Thursday, June 5, 2014

Catholic Social Ethics:The Free Market as an Idol

In June of 2014, Cardinal Oscar Maradiaga, a “prince” of the Roman Catholic Church, of the free-market system as “a new idol” that increases inequalities of wealth and excludes the poor.[1] Pope Francis had already claimed that personal charity is not sufficient as a remedy—that solidarity with the poor necessitates, in the Cardinal’s words, “dealing with the structural causes of poverty and injustice.”[2] As theorized by Thomas Piketty, that structure includes a tendency under typical circumstances for the rate of return on capital to exceed the growth rate in incomes (and GNP). Faith in the market’s invisible hand and people’s charitable giving do not suffice to counter this tilt. Indeed, Catholic social ethics would have it that faith in perfect competition as an ideal is tantamount to idolatry that operates at the expense particularly of the down-trodden and poor.

We might postulate more generally that idolatry is a faith that operates at the expense of compassion, or is impotent to amass any. If a faith that transcends the limits of human conception and perception sensitizes a person to existence itself, and thus to the plight of others who suffer, then a faith fixed on a phenomenon in the world we have created could be expected to come up short with respect to intensifying compassion.

It is only fair to ask, therefore, whether the insufficiency of the free market and charity risk turning government into a savior?  That is to say, might such a faith in government turn out to be yet another form of idolatry? If so, would not the promised compassion be illusionary in the end? Even in a theocracy, government is not transcendent; rather, it is quite of the earthly kingdom even if presumed to be informed from on high.

[1] David Gibson, “Cartinal Maradiaga Slams Free Market Libertarianism: ‘This Economy Kills’,” The Huffington Post, June 4, 2014.
[2] Ibid.