"The encyclicals do not condemn our economic system of free enterprise, but instead give a strong moral foundation for such a system."
With these words, written in 1947, Father Edward Keller voiced an opinion at odds with the way many American Catholic social thinkers viewed the relationship between the social teaching of the Church and the market economy. Keller, while not given much attention by historians, Catholics, or free market advocates, was in fact one of the most articulate and forceful Catholic defenders of the market system in the twentieth century.
Keller was born in Cincinnati on June 27, 1903. After joining the religious order of the Holy Cross (the congregation that founded and administers the University of Notre Dame), he went to the University of Minnesota to study economics. As was often the case in the early twentieth century, the needs of Catholic schools and colleges for teachers outstripped the resources of the religious orders that ran them, and Keller was sent to teach at Notre Dame before finishing his dissertation.
Lack of a Ph.D. did not prevent Keller from having a successful career as an economic researcher and as a teacher. His early focus was on the subject of income distribution, and he co-authored several books in the 1940s that argued that income distribution in the United States was in fact far more equitable than the detractors of capitalism portrayed it. He wrote elsewhere that American capitalists, generally speaking, fulfilled the dictates of Pope Pius XI’s teachings admirably, using excess wealth in a productive fashion by creating new companies and new jobs.
In the 1950s, Keller raised the ire of many fellow priests (especially the “labor priests” active in union organizations) by being the intellectual force behind the “right-to-work” movement of that decade. Keller argued that Catholic teaching provided ample support for his opposition to any form of compulsory unionism. He always insisted that right-to-work laws were not intended to damage union organization, but rather to preserve the character of labor unions as truly voluntary associations. Like many religious observers since, Keller recognized the injustice of union requirements that members, through their dues, support political and even moral stances that the members personally opposed.
Keller admitted in his major work Christianity and American Capitalism (1953) that the economic situation in the United States was not perfect and that reform was needed. He believed, however, that such reform “would not require radical changes in the institutions of American Capitalism.” Aware of the imperfections of capitalism, he nonetheless had a profound appreciation of the material blessings the free economy bestowed. His faith, moreover, allowed him to keep all such material considerations in perspective. In the words of one of his students: “He was a humble, holy man who always said that it is much more important how things go in the next world than how they go in this one.”
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