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Economics and Theology: A Wondrous Exchange

Attempts to write of one's own vocation often fall flat. A priest whom I know remarked recently on the fiftieth anniversary of his priestly ordination, “The Lord could have chosen much better, he could have chosen much worse. He chose me.” That is every vocation in sum, and saying anything more often means just multiplying words.

Every “vocation story” is an account of God whispering in an individual soul and, as such, it remains somehow inaccessible to others to whom those whisperings may appear nothing more than gentle breezes. “The priestly vocation is a mystery,” Pope John Paul II wrote on the occasion of his own fiftieth anniversary. “It is the mystery of a ‘wondrous exchange'–admirabile commercium–between God and man. A man offers his humanity to Christ so that Christ may use him as an instrument of salvation, making him, as it were, into another Christ.“

On the tenth anniversary of the encyclical letter Centesimus Annus, I wish to explain, in part, how I came to be willing to make that exchange–my life for the priesthood. I expect limited interest in my journey to the seminary, yet Centesimus Annus taught me a wholly new way of looking at social realities, the role of the human person in those realities, and, finally, myself. Obviously, such a reading of Centesimus Annus does not inevitably lead to the seminary, but it may suggest that Christian reflection on social realities is a valid means of arriving at the deeper Christian proclamation about the Truth who is at the heart of all reality.

The Loss of the Most Interesting Things

As an undergraduate economics major, I was confident that my future would be in the political arena, broadly understood, as a public policy analyst or even as an elected official. That confidence began to weaken during my junior year at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. I had chosen an optional course in European politics for the 1991—1992 academic year. The recent defeat of communism in the Soviet bloc made the course particularly appealing, since it was taught by a visiting professor from Poland. Each student in that course had to make a presentation, so I chose to do mine on the role of the church in post—World War II Poland. To be honest, I chose that topic principally to save myself from having to listen to someone else hold forth on Roman Catholicism. (The political climate on campus wasn't exactly friendly to Christianity.)

Most of my friends were political junkies, and one of them recommended an issue of National Review that gave extended treatment to Centesimus Annus. I had never heard of Centesimus Annus but was told that it contained the pope's own analysis of what happened in 1989. I read that supplement, as well as Centesimus Annus, quickly thereafter. It was the first document of John Paul that I had ever read.

“He is telling us that economics is not the most important thing about man,” wrote Richard John Neuhaus in that supplement. As Neuhaus continued,

To attribute everything to the economic factor is to perpetuate the terrible lie of the Marxists. In addition to the economic is the political and, most important, the cultural. At the heart of the cultural is the moral and spiritual.

That insight was quite a revolutionary thought for me. Between the mathematization of human behavior and the desire for predictive models, the human element was often lost in academic economics. Neuhaus and others were saying that the pope, of all people, had a different view of how to look at economic questions. (In an “unrelated” development, while at the time I only knew Neuhaus as a writer, I would later come to know him as a priest–and so began to hear other whisperings.)

My university study of economics had left me frustrated. Some days I wondered if economics should be transferred from the social sciences to engineering. At that time I had no exposure to writers who placed economics in a wider field of humane studies–broader thinkers such as Amartya Sen or Gary Becker. It was in Centesimus Annus that I first came to sense, albeit vaguely, that there was something more to economics than economists were letting on.

“[There are] two theses that I regard as central to Centesimus Annus: first, that both politics and economics have their matrix in culture, and second, that culture is incomplete without religion,“ said Avery Dulles, some years later, addressing an Acton Institute conference on the fifth anniversary of Centesimus Annus. Dulles continued,

The political and economic orders cannot prosper without support from the order of culture, which provides the convictions and values on which the state and economy are predicated. The world of culture, moreover, touches closely on that of religion. If it attempts to suppress the dimension of ultimate mystery, it impoverishes itself. It has everything to gain if it opens its doors to God and to Christ.

This was a wholly new way of looking at the social order. For understandable reasons of simplicity, I had learned in economics to treat as “exogenous shocks” all those things that cannot be expressed in our equations and are therefore left out of the model. The problem is that most of the interesting things that happen are left out of the models–war and peace, political regimes and legal systems, and, of course, culture and religion. (In another “unrelated” development, I met Dulles many years later, while already in the seminary, and my encounters with that luminous intellect confirmed the whisperings that I had heard.)

As Dulles explains, Centesimus Annus teaches that economics is, in fact, not separate from all of the interesting things that human beings do and, moreover, it cannot be properly understood apart from what is most important to them. Indeed, Centesimus Annus argues that “a given culture reveals its overall understanding of life through the choices it makes in production and consumption” (no. 36).

The John Paul Twist

Until that point, I had been trained to accept as “given” all that fell under the capacious category that economists call “preferences.” Such an assumption is fair enough to get on with the job of doing economic analysis, but while I learned how economic choices reveal preferences, we never stopped to consider what was behind those preferences. I was becoming more interested in studying what was being chosen and why rather than observing the choosing alone. My own priorities began to shift, and no longer did the study of effective marginal tax rates or dairy marketing boards excite me as they once did (and they did!). My attention had been drawn to something deeper and broader, something best expressed in one simple paragraph from Centesimus Annus that I still remember reading. It was one of those moments of illumination in which you realize, instantly, that you will never look at things quite the same way again:

To [the inefficiency of the economic system] must be added the cultural and national dimension: It is not possible to understand man on the basis of economics alone nor to define him simply on the basis of class membership. Man is understood in a more complete way when he is situated within the sphere of culture through his language, history, and the position he takes toward the fundamental events of life, such as birth, love, work, and death. At the heart of every culture lies the attitude man takes to the greatest mystery: the mystery of God. Different cultures are basically different ways of facing the question of the meaning of personal existence. (no. 24)

So I traveled from economic efficiency to the greatest of mysteries in one quick read. And then there was at the end of that last sentence the characteristic John Paul twist (as I would come to realize many papal documents later): the emphasis on the human person and the meaning of personal existence.

Economics with the Person at the Center

“It will be necessary to keep in mind that the main thread and, in a certain sense, the guiding principle … of all of the Church's social doctrine is a correct view of the human person and of his unique value,“ writes John Paul (no. 11). My economic (and political) training had led me to think of the social order in terms of aggregates–aggregates that allow an economist or political scientist to say that ”consumers“ are more confident or ”voters“ are undecided while knowing nothing about any one particular consumer or voter.

Centesimus Annus makes clear that the church's social doctrine begins with the principle that “there is something due to the person because he is a person” (no. 34), so social structures must be evaluated according to how they serve the person. Indeed, John Paul argues that the social order will be stable only if it takes the rights and interests of individual persons into account; any attempt to oppose the common good and the good of individual persons will be doomed to failure (cf. no. 25). Without falling into an atomistic individualism, Centesimus Annus warns against the threat that “aggregates” can pose to the person.

The logical question follows: Why is the person so important? From a theological perspective, it is answered in terms of man's creation in the image of God (cf. no. 60), but Centesimus Annus also gives what might be called an economic or practical answer. It notes that to ignore personal freedom, quite apart from ethics, is impossible in practice, and so makes for bad public policy (cf. no. 25). Moreover, Centesimus Annus acknowledges that “man's principal resource is man himself“ (no. 32) and that in the economic sphere man uses his intelligence in common with others to transform the world. This world of work requires ”important virtues“ including ”diligence, industriousness, prudence in undertaking reasonable risks, reliability and fidelity in interpersonal relationships, as well as courage in carrying out decisions which are difficult and painful but necessary“ (no. 32). The health of the economy depends, in part, on the potential unleashed by personal virtue.

Readers of this publication will recognize in that analysis the strains of economic personalism, which might be summarized as economics with the person at the center. The noun is personalism, and the adjective remains just that–a description of one aspect of the principal reality under examination. Economic personalism–to which Centesimus Annus introduced me to, even if I did not know the term–reoriented my thinking. Whereas before I had looked at economics as an arena in which individuals operated, I now came to see that economic behavior was but one expression of the person, who remains always greater than any one particular aspect of his existence. My interests began to shift from the adjective to the noun, from economics to the person behind the economy.

The Revelation in Christ of What It Means to Be Human

None of these shifts in thinking requires leaving economics behind, let alone moving toward the priesthood. There are many fine economists who practice economics in a broadly humanistic fashion, taking into account that human persons, not machines, are being studied. (In another “unrelated” development, I discovered in my research for my course presentation an author who claimed that the critical actor in the 1989 revolutions was Pope John Paul II. It would be several years before I met George Weigel and his colleagues in their celebrated Krakow seminar–a splendid example of how exploring these questions is admirably suited to the lay vocation. Yet it was there in Krakow, studying Centesimus Annus intensely, that I heard even more intensely the whisperings of the gift and mystery of the priesthood.)

There were of course many other steps, both before and after Centesimus Annus, beginning most importantly with my upbringing in a devout Catholic family. Nevertheless, Centesimus Annus did show me that concern for the social order could be expressed not only in the worldly world of politics: “[The Church's] contribution to the political order is precisely her vision of the dignity of the human person revealed in all its fullness in the mystery of the Incarnate Word” (no. 47).

What the social order needs is a correct understanding of the human person–a proper anthropology. The church makes her contribution by offering a Christian anthropology–a view of man that is rooted in theology. In this way, one moves from the social order to the human person to the revelation in Christ of what it means to be human. In my case, that progression was from economics to economic personalism to Christian anthropology to theology.

“The Church's social teaching is itself a valid instrument of evangelization,” John Paul writes. “As such, it proclaims God and his mystery of salvation in Christ to every human being, and for that very reason reveals man to himself” (no. 54).

Centesimus Annus is not the reason I entered the seminary–that would place too heavy a burden on one factor alone. I aspire to be a priest, devoted fully to the mystery of salvation principally because I am convinced that it is what the Lord is asking me to do. But if you ask where I saw the Lord and heard his voice, Centesimus Annus and the papal magisterium of John Paul II would be one important answer. God speaks to the soul in many and diverse ways. Ten years after Centesimus Annus, I am grateful to have heard those whisperings in its pages.