Catholic views on the Economy.

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Review of Matthew Shadle’s Interrupting Capitalism: Catholic Social Thought & the Economy.

Joe McKay

Matthew Shadle’s book, Interrupting Capitalism: Catholic Social Thought & the Economy, provides a good review of different strands of Catholic Social Thought (CST), which takes into account not just the magisterium teaching of the Catholic Church, but also the historical response of Christian communities to social and economic circumstances over the last century.

Shadle’s review moves from the seeming rejection of modernity by the reactionary ‘integralist’ movements, through the post-WWII shift to increasingly ecumenical and lay social movements in Western Europe, to liberation theology and the conflicting visions of progressive and neoconservative Catholics in the United States. He continues by reviewing recent developments in official papal teaching. 

John Paul II focused on a communio vision which rejected the optimism of the market economists. Shadle re-looks at John Paul II’s teaching on ‘structures of sin’. Benedict XVI, continuing the communio outlook, critiqued the effects of globalisation resulting in indifference and exploitation, rather than in the promised human solidarity and fraternity. In Pope Francis’s teaching on an ‘integral ecology’, Shadle sees a renewed emphasis on understanding the interconnection between our relationships and social-economic structures.

Matthew Shadle’s thesis is that CST should be viewed through a prism of interruption as opposed to theologies of continuity or discontinuity. Following Lieven Boeve’s theological thought, he proposes that a ‘theology of interruption’ is required (see his God Interrupts History: A Theology in a time of Upheaval of 2007). He recognises moments of divine mystery interpreted by the Christian narrative. These are not contained in the prior understanding of the believer, but change and deepen understanding of the faith narrative.

In his second thesis, Shadle argues that CST proposes an “organic, communitarian vision of economic life”.  Communities provide goods markets and the state cannot provide. He points to structures such as family, civil, and community organisations, unions, and the church community itself. These groups can help foster individual and social accountability, formation, and an alternative social vision. He sees CST as calling for an economic vision which provides space for these organisations, and that future development of CST needs to focus on the role of these communal groups for human fulfillment.

Shadle’s third thesis is that critical realism and institutional economic criticism provide tools for developing an adequate Catholic vision of economic life. Drawing from the work of Anthony Giddens, Shadle calls for an analysis which takes into account socio-economic structures. He points to a need for an analysis recognising the economy as a complex, non-linear, and open system. He states that most economic analysis overlooks the value of the work by volunteers and non-profit organisations, and ignores familial household tasks which foster communities in which people can flourish. Shadle’s theological analysis places importance on looking at socio-economic structures and the need for structural responses to social-economic problems.

A strength of the book is the analysis of the competing Catholic economic narratives, particularly in the United States. On one side is the progressive vision, focused on human rights and the common good, represented by the thought of David Hollenbach. The opposing view is that of the neoconservative vision, represented by the late Michael Novak, who saw in the free market, democratic government, and a pluralist moral-cultural outlook, a tripartite social-economic model which promotes human freedom and creativity. Shadle introduces and interrogates the strengths and weaknesses of the analyses of recent economic issues by several contemporary US theologians.

One weakness of the book is the brief look at Asian or African church perspectives, whose practice would seem to mirror Shadle’s outlook. Another weakness is the under-developed examples of how his theological outlook would change the practice of Christian communities engaged in addressing social and economic issues.

Shadle’s book is a good critical survey of a variety of CST perspectives on social-economic life. His analysis prompts a look at the local communal structures which are missing or failing when addressing a socio-economic problem. His theses are an antidote to the view that we can fix problems from a macro-policy position without engaging in the complex task of building local communities and responsive community structures which support, foster, and help form individuals and their relationships.

Humans are social beings, creating and being created by their individual and communal relationships and their environment. In nurturing the building of that complex web of relationships, in which, as the Body of Christ holds all things, we find our human fulfillment and our identity.

Matthew A Shadle Interrupting Capitalism. Catholic Social Thought and the Economy. New York: Oxford University Press 2018. Shadle is the Associate Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Marymount University, Virginia.

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