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Economists according to Aristotle

· Human dignity and development for the common good ·

The following is the address given by Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Secretary of State, delivered at a conference on human dignity and human development held the University of Notre Dame Global Gateway between 22-24 October in Rome.  The conference was organized by the university’s Kellogg Institute for International Studies.

I thank the Kellogg Institute for International Studies for its invitation to take part in this Conference on Human Dignity and Human Development, which marks the inauguration of the University of Notre Dame Global Gateway. In these closing remarks, I would like to present some considerations drawn from the Church’s social teaching and from the more recent magisterium of Pope Francis. I trust they will prove helpful for summarizing the discussion, stimulating deeper reflection and opening new avenues for the social action of Catholics and all those who seek a more humane and fraternal world.

The topics which have been discussed show that, in speaking of the relationship between development and human dignity, the terms “economy”, “economic systems” and the like, can all be employed as synonyms for the term “development”. This in itself helps us to appreciate better the challenges we face in promoting human dignity. Development is in fact closely linked to the proper management of resources in poorer countries, and the economic decisions made by wealthy countries, which have positive or negative repercussions on the economy of developing countries. But the more fundamental reason for beginning with economics is that the Church’s social teaching has constantly emphasized that the greatest obstacles to universal and integral human development are found in a distorted vision of man and economic activity, one which threatens the dignity of the human person.

“What exactly is at stake?” This is one of the questions raised by your working document. What is at stake is the very understanding of man and our nature as social beings. Pope Francis, in pointing out the deficiencies of the present world economic situation, does not mince words. He states: “Just as the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say ‘Thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality... As a consequence [of this], masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape” ( Evangelii Gaudium , 53). “To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, … a globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of poor, weeping for other people's pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own” (ibid., 54).

The teaching found in the Holy Father’s Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium is not meant to condemn or promote any one economic system. The Pope himself says that such is not his intention (cf. ibid., 184 and 209). His is a much more profound and farsighted aim: to stir consciences and to call for renewed attention to man, to human beings, who cannot be reduced to mere pawns of the market, means of production or consumers or both. Such renewed attention would necessarily lead to a rethinking of the foundations of economic theory. It would also be the key to appreciating the proper relationship between “human development and human dignity”.

Human beings are created in the image and likeness of God, and, through the redemption of Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word, are called to be God’s children. As such, they are also called to live in peace with their brothers and sisters, in a spirit of self-giving and love which is a reflection of God himself, who is love (cf. Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate, 54). Gratuity is thus indispensable for building and sustaining life in society (cf. Id., Deus Caritas Est, 2, 6-7 and 38; Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, 205). Reducing human beings to agents of the economy leads first to discarding one’s own true identity and ultimately to “discarding” others when they no longer prove materially useful. Charity, as the most authentic manifestation of our human dignity, is the first thing to go. As Pope Francis sees it, “the great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish borne of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience” ( Evangelii Gaudium, 2). Hence, “if we wish to lead a dignified and fulfilling life, we have to reach out to others and seek their good” (ibid., 9). We are all aware, and there is no need to dwell on the point, of how a materialistic vision of man and society has resulted from a certain current of thought closed to the transcendent, one which has developed over the past three centuries and significantly influenced economic thinking.

Taking up a classical notion dating back to Aristotle ( Politics, I, 9), the Holy Father states that “economics, as the very word indicates, should be the art of achieving a fitting management of our common home, which is the world as a whole” ( Evangelii Gaudium, 206). Economic theory and policy are thus primarily “practical”, subordinated to the life of the pólis and morality, and meant to be directed by the virtues of justice and prudence. Our present way of thinking, on the other hand, tends to see economics as a science whose method is phenomenological, charged with the task of finding the best means of directing human activity towards the goal of a maximum exploitation of resources.

Aristotle, on the other hand, whose thought, as taken up by the medieval scholastics, has served as an inspiration for Christian social theory, had already warned against what he called a second form of “chrematistics”, which would turn all human gifts and activities into means of making money ( Politics, I, 9). This age-old temptation has returned to the fore in our own day, as Pope Francis observed when he pointedly called into question “our relationship with money, since we calmly accept its dominion over ourselves and our societies” ( Evangelii Gaudium , 55).

Certainly, a correct approach to economics, understood as the science and “art of achieving a fitting management of our common home” ( Evangelii Gaudium, 206), would involve formulating theories and general models based on reality and supported by empirical sciences and technical instruments. However if economics is to be efficacious in its service of humanity, it cannot afford to forsake an integral vision of the human person and of society, and constant interaction with the realities with which it deals. Only thus can economics remain faithful to its nature as a practical and moral science. Otherwise it risks becoming a tool of the dictatorship of relativism and aprioristicthinking. What the Holy Father has said of all intellectual activity applies particularly to economic thought and theory: “There has to be continuous dialogue between the two, lest ideas become detached from realities” ( Evangelii Gaudium , 231). And again: “Ideas – conceptual elaborations – are at the service of communication, understanding, and praxis” (ibid., 232).

Here I would like to stress the profound harmony between the teaching of Pope Francis and that of his predecessors, particularly Benedict XVI, whose Encyclical Caritas in Veritate contains a lucid analysis of the relativistic attempt to make political science, of which economics is a part, into a “technocracy” detached from a transcendent vision of man. In Benedict’s own words: “The development of peoples goes awry if humanity thinks it can re-create itself through the ‘wonders’ of technology; [in the same way] economic development is exposed as a destructive sham if it relies on the ‘wonders’ of finance in order to sustain unnatural and consumerist growth. In the face of such Promethean presumption, we must fortify our love for a freedom that is not merely arbitrary, but is rendered truly human by acknowledgment of the good that underlies it. To this end, man needs to look inside himself in order to recognize the fundamental norms of the natural moral law which God has written on our hearts” ( Caritas in Veritate, 68).

Both Benedict XVI and Pope Francis, using very similar words, warn that the problems of development and the just regulation of the economy remain insoluble without a holistic vision of the human person and a commitment to constant and coherent moral standards firmly grounded in the natural law and the pursuit of the common good. “Development will never be fully guaranteed through automatic or impersonal forces, whether they derive from the market or from international politics. Development is impossible without upright men and women, without financiers and politicians whose consciences are finely attuned to the requirements of the common good” (Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate, 71).

Conversion of mind and heart is thus required if economic activity as a whole is to be genuinely directed to integral human development. A “Promethean faith” in the market, or in other ideologies and forms of aprioristic thinking, will need to be replaced by faith in God and a transcendent vision of men and women as God’s children. This in turn will lead to intellectual conversion in the sense of developing an economic science and praxis which begins with an integral understanding of the human person, that is placed at the service of human development, and is capable of orienting production and consumption to authentic human fulfillment, in our relationship with God and with our neighbour.

I would like to conclude these “remarks” in the words of the Holy Father, in the conviction that “openness to the transcendent can bring about a new political and economic mindset which would help to break down the wall of separation between the economy and the common good of society” ( Evangelii Gaudium, 205). Why should we not turn to God and ask him to inspire the thinking of scholars, experts and leaders in the fields of finance and development (cf. ibid.)?

Thank you, once again, Professor Carozza, for the opportunity to address this meeting and I thank all of you for your kind welcome and your attention.




March 29, 2017

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