The Catholic Church has an unfortunate record on supporting active government intervention into the economy as a means of attempting to bring about a more equitable society. While denouncing socialism and communism by name, the Church has nevertheless lent its support to progressive economic policies and an expansive state to carry them out as a solution to poverty in both third world and developed countries. Within the United States in particular and across the world in general, the alliance between the left and the Church on economic issues has helped to destroy the concept of subsidiarity by transferring the care of the poor and vulnerable from an obligatory act of personal charity to the mere entitlement of a large social welfare state. In its attempt to bring about aid for the poor, these types of policies not only fail to produce a more just society, they have also led to the strengthening of a state apparatus with a social agenda that is counter to the Church’s moral beliefs.
The problem with the Church’s support for economic welfare policies such as (but not limited to) the ‘living wage’, ‘fair trade’, special collective bargaining rights is that it obfuscates the normative and positive elements of economics, and in doing so attempts to use desired moral outcomes to justify programs whose intentions are to bring that outcome about. As Tom Woods outlines in his book The Church and the Market, however, the Church’s authority to dictate desired social outcomes does not extend to declaring that certain coercive government programs are an effective way to bring them about.
With Pope Francis assuming the role as head of the Chruch, there are obvious questions about the type of leader he will be. As a Jesuit from South America there is reason to be suspicious about the role the new Pope will see for state actors to play in providing charity for the poor. However Rev. Robert Sirico, author of the highly recommended book Defending the Free Market: The Moral Case for a Free Economy, had this to say about the new head of the Church
Pope Francis is a man of great spirituality who is known for his commitment to doctrinal orthodoxy as well as for his simplicity of life. Like Benedict XVI, he combines concern for the poor with an insistence that it’s not the Church’s responsibility to be a political actor or to prescribe precise solutions to economic problems. In that regard, he’s a model for all Catholic bishops and clergy throughout the world.
While it is unlikely that Francis will mark a dramatic shift towards restoring the obligation of charity to the individual and accepting the positive deductions (as opposed to the normative desires) of economics, there is hope at least that the Church will not continue further down the road it has long traveled.