environmental science.

When he was the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Joseph Ratzinger called for such an effort:

A morality that believes itself able to dispense with the technical knowledge of economic laws is not morality but moralism. As such it is the antithesis of morality. A scientific approach that believes itself capable of managing without an ethos misunderstands the reality of man. Therefore, it is not scientific. Today we need a maximum of specialized economic understanding, but also a maximum of ethos so that specialized economic understanding may enter the service of the right goals.

The goal for thoughtful Catholics should be to integrate the discoveries and insights of economics and science with the principles of Catholic social teaching, and ultimately, with the natural moral law and revealed theology. Much of this work is still ahead. There’s not a moment to waste.