Review: Christian Economic Ethics: History and Implications (Fortress Press, 2013)

[Originally included in JLE July/August 2014]

[1] Daniel Finn is the William and Virginia Clemens Professor of Economics and the Liberal Arts and professor of theology at St. John’s University and the College of St. Benedict in Collegeville, Minnesota. He has published extensively in the area of Christian ethics and economics and enjoys the genuine respect of his colleagues in the field of Christian ethics. This book also is worthy of that respect.

[2] Finn states at the outset and reiterates throughout that the aim of the book is to answer the question, “What does the history of Christian views of economic life mean for our economic life in the twentieth century?” His review of that history begins with the Hebrew Scriptures and runs through the early church, the Middles Ages, the Reformation, modern and contemporary encyclicals, and social statements of the Protestant churches. The historical narrative is a rich blend of extensive excerpts from the primary sources and the author’s commentary on their message. It is the foundation that Finn lays for his concluding chapters on the principles and implications for economic ethics today.

[3] At the beginning of this journey we are alerted to the reality of disparate voices on economic life within the Christian community. Therefore, a subsidiary aim will be to understand each other better in order to find a way forward based on common values. Finn also reminds us that times change and the resources of Bible and tradition were shaped in very different contexts.

[4] However, as the book progresses we witness an ongoing conviction that change and continuity are not mutually exclusive. Indeed the changes we need to make in adjusting to the economic realities of our own day can be seen and undertaken in a way that maintains continuity with past values of the Christian tradition. Ultimately, a Christian economic ethic will seek to maintain continuity with the tradition’s concern for the dignity of all, the flourishing of all, and justice for all. Chapter 11 on “The Development of Moral Teaching” illustrates this dialectic of continuity and change in its discussion of Usury, Slavery, and Human Rights. So, for example, usury for the ancients was the charging of any interest on the loan of money and condemned as taking unfair advantage. In our vastly different economic situation, we see interest as a positive aspect of economics but, in continuity of concerns of past Christian thinkers, we would condemn and seek to control exorbitant rates of interest.

[5] As a Catholic theologian, Finn’s priority is the witness of “Catholic social teaching,” the teaching of the magisterium, and the resources of the broader category of “Catholic social thought,” that includes the voices of scholars who are neither popes nor bishops. He is clear about this priority at the very beginning (29) and again in Part V, “Coming to Conclusions,” he states that the concluding chapters, “will focus on the Roman Catholic tradition, employing its categories and logic. Many Protestants will hopefully find the analysis congenial, but it will focus on and arise from categories of Catholic Social Thought.” (331) I think it fair to say that, though his focus is Catholic, most will find his contribution and the rich deposit of Catholic social thought in these matters to be largely “catholic” as well, appealing to a shared biblical, theological, and ethical heritage.

[6] From the Hebrew Scriptures we learn that the material world is the good gift of God and, given that gift, there is an obligation to care for the widow, the orphan, and the alien – the poor of that world. Both gift and obligation are understood as a function of God’s covenant relationship with the people. The New Testament certainly does not condemn wealth but calls upon Jesus’ disciples to use their goods in the support of those in need. In so doing, Christians are committed to an order broader than the Christian community that anticipates the Kingdom of God Jesus preached and died for in which all are loved and none are outcast. As in the Hebrew Scriptures, the obligations to the neighbor are grounded in God’s gracious relationship with the people. “One central theme made clear in the teachings of Paul is that we have been redeemed in Christ and that makes all the difference in our lives. This redemption is the free gift offered by God in Christ and there is nothing we can do to earn or deserve it…Thus, living out our faith in ordinary economic life is always understood as a loving response to a generous God.” (62)

[7] In the early church period (chapters 5 and 6) voices like that of Augustine, Basil the Great, and Clement of Alexandria can be heard teaching that the proper use of earthly goods entails a readiness to help those in need. To ignore the plight of the poor and to exploit them by the practice of usury is strongly condemned. The sharing of riches was considered a duty of justice. Thus, the early church advanced a view that challenged the predominant Roman law, which had strong protections for private ownership with little to say about obligations to the poor. This conviction echoed the biblical faith that the earth and all its goods is the gift of God and it is God’s intention that all should have a share of this gift; the needs of all should be met. An important development of this faith commitment was the establishment of charitable institutions, a development that has continued throughout Christian history to this day. (95) Finn cautions us, however, not to see this concern for the obligations of the rich to the poor as an early discussion of the contemporary issue of economic inequality. The early church was simply interested in meeting the basic needs of all.

[8] The medieval period focuses on the teaching of Thomas Aquinas on four economic issues: property ownership, the just price (which includes the just wage), slavery, and usury. In the review of these issues we also get a helpful primer on the Thomistic understanding of natural law and its relevance to matters of economic ethics. Thomas’ strong support of property ownership is an important aspect of a Christian approach to economic life in today’s world. At the same time Thomas’ insistence that property ownership carries with it a strong moral obligation to help those in need provides grounds for taxation of the prosperous to support programs that provide necessary services for the poor. It is also important that Aquinas addresses just price and just wage since these remain debated issues today but Finn observes that Thomas’ ideas on these matters simply don’t fit today’s economic context.

[9] The Reformation heritage is represented in a review of Luther and Calvin on economic issues. (Chapter 10) He lifts up the importance of Luther’s teaching on vocation, which Calvin also endorsed, as providing a basis for seeing one’s daily conduct in economic life as religiously significant. Calvin is credited with recognizing that movement away from a totally agrarian economy toward one that increasingly involved employment in cities required new concerns for just wages.

[10] Before moving on to the modern and contemporary sources, Finn sets down four problems of economic life that every economy must deal with. The first is Allocation: what will be produced and what resources will be used. Markets he believes can be trusted to deal well with the problems of allocation as long as government and civil society organizations provide help for those whose basic needs are not being met. Distribution is next. Who gets what? This is basically the issue of distributive justice, which he believes markets can do many things well here but, once again, help is needed from government and citizen action. The third problem is Scale. Among other issues this problem includes environmental concerns in the huge scale of our global economy. Finally, Quality of Relations refers to the relations among employees and others engaged in the economy. Economists have tended to avoid this morally significant question but good relationships are critical to efficiency and to addressing the problems of allocation and distribution.

[11] When we move into the modern era the economic issues the churches address expand exponentially along with the expansion and greater complexity of modern economic life. Chapter 14 deals with the landmark encyclical of Pope Leo XII, Rerum novarum and Quadrigesimo anno delivered by Pope Pius XI in 1931, the fortieth anniversary of Rerum novarum. Chapter 15 presents the social teaching on economic life in the encyclicals of Pope John XXIII and Pope Paul VI. Chapter 17, then, provides the teachings of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict. In these chapters we find that the popes address property, capitalism and socialism, just wages, labor unions, the role of government, justice, rights, the economy and the state, dangers of free markets, technology, the common good, the dangers of extreme inequality.

[12] Finn observes that the teachings of the popes and Catholic social thought offers Christians insights that can help them in addressing the problems of economic life but it does not propose a specific model for the economy or polity. Nonetheless, Christians are encouraged to be socially and politically active for the sake of the common good.

[13] Chapter 16, Contemporary Protestant Thought on Economic Life offers a generous selection of excerpts from social statements by the National Association of Evangelicals, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, The Presbyterian Church USA, the United Church of Christ, the World Alliance, and the United Methodist Church, as well as a report of stances taken by the Episcopal Church USA. Topics that are addressed include property ownership, scarcity and abundance, inequality, markets, international trade, advertising, work (vocation), unions, globalization, the environment, civic life, civil society, public policy, and life style implications. Finn is careful to point out that as the teachings of the Popes do not exhaust the fund of Catholic commentary, so also the social statements of these churches do not represent the whole of Protestant thought. In the final analysis, the similarities between this Protestant witness and Catholic social teaching are clear.

[14] Drawing on the history of Christian thought and recognizing the development of doctrine as times change, Finn then offers eight fundamental convictions for Christians engaged in economic life (Chapter 18): creation and redemption call us to a more responsible economic life, economic life is religiously significant, faith in God requires proper ordering of goods, human development must be integral, faith requires attention to both individual and institutional life, both persons and institutions can be sinful, both theology and science are needed, Christian social thought is a storehouse of wisdom. To these he adds thirteen basic elements of Catholic social thought critical to economic life.

[15] The conclusions that follow in chapters 19 and 20 display a balance of appreciation for what the markets can do and the need for society and government to be involved so that the common good is served by the economy, so that all needs of people and the earth are met. How the poor are treated is the moral test of any economy. He is clear that Christian economic ethics is a matter of living out one’s faith in recognition of God’s creative and redemptive goodness and mercy.

[16] This is a book that can help concerned Christians navigate the contemporary and often confusing economic debates in a manner consistent with their faith. Finn’s account is balanced and nuanced, critical of extremes on both right and left. It is an excellent antidote to divisive discourse of today’s culture wars.

James M. Childs is Joseph A. Sittler Emeritus Professor of Theology and Ethics at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus Ohio.

James M. Childs

James M. Childs is Joseph A. Sittler Emeritus Professor of Theology and Ethics at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus Ohio.