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Blog: 'Free Market' Is Not Catholic Teaching

Prof. Geoffrey Hunt, Professor of Philosophy & Society, and Director of The Centre for Bioethics & Emerging Technologies, St Mary’s University, Twickenham, London. A response to: Philip Booth, ‘Economic Growth Helps Fight Poverty’, The Tablet, 27 June 2015, p. 6-7. Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’, which appeared on 18th June, presents a wide-ranging and integrating moral stance on the environment and climate change. It is already controversial and will become more so as the Pope gets ready for his speeches at the U.S. Congress, and U.N. General Assembly and the Paris climate change conference in December. While the document does not espouse any ideology its moral implications are clear: neither the ‘free market’ nor ‘communism’ are good for humans or the Earth. St Mary’s University has formed an interdisciplinary group to study Laudato Si’ and the controversies and prepare for a conference on the encyclical at the end of the year. Free markets may be among the first to object, whether they are Catholic or not, and there are those who claim that the ‘free market’ is supported by Catholic Social teaching. Here is one of the first examples I have come across, and my personal view of it. Now I confess to being a rather feeble Catholic and an even feebler Christian theologian but I can find no basis for Prof. Philip Booth’s claim in The Tablet (27 June) that the ‘free market’ – that is, the one we actually experience on a global scale today – is supported by Catholic Social Teaching. In fact, I feel sure that ‘free marketism’ and CST are completely and radically counterposed. This counter position is rooted in The Gospel, and throughout the long history of Catholic Social Teaching, and inevitably in Laudato Si’. Prof. Booth writes, “Free markets, good governance and the rule of law – key themes of Catholic Social Teaching – give the poor the best chance of being liberated from the vagaries of both the natural environment and man-made climate change” [p7]. Let us put ‘governance and law’ aside for a moment and focus on the claim that free markets is a key theme of Catholic Social Teaching (CST). By ‘key theme’ the writer cannot be making the neutral observation that CST happens to mention it. What is meant here is that CST justifies ‘free markets’ or at least does not morally reject them. The difficulty here is that Booth does not come clean about what precisely he means by ‘free markets’, which leaves him with quite a lot of manoeuvre if challenged. Reading between the lines, and perusing his other writings, it is fair to infer he is actually against regulation except for the most piecemeal and benign. Indeed ‘free market’ usually means unregulated economy, which CST totally rejects as having morally unacceptable consequences. The significant large-scale regulations are those that are seen by free marketers as inhibiting competitiveness and profit margins. These are the very regulations designed to protect citizens, workers, consumers, the poor and the vulnerable, and the environment from greed, exploitation and conflict. Booth’s argument might work for some because by defending the vague and abstract concept of ‘free markets’ he is implicitly warning us against falling into its horrible opposite: ‘communism’. But CST has long transcended the meaningless duality of ‘either free markets or communism’. So where is this anti-regulatory support in CST? In The Gospel we have the unforgettable vision of Jesus overthrowing the money-changers’ tables set up in the temple (Matt 21:12). Of course, he was not attacking the ‘free market’, but what a marvellous and unambiguous vision of how the market-out-of-bounds erodes and destroys everything of deep human value. Then, over the centuries, there has been plenty of equally poignant CST on putting the market in its moral place. Just one of many possible examples, Pope Benedict XVI wrote “the conviction that the economy must be autonomous, that it must be shielded from ‘influences’ of a moral character, has led man to abuse the economic process in a thoroughly destructive way. In the long term, these convictions have led to economic, social and political systems that trample upon personal and social freedom, and are therefore unable to deliver the justice that they promise” (Caritas in Veritate, 2009, sec. 34. See also Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church: 349; Centesimus Annus: 39). And now, at last, the integrated, directly honest and compassionate viewpoint of Laudato Si’, in which all becomes undeniably clear: you cannot consistently be a real free marketer (or a real communist) and a real Christian. For some this will be a hard pill to swallow, but climate change promises to be immeasurably harder.

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