About Ignatius Insight
  Who We Are
  Ignatius Press
  Ignatius Press catalogs
  Catholic World Report
  Homiletic & Pastoral Review
  IP Novels site
  IP Religious Ed blog
  IP Critical Editions

Government: Too Much, Too Little? | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | May 26, 2010 | Ignatius Insight

Print-friendly version

"Regrettably, all too many economists, jurists, sociologists, and political scientists have accepted faulty assumptions about human nature and promoted relativistic attitudes toward morality and truth."
-- Mary Ann Glendon, "Address, Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences." [1]

"These realities point to the urgency of strengthening the governance procedures of the global economy, albeit with due respect for the principle of subsidiarity."
-- Pope Benedict XVI, 16th Plenary Session of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences. [2]


In its Plenary Session for April 30, 2010, Professor Russell Hittinger of the University of Tulsa and Professor Janne Haaland Matlary were inducted into the Pontifical Academy of the Social Sciences. Hittinger is one of the best minds in the country: clear, enormously well-read, and sane in his judgments. He has been a long-time friend, as has Janne Matlary. She is Norwegian, of enormous energy and insight. She was the first Catholic in the Norwegian government since the Reformation. She has one book whose preface is written by Otto of Hapsburg and another whose preface is written by Joseph Ratzinger. As I have told her, she is the only person in the world who has one book introduced by the Holy Roman Emperor and the other by the Pope of Rome.

Both Hittinger and Matlary were inducted into the Pontifical Academy in the April Plenary Session. Traditionally, the President of the Academy gives a brief address to the Holy Father. The current president is Professor Mary Ann Glendon, a Professor at Harvard and the former United States Ambassador to the Holy See, again, a lady of great erudition, charm, and knowledge. Her book, Rights Talk, remains one of the best warnings about the dire effects of the unrestricted use of "rights" in political and social discourse.

This excess of "rights" discourse is not infrequently seen in documents of the Holy See itself. Benedict at least tried to put some restraint on this "rights talk" in Caritas in veritate, when he insisted that "rights" always need a "duty" correlative. Once they are presupposed to nothing but positive law, "rights" become an unending list of utopian proposals and anti-natural law propositions, with little grounding in feasibility or reason.

In her address to the Holy Father, Glendon rightly pointed out the relativism that stands behind so much social science. Sometimes it seems the first job of Catholic social scientist is to examine the very premises of social sciences themselves, something that Leo Strauss was likewise concerned about. The philosophical presuppositions of most social sciences often do not free us from such dominance of relativism but lock us into it.


In his short address, Benedict analyzes the world economic situation. He seems to argue that the problem is too little government, rather than too much. He finds the "assumption" that the market can regulate itself to be an "error." There needs to be "public intervention and the support of internalized moral standards." The pope does not here address the corresponding issue of too much government intervention, the socialist problem, with all its implications. Most of the arguments for free markets are in fact based on the experience of too much government.

The governmental cause of growth stagnation, hence of little jobs creation, needs to be addressed. In general, on a world scale, too much government is a far more serious human problem than too little government. What is the right amount can vary in time and place. Tyranny is by no means unknown in modern democracies, as the recent popes themselves have indicated. One cannot plea for a world in which the young have jobs and then assume an all too willing government will be able to provide them with a margin of liberty or jobs.

Benedict points to an "impoverished notion of economic life as a sort of self-calibrating mechanism driven by self-interest and profit seeking." This approach is said to "overlook" the ethical nature of economic activity. This activity is rather to be "of and for human beings." For this priority to be so, the activity flows from a certain kind of being, the rational one, seeking that good towards which his being is directed.

Human beings are to be both the producers and the "that for which" things are produced. In other words, economics is not an abstract mechanism but a human one. Its exchanges involve justice, order, and enterprise. The pope does not mention here that self-interest has a relation to free human beings acting for their own good and that of others. Profit is an incentive in this activity, without which no economy other than a controlled one would exist in the first place.

The main lesson to be drawn from the late world economic crisis, I think, is not the need of more governmental control, but of less. Benedict's concerns arise from the initial shock of a relatively severe economic crisis. But he does not seem to have noticed the significance of the proposals and laws that have been subsequently enacted to deal with it.

The Obama administration could read the earlier remarks as complete justifications for its taking over large sectors of the economy as it has, in fact, done. These latter laws and takeovers are much more dangerous for both the Church and the economy itself than the initial crisis. The response of "more government" as the main solution has had the not unexpected results of concentrating more and more power in governments itself based on fulfilling whatever "rights" it chooses. This growth hinders rather than helps the situation.

Benedict in fact follows what is in effect a Thomist basis. "The principles of the ethical order, inscribed in creation itself, are accessible to human reason and, as such, must be adopted as the basis of practical choices." On this basis, we can talk to every society about its own foundations. Free market and profit need not be understood as a "mechanism" but as practical means of enabling the talents and energies of individuals to reach out to serve their own families and their neighbors. The fact of a growing world economy does not, as such, contradict this principle. It enables other societies long considered "undeveloped" to exchange goods and services.

Europe is finding out that larger political and economic units may all go down together. Different conceptions of economic and fiscal responsibility remain. They are caused largely by too much government and by a demanding people unwilling to acknowledge their own problems.


The present pope has little difficulty in seeing the relation of reason and revelation in the social order:
The principles of the ethical order, inscribed in creation itself, are accessible to human reason and, as such, must be adopted as a basic for practical choices. As part of the great heritage of human wisdom, the natural moral law, which the Church has appropriated, purified, and developed in the light of Christian revelation, serves as a beacon guiding the efforts of individuals and communities to pursue good and avoid evil, while directing their commitment to building an authentically just and human society.
It is precisely this discourse of revelation to reason that we cannot really talk about in the public order of relativist societies.

Two things might be said about the above passage. First, as such, it sounds very utopian. Presumably, few actual societies are "authentically just and human." The responsibility to be more just and human belongs first to each society itself. But is it implicit here that outside powers have the "responsibility" to interfere in the internal structures of unjust or failed societies? Who is to exercise this responsibility? Would a world authority really be less dangerous?

Secondly, the pope reiterates what has become a truism since Augustine, that natural law by itself seems incapable of bringing about virtue even when it is known by reason. This view brings up the classic Thomist argument about the need of revelation to "appropriate, purify, and develop" the natural law. But today almost all polities are going the other direction, excluding any argument that might come from a revelational source. Notice that Benedict says here that natural law is needed for "practical choices." These choices, of course, are always concrete and changeable.

The pope further remarks on the common good, noting its world dimensions. This point of view is the logic of the world government thesis that was popularized by Robert Hutchins and Jacques Maritain, who followed, as they thought, the logic of Aquinas and Aristotle about the relation of rule to ruled. The pope says that there are "ethical criteria for judging any social system." We find an "urgency" to "strengthen" government procedures at the world level. As a sort of after-thought, the pope does recall the "principle of subsidiarity," though seemingly in a top-to-bottom manner.

The pope also brings up the troublesome notion of a common good that includes "future generations." One wonders just what this could mean. How many future generations will there be? What future generation: the one in fifty years, a hundred, five hundred, a thousand, all at once? On what possible basis could we make such an estimate? Were the people in the year 1000 worried about the natural resources of the year 2000? What would that mean? What do I "do" if I am worried about the year 3000?

We have no idea what technology or resources will be available in the future. The only real resource is the human mind. If we simply project what we know now onto the future and use the present technology as a criterion for shutting off the future, we may end up with a tyrannical ecological control of the future through governmental control of ourselves today.

In fact, it seems that ecology has become a tool of future statism designed to control actual populations. This notion of taking into account "future generations" needs much more thought than is normally given to it. It is not neutral or even necessarily for the good of present or future generations.

At this point Benedict recalls his own reflections on the relation of charity to truth. Most modern economic and political movements reveal a subtle influence of a broader concept of "charity." They are "doing good." In Spe Salvi, Benedict was concerned with this eschatological aspect of modern thought.

"The common good, grounded in respect for the dignity of the human person and acknowledged as the primary goal of production and trade systems, of political institutions and social welfare" is to be promoted.

At this point, Benedict XVI returns to his recent insistence of the primacy of truth "Truth preserves and channels the liberating power of charity among ever-contingent human events and structures." Benedict understands that the without truth, even charity ends in justifying relativism. We "do good" by justifying arrangements that are actually perversions of soul. If we cannot say this disorder exists, we end up justifying, in the name of equality and charity, what is really counter to human nature.

Social science can easily be organized to explain and justify the "normalcy" of moral and political disorders. All social science thus must be based in the prior notion that a human nature exists. It abides over time. It reveals what man is. Without this supposition, any political order, even the best, can be organized against the truth of man, in the name of an empty common good down the ages.


[1] Mary Ann Glendon, "The Role of Moral Values," L'Osservatore Romani, English, May 5, 2010.

[2] Benedict XVI, "Without Public Intervention and Moral Standards the Market Cannot Regulate Itself," L'Osservatore Romano, English, May 5, 2010.

Biography of Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI
All books by or about Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI
Excerpts from books by Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI
Articles about Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI

Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.

He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture, and literature including Another Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning, The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006), The Sum Total of Human Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), The Regensburg Lecture (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), and The Mind That Is Catholic: Philosophical and Political Essays (CUA, 2008). His most recent book from Ignatius Press is The Order of Things (Ignatius Press, 2007). His new book, The Modern Age, is available from St. Augustine's Press. Read more of his essays on his website.

Visit the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies, and news in the Church!


World Wide Web


Place your order toll-free at 1-800-651-1531

Ignatius Press | San Francisco
Web design under direction of Ignatius Press.
Send your comments or web problems to:

Copyright 2018 by Ignatius Press

IgnatiusInsight.com catholic blog books insight scoop weblog ignatius