Tuesday, September 22, 2009



Let me relate some of the many reasons I am doing this blog. First: the Labor Movement and the Faith Community can have a greater political impact for justice with a combined effort. Second: to show the path to reconciliation of positions if there is conflict between them such as the wedge issues of abortion, gay rights, and stem cell research. Third: A valuable contribution of the Encyclicals is that they establish the ‘why’ of an economic system and the ‘how’ follows. Contemporary economics assumes the ‘why’ as a given with little comment.

On the negative side, women’s issues are for the most part ignored, little attention and credit is given to Jewish, Muslim and secular writings on justice. I hope to point this out where appropriate.

The articles will be relatively short and probably will raise more questions than answers. Comments are appreciated, and gross errors will be corrected. This is a community project. The purpose is to maintain interest and inspire further research. The goal is political action for justice.

Starting with the first papal encyclical ‘Rerum Novarum’ I will discuss several encyclicals including Vatican II documents and the latest ‘Caritas in Veritate.’

In my own limited studies of the encyclicals, several have influenced my opinions such as Dominicans Vincent McNabb, Thomas Gilby, J.D.Malone, Gustavo Gutierrez, Regina Williams, Benedict Ashley, Therese VanThull, Lucy Edelbeck and Paul Bowe and J.M. O’Connor. Others would be Archbishop Rembert Weakland, Father Fran Eshweiler, Dorothy Day and Father John Ryan. By starting to write this in England I am especially aware of Julian of Norwich, Vincent McNabb, O.P. Thomas Gilby, O.P. and my former economics professor Paul Bowe, O.P., an Irish Dominican who studied at Cambridge. David Hume, Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, Jeremy Bentham, David Riccardo John Malthus and Karl Marx lurk in the background. I am aware that my comments could never do justice to the work of these great scholars, but I feel a duty to mention them and hope to foster interest in their work. In my autumn years I enjoy remembering them.

The first papal encyclical on economics was proclaimed in 1891 by Pope Leo XIII. The text is attributed to Cardinal Zigliara a Dominican.


Leo XIII had earlier announced that ‘Thomism,’ the philosophy and theology of 13th century Dominican friar and of the Dominicans order, would be the preferred theology of the Church. Thomism saw no conflict between faith and reason therefore a reasonable treatise on economics would be for all not just Roman Catholics. The devastating poverty in Europe and the U.S. demanded a strong response. The most cogent was that of Karl Marx.

Faith and Reason

Historically not all agreed on the compatibility of faith and reason. Muslims, Jews, and Christians all had internal battles over the validity of philosophy – reason – the secular, especially when there was an apparent contradiction between the doctrines of faith and philosophy. The problem extended to politics. The ‘Spiritual Franciscans,’ disgusted with the politics and the corruption of the Avignon popes and claimed the pope should stay out of secular affairs and limit papal pronouncements to the spiritual. This is part of the background for U.S. revolutionaries’ insistence on separation of church and state. Avignon was not happy with the pointed criticism by the Franciscans, and although the basic philosophical and theological positions of Thomas Aquinas were condemned by the Bishop of Paris in 1277, Thomas was canonized by Avignon Pope John XXII fifty years after his death..

Thomistic Realism

Until Aquinas, Christian writers – the fathers of the Church, even St. Paul, used neo-platonic structures to explain the faith. The Church was saved from full blown Gnosticism by John’s gospel and later St. Irenaeus. The really real was the spiritual and the cause of sin was the material. Muslim writers introduced the complete Aristotle to the West in the 11th and 12th centuries. Aquinas used Aristotle to explain the faith and moved toward healing the spiritual – material rift.

Year ago I remember asking the famous English Aquinas scholar Thomas Gilby, O.P. what was the key to Dominican philosophy and theology. He replied that it was to recognize that the spiritual and material were simply two aspects of the same reality.
The moderate realism of the encyclicals has the ability to relate to real problems of poverty and injustice. Thomistic natural law ethics insists that reason is the rule of morality and social justice. Thomas reasoned that circumstances determined the morality of an act.

The encyclicals focus on the common good and this includes the well being of each and every individual. The Thomistic Aristotelian view that the person is a social being coupled with the insistence that fundamentally all are of equal value, goes against the basic modern economic principles of capitalism proposed by David Hume, Adam Smith John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham, David Riccardo and John Malthus.


Christian reformers of the 16th century noted Jesus was not conversant with neo-platonic or Aristotelian categories and insisted that Christian theology should be biblically based. But the reformers faced a similar problem as the Medieval Christian writers. How do you explain first century writings, at least one step removed from Jesus, as dogma to those of advanced learning – the founders of modern science? Augustinian Neo-Platonism won the day again for the reformers and a significant portion of Roman Catholics. For most Christians the spiritual was divorced from the material – religion from politics – reason from faith. People of faith live two lives – Sunday morning and the rest of the week. Muslims and Jews attempted to keep a low profile in a situation of prejudice and persecution.

The Reformation did provide support for the emerging capitalist system in that it emphasized individualism; its ethics required honesty and it fostered the belief that the wealthy, but austere, were blessed and called by God to be leaders and do his work. Priests, Bishops, Cardinals and the Pope lost prominence. (Max Weber)

The search for the historical Jesus has discovered that Jesus, in the best of Jewish tradition, led a non-violent challenge to the Roman Empire and was executed as a political criminal. The Gospels were recognized as works of theology to explain faith, and not historical accounts of the life of Jesus.

With the Encyclical ‘Caritas in Veritate’ we have come full circle. ‘Rerum Novarum’ denounced ‘liberalism’ as a cause of poverty in the late 19th century. The world economy now faces the policies of neo-liberalism - ‘free’ trade, Structural Ajustment Programs by the World Bank, devolution of the union movement, and anti-government politics resulting in de-regulation. What does ‘Caritas in Veritate’ have to say about this?


  1. Have you had the opportunity to look at John Medaille's book "The Vocation of Business" [http://www.amazon.com/Vocation-Business-Social-Justice-Marketplace/dp/0826428096/?tag=scfdm-20
    ]? His take on what work is about is grounded in Papal Encyclicals as well. Certainly worth adding to your perspective.

  2. Hey I'm glad you started a blog, the internet is over-saturated with secularism along with a sprinkling of blind faith but no logic. That's where Catholicism comes into play, but you don't see too many Catholic blogs!

    This is a little off topic, but I have a blog as well, and I'm going to be doing an interview with a guy who owns two Chicago companies that hire only convicted felons. Basically, I'm looking to collect as many questions as I can from people about what they would like to ask someone like him. If you have any ideas for questions, feel free to leave them for me at http://bit.ly/11AHW5