Two Jesuits have recently written books on social ethics, the humane economy, and on liberating the poor. I know what you’re thinking: two more liberation theologians using Marxist criteria for their analysis, and ruthlessly criticizing the free market. Think again.

Prevalent opinion traditionally associates the Society of Jesus with all forms of cabals, while a current version of this conspiracy theory identifies Jesuits with socialism and its religious expression, liberation theology. Yet, if stereotypes can be shortcuts to knowledge, they might just as easily be detours around it, and the appearance of these books by Jesuit Fathers James Schall and Enrique Urena (a Spaniard), both of which make a moral case for a free market, prove this fact. These works are made all the more relevant by the centenary of Rerum Novarum on May 15, the first of the papal social encyclicals, which will no doubt excite much debate about the connection between economics and morality.

Father Schall’s collection of previously published essays is significant for two reasons. First, Father Schall, a political scientist at Georgetown University, defends the free market by retrieving from the Catholic tradition a respect for the rights to property and enterprise (a tradition superbly traced in Alejandro Chafuen’s enormously important little book Christians for Freedom: Late-Scholastic Economics, 1986). Second, this series of theologically astute pieces is published under the aegis of the Fraser Institute, a Canadian libertarian think-tank, which indicates the importance that libertarians are beginning to place on moral and even religious arguments in making the case for a free society.

One of the many enlightening sections of Father Schall’s collection is Chapter 16, “Both God and Money.” Here, Father Schall uses the occasion of a visit to a Carmelite chapel to bridge the gap between the spiritual and material worlds. He acknowledges that money may enable “us to do many more immoral things than we might were we poorer,” but he also probes more deeply to observe that the “refusal to make money, even if disguised as religious virtue, can be an injustice to others.”

A leitmotiv winding its way through these essays is the production of wealth as both a moral and a spiritual endeavor. In constructing this theme. Father Schall displays an enviable talent for condensing much wisdom into short sentences, such as, “The ‘right to be fed’ can be turned into a formula to blame those who know how to produce food for the condition of those who do not.”

Point those who would conclude from the above that Father Schall is nothing but a papal lackey to his commentary on John Paul II’s encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis. Here Father Schall engages the Pope’s arguments seriously and displays what critical yet loyal dialogue with the magisterium on moral issues ought to look like, as when he laments, “The word ‘consumer’ is a perfectly good one, and it is a pity to see it used as some sort of substitute for greed.”

In private, Michael Novak once likened Father Schall to his Jesuit-brother John Courtney Murray. This caused me to think of Father Enrique Urena as our side’s Juan Luis Segundo; with three separate doctorates, one each in economics, theology, and philosophy. Father Urena brings to his study a number of disciplines.

Interestingly, Father Urena’s book was translated at the behest of Orbis Books, the publishing house of the Maryknoll community, and as such the major printing arm of liberation theology in the United States. Orbis did not initially know what they had on their hands. When it became clear that Father Urena opted for the free market instead of for socialism, they decided its content did not accord with their publishing guidelines; it was at that point that the book was recommended, by a third party, to its present publishers. The events in Eastern Europe, they said, “seem to be a confirmation of the author’s thesis.”

Orbis’s confusion is understandable. Father Urena reminds me in some ways of Father Avery Dulles, S.J. Both are writers who are so scrupulously objective in stating the various sides to an argument that it is necessary to read them carefully to see where they themselves stand on an issue. After pages of probing with an “on the one hand, and on the other hand” type of analysis, Father Urena concludes that the free market is practically and morally the superior way of organizing society.

But Father Urena’s unique contribution to the discussion of Catholic social ethics does not lie in this conclusion; others have, after all, made the same case in different ways. Rather, Father Urena’s ability to write without a hint of partisanship is what is most valuable. Father Urena simply asks, in essence: which form of social organization will best demonstrate, from a historical and economic perspective, a “humanizing superiority”? It is not his intention to examine the theoretical basis for the relationship between Marxism and Christianity; he seeks, instead, to engage “the practical vector of the problem,” and this leads his study more specifically into economics. No specifically economic treatment of this question on the part of liberation theologians readily . comes to mind. Father Urena has taken as a point of departure an area that is as critical as it is absent in contemporary discussions of social ethics, from the corpus of liberation theology, to magisterial pronouncements, to the pastoral letter of the American bishops.

Father Urena puts it this way: “A respectable option for socialism (or for capitalism) on the part of the Christian cannot be made directly from the demands of the Gospel, not from theology: it must be preceded by a strictly economic, political, and sociological analysis of the problem.” The theoretical impact of Father Urena’s empirical investigation is, however to “destroy the myth that Marxist economic socialism is theoretically closer to the Gospel than any possible form of market economy.”

A body of Catholic writers is beginning to lay the groundwork for a contemporary moral perspective on liberty and on the institutions designed to preserve and enhance it. As contemporary contributions to the development of Catholic social thinking, both Father Schall’s and Father Urena’s books are essential. History isn’t ending; rather it may be just beginning.


[Religion, Wealth and Poverty, by James Vincent Schall (Vancouver: The Eraser Institute) 202 pp., $14.95]

[Capitalism or Socialism? An Economic Critique for Christians, by Enrique M. Urena, Translated by Robert Barr (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press) 256 pp.; $14.95]