Several months ago, one of my parishioners challenged me when I spoke about the Church’s support for a new minimum wage law. She was arguing that Catholic social teaching should simply follow and reinforce economic market forces.
But the principle of Economic Justice that underlies much of the Church’s social teaching begins at a different point. We presume that economic systems should serve people, and not the other way around. People have rights to productive work, decent and fair wages, and safe working conditions. A free market, by itself, won’t necessarily generate all these things. The Church believes that it’s appropriate for the government, and for all of society, to intervene to make sure that people have access to these economic rights.
Pope John Paul II, in his pastoral letter Centesimus Annus, wrote:
After the failure of communism, should capitalism be the goal for Eastern Europe and the Third World? The answer is complex. If capitalism means a “market” or “free” economy that recognizes the role of business, the market, and private property, as well as free human creativity, then the answer is “yes.” If it means a system in which economic, religious, and ethical freedom are denied, then the answer is “no.” Marxism failed, but marginalization and exploitation remain, especially in the Third World, just as alienation does in the more advanced countries.
So, while the Church doesn’t uncritically endorse any economic system, we uphold the principles of economic justice that place the rights, responsibilities, and legitimate needs of people before allegiance to any particular way of managing our economic lives.