Symposium brings together morality, economics

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Sunday, June 17, 2012

Catholic academics, bishops and other leaders gathered in Chicago May 31-June 1 for a symposium aimed at understanding the moral implications of various economic systems and policies.

The gathering, “Toward a Moral Economy,” was presented by the Chicago-based Lumen Christi Institute for Catholic Thought, John C. Nef Committee on Social Thought and the German Katholische Sozialwissenschaftliche Zentralstelle.

It was the fourth year in a row that the Lumen Christi Institute has sponsored a symposium on economics and Catholic social thought, according to Joe Kaboski, an associate professor of economics at the University of Notre Dame and the symposium’s organizer.

“Broadly speaking, the goal is just for bishops, economists and other academics to be in conversation about important aspects of the economy,” Kaboski said in an email interview. “The idea is to keep the church informed about the truths we’ve learned from economic research and to keep economists thinking about the ethical side of the economy and also the religious truths of man. The main goal is to just develop this conversation and make sure we keep it going.”

This year was the first time Lumen Christi partnered with the German institute, Kaboski said.

Munich cardinal speaks

The symposium was headlined with a keynote address May 31 by Cardinal Reinhard Marx, the archbishop of Munich. His talk was titled “A Global Social Market Economy in Response to the Challenges of the 21st Century.”

The following day, economists from various universities and institutions participated in panels with topics such as “What Would a Moral Economy Look Like? Values and Metrics” and “The Causes and Implications of Social Mobility and the Problem of Rising Income Inequality.”

“Even among Catholics, there are differences in how we view social ethics and the economy, but as Cardinal Marx emphasized, as these issues become more and more global, it’s important that we try to work together,” Kaboski said.

Cardinal Marx’s talk was based in part on his 2008 book, “Das Kapital: A Plea for Humankind,” which begins with a playful letter to another well-known Marx, Karl, in which the cardinal makes the case for a global “social market economy” as a corrective to the economic problems facing a world shaken by financial crisis.

Kaboski said it’s important for Americans to understand that what the Germans call a “social market economy” does not mean socialism.

“I think Americans might presume it was some sort of hybrid between capitalism and socialism, or perhaps an argument for the welfare state,” Kaboski said, noting that such economic systems have been criticized in several encyclicals. “I think a better description for the American audience would be a ‘truly free and fair market economy.’

Culturally, there are differences but Kaboski said there is more common ground than one might thing.

“When most Americans think of capitalism, they think of an economy where there are rights to private property, free initiative, markets, and competition. It’s something positive. Europeans, on the other hand, think of monopolists, cartels, where big business controls the government and other social institutions, and everything serves the almighty dollar,” he said.

“I guess we might describe that situation as crony capitalism, but I think both Americans and Europeans would agree that the former are good things and the latter are bad. When the Germans refer to a ‘social market economy,’ they simply mean that both good culture and constructive regulation are necessary to make sure that a market economy reflects the good stuff and not the bad stuff.”

Even if the economists from opposite sides of the Atlantic basically agree on what is the “good stuff,” they still have differing perspectives on how best to get it.

For example, Americans in general — including American economists — are more skeptical about the government’s ability to prevent “crony capitalism.” They also focus more on “absolute poverty,” meaning whether people have the basic necessities of life, than “relative poverty,” or economic inequality, and the two groups tend to have different attitudes towards redistribution.

Often, economics is not seen as having a moral dimension at all, and that’s a mistake, Kaboski said. Pope Benedict XVI is just the most recent pope to write about the morality of economics in encyclical “Caritas in Veritate,” released in 2009.

Today, many economists view themselves as social scientists rather than philosophers or social theorists, he said.

“That approach has pros and cons. The advantage is that it allows for groups of researchers from very different cultural and ethnic backgrounds to come to agreement on the facts or science of economics. The downside is that we spend less time thinking about the larger ethical picture,” he said. “We may also tend to take a more individualist and materialist outlook, which is common in the field.”

“Best kept secret”

Catholic social thought has often been described as ‘the church’s best kept secret,” he said. Symposiums like Lumen Christi’s expose economists to Catholic social thought and documents like the pope’s “Caritas in Veritate” on a deeper level.

Catholics must make an effort to understand their own tradition and its social teachings, Kaboski said, and events like the moral economy symposium help by drawing the attention of the academic world.

“People often want to pigeon hole Catholic social thought into particular policies or politics, but Catholic social thought is a perfect example of the living tradition of the faith at work,” he said. “We have these eternal principles that are central to the faith, but we need to always be reflecting on them and faithfully applying them to the changing times. That is why it is so important to keep these discussions alive and relevant.”