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Advancing the common good: economics and theology together

By Thomas A. Gresik

In a recent episode of The Living Church podcast, “When to Re-open for Business? Ethics and Economy,” Elisabeth Kincaid and Stewart Clem discussed several important issues in the debate regarding when to re-open our economy. The very title of the episode importantly focuses on ethics and the economy not on ethics or the economy. Too often the debate has been cast as a trade-off between lives and dollars. What such positions fail to acknowledge is that both the spread of COVID-19 and economic downturns affect mortality and both are contagious. Moreover, our ability as a society to fight the virus and treat people over a sustained period of time is inextricably linked to the health of our economy. Thus, the focus of the episode on ethics and the economy is important and welcome.

The effects of the virus and economic downturns vary across people and locations. The virus does not have a silver lining although economic downturns do tend to result in fewer deaths from causes such as traffic accidents, heart attacks, and cirrhosis. We see more deaths during economic downturns from suicides and some drug overdoses. There are indications that people with serious illnesses such as cancer and heart disease have not been seeking treatment during this pandemic. COVID-19 has been shown to infect people from all parts of the income distribution, but lower-income people have had higher mortality rates. Economic downturns affect primarily lower-income people. A larger incidence of COVID-19 has been seen in urban areas and rural areas with prison populations. More rural communities have seen fewer infections (even in per capita terms), but have not been able to absorb the economic losses as well. Fr. Clem was right to point out that the incidence and economic cost of treating the disease has varied across the country; so too has the economic cost of dealing with the shutdown. For example, one large hospital in north central Wisconsin had to lay off most of its staff because it was not allowed to offer elective procedures and had almost no COVID-19 cases.

Perhaps the most important comments in the podcast from both Dr. Kincaid and Fr. Clem addressed our inability as a nation, as states, or as communities to see, listen to, and understand how our choices and actions affect others. Although there are some people who do not think the virus is a significant threat to our health, the health of communities, and to the health of our economies, the bigger source of disagreement seems to come from a difference of opinions on how to manage and contain the threat of the virus. In our polarized politics, listening to people who have different opinions or concerns has been met with disdain and contempt.

Christian ethics offers us guidance into how we as a society should make personal and social decisions during this pandemic. Both speakers contrast the utilitarian notion of the common good with that from Christian ethics. The stylized utilitarian view is that the common good is whatever provides the greatest good for the most people while the Catholic catechism defines the common good as “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily.” (Cathechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1906) The challenge for us as individuals and as a nation is the potential conflict between individual goals and group goals. One need look no further to observe this fact than the news reports of large numbers of people who in recent days have partied without regard for social distancing guidelines.

It is important to point out that social decisions do not always reflect the Catechism’s notion of the common good and economic decisions need not reflect the utilitarian notion. Such a dichotomy undergirds the mistaken view that Christianity and economic decisions, especially in a market economy, are opposed to each other. At its root, economics is not about making as much money as possible. It is about allocating resources to achieve personal and social goals. The economic science understanding of the contribution of a market economy to the common good, what economists refer to as social welfare, does not actually rely on utilitarian arguments at all. To the contrary, economics recognizes the appropriateness for societies to weight the well-being of individuals differentially. It also recognizes a role for prudent government regulation and government provision of some goods and services. At the heart of any economy is the fact that we need each other. There is no commerce without other people – people with different needs, interests, and abilities. There is no trade, domestic or international, without other people. There is at best limited capacity for individuals to weather crises without other geographically and financially dispersed people. There is a limited capacity to fund hospitals and find new vaccines without other people. These are all economic functions because they all require the use of resources.  In fact, I would argue that a dichotomous view of the common good versus the economy misses the crucial linkage between a well-functioning economy and society’s ability to advance the common good.

The idea that being a good economic citizen means one should not take account of how others are affected by our actions is simply false. The idea that economics is antithetical to advancing the common good ignores the fundamental focus of economics in discerning the extent to which economic behavior can achieve the common good. In his encyclical, Mater et Magistra,  Pope John XXIII wrote, “[A]ll forms of economic enterprise must be governed by the principles of social justice and charity” (No. 39). The remarkable property of the market economy is that even in a world in which individuals make purely self-serving choices, the market economy can under certain circumstances achieve the common good. But especially when these circumstances do not exist, Pope John XIII’s statement is a concise summary of Christ’s teaching: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt 22:39). The market economy has the potential to do so much more good than other ways of organizing the economy, and this is especially true when we embrace the second greatest Christian commandment.

At the end of the podcast, Dr. Kincaid asked, “How do we witness to the redemptive action of God in the world?” I would like to suggest that one very powerful way is by paying closer attention to how our individual and corporate actions affect others who are not like us, by paying serious attention to all calls for relief, and by not dismissing the experiences of others. If we can do this, the Grace of God will point us towards solutions to our current crisis (and to future crises) that we cannot see by maintaining polarized views and discounting the needs of others. The German experience is an apt example. Rather than shutting down the entire economy, the German government allowed factories to operate once they could figure out how to do so safely. It was not a public health or economy approach but a public health and economy approach.

I am reminded of one of the prayers for mission in the Daily Office:

Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us with your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your Name. Amen.

Reaching forth our hands in love means caring about the people we interact with directly and indirectly the way we would like them to care about us. When we focus on the needs of others through all our actions, social and economic, we transform our social and economic actions into complements instead of substitutes, and we meet in the middle embraced by our Savior’s arms.

Thomas Gresik is a postulant for Holy Orders in the Diocese of Northern Indiana, an M.Div. student at Bexley Seabury, and a professor of economics at the University of Notre Dame. He is a parishioner at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Mishawaka, IN where his life has gratefully intersected with those of Dr. Kincaid and Fr. Clem. 


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