Economics as if Theology Mattered

‘Interrupting Capitalism’
(CNS photo/Max Rossi, Reuters)

Matthew A. Shadle begins Interrupting Capitalism by identifying two “roadblocks” that prevent the Catholic Church from transforming economic life. The first is that the global economy is immense and immensely difficult to alter. The second is that the church is unable “to capture the imagination of the vast majority of its members with its vision of economic life.” Without an adequate pastoral strategy, “the transformative power of Catholics in the pews remains mostly untapped.”

Shadle’s aim is neither to dismantle the global economy (as Marxists would) nor to establish “small pockets of countercultural practice” (a popular proposal of disciples of Stanley Hauerwas or John Milbank). He intends to provide a vision, and “tools for a pastoral strategy” to energize Catholics.

The bulk of the book provides an insightful account of developments in intellectual, political, and economic history from World War II forward. This begins with social Catholicism (the church’s response to the Industrial Revolution) and Christian democracy (the political movement in Western Europe). It recounts the economic visions of Vatican II, liberation theology, progressive and neoconservative Catholicism in the United States, and the contributions of popes from John XXIII to Benedict XVI. (Francis is the focus of the six-page Conclusion.) While Shadle’s own position periodically appears in the historical section, his history’s real contribution is its fair-minded, intellectually astute assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of each of these sources. Even readers experienced in Catholic social thought can gain significantly from his work.

Shadle’s substantive proposals depend heavily on his account of our current situation, characterized by secularization, “pluralization,” and individualization. Following Charles Taylor’s account, Shadle understands the secular character of contemporary life to entail three shifts away from the premodern world, in which religious life was bolstered by collective ritual actions in the civic community, everyday life was in touch with a spiritually meaningful world, and human flourishing entailed a harmony with the purposes of the cosmos. In our secular age, the world is “disenchanted”; religious faith is no longer the default position in society but simply one of many alternative ways of life that an individual might choose.

Relying on Zygmunt Bauman, Shadle identifies this fact of pluralization (the great variety of lifestyles, perspectives, and worldviews) with individualization. Every person faces the task of constructing an individual identity. The neglect of community generates the illusion of “the self-sufficient individual” as “the public is colonized by the private.” All this makes the world a fertile seedbed for global capitalism, which relies on vast international networks of production and distribution but treats persons as isolated individuals and strives to convince them that this is for their own fulfillment.

 

A theology of interruption requires two things: making claims from the Christian tradition that critique contemporary culture and structures, and engaging in dialogue with the poor and marginalized.

In response, Shadle lays out three “theses for a Catholic vision of economic life.” The first is that the way forward lies in a theology of interruption, in contrast to the theologies of continuity characteristic of contemporary Catholicism. Here Shadle relies on Belgian theologian Lieven Boeve. Theologies of continuity “affirm a fundamental continuity between the Christian faith and modern social life.” While they may be critical of much that happens today, “they [couch] their criticisms in terms of the values of modernity, pointing out ways the modern world has failed to live up to its best ideals.” With this definition, Shadle argues that most contemporary Catholic theology—including official Catholic social teaching, both neoconservative and progressive U.S. Catholic theology, and even liberation theology—is fundamentally a theology of continuity. These assume the autonomy of secular society and the separation of the sacred from the secular. Each “appeals to a vision of what it means to be human that transcends the particularities of culture and religion.” Shadle acknowledges that the best representatives of each of these options avoid the temptation to subordinate Christian claims to the secular; his primary complaint seems to be that each of them intends to “enter into dialogue with the modern world” in a postmodern context.

Because there is no single modern experience to dialogue with, he argues, such theologies of continuity appear to function only when and where “the residual influence of Christian culture create[s] the perception of a shared vision of humanity in congruity with the Christian vision.” With an increasing splintering of perspectives in postmodernity, each of these theologies of continuity becomes “less plausible.”

Shadle is similarly critical of theologies of discontinuity. In light of the postmodern abandonment of an integrated Christian vision, these approaches—whether of Milbank, Hauerwas, or traditionalist Catholic movements—understand themselves as resident aliens in the postmodern world, and some of them yearn nostalgically for a world that can no longer exist.

In place of both theologies of continuity and discontinuity, Shadle endorses Boeve’s “theology of interruption.” Interruption is understood to be an experience of God (in scripture, sacrament, “the religious other,” or the poor and marginalized) that, although interpreted in light of prior faith, challenges believers to “a deepening or development of the tradition.” As a systematic theologian, Boeve employs this notion largely as an interpretive principle to deal with contemporary religious pluralism. Shadle takes up the challenge to show “how a theology of interruption can contribute to Catholic social thought.”

Shadle’s second thesis is that we should recover and renew the traditional Catholic “organicist communitarian vision.” This will provide a critique of modernity and a deeper appreciation of the institutions of civil society. While he wants the economy to be organized in such a way as to make space for local intermediate communities, he cautions against too sharp a separation of these communities from the structures of the global economy.

His third thesis is that the “social scientific tools” needed for an adequate Catholic vision of economic life are provided by critical-realist social theory and institutional economics. Critical realism rejects both the methodological individualism of mainstream economics (which assumes that there are no causes in social life other than the decisions of persons and groups) and the methodological holism of many sociological approaches (which assumes a very thin form of freedom in light of powerful social forces). It proposes a more adequate—and more Catholic—understanding of the relation between structure and human agency. Following critical-realist sociologist Margaret Archer, Shadle explains that “social structures constrain and enable agents, but agents in turn reproduce and transform those same social structures.” Culture, “the entire stock of ideas and values available to a society,” has an analogous relation to human agency and, of course, structure and culture themselves interact. He also recommends relying on institutional economics, perhaps the most robust of the “heterodox” schools of economics. In two pages in the opening chapters, he borrows from Geoffrey Hodgson a set of three characteristics of capitalism (that it is complex, linear, and open) but makes almost no use of institutional economics in the rest of the volume.

Shadle’s views become apparent in the historical survey, and especially in the penultimate chapter, where he reviews the work of five contemporary Catholic voices: Meghan Clark, Samuel Gregg, Christine Firer Hinze, Maria Teresa Dávila, and William T. Cavanaugh. In each case, he offers both praise and critique, consistently making clear that the method of a theology of interruption requires two things: making claims from the Christian tradition that critique contemporary culture and structures, and engaging in dialogue with the poor and marginalized.

His own perspective, “organicist communitarianism,” is directly articulated in only three pages, just before the concluding chapter on Pope Francis. We need local communities and economic practices “to bend the state away from the interests of concentrated wealth and power.” We must re-embed the economy in civil society and ensure that “the values of self-giving, mutuality, and solidarity are embodied in economic life.” Although he mentions transforming larger economic structures as part of this vision, his attention focuses on local change.

The brief concluding chapter addresses the teaching of Pope Francis. Shadle sees many hopeful signs there. Although he acknowledges that Francis hasn’t endorsed his three theses (theology of interruption, organicist communitarianism, and critical realism/institutional economics), Shade suggests that these three “offer a good prediction of where the Catholic social tradition is headed.”

 

No volume is without its shortcomings. Contrary to Shadle’s critique, no Catholic theologian I know of has claimed that any modern perspective is congruous with the Christian vision, and most have acknowledged the difficulties presented by the variety of worldviews today. Magisterial teaching and most theologians “of continuity” have tried to speak not only in specifically religious language but also in categories (justice, human rights, etc.) familiar to contemporary people who are not Christians. Such intellectual “outreach” is missing from Shadle’s account of theology, which thereby comes closer to theologies of discontinuity. The interruption he envisions is in economic life. His endorsement of institutional economics implies an interest in the intellectual debates about national economic policy and structures, but he does not develop here this feature of his position.

It’s also worth noting that Shadle’s position—his three theses, for example—is rooted in the insights of Boeve, Archer, Hodgson, and a number of other scholars who are prosperous white academics from the global North. I say this not to disparage their work or reputation (I fit into the same group!) but to note that Shadle’s enthusiasm for injecting into Catholic social thought a novel perspective from “outside” is perhaps more difficult than he indicates.

This is a good book. The fair-minded, insightful accounts of the positions of others are exemplary throughout the text. Shadle’s constructive position presents a challenge to most others in the field. It’s quite likely that whatever your view of these issues, his work will helpfully call your position into question.

Interrupting Capitalism
Catholic Social Thought and the Economy

Matthew A. Shadle
Oxford University Press, $99, 392 pp.

Published in the January 4, 2019 issue: 

Daniel K. Finn teaches economics and Christian ethics at St. John’s University and the College of St. Benedict and is the director of the True Wealth of Nations research project at the Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies. This article is adapted from another in Theological Studies (March 2016) and a forthcoming book, The Ethics and Economics of Market Complicity: Moral Agency in a Global Economy (Georgetown University Press).

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