Neither Charity Nor Truth, Part 3: The Attack on Classical Liberalism

August 14, 2009

by Mario Rizzo  

In this final installment of my analysis of the papal encyclical letter Caritas in Veritate I turn my attention to Benedict XVI’s positive ideas on globalization.  (I put the encyclical section numbers in parentheses.)  

Do not expect clear-cut statements or precise recommendations for policy. Do not even expect consistency. (There are actually some good parts as in Sections 57 and 58.)  

The encyclical bears the mark of a committee’s work, presumably approved by the pope. There are individual sections that stress different, and contrary, attitudes so it is difficult to come away with a clear picture. Anyone looking for real guidance will have to seek it elsewhere.  

Nevertheless, a certain grand vision is revealed about society. The pope seems to be an enemy of the idea of beneficial spontaneous ordering forces. He sees phenomena like globalization as subject to management. He is a strong advocate of the end-state idea of justice. Income distribution, foreign investment levels, working conditions and so forth can be adjusted if we don’t like outcomes produced in the market. Of course, in all of this he still pays a certain respect to the market. The pope is aware that full socialism cannot work.  

Yet in a thinly-veiled attack on classical liberalism, the pope says:  

“In the course of history, it was often maintained that the creation of institutions was sufficient to guarantee the fulfillment of humanity’s right to development. Unfortunately, too much confidence was placed in those institutions, as if they were able to deliver the desired objective automatically” (11).  

Contracts and “commutative justice” are not enough. (Incidentally, the pope thinks that exchange is between value-equivalents (35). This is an elementary economic error.)  

Commercial life needs to be directed toward the common good (36). The common good seems to a form of distributive justice. It can be achieved through “political action.” “Grave imbalances” come about when economic agents are motivated only by “purely selfish ends.”  To replace the selfish motivation we must adopt a “principle of gratuitousness” which seems to be direct concern for the betterment of the condition of all stakeholders, and not just the owners of the firm (40). No invisible hand here.  

None of this is restricted to the voluntary sphere. In fact, concern with political action to achieve social goals is part of the Church’s “citizenship status” (56). The Church will not be limited simply to good works and teaching.  

The Church is also concerned with the environment. We need “responsible stewardship over nature” (50) and justice toward future generations in the ecological sphere (48). The pope seems to be saying that we need to “coexist” with nature. All this argues for a kind of “balanced” use of resources. But the pope does not tell us what the balancing principle is. How should we determine the value of resource use or its cost? I doubt he would want to incorporate a willingness-to-pay principle. The platitudes are exasperating.  

Finally, the pope believes that religion should have a role in government. Governments should not treat the various religions indifferently or engage in a practical atheism. Not all religions are equal. We can, of course, accept that the pope would think that. However,  

“Discernment is needed regarding the contribution of cultures and religions, especially on the part of those who wield political power, if the social community is to be built up in a spirit of respect for the common good. Such discernment has to be based on the criterion of charity and truth. Since the development of persons and peoples is at stake, this discernment will have to take account of the need for emancipation and inclusivity, in the context of a truly universal human community. “The whole man and all men” is also the criterion for evaluating cultures and religions. Christianity, the religion of the “God who has a human face” contains this very criterion within itself“(55). Emphasis added. 

What does this mean? Well, it is definitely not clear. I imagine what it means is that the church would be willing to exercise as much influence as it could get away with politically. But at the very least, the family, marriage, procreation should all be actively encouraged by the state. And definitely no unconventional forms of marriage are permitted or abortions or artificial birth control when that is practical.  

I cannot here go through point-by-point showing what is wrong with all of this. That is really not my aim today. But I do want to show the reader what kind of a document Benedict XVI has written. It is definitely not in the spirit of economic or social liberalism. It is a mixture of European social democracy and Catholic theocracy adjusted to modern political realities. Not my cup of tea. 

The pope needs good science to apply ethics. And sometimes good science shows us that the empirical implications of certain ethical maxims are really not consistent with more fundamental ethical principles. There is a lot to learn from the study of economics, for the moralist and policy-maker alike.  

Addendum:  Jean Baptiste Say: The “first book of ethics is a good treatise of political economy. …” Revue d’Histoire des Doctrines Economiques.

Part I: Here  

Part II: Here

5 Responses to “Neither Charity Nor Truth, Part 3: The Attack on Classical Liberalism”


  1. Dr. Rizzo writes,

    “The pope is aware that full socialism cannot work.”

    I gather that a papal argument against socialism would include an argument from the incentive problem of socialism. But I doubt that the Pope is aware of the Misesian economic calculation argument against socialism, which may help explain his errors in CiV.

  2. Mario Rizzo Says:

    Yes, I don’t think the pope has an understanding of the calculation problem. If he did, he would see the problems in thinking that the “principle of gratuitousness” could substitute (even in part) for profit-seeking.

  3. Michael Labeit Says:

    Doesn’t the economic calculation argument apply to interventionism as well? Socialism abolishes the market price system; interventionism distorts the market price system.

  4. Vichy Says:

    “Doesn’t the economic calculation argument apply to interventionism as well? Socialism abolishes the market price system; interventionism distorts the market price system.”
    That would be my own understanding.


  5. […] part is about the destructive influence of the encyclical. The second part is about globalization. The third part is about the attack on classical […]


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