Religion, Economics and Social Thought
L.M. Read is author of The Intelligent Citizens Guide to the Postal
The international symposium on whose proceedings this work is based was unique in that it brought together exponents of several religious traditions — Roman Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and Muslims — to offer their ethical-theological reflections on political economy. In a very general way interest focused on the relative merits of democratic capitalism and democratic socialism. The selection of participants served to reveal a vigorous diversity of responses not so much between religious traditions as within each of the religious traditions. The papers, comments, and discussions (as edited) are lively and offer a wealth of information on this diversity.
A general criticism one might make of the authors is a tendency to one-sidedness. They were inclined either to offer a positive evaluation of socialistic practices in a context of disclosing the negative aspects of the development of Western capitalism or to offer a positive evaluation of laissez-faire capitalism in a context of disclosing the negative consequences of socialistic practices. Given that it is only in the minds of thinkers who have locked themselves into a single model of the social order that either the capitalist system or the socialist system is all good or all bad, it is vitally important that we be aware simultaneously of the positive and negative features of both. For example, Part One, “Catholic Social Thought,” contains two fascinating papers discussing the response of the Roman Catholic Church to the development of Western democratic capitalism. The first, by Professor James A. Sadowsky of Fordham University, discusses the “classical doctrine” which “prevailed among Roman Catholic thinkers from the encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891) until the middle of the twentieth century.” The second, by Professor Gregory Baum of the University of Toronto, discusses “a shift to the left” in Roman Catholic social teaching since 1971. Professor Sadowsky apparently regrets the fact that Rerum Novarum did not go further in casting off the medieval cloak of the Church and in responding favourably to the positive aspects of liberal democratic capitalism. However, he shows no awareness that in this “classical” period there was a pressing need for ethical criticism of the negative aspects of capitalism. Professor Baum favours the shift to the left since 1971 as reflected, for example, in the pronouncements of the Canadian bishops and the bishops supporting Liberation Theology in Latin America. However, he exhibits no awareness that a most pressing problem in the 1980s in both the First World and the Second if not the Third World is what to do about the negative consequences of established socialistic practices. Is the Church in its social teachings destined to be always some decades behind?
Part Two offers two interesting papers on Protestant thought in the nineteenth century favourable to a laissez-faire political economy: the first, by Dr. Anthony Waterman of the University of Manitoba, deals with the U.K.; the second, by Dr. Paul Heyne of the University of Washington, deals with the U.S. In Part Three Dr. Ronald Preston, recently of the University of Manchester, and Dr. Roger Hutchinson of the University of Toronto do a similar job with the social gospel in the U.K. and in North America.
Part Four takes up three diverse kinds of Christian response to social issues, each of which has been provocative in its own way to other Christians: the social thought of the Dutch Neo-Calvinist tradition; the stance of minority groups who have distanced themselves from wealth and power; and the treatment of social-economic issues by the World Council of Churches. Parts Five and Six take up Judaic and Islamic social thought. Not unexpectedly, vigorous diversity is to be found within each of these traditions as well.
The book is highly recommended reading for all social scientists and religious thinkers who believe that the form of our commitment to the ultimate good ought to affect our relationship to the prevailing economic order. Likewise, it is highly recommended for all exponents of religious and economic positions who want to be apprised of the complexity and diversity of social options and who are prepared to have their preferred paradigm challenged.