Theology at the Service of the Economy





The theologian must serve the economy.

This is perhaps a controversial statement, but I assert that it is true.  Too often a mutual suspicion or antipathy between moralists and businessmen, theologians and economists, clouds the fact that they share much in common.  There is a recognition of limits, common striving for the satisfaction of human need, the alleviation of suffering, and the promotion of the commonweal.  At Catholic universities, both departments of theology and economics contribute to the intellectual life of the campus in indispensable ways.  Then why is one the divine science and the other the dismal science?  How must the theologian serve the economy and its science of economics?

The so-called dismal science is not in itself an ignoble intellectual pursuit.  It is a necessary and practical social science that aims, by nearly all textbook definitions, to serve the common good.  Theology itself does not see an intrinsic conflict of interests with economics; for the root of the very word has connotations of stewardship, a proper human role and responsibility easily drawn from Genesis 1 and 2.  However, for as many textbooks that like to quote the “common good” as a goal in its definition of their science, there are equal numbers that are wont to distinguish between positive and normative economics.  In my very own text from undergraduate studies, Nobel laureate Paul A. Samuelson writes “Warning: In thinking about economic questions, we must distinguish questions of fact from questions of fairness.  Positive economics describes the facts of an economy, while normative economics involves value judgments.”  (Paul Samuelson and William Nordhaus, Economics,16th Ed., Boston: McGraw Hill, 1998 [8]).  The distinction between the two allows economists to run ahead under the purview of positive economics and concern themselves with what can be done instead of reflecting in conversation with the households of America on what ought to be done.  That is the truly dismal aspect of the science.

Now there are compelling reasons to tolerate the prevailing distinction between positive and normative economics.  If this distinction is to be maintained then [positive] economists must sincerely collaborate not only with politicians and private interests, but with their true counterparts: normative economists—ethicists and moral theologians cross-trained in economics and the political economy.  This kind of interdisciplinary collaboration and consultation has roots as deep as the modern university system.  John Henry Newman writes on the necessary relationship between theology and economics in The Idea of a University:

Political Economy is the science, I suppose, of wealth,–a science simply lawful and useful, for it is no sin to make money, any more than it is a sin to seek honour; a science at the same time dangerous and leading to all occasions of sin, as is the pursuit of honour too; and in consequence, if studied by itself, and apart from the control of Revealed Truth, sure to conduct a speculator to unchristian conclusions. (John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University, Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982 [64-5])

We have been made little less than gods, and without the proper disposition and perspective that moral theology provides to economics, as well as other social sciences, we can too easily displace our true End with the imperfect image of the End.  The bishops of the Second Vatican Council recognized this as well and echo Newman’s point, stating, “[t]herefore, economic activity is to be carried out in accordance with techniques and methods belonging to the moral order, so that God’s design for humanity may be carried out” (Gaudium et Spes, 64).  God’s design for humanity requires not only descriptive understanding, but prescriptive as well.

At present, even in many Catholic universities, economics departments across the country fail to incorporate a sense of normative/ethical discernment as part of their pedagogical philosophy and collegial mission.  There remains the suspicion that prescriptive judgments from theologians and ethicists would bias the scientific possibilities of modern economics.  Likewise, theology departments and their members harangue the application of economics in public policy and the private sector, but have scant practical alternatives to propose on their own.  The Jesuit theologian Bernard Lonergan, who wrote several technical papers on macroeconomics himself, stated:

From economic theorists we have to demand, along with as many types of analysis as they please, a new and specific type that reveals how moral precepts have both a basis in economic process and so effective applications to it.  From moral theorists we have to demand, along with their other various forms of wisdom and prudence, specifically economic precepts that arise out of economic process itself and promote its proper functioning. (Bernard Lonergan, “Healing and Creating in History” in Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan v. 15 – Macroeconomic Dynamics: An Essay in Circulation Analysis, Toronto: U. of Toronto Press, 1999 [105])

Economists and theologians must recognize a partnership in common goals for the common good  Only then can they together ply their trades and techniques for rational, practical solutions beyond ideology that are truly moral and truly economical.

Just over a month ago the American public witnessed the first images and statements from a then-small protest movement residing in Zuccotti Park, New York City calling itself Occupy Wall Street.  This self-proclaimed “leaderless resistance movement with people of many colors, genders and political persuasions” states that “the one thing [they] all have in common is that ‘We Are The 99% that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1%’.”  The grossly disproportionate distribution of wealth in the United States that has galvanized this disparate group should prompt us to ask deeper questions as to the nature of our national economy, its players, and its architects.  Regardless of the haziness in the goal of Occupy Wall Street, it is clear that something is awry.  What is needed now is cooperation and collaboration between those with the skills to analyze the way things are and those with the wisdom to see the way things ought to be.  The world needs economists who are theologians and theologians who are economists.  Barring that, the theologian must serve the economy without being enslaved to it.

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