Why Catholics Care About Economic Justice

In a new Vatican document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development (“Considerations for an Ethical Discernment Regarding Some Aspects of the Present Economic-Financial System”), which was approved by Pope Francis, one section explains how the Church’s understanding of the social nature of the human person provides the foundation for the Church’s commitment to economic justice.

The document locates a key underlying source of economic injustice: “our contemporary age has shown itself to have a limited vision of the human person, as the person is understood individualistically and predominantly as a consumer” (9).

Catholic teaching rejects this extreme individualism, recognizing that human persons are social by nature:

Every person is born within a familial environment, enjoying a set of pre-existing relationships without which life would be impossible. The human person develops through the stages of life thanks to pre-existing bonds that actualize one’s being in the world as freedom continuously shared. These are the original bonds that define the human person as a relational being who lives in what Christian Revelation calls “communion”. (10)

This personalist understanding of the person and freedom offers a clear alternative to the extreme individualism of our age. It also provides the baseline for the Catholic understanding of human flourishing and ethics:

This original nature of communion, while revealing in every human person a trace of the affinity with God who creates and calls one into a relationship with himself, is also that which naturally orients the person to the life of communion, the fundamental place for one’s fulfillment. One’s own recognition of this character, as an original and constitutive element of our human identity, allows us to look at others not primarily as potential competitors, but rather as possible allies, in the construction of the good that is authentic only if it is concerned about each and every person simultaneously. (10)

The centrality of the quest for communion leads to a communitarian approach in pursuing social and economic justice that aims at fostering the global common good:

Such relational anthropology helps the human person to recognize the validity of economic strategies that aim above all to promote the global quality of life that, before the indiscriminate expansion of profits, leads the way toward the integral well-being of the entire person and of every person. No profit is in fact legitimate when it falls short of the objective of the integral promotion of the human person, the universal destination of goods, and the preferential option for the poor. These are three principles that imply and necessarily point to one another, with a view to the construction of a world that is more equitable and united. (10)

Markets, therefore, do not create morality, but must be properly ordered and utilized to promote higher principles of justice that directly flow from the Christian understanding of the human person:

For this reason, progress within an economic system cannot measured only by quantitative and profit-driven standards, but also on the basis of the well-being that extends a good that is not simply material. Every economic system is legitimate if it thrives not merely through the quantitative development of exchange but rather by its capacity to promote the development of the entire person and of every person. (10)