July 2018

Judging the Spirit: Vatican Economic Teaching and the Basis of Doctrinal Development

While the questions set before religious judges are often rather inward-facing, the nature of such questions, which can determine the fate of someone’s immortal soul, can have major impacts on the political and economic life of believers outside the walls of the Church.

by Thomas Messersmith

Churches are founded on judgments. Some are big; some are small. Like any governmental body, Churches rely on these judgments to understand who they are, what they believe, and how they should act in accordance with their teachings and doctrines. Just as the Constitution is debated and judged in accordance with legal precedent, so too are sacred texts. Yet, while the questions set before such religious judges are often rather inward-facing, the nature of such questions, which can determine the fate of someone’s immortal soul, can have major impacts on the political and economic life of believers outside the walls of the Church. One recent judgment by the Catholic Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, may prove to have just such an impact.[i]

In Christianity, the ones who judge the meaning or orthodoxy of particular beliefs can vary widely. Depending on the denomination, the judges can range from a large global council to a single pastor or small group of deacons. If one is Catholic, however, the judges sit in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under the auspices of the Pope. Recently, the Congregation, in conjunction with the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, issued a document entitled “Oeconomicae et pecuniariae quaestiones” (hereafter referred to as simply “Oeconomicae”).[ii] In this document, the Congregation sets forth the belief that all economic activity has a moral dimension due to its potential to cause great harm in others, and thus regulation of economic activity both through personal and governmental means is not only necessary, but a moral imperative. This judgment is both unique in the Catholic Church, given past proclamations regarding socialism and other such economic advice, and consistent with Catholic belief in many ways. It also illustrates perfectly the way that religious beliefs can affect life outside of the Church and flowing into the realm of politics.

Vatican 2
Pope Francis, March 13, 2013: photo taken from St. Peter’s Square, just after the pope’s election. Photo by Tenan.

“Oeconomicae” presents some interesting points, but all of them have to do with the utilization of economics to strip someone of their human dignity. Perhaps the biggest (and most controversial) aspect of this document is that it is a wholesale rejection of a libertarian ideology based on this idea of human dignity. It does not completely reject the idea of market forces as being natural, nor does it say that capitalism or profit itself is immoral (it is also worth noting that the document does not even mention the word “socialism”), but the rejection of a purely market-driven ideology is there—and it is something quite new.

The way that almost all Vatican documents go about arguing dogma is much like the way that lawyers argue law. They go to old documents, look at them in the light of the current context, and, when necessary, look to the highest authority to have the final say on the interpretation of that law. If the interpretation differs from the past, it does not mean that the law has changed—the law has in fact stayed the same. It just means that the interpretation of that specific law has changed. This is how the Vatican continues to argue that despite vastly different interpretations of dogma in the past (just look at the differences between pre- and post-Vatican II), they are still the same Church and have continued to be correct throughout its existence.

In 1846, John Henry Newman described this belief in his work “An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine.” Defining his theory of the “development” of doctrine, he states that, among other things, “time is necessary for the full comprehension and perfection of great ideas,” due to the limited understanding of humanity. When it comes to divine truth, it takes even longer and, often, the full circumstances around the divine truth are not evident at the time that such truth is revealed.[iii] In other words, even if the rules seem different from one time period to the next, they are still within the same functional idea and are still the same truth filtered through an imperfect human understanding. The concept of “development,” along with the accompanying ideas of aggiornomento (or bringing the Church up to date) and ressourcement (or returning to the source material) formed the basis of the Second Vatican Council. As John W. O’Malley states in his remarkable work on the Council, all three—development, aggiornomento, and ressourcementtook as a basic assumption that “the Catholic tradition is richer, broader, and more malleable than they way in which it had often … been interpreted.”[iv]

Vatican 1
The Second Vatican Council, a massive shift in Catholic dogma that remained within the tenets of “development,” aggiornomento, and ressourcement. Photo by Lothar Wolleh.

While Vatican II (like other major Church councils such as the Council of Trent and Vatican I) was a watershed moment in Catholic history, these ideas continuously work within the Catholic Church to ensure that the dogma is not sealed off from the unknown elements of the future. We see this process very clearly in “Oeconomica.” It both works with and against the proclamations of the past. In 1891, Pope Leo XIII would write one of the most famous Papal Encyclicals of all time: “Rerum Novarum.” Rerum Novarum explored the ideas of capitalism and a free market, affirming that free economic exercise was good. Socialism, on the other hand, was based on a system that destroys the idea of personal property, which was a natural right, ordained by God and affirmed through scripture. But more than that, when confronted with the notion of social inequalities, it states that “it is impossible to reduce civil society to one dead level” and that “there naturally exist among mankind manifold differences of the most important kind.” Every person is different and these differences manifest themselves in various ways. Without people having different strengths and weaknesses, society itself would be weaker.[v] In other words, inequality is something that is not only unavoidable in society, but is, in fact, a good.

“Oeconomicae” challenges the ideas of “Rerum Novarum,” arguing that vast inequality is not a good, but rather is the result of the exploitation of people for selfish gain. While these interpretations may be different, their biblical and dogmatic bases are actually quite similar. Undergirding both is the idea of the basic dignity of man. It was this idea that led “Rerum Novarum” to the conclusion that unionization among workers was allowable in order to preserve their dignity, while also decrying the attempt to nationalize private property. It was also this basic dignity of man that allowed “Oeconomicae” to conclude that it is morally unacceptable “to avail oneself of an inequality for one’s own advantage, in order to create enormous profits that are damaging to others; or to exploit one’s dominant position in order to profit by unjustly disadvantaging others, or to make oneself rich through harming and disrupting the collective common good.”[vi] This shot at the super-rich and the 1% is an articulation of Pope Francis’ economic teachings. These teachings, which have often been described as “radical” or “revolutionary,” are nevertheless based on centuries of teachings and dogma of the Church.

It is easy to take the teachings of any one Pope and describe it as being a break from tradition, thus invalidating that tradition entirely. But this approach misunderstands the practice of faith. Catholics see their understanding of the world as imperfect and ongoing. So if you scratch below the surface, you can see how that dogma and tradition is based on underlying beliefs that allow for changing interpretation. Catholic ideas may be updated to the modern times (aggiornomento) or returned to an older core belief (ressourcement) and still remain consistent. And while these questions of dogma, development, aggiornomento, and ressourcement are all somewhat technical, they remain applicable to the wider world.

Even for those of us who aren’t Catholic or who do not believe in Jesus, these Vatican rulings remain important. The core ideas—like considering human dignity over the pursuit of profit—reflect and shape our experiences, and Papal statements about them might help us incorporate new information into our own systems of belief. And maybe, just maybe, they show that we have a prayer of embracing a more equitable society.

profileThomas Messersmith is a Ph. D. candidate in the History Department at the University of Maryland. His dissertation, “Theology’s Destructive Gifts: Austrian Catholic Theology and the Development of Catholic Political Culture, 1848-1888,” explores how the theological arguments that developed within the Austrian Catholic Church in the second half of the nineteenth century were received, accepted, and, subsequently, modified by the laity to shape the political environment in the Habsburg Monarchy.  He is the recipient of a Fulbright fellowship for 2018-19 academic year. 

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[i] It is important to note here that I am discussing judgment in a more abstract sense as it applies to dogma, not to judicial systems such as that of Vatican City, which recently came to the world stage after convicting a priest of possessing child pornography.

[ii] The full title of the document is actually “’Oeconomicae et pecuniariae quaestiones’. Considerations for an ethical discernment regarding some aspects of the present economic-financial system,” but for the sake of reading, we will leave it at “Oeconomicae.”

[iii] John Henry Cardinal Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, 14th ed. (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1909), 29-30.

[iv] John W. O’Malley, What Happened at Vatican II (Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press, 2008), 37.

[v] While the Vatican website can be a bit unwieldy, all of the papal encyclicals and many other such documents can be found hosted there. “Rerum Novarum” is no exception. Leo XIII, “Rerum Novarum,” May 15, 1891, sec. 17: http://w2.vatican.va/content/leo-xiii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_l-xiii_enc_15051891_rerum-novarum.html

[vi] Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, “‘Oeconomicae et pecuniariae quaestiones’. Considerations for an ethical discernment regarding some aspects of the present economic-financial system,” May 17, 2018, sec. 17: https://press.vatican.va/content/salastampa/en/bollettino/pubblico/2018/05/17/180517a.html

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