Modern Catholic social teaching began in earnest with Leo XIII at the end of the 19th century. For a hundred years and more, that noble and oft neglected tradition has been reacting to events in the world that threaten human dignity and rights. Communism and fascism have been condemned, laissez-faire capitalism’s exploitation of the worker has been condemned, and the need for justice in the marketplace has been affirmed. Basic principles such as subsidiarity have been put forward. Yet the tradition of Catholic social teaching since the onset of the modern industrial age has essentially been a matter of reaction. In other words, the evils of these modern ideologies have been criticized but little in the way of an intelligible reconstruction of the social and economic order has emerged from Catholic thinkers.
The exception is Bernard Lonergan, who worked on economics during the Great Depression and again in the 1970’s. In a 1973 lecture on the need for evangelization to be more engaged with the problems of this world, he commented,
Cardinal Danielou speaks of the poor. It is a worthy topic, but I feel that the basic step in aiding them in a notable manner is a matter of spending one’s nights and days in a deep and prolonged study of economic analysis.
At my age and given my mathematically challenged education, I won’t be following Lonergan’s advice. But there are many scientifically and/or mathematically trained Catholics who take Catholic Social Teaching seriously but who feel helpless in the face of the complexities of the world’s economic problems. It’s easy to spot the instances of greed or the moneyed interests that control governments, but in Lonergan’s view, real solutions to economic failure are to be found only in the long haul, and that means understanding how the economy works (and, in most cases, doesn’t). And when it doesn’t work, many people suffer, especially the poor.
Lonergan’s work is notoriously difficult but there is help available. I’ll mention just one book that I found readable for a beginner in economic theory: Stephen Martin, Healing and Creativity in Economic Ethics: The Contribution of Bernard Lonergan’s Economic Thought to Catholic Social Teaching. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2008.
Lonergan’s own writing can be found in The Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan, ed. Frederick E. Crowe and Robert M. Doran, vol. 21, For a New Political Economy, ed. Philip McShane (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998) and vol. 15, Macroeconomic Dynamics: An Essay in Circulation Analysis, ed. Frederick Lawrence, Charles Hefling and Patrick Byrne (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999).
Without an adequate understanding of how the economy actually works (and why it so often fails), the Christian’s mandate to help the poor will largely be a matter of reacting with charity to problems that can seem so intractable as to be like gravity: nothing really to do about it in the long run. Principles and broad generalizations (“justice for workers” or “the right to private property”) won’t get the job done. The attention that Pope Francis has directed to global financial and economic distortions is an opportunity to consider how those who have the appropriate gifts might respond and not just react to the crises and challenges of the present day.
David Hammond teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.
 Bernard Lonergan, Philosophical and Theological Papers 1965-1980, Collected Works Volume 17 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004), 280.