Catholic Social Teaching and current economics

There is a problem in understanding on the part of economists, the Catholic Social Teaching as well as the proposals derived from it.

Any scholar realizes that the social teaching regards ethical issues, while it does not propose economic models: however, at first sight,   it could appear that, many proposals, if applied, would not give the desired result, but produce an opposite effect. The economists fail to understand why there is a separation between the principles enunciated by the Catholic Social Teaching and the current economic theories.

The Italian economist Luigi Pasinetti has dealt with the issue, saying in his final reflections that we should reach some conclusions that can not be incompatible with each other.

Let us point out some points that need to be examined deeply.

  1. The emphasis on income distribution without attention to the production of the same income; perhaps, instead of insisting on inequalities, it would be better to insist on the need for a decent standard of living for the most disadvantaged, leaving the distribution to the natural adjustement of the economic system. Otherwise we are at risk of fighting the wealth instead of fighting poverty.
  2. The concept of “sobriety” which definitely has a great ethical value but, when actually enforced, would have a negative effect on the economies, thereby exacerbating the problems supposed to be solved: in other words, the risk is reduction in consumption and consequently in production, with a general impoverishment that would help no one.  Also the assumption that sobriety is to be pursued as a free choice is ethically important, albeit not fully realistic: we must consider that forcing everyone to a lower level of well-being, can be the cause of a higher rate of social conflict and the consequent recourse to more widespread coercion.
  3. Paradoxically, the same could be done by limiting food waste: the ethical imperative cannot be denied, however, unless we put in place an extremely expensive and well organized assistance programme, not a gram of food saved shall actually  be donated to those who are in a state of destitution that, in most cases, is not due to lack of food, but to lack the means to purchase it. Reducing waste does not, in itself, transfer any income to those who are poorer; the risk of any assistance programme is that the costs outweigh the benefits.

Luigi Pasinetti has discussed in detail the topic, stating in its final reflections that “when considering or reviewing or investigating the same phenomenon from different points of view, it makes perfect sense that we can come to different conclusions or observations or reflections. These can not, however, be incompatible with each other. Indeed, common sense and reason would want them to be complementary. ”

He highlights the limits and the current problems of economics, leaving to the theologians to deal with the incompatibilities and concludung that “economic theory is going through a very critical period, which really requires a strict and radical reconsideration of its foundations. ”

It is not the task of the economist to say whether economic development is good or evil, it’s for the politicians in charge to decide for a static or dynamic economy, while the  task of the economist is to specify the conditions that must be met to implement the choice, as well as the impediments.

In my opinion, a substantial part of the incompatibility we are speaking about is due to pure semantic issues, which deserve to be examined more closely.

Gianluca di Castri, March, 2016

Further readings

  • Sergio Ricossa, Impariamo l’economia, Rubbettino, 2012
  • Amartya Sen, Lo sviluppo è libertà, Mondadori, 2000
  • Luigi Pasinetti – Dottrina Sociale della Chiesa e Teoria Economica – VII Simposio internazionale dei docenti universitari organizzato dal Vicariato di Roma – 24/06/2010
  • Luigi Pasinetti, Growth and Income Distribution, Cambridge University Press, 1974
  • Thomas E. Woods junior, the Church and the Market, Lexington, 2005
  • Michael Novak, L’etica cattolica e lo spirito del capitalismo, Edizioni di Comunità, 1994
  • Luca Simonetti, Contro la decrescita, Longanesi, 2014
  • Jeffrey Sachs, the End of Poverty, Penguin, 2005
  • Branko Milanovic, The inequality possibility frontier: the extensions and new applications, World Bank, 2013
  • Piketty, Disuguaglianze, Università Bocconi Editore, 2014
  • Rawls, a Theory of Justice, Harvard University Press, 1971


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