Liberal Economics and the Church after The End of History

"Parable of the Sower (September)" (between 1580 and 1590), a 86 x 123 cm oil on canvas by Marten van Valckenborch (1535–1612), located in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

On May 1, 1991, Pope St. John Paul II released his third economic encyclical, Centesimus Annus. Written at the end of the Cold War and the beginning of Francis Fukuyama’s End of History, Centesimus reflects much of the celebratory mood of the West, which, headed by the United States, became the sole superpower as the ‘Evil Empire’ of Soviet Communism came crashing down in the early 1990s. While not entirely laudatory of capitalism, Centesimus appeared to many to be the papal document most sympathetic to American-style laissez-faire economics. 

Since Pope Leo XIII’s social encyclical, Rerum Novarum (1891), which began the modern tradition of Catholic social teaching, papal encyclicals had been critical of both socialism and capitalism. Even John Paul II’s first two social encyclicals, Laborem Exercens (1981) and Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (1987), followed this tradition of critiquing elements of both socialism and capitalism. 

Such a critique of capitalism seemed out of place to many Americans living in the Reagan Era in which a hawkish military position, social conservatism, and free market economics were wed into an extremely powerful political movement that was able to draw many Catholics and Evangelicals away from the Democratic Party. 

For decades, the Catholic Church in America had been under the influence of the towering figure of Joseph Cardinal Bernardin. Cardinal Bernardin was most famous for his seamless garment doctrine, which fit in opposition to abortion with a host of other social issues. Many saw Cardinal Bernardin—rightly or wrongly—as being allied with the Democratic Party. 

In order to draw Catholics to the Republican fold, Republican Catholics had to make the argument that Reagan conservatism was harmonious with Catholic teaching. 

Centesimus Annus—or at least a particular reading of Centesimus Annus—was a God-send for Catholics attempting to create a rapprochement between Reaganism and John Paul II who was rapidly becoming a very popular pope among not only Catholics, but the people of the wider world.  

Even prior to its publication, a group of Catholic thinkers, consisting of Michael Novak, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, and George Weigel, known as the Catholic neoconservatives, went to work marketing Centesimus as a full-throated endorsement of American-style capitalism. To prepare American Catholic reception, George Weigel, Fr. Neuhaus, and Novak released articles in major national newspapers, trumpeting Centesimus as an endorsement of American-style capitalism. As the culture wars heated up during the Clinton ’90s, the Catholic neoconservatives released a series of books claiming the authoritative reading of Centesimus and arguing that capitalism and Catholicism were reconcilable.

Throughout the 1990s, the neoconservatives clashed with both the establishment Catholic Left over economics, as well as with figures such as David Schindler of the radical orthodoxy school. Furthermore, throughout the 1990s, the Catholic neoconservatives were able to keep the small but focal traditionalist movement at bay. 

Linked in the mind of many Catholics with John Paul II—a bond that was forged with Weigel’s enormously influential 1999 biography of the pope, Witness to Hope—the Catholic neoconservatives helped to build a media empire that was able change the hearts and minds of many American Catholics and even provide an entirely new generation of conservative priests and religious followers. These conservative Catholics were allied with Evangelicals and conservative Jews throughout the 1990s in a coalition sometimes known as ‘Catholics and Evangelicals Together’ or ‘The Moral Majority.’ The center of this movement advocated for traditional Christian sexual morality, but this conservative alliance was generally hawkish regarding war and partisan to various forms of free market capitalism. 

Ironically, the Catholic neoconservatives’ downfall came at the height of their political power. The efforts to unite conservative Catholics, Evangelicals, and Jews into a powerful political block bore fruit with the election of George W. Bush in 2000. After 9/11, President Bush put into effect the neoconservative blueprint for regime change throughout the Middle East. Supporting President Bush, however, put the Catholic neoconservatives at odds with the Vatican and with John Paul II. As the war dragged on, neoconservatism grew in disfavor. However, the Catholic neoconservatives had become so woven into the fabric of the John Paul II generation that they would not lose their power and influence until the subsequent two pontificates. 

The pontificate of John Paul II’s successor, Benedict XVI, was much more difficult to tie to neoconservatism than was (at least) the American image of John Paul. During the pontificate of Benedict XVI there was a steady rise in traditionalism to which many of the Catholic neoconservatives were adverse. Furthermore, Benedict XVI released the encyclical Caritas in veritate in 2009, which contained the traditional Catholic critiques of some elements of capitalism. George Weigel responded with an article in The National Review, “Caritas in veritate in Gold and Red” in which Weigel argued that the passages critical of capitalism in Benedict’s encyclical were not written by Benedict himself but by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. It was clear that Catholic social teaching had not been radically altered by Centesimus Annus

The election of Pope Francis further derailed the neoconservative narrative that capitalism was now officially endorsed by the Church. Francis’s encyclical Gaudium Evangelii (2013) condemned “trickle down” economics by name and was just one of many indications that the Argentinian pontiff’s reign would not include an endorsement of American capitalism. 

The election of Donald Trump further marginalized the neoconservatives. In March 2016, George Weigel, Princeton’s Robbie George, and others penned a piece in The National Review titled “An Appeal to Our Fellow Catholics,” urging the Republican Party not to nominate Donald Trump—although Michael Novak interestingly publicly supported Trump. However, this letter was largely ignored as the Don sailed to victory in 2016. A new political and economic movement had captured the Republican Party, and many neoconservatives tilted leftward to the Democratic Party to which earlier generations of neoconservatives had been aligned. 

In the post Trump era, the Catholic neoconservatives themselves appear as figures from another era. Two of the key figures of Catholic neoconservatism passed in the 21st century: Fr. Richard John Neuhaus in 2009, and Michael Novak in 2017.

George Weigel is still alive, penning a number of recent pieces on the Ukraine-Russia conflict, and Robert George continues to make natural law arguments in defense of unborn life and in support of traditional marriage. 

However, there is not a strong youthful cohort to continue the Catholic neoconservative message. 

One of the key groups that continues to advocate one element of the Catholic neoconservative platform—laissez-faire capitalism—is the Acton Institute headed by Fr. Robert Sirico, who has recently penned a book attempting to derive economic wisdom from the parables of the Gospels. 

The Economics of the Parables is effectively a meditation on the apparent virtues of capitalism using the parables of Christ, which Fr. Sirico admits are principally focused on using examples from trading and economics to emphasize the importance of living a holy and virtuous life and reaching the kingdom of heaven. Christ’s parables, such as “The Laborers in the Vineyard,” “The Sower,” and “The Hidden Treasure” serve as a basis for Fr. Sirico’s advice on investing, enterprise, and the value of hard work. 

Catholics may object to Fr. Sirico’s attempt to read economic messages in works that are principally dedicated to teaching Christians the keys to reaching heaven. Yet, there is little question that the economic policies for which Fr. Sirico advocates in The Economics of the Parables have provided a great deal of wealth for many individuals for the past one hundred years. 

However, in the 21st century, there are new rules and a new economy as well as a crisis of confusion among many Catholics who find elements of Pope Francis’s pontificate confusing. 

While Fr. Sirico does make some valid points about some of the admirable qualities of trade and business, perhaps the best message to derive from the Gospels is that we should not put our trust in princes and should ultimately place our treasure in heaven. 

Jesse Russell has written for a number of publications, including Front Porch Republic, Catholic World Report, and Dappled Things.