By Conor Kelly
Five years ago yesterday, Pope Benedict XVI officially signed the most recent social teaching encyclical, Caritas in Veritate. This fact is itself significant because Caritas in Veritate would be seven years old this year if it had been published as originally intended in 2007, when it was supposed to mark the 40th anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s Populorum Progressio. Instead, the encyclical is only a kindergartner, still two years away from its first communion because of the advent of the global financial crisis in 2007.
While the two-year gap was undoubtedly frustrating at the time (imagine rewriting a paper for two years…or if you’re a doctoral candidate, perhaps you don’t have to imagine), it resulted in a better reading of the proverbial “signs of the times” in 2009 and thus greater pertinence for today. Nowhere is this more true than in the encyclical’s critique of the “malfunctions and dramatic problems” of the global market economy (CV 21). An incisive diagnosis of the structural issues behind the ongoing economic crisis, this critique and its accompanying vision of a more moral economy remains just as sorely needed now as it was five years ago.
In some respects, this is disheartening. The continued relevance of the encyclical’s challenge implies that not much has changed. Certainly, there is evidence for this assessment here in the United States: almost 10 million jobseekers remain unemployed, most of the “recovery” has gone to corporate coffers, and income inequality and wealth inequality have reached alarming heights.
Given these realities, it seems that the pursuit of profit “by improper means and without the common good as its ultimate end” (CV 21) is still very much a problem. This situation reveals that the realization of “authentically human social relationships of friendship, solidarity and reciprocity…within economic activity” (CV 36) remains a long way off. Or, to put it succinctly, the vision of a less cutthroat and more human marketplace found in Catholic social teaching (see CV 35-41) is hardly any closer now than it was in 2009.
In the midst of this darkness, however, there is a glimmer of hope. A new report from the Brookings Institution by Morley Winograd and Michael Hais indicates that Millennials, who are about to become the next generation of workers in the US, are much more amenable to the kinds of changes Catholic social teaching has advocated for the economy.
Specifically, Millennials are considerably more likely than their predecessors to prefer companies that have a social mission over ones that seek strictly to maximize their profits, something Catholic social teaching expressly advocates (CV 40). Moreover, this inclination appears both in Millennials’ spending habits (89% say buying from a socially responsible company is important to them) and in their job searches (63% say working for a socially responsible company is important to them). In fact, the study found that nearly two-thirds of Millennials (64%) would take a job they loved over a less stimulating one that provided 2.5 times the salary.
Additionally, Millennials readily agree with Benedict XVI’s concerns about what Catholic social teaching has called “the scandal of glaring inequalities” (CV 22). A significant majority of Millennials (83%) expressed the belief that large corporations wield too much power in society, and every one of the big four banks made it into a list of the bottom ten least loved brands. In a telling statistic, the Brookings report notes that Teach for America was more popular than financial giant Goldman Sachs among graduating seniors at two prestigious Ivy League schools in 2011.
All of this is a good sign for Catholic social teaching.
For a long time, Catholic social teaching convictions—like the belief that “without internal forms of solidarity and mutual trust, the market cannot completely fulfil its proper economic function” (CV 35, original emphasis)—have received little support in the wider US culture. Now, though, Millennials are providing fertile ground for a fresh reception, and their influence is growing as demographics shift. For this reason, Winograd and Hais predict that “the entire edifice of corporate governance constructed on the idea of only maximizing shareholder value will come crashing down and a new foundation for American corporations, built on trust and the values and beliefs of Millennials will arise in its place” (p. 18).
If this should happen, then there might finally be a recognition that “business activity has a human significance, prior to its professional one” (CV 41). There might be an introduction of “an ethics which is people-centered” into economic life, such that “the whole economy—the whole of finance—[will be] ethical, not merely by virtue of an external label, but by its respect for requirements intrinsic to its very nature” (CV 45). There might, at long last, be a reversal of “the iron clad belief in the way-things-are that excludes moral discernment of any kind,” which Heather DuBois previously identified as an obstacle to ethical reform in economic life. And, there just might be a form of enterprise that looks a lot more like the “economy of communion” promoted by Chiara Lubich than the “economy of exclusion” condemned by Pope Francis. In other words, the Catholic social teaching ideal of an economy that embraces the inherent dignity of each person made in the image of God (CV 45) and protects the environment (CV 48-50) might one day become business as usual.
Of course, there is no guarantee that any of these changes will come to pass. There are signs, however, that the seeds have been sown for a greater solidarity in economic life, and that’s a pretty good birthday gift for a document that hasn’t even reached the “age of reason.”
Conor Kelly is a Ph.D. candidate in theological ethics at Boston College, where he is finishing his dissertation on the theology and ethics of work and leisure.