Clara Piano: ‘Catholic Social Thought, the Market and Public Policy: Twenty-First-Century Challenges’ edited by Philip Booth and André Azevedo Alves

‘Nobody can be a great economist who is only an economist – and I am even tempted to add that the economist who is only an economist is likely to become a nuisance if not a positive danger.’

― Friedrich Hayek

Economists often lament the general public’s lack of economic understanding. Yet only a small fraction of economists sacrifice their own scarce resources to change this. Philip Booth and André Azevedo Alves are part of those few, and their efforts to apply economic insights engage the oldest institution in human history: the Catholic Church.

In Catholic Social Thought, the Market and Public Policy, the authors combine their knowledge of economics and Catholic social thought (CST) to contribute to today’s most challenging policy discussions. This ends up being a powerful marriage, as economics and CST contribute very different yet complementary insights. Where economics assumes that people act rationally toward an end, CST adds that this end is ultimately union with God, so some choices bring us closer to this goal than others. Where economics can identify the effects of specific policies, CST helps us to weigh these effects as good or bad. 

This edited collection consists of fourteen essays, six of which are authored or coauthored by Booth or Alves, with the other essays contributed by experts in related fields. The topics of these essays center upon policy debates related to Catholic social thought, such as globalization or the state’s role in education. The final chapter attests to the earnest practicality of the collection’s editors, as it provides a list and reference for the various sources of Catholic social thought so that the reader can continue to engage with these ideas himself.

For the remainder of this review, I will focus on the four principles of Catholic social thought – human dignity, solidarity, subsidiarity, and the common good – as they relate to the topics of these essays. Unsurprisingly, each of these principles makes an appearance in all of the essays as the authors apply them – in addition to a good dose of economic facts and literacy – to the often thorny policy questions at hand.

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The first and foundational principle of CST is human dignity: ‘A just society can become a reality only when it is based on the respect of the transcendent dignity of the human person. The person represents the ultimate end of society, by which it is ordered to the person’ (Compendium of the Catholic Church, para. 132). This principle helps to explain the Church’s consistent condemnation of communism since it values the collective over the individual. It is also the reason the Church defends the right to private property and a just wage, as Alves, Chelo, and Gregorio explain in their chapter on the economic thought of Thomas Aquinas and the Late Scholastics. Importantly, human dignity helps explain the natural limits of the right to private property. Because the right to private property exists for the sake of human life, the right to life has superiority – in extremis, a parent is permitted to ‘steal’ food to feed his starving child. Fr. Schlag’s chapters deal with the principle of human dignity as well, as he argues that virtuous business practices embody respect for the dignity of all employees, clients, and customers. Moreover, he reminds readers that the dignity of the human person is closely linked to the dignity of work: ‘[the excellence in Jesus’s public ministry] must also have defined the level of effort Jesus put into His work as a carpenter. His professional vocation so much shaped Him that even His redeeming death was perpetrated with hammer, wood and nails, the tools of His profession’ (page 164).

The next principle of Catholic social thought is solidarity, which might also be understood as ‘friendship’ (Compendium, para. 103). This is the natural communion that arises between persons when they treat each other with dignity and the harmony of society that results. While the principle of solidarity is woven throughout each chapter, there are three topics in particular where it features more prominently: globalization (Booth), cronyism (Richards), and government debt (Booth, Numa, and Nakrosis). Booth points out in his chapter on globalization that the Catholic (meaning universal) Church has a special appreciation for globalization while also warning about its negative consequences should human dignity and solidarity not guide these relationships. In the words of John Paul II: ‘Globalization must not be a new version of colonialism’ (‘Address to the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences,’ 2001). When reflecting on cronyism, Richards illustrates how artificial constructions of solidarity, such as the Council for Inclusive Capitalism, may ultimately be misguided because of how special interests can shape well-intentioned policy. Finally, if there is to be any natural communion in society, we would expect it first to arise within the family. As Booth, Numa, and Nakrosis show in their chapter on government debt, current generations tend to indulge in governmental overspending, which places undue burdens on their children and future grandchildren, thus disrupting the solidarity between generations.

Subsidiarity is the third principle of Catholic social thought, in which the Church clearly teaches that the voluntary institutions of civil society should be respected and supported in their respective domains. In the words of the Compendium: ‘Subsidiarity, understood in the positive sense as economic, institutional or juridical assistance offered to lesser social entities, entails a corresponding series of negative implications that require the State to refrain from anything that would de facto restrict the existential space of the smaller essential cells of society. Their initiative, freedom and responsibility must not be supplanted’ (para. 186). The book’s chapters on the environment (Booth), healthcare (Sparkes), and education (Franchi) all apply this principle to important areas of contemporary policy. For example, Booth shows how the communal management of natural resources discussed in the work of Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom illustrates the power of subsidiarity in promoting the care of the environment. With respect to healthcare and education, the fierce controversies over what constitutes healthcare (e.g., abortion or euthanasia) or education (e.g., religious education) might be ameliorated to some extent if the role of civil society in providing these goods was supported rather than supplanted by the state.

Finally, I was struck by the fact that nearly every chapter cites the principle of the common good: ‘the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfilment more fully and more easily’ (Compendium, para. 164). The chapters on the right to migrate (Yuengert), taxation (Kennedy), and finance (Gregg) provide interesting applications of this principle. For example, Yuengert’s chapter wrestles with the question of how to pursue the common good when the needs of particular groups (e.g., native and migrant workers) seem to conflict. Crucially, the principle of the common good contains the national common good but extends beyond it. When considering taxation, Kennedy points out that the three purposes of taxation – revenue raising, behavior modification, and redistribution – have different merit when assessed from the perspective of the common good, the former having a clearer justification than the latter. The common good must also inform the Church’s approach to the financial sector, as Gregg emphasizes, since finance does provide a legitimate function in society and ‘by nature, the fundamental functions are the financial sector are, potentially, very “pro-poor”’ (page 227).

In conclusion, economics has never been nor will ever be enough for policy discussions. It does not proscribe ends—only a system of values can do that—and Catholic social thought offers one such account. I cannot recommend Catholic Social Thought, the Market and Public Policy highly enough for anyone interested in intelligent conversations about pressing public policy issues. My only regret is that it did not include chapter on what I would argue is the most important policy debate in the coming years: assisted reproductive technologies. Beyond its intellectual contributions, the book is a much-needed reminder of the religious insistence that civilizations exist to serve humans, not the other way around. In the words of C.S. Lewis: ‘Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors’ (The Weight of Glory, 1941).


‘Catholic Social Thought, the Market and Public Policy: Twenty-First-Century Challenges’ edited by Philip Booth and André Azevedo Alves, was published in 2024 by St Mary’s University Press (ISBN: 978-1-9167-8600-4). 302pp.

Clara Piano received her Ph.D. from George Mason University and will be joining the Economics Department of the University of Mississippi in Fall 2024. Her research and teaching focus on family economics and law and economics.