10 Questions for Bishops. Can’t answer? Then perhaps this isn’t your strongest suit.

Originally posted on: Nov 20, 2017 @ 11:03

In my text chats one of my interlocutors proposed:

“Get someone from ACTON INSTITUTE to make a list of 10 questions that any bishop or priest should be able to answer correctly BEFORE opining about economic justice.”

“Great idea!”, quoth I.  “Let’s see what we can come up with! ‘¡Hagan lío!’, after all.”

I put on my thinking cap and spoke with someone who writes about economic issues and came up with the following list.

  • What function do prices play in an economy?
  • What role does the Federal Reserve play in the American economy?
  • What are the three functions of money?
  • What is competitive advantage?
  • What is the average consumption of GDP by governments in OECD countries?
  • In what time period did capitalism first emerge?
  • What is moral hazard and how does it shape economic decision-making?
  • What percentage of taxes are paid by the specific tax bands in the United States? And, by the way, do you know how long the tax code in the United States is?
  • How do you create wealth?

There.  Just a few questions.  They’ll prompt me to review.

By they way… if you haven’t seen the Poverty Cure series and then Poverty Inc. you are in for an eye-opening experience.  These would be great to show to… a lot of people.

Poverty Cure

US HERE – UK HERE

Poverty Inc.

US HERE – UK HERE

Powerful stuff.

UPDATE:

And this video just arrived in my box. It seems to be related.

Some sharing options...

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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22 Responses to 10 Questions for Bishops. Can’t answer? Then perhaps this isn’t your strongest suit.

  1. Unwilling says:

    I earned a PhD and MBA and spent a year as a corporate banker before entering my career as (mainly financial) hospital management. Fr Z’s list of questions is excellent. The first one is a stunner. And they do need to be answered as a prolegomena to any statement of social doctrine. But the questions are not easy or straightforward to answer and, in some cases, answers would be contentious. Solid answers would require a pretty solid grounding in economics and commerce. I would be satisfied if a bishop had a close advisor who could address them.

  2. wmeyer says:

    If I could persuade a person to read just one book on economics, it would be Basic Economics: A Citizen’s Guide to the Economy by Thomas Sowell. And I would try very hard to persuade them, as having at least a fundamental grasp of economics is essential to responsible voting.
    Plus, of course, it puts the lie to “free stuff.”

  3. usafa92 says:

    Great list! Question #1 is by far the most important. As a PhD economist and regular lecturer at Acton University, I’d add this question: “What is opportunity cost?” Time and again I see people embracing economic fallacies because they fail to grasp the notion of opportunity cost.

  4. Robert of Rome says:

    I, for one, am sorry this post has fallen so far down the page, because I believe it is really far more important than Catholics realize. Our pastors are NOT trained economists; they’re not even well read on the topic. And yet they opine away about a host of economic justice matters in pastoral letters, homilies, tweets and what have you, as if Ordination qualified them to do so, nay, obliged them to do so! I realize that there are conservative and liberal economists; I hear both sides contradicting each other. It’s not an easy field to master, obviously. All the more reason that our pastors should not pontificate about concrete and contingent economic matters as though they were defending revealed truths of the faith. Bishops and priests need to raise the bar or they risk diminishing the importance of the themes they are trying to address.

    [I can move the post.]

  5. Imrahil says:

    Our pastors are NOT trained economists; they’re not even well read on the topic. And yet they opine away about a host of economic justice matters

    Well, they aren’t trained economists. But they are, or should be, trained justice-ists; as such, they are or should be able to pronounce on any matter, with their knowledge telling them exactly when to listen to the knowledge of experts and when, perhaps, even setting aside expert knowledge to take a look at the bigger picture.

    They aren’t trained economists; but they are, or ought to be, trained to be confessors to economists.

    That is not saying there is no problem; but I daresay it rather consists in false theological and moral notions than in lacking economical notions.

  6. grateful says:

    Oh how I wish everyone, especially voters, politicians, clergy and yes, popes were economically literate.

  7. Sonshine135 says:

    What is far rarer than a homily on the sins of abortion and sodomy? A homily on Distributism and Subsidiarity. Communism and Socialism don’t work, because there is no incentive to bring goods to market, it stifles innovation, and ignores the concepts of supply and demand. Capitalism, though a better economic form, has had a tendency turn into corporate serfdom. Enter Distributism, which is a refinement of the Capitalist concept, is merit-based, and places the control at the lowest, competent level possible. In most cases, this is local government or the individual. You never here the SJWs talk about that. The problem with rampant Globalism isn’t that it doesn’t teach a man to fish or give a man a fish. Globalism simply runs over the man’s small wooden fishing boat with a 64 ft, diesel-driven boat, and snaps up all the fish in giant nets before the man can even cast his small net into the water.

  8. OCDFriar says:

    I would love to see a follow-up list:

    “Ten Philosophical/Theological Questions Every Economist and Business Leader Should Be Able To Answer”

    ‘Tis a two-way street after all. Even the best economic system, absent the sanctifying power of grace and the guidance of the Magisterium, is easy prey for human concupiscence and the snares of the Enemy.

  9. chantgirl says:

    The American bishops seem to have no clue how much the middle class was squeezed under the Obama administration, and why there was such a backlash at the polls. Trump would do well to remember the anger of the middle class, and hold to his promises.

  10. The Masked Chicken says:

    Well, technically, this type of list could be made for any field. I mean, there are, in principle, ten questions bishops should be able to answer before opining [before opining… that’s the key] about music, right, or science, or international relations? I cannot answer those questions on economics because the study of economics leads me to being cross-eyed. I mean, I can do the math, but I don’t trust the underlying theory, because, as far as I can tell, there is no consensus on the underlying theory. In other words, economics is not a science in a rigorous sense, but, rather, a soft science, like psychology or sociology. Have any of the classic economic studies been put through reproducibility testing, like the recent testing of psychology theories? An atom is an atom is an atom. It will always be such. What are the immutable, unchanging aspects of economics? It would seem to me that this the sort of information that bishops should have. Some of the questions in the list seem too time-and-space-constrained. Who really cares how the percentages in tax bands in the United States or how long the tax code is (for that matter, during what year, because, I hear, it is changing, next year).

    Does one have to be a trained musician to recognize good and appropriate music for the liturgy? Training might help, but Archbishop Weakland was a trained musician and look at the havoc he wrought in liturgical music. Similarly, I am not convinced that training in economics would render what bishops say on the economy either better or worse than no training. Humility is the best guide.

    The Chicken

  11. Robert of Rome says:

    If one looks again at the questions, some who object to them may come to realize that they are not ideological in nature, but simply indicative of the complex nature of economics and, hence, of economic justice. The USCCB has over the past year or so petitioned Congress in regard to the Affordable Care Act (ObamaCare), the Paris Accord on Greenhouse Gas Emissions and other economics-related public policy issues with ethical implications. It is fair for bishops to state and restate general Catholic moral principles affecting each of these and other issues, but it is not right for them to imply an obligation on the part of the faithful to agree with their policy positions. General principles, yes; specific policy positions, no.

    When pastors are tempted to go further than to restate general moral principles in the area of economics they risk betraying an ignorance of the most basic economic concepts. The same is true in other areas of moral theology, such as, bioethics. The point of the 10 questions is to warn bishops and priests that they risk harming the faithful and the commonweal if they preach about public policy issues without grasping the fundamentals of economics.

    The point has been made here that even “experts” in economics don’t always agree among themselves. True, but at least they have a conceptual vocabulary and framework for discussing the issues. This is what I find lacking in many pastors. They fail to understand the basic concepts.

    I find the last of the 10 questions the most significant. Many bishops and priests preach about how wealth should be distributed (or redistributed). Affordable health care for the poor. Lower taxes for the struggling middle classes. More job creation. More expenditures on education, food stamps, housing assistance. The list goes on. But rare is the bishop who has shown that he understands how wealth is created in the first place. Bishops and priests seem to assume that the wealth is simply there, and all government has to do is cut the pie up “justly”. For me, failure to understand how wealth is created disqualifies one from being able to say much that is intelligent about economic justice.

  12. TonyO says:

    But rare is the bishop who has shown that he understands how wealth is created in the first place. Bishops and priests seem to assume that the wealth is simply there, and all government has to do is cut the pie up “justly”. For me, failure to understand how wealth is created disqualifies one from being able to say much that is intelligent about economic justice.

    I completely agree, Robert. In order for health care to be a “basic human right”, it would also have to be true that health care workers are by nature slaves to the rest of us, because you don’t have ANY health care without the workers actually doing the care. The claims (which one often sees in the mouths of bishops and the USCCB) that health care is my right implies that somebody has a DEFINITE OBLIGATION to do the work for me. I.E. a medical slave. They have a disastrous misunderstanding of the sources of wealth. “Health care” is not some object that sits around on the ground waiting for someone to pick it up and use it or distribute it.

    [Interesting point.]

    Fr. Z's Gold Star Award

  13. Imrahil says:

    Dear TonyO,

    well, let’s get a bit into this. Let’s also not shy away from the weight of words such as “slave” and the like.

    I have a driver’s licence and I am a now discharged soldier. In both capacities, I have had to have instruction in First Aid. If I encounter a person who is in need of First Aid, I have to give them First Aid, in morality and where I live actually also in public law. If I fail to do so, I may have to go to prison. I will not get paid for the First Aid. I am, as it were, paid by not going to prison.

    If that means I am a slave, then I am proud to be a slave.

    Take doctor’s, then, or nurses for that matter. Obviously they have a much larger medical knowledge. They, if they stumble over some site of accident, have to and will make sure whether their expertise may be needed. They are obliged to do so in morality. They are, in Germany, obliged to do so in public law. Obviously they may be called upon oftener and for longer time. And though I guess they then can claim remuneration, part of their payment, again, is not going to prison.

    Chesterton somewhere, I do not now know where, wrote that fascinating story about a man shipwrecked who lives on a lonely island. He then sees a ship on the horizon and manages, with smoke-signs or what not, to signal his presence to them. What is the ship going to do? Well, the sailors who have a schedule to fulfil will no doubt frown and curse; it is a habit among sailors, they say. But they will change course to the island, because even one man alone is worthy to be rescued. (And when arrived back in England, he may be arrested for violating the vagrancy act, which I guess was the point Chesterton was actually driving at, but doesn’t concern us here.) If they did not rescue their fellow human-being, they’d loss their honor as sailors and would have counteracted their duty as men and Christians. I do not know whether here also a prison sentence would be awaiting.

    All this work without remuneration may be slavery. If it is, though, it is the slavery of natural law and of charity; and I should very much guess that our medical service members are proud to be slaves in this sense.

    Now comes the problem: If entering the medical service and gaining knowledge means that you may often have to work for nothing, because natural law and Christian charity (plus perhaps a law, which would be quite just, of the State enforcing either with penalties) compels you to even without gain?

    The obvious solution, and in fact the only solution I can see for commonwealths organized to the degree our commonwealths are, is that they are guaranteed remunerations for what they have to do in any case; that their remuneration is largely set by public authority (because the usual commercial deal “pay or I won’t give it” is simply not a viable option for them); and that people, at least those not rich enough to be trusted to be able to pay them, have to get an insurance so that the insurance will.

    How all this applies to situations not of the “life-threatening emergency” or “broken limb” style but more of the “inconvenience” style is yet another matter. In these, I guess there can be a commercial-style “pay or we won’t do anything” style; it is, however, generally a matter of justice that the remuneration I said above would have to be largely set by public authority would be generous enough that the remuneration for an actually necessary action in an emergency is not dwarfed by the gain of non-necessary actions; and, if the commonwealth in question wants a good health-care, that it is generous enough that enough people actually do opt to become a doctor (or nurse).

    Summa summarum: Whatever to be said about how important it is to consider “how wealth is actually made” (the short-hand answer of this is “well, by production”, isn’t it?) – health care, which all decent morality requires us to treat res extra commercium (doctors being forbidden by their code of honor and also by law to engage in competition, and so forth), is at any rate quite not the example for this.

    [And so the rabbit hole gets wider and the point is receding into the distance.]

  14. Antonin says:

    I think that those questions would be unfair for all the reasons mentioned by the posters above. The particular application of broad moral principles is the domain and within the competency of laity whose vocation it is to be in the world and engaged in these matters.

    And there are legitimate differences of opinion and these should be resolved by a rich and robust dialogue guided by principles. There are economic and political models in world that can provide those of us who care about inequity, inequality, and the common good (and who doesn’t on this board as most are Catholic). Ironically, one of the models that I would support as being consistent with Catholic social teaching as I understand it is the “Nordic model”. Coming from a Nordic heritage, I can attest to the values underpinning these and while most Nordic countries are not Catholic the values are. From an article”

    “What makes the Nordic model work? A combination of shared history and societal development are credited with much of its success. Unlike areas that developed around the formation of large corporate-owned farms, the history of Scandinavia is largely one of family-driven agriculture. The result is a nation of small entrepreneurial enterprises directed by citizens facing the same set of challenges. Solutions that benefit one member of the society are likely to benefit all members. This collective mentality results in a citizenry that trust its government because the government is led by citizens seeking to create programs that benefit everyone. Accordingly, the citizens willingly chose to pay higher taxes in exchange for benefits that they and their family members will get to enjoy. The result is publicly funded services, such as healthcare and education that are of such high quality that private enterprise has no reason to offer these services or room to improve them. This mindset remained intact as capitalist enterprises developed.”

    [This isn’t a matter of being “right” regarding every question. It is a matter of having even a slight notion of what you are talking about, as opposed to no idea.]

  15. Gus Barbarigo says:

    Is there a “Dummies” version on Distributism, or on the answers to the above Ten Questions, that someone could recommend please?

  16. The Masked Chicken says:

    Dear TonyO,

    You wrote:

    ” In order for health care to be a “basic human right”, it would also have to be true that health care workers are by nature slaves to the rest of us, because you don’t have ANY health care without the workers actually doing the care. The claims (which one often sees in the mouths of bishops and the USCCB) that health care is my right implies that somebody has a DEFINITE OBLIGATION to do the work for me. I.E. a medical slave.”

    Be very, very careful how you parse this. While it is easily provable that there is no general obligation for health care, that is not to say that there aren’t exceptions. If a man falls to the sidewalk in front of you with a heart attack and you happen to be a cardiac doctor, you acquire a positive obligation in certain conditions, under pain of mortal sin, to render him aid, if it is within your sphere of competence. Suppose you just walk on by. You then become guilty of negligence – a sin of omission – and if the man dies when the aid you might have rendered would have saved his life, you become guilty of his death.

    It is possible, under charity, to acquire a positive obligation to do certain things in certain situations. Take, for example, the “moral health care,” of fraternal correction. The Catholic Encyclopedia (1913) says:

    “Given a sufficiently grave condition of spiritual distress calling for succour in this way, this commandment may exact fulfilment under pain of mortal sin. This is reckoned to be so only when
    given a sufficiently grave condition of spiritual distress calling for succour in this way, this commandment may exact fulfilment under pain of mortal sin. This is reckoned to be so only when

    the delinquency to be corrected or prevented is a grievous one;
    there is no good reason to believe that the sinner will adequately provide for himself;
    there is a well-founded expectation that the admonition will be heeded;
    there is no one else just as well fitted for this work of Christian charity and likely to undertake it;
    there is no special trouble or disadvantage accruing to the reformer as a result of his zeal.”

    Healthcare is similar. If the condition is grave and if the person cannot provide for themselves and if the person is likely to respond to your treatment and if you are the most qualified person available and if you are not likely to die by rendering the aid, then you can, in fact, acquire a positive obligation to render the healthcare.

    For the most part, however, this does not apply to the man on the street. Just as one is not normally positively obligated to give money to everyone who asks (see: Heribert Jone, Moral Theology, for a discussion), nevertheless, there is a difference between giving money to a man who hasn’t eaten in four hours verses a man who hasn’t eaten in four days and is about to die. One gains merit by giving to the first man, but one avoids Hell by giving to the second man, ceteris paribus.

    We are, in fact, to be slaves of Christ, and we, therefore, are to consider ourselves obligated to do the works of charity, governed, as always, by reason. You see, Heaven has its own rules of economics and those rules are known to little children. What, after all, is feeding the hungry and giving drink to the thirsty except healthcare? Do we not gain wealth in Heaven by doing so? It is true that there is no general obligation to provide healthcare in worldly terms, but if only, if only society were so perfected that the simple merit of giving a glass of cold water to one of the little ones were seen as the most joyful payment one could imagine… Oh my soul, how I could wish for those days.

    The Chicken

  17. TonyO says:

    Chicken, thank you, I completely agree that we can have or acquire definite obligations to serve others. What I said does not contradict that, and I would never intend to imply otherwise.

    We are, in fact, to be slaves of Christ, and we, therefore, are to consider ourselves obligated to do the works of charity, governed, as always, by reason.

    We are “slaves” to Christ in one sense, but in another sense we are His brothers, and in a third sense we are his own members. Best of all, He says “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends”, for He has raised us up so that we can be partakers of (eternal) life. Now, friends take delight in doing things for one another, not from demand and “exercising one’s rights”, but especially as gift.

    But none of this begins to address health care as a general “basic human right”. And I know that you recognize the difference – as you said.

  18. Ben Kenobi says:

    @theChicken.

    In a way, economics is like philosophy. People who are unaware of economics don’t lack economic knowledge. They possess *bad* economic knowledge. Just as in philosophy there are philosophical disagreements over finer points. That doesn’t mean that there exists no philosophical truth. Math or no, it behooves every educated person before casting a ballot to be able to answer Father z’s questions – *before* casting a ballot.

  19. Imrahil says:

    Dear Ben Kenobi,

    the difference is that who is unaware of philosophy may have a bad philosophy, I have not checked; but who is unaware of economy is just unaware of economy. And voters, for that matter, in voting chiefly choose on the character and general political alignment of the given candidates, not on their expertise; it would be different if the system was different, but as it is, we have ample experience in choosing even a half-educated streetwise somewhat-practicing Catholic who will defend the Church over an economically very well educated man who happens to profess Marxism.

    For contrary to some rumours, Communism, if it really is communism, is a heresy; but it is not stupidity or dim-wittedness, nor something expressible in more friendly terms such as lack of education, in any other sense than the ultimate sense in which all heresies can be said to be lack of information.

    [You’ve gone down the rabbit hole. This isn’t about politicians.]

  20. Imrahil says:

    As is obvious, I second what the dear Chicken said, generally. As for the dear TonyO’s

    But none of this begins to address health care as a general “basic human right”.

    Well, not “basic”, of course, but that is a language question.

    As for “human right”, well, if we are talking about the gifts you were talking – gifts in the natural sense of the term, which can be given or withheld without violating one’s either moral or other* obligations – if we are talking about such gifts, they are not human rights.

    If we are talking about something else, the thing looks different. If a person is really sick and really in need of treatment (which these are, might be difficult to say on the fringe, but take cardiac infarcts, apoplexies or, for not life-threatening things, leg fractures), then a doctor who happens to pass by is morally and by his honor required to give aid and to ask about payment afterwards.

    Required, not suggested. – How else would you call that than having an actual right to such aid?

    (* other obligations: in Germany, he could possibly go to prison if he does not do so.)

  21. Gilbert Fritz says:

    The conversation about healthcare as a right is an interesting one; thanks to all who participated!

  22. millercr2 says:

    I highly recommend to readers to check out Tom Woods who authored a great book on the subject – “The Church and the Market.

    Also, he has a book “Your Facebook friends are wrong about healthcare” and many more.

    Also recommend “Economics in One Lessen” by Henry Hazlitt, which should be required reading for anyone trying to proscribe economic policy.

    Some interesting topics the USCCB lobbies but has disastrous effects:

    1) Minimum wage – prices out the most vulnerable from the job market, those who can’t produce that much value to an employer. It causes unemployment of the most vulnerable (and the young, entry level, unskilled)

    2) Payday Loans – think of the incredible risks these people take on to give these types of loans. Yes, it can entrap people in debt. Why don’t the do gooders loan people themselves?

    3) Price gauging – exactly when price signals are most important such as in natural disasters, allowing the price to fluctuate and increase dramatically is a signal of shortage of supply and thus gives incredible incentives for (a) people to not waste or hoard and (b) entrepreneurs to make inordinate efforts to bring supply to the market, taking risks and higher costs to meet demand.

    4) Right to healthcare – some touched on this subject above, and yes it is slavery. See Dr. Rand Paul, Senator from Kentucky and his speech about slavery, right to someone’s labor if you call healthcare a right. Of course we Christians should help our community, but that is a positive obligation, not to be confused with threatening and actually putting someone in a cage if they refuse.

    etc. etc. etc.