Soap-Opera Economics

COMMENTARY: Why the idea of concrete love is useful to understanding Church teaching about the economy.

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In a Jan. 9 homily, commenting on the Letter of St. John (4:11-18), Pope Francis said that “the love of which John speaks is not the love of which soap operas are made.” On the contrary, “Christian love is concrete. Jesus himself, when he speaks of love, tells us concrete things: Feed the hungry; visit the sick.” Indeed, “when this concreteness is lacking,” we end up “living a Christianity of illusions, for we do not understand the heart of Jesus’ message,” the Pope said. Love that is not concrete — soap-opera love — is “an illusory love.”

I find the idea of concrete love to be a useful key to understanding Church teaching about the economy.  Many millions of Catholics make their living each day in various aspects of the economy, which explains in part the widespread and growing interest in Church teaching on the economy. How does one live as a faithful Catholic in the economy, and, indeed, does the system we call capitalism allow us to do so?

Across the past three pontificates, I think it’s possible to see a steady sharpening on this insistence on concrete love in economic life.

Pope John Paul II, shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, asked, “Can it perhaps be said that, after the failure of communism, capitalism is the victorious social system and that capitalism should be the goal of the countries now making efforts to rebuild their economy and society?” (Centesimus Annus, 42).

His response to his own question is clear:

“If by ‘capitalism’ is meant an economic system which recognizes the fundamental and positive role of business, the market, private property and the resulting responsibility for the means of production, as well as free human creativity in the economic sector, then the answer is certainly in the affirmative, even though it would perhaps be more appropriate to speak of a ‘business economy,’ ‘market economy’ or simply ‘free economy’ (ibid.).

“But if by ‘capitalism’ is meant a system in which freedom in the economic sector is not circumscribed within a strong juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality and which sees it as a particular aspect of that freedom, the core of which is ethical and religious, then the reply is certainly negative” (ibid.).

He went on to say:

“The Marxist solution has failed, but the realities of marginalization and exploitation remain in the world, especially the Third World, as does the reality of human alienation, especially in the more advanced countries. Against these phenomena the Church strongly raises her voice. … Indeed, there is a risk that a radical capitalistic ideology could spread which refuses even to consider these problems, in the a priori belief that any attempt to solve them is doomed to failure and which blindly entrusts their solution to the free development of market forces” (ibid.).

Unfortunately, marginalization, exploitation and alienation continued to persist, suggesting that the economy had not been placed in the service of human freedom in its totality. Concrete love was not sufficiently present within the economy. 

After the market crash of 2008, Pope Benedict XVI revisited the challenge, writing, “When both the logic of the market and the logic of the state come to an agreement that each will continue to exercise a monopoly over its respective area of influence, in the long term much is lost” (Caritas in Veritate, 39). In such a situation, the market, and only the market, is understood to be responsible for creating prosperity, and the government, and only the government, is responsible for distributing that prosperity. Under these conditions, what is lost, according to Pope Benedict, is solidarity, participation and gratuitousness — in other words, the possibility for exercising concrete love.

By this logic, businesses are not expected, nor even allowed, to exercise any form of solidarity, any form of religiously inspired activity: Concrete love is banished from the economy. Too many managers have accepted a belief that any decision made for reasons other than profit is somehow wrong, and so they hesitate to make investments in employee safety or quality improvements beyond those required by law or a short-term return-on-investment calculus. Other managers, who want to do the right thing, find it to be against the law. Consider the case of Hobby Lobby, the popular crafts retailer, which comes before the U.S. Supreme Court on March 25. Hobby Lobby, like many other companies and organizations, does not want to be forced to spend money on abortifacient drugs for religious reasons. But the U.S. government is arguing that for-profit corporations’ decisions must be solely motivated by profit and not by any religious beliefs.

It seems to me that Pope Francis wants to blow this wide open. In his World Day of Peace message for 2014, he wrote that the “grave financial and economic crises of the present time … find their origin in the progressive distancing of man from God and from his neighbor, in the greedy pursuit of material goods on the one hand and in the impoverishment of interpersonal and community relations on the other” (6). These “have pushed man to seek satisfaction, happiness and security in consumption and earnings out of all proportion to the principles of a sound economy.” He calls for a “rethinking of our models of economic development and … a change in lifestyles.”

In his message of Jan. 17 to the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland, he insisted on an understanding of the human person from the perspective of eternal life, from which “a new political and business mentality can take shape, one capable of guiding all economic and financial activity within the horizon of an ethical approach which is truly humane” — an approach that is driven by concrete love, not a soap-opera economy.

What are the details of this mentality? On this, Pope Francis doesn’t elaborate, but that’s the role of the laity to resolve, as the details vary by our own personal circumstances. For those responsible for managing businesses, though, the general principle is clear: We are to run these businesses with solidarity, with concrete love and for the purpose of serving others — our customers, our employees, our investors and particularly the poor. Clearly, firms need to be profitable (otherwise, they cease to exist), but our motivation — notwithstanding the U.S. government’s claims in the Hobby Lobby case — must be one of service, understood from the perspective of eternal life.

Many Catholics and other people of faith are already trying to do this; indeed, our new School of Business & Economics at The Catholic University of America was established for this very purpose: to study and promote an approach to business that integrates solidarity — concrete love — and to explore new models of economic development. Pope Francis wants us to proceed with a “deep confidence that human beings need and are capable of something greater than maximizing their individual interest” (ibid.). 

Some might object that all this is far too naïve. They say, “Pope Francis, you must be crazy to think that you can change the way the global economy works — too many participants in the global economy are motivated by greed or fear, and the best we can hope for is to channel these in a constructive way.”

Perhaps we could have said the same to Our Lord, “Jesus, you must be crazy to think you can change the world — it runs on slavery and the brute force of the massive Roman army, and all you have is 12 illiterate fishermen.” 

Well, we now number a lot more than 12, and we’re not all so illiterate. I, for one, thank the Lord that his vicar on earth has the courage and imagination to provide this kind of leadership, and I intend to follow him every step of the way. 

Andrew Abela, Ph.D., is the dean of the new School of Business & Economics at The Catholic University of America, where he and his colleagues study and teach how to live concrete Christian love in the economy. He is co-editor, with Joseph Capizzi, Ph.D., of A Catechism for Business, forthcoming from CUA Press.