Patrick Riordan: ‘The Political Economy of Distributism: Property, Liberty, and the Common Good’ by Alexander William Salter

The distinction between economics and political economy is fundamental to the argument of this book. The difference between them is that in political economy explicit attention is paid to the ends and purposes of economic activity. Economics takes the ends as given and enquires about efficiency in the use of resources to those ends. The distinction is strikingly present in the author’s claims that while ‘the distributists [Hilaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton] were often poor economic reasoners’ (minor claim), their ‘errors do not invalidate their most important arguments’ (major claim) (page ix). Political economy is concerned with ends, what makes for a decent society, among which the implied rights and duties flowing from human dignity are essential. Political economy is normative, being focused not only on what is done, but also on what ought to be done (page x). Distributism is a distinctive form of political economy, with its own view of the ends and purpose of economic activity, and hence a perspective on the corresponding means.

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Opposed to both capitalism and socialism, but not as somehow a midpoint between them, or a third way (page 8), distributism focuses on the link between property and freedom, and the link between economic freedom and political freedom. Where ‘capitalism concentrates productive property into fewer and fewer hands’ (page ix), distributism holds that the ‘ownership of the means of production should be as widespread as possible’ (page 8). The holding of property is an essential condition for economic freedom, and economic freedom is a necessary condition for political freedom: ‘societies cannot remain politically free unless they are economically secure and independent’ (pages ix-x). The freedom spoken of here is not simply a negative freedom from external interference: ‘freedom is a necessary condition of human freedom … re man’s personal nature, his being-in-community, with major implications for the scale and scope of institutions at all levels’ (page 8). Consistent with the Catholic inspiration there is significant emphasis on the family as a core social institution (page 75), and the embrace of subsidiarity as the principle that ‘when families and civic organisations can solve social problems, government ought not to interfere’ (page 26).

A popular essay on distributism is quoted as presenting an ideal: ‘In an ideal world every man would own the land on which, and the tools with which, he worked. In an ideal world he would control his own destiny by having control over the means to his livelihood’ (page 8).

Two chapters each are devoted to presenting the work of the classical distributists, Hilaire Belloc, and G.K. Chesterton. Belloc’s The Servile State (1912) and his Essay on the Restoration of Property (1936) are analysed in chapters 3 and 4. Chesterton’s What’s Wrong with the World (1910) and his The Outline of Sanity (1926) are presented and discussed in chapters 5 and 6. While they collaborated, their styles were different, Salter labelling Belloc ‘the logician’ and Chesterton ‘the aesthetician’. Salter concludes that they spoke with one voice on the key issue: ‘When society gives men their due [i.e. property], they have a stake in the social and political infrastructure by which they secure their rights. Economic justice and political justice are mutually reinforcing components of social justice, understood in the context of Catholicism’s teachings on human dignity’ (page 126).

Salter stresses the influence of Catholic Social Teaching on the thought and writings of these two advocates for distributism. To explain this background Chapter 2 is largely a presentation of Catholic teaching, and it is accurate, clear, and readable. However, there is a slight danger of anachronism, since the sources used for presenting the church teaching include both the Catechism of the Catholic Church (2003), and the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (2004). Both sources draw on Papal encyclicals and Vatican Council II Documents that were not available to Belloc or Chesterton. Here it is important to remember that Salter does not claim to present a history of distributism (page ix), but instead to present the classic texts of distributist thought (page 9). Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum (1891) was their principal source, as well as the later anti-liberal stance of Pope Pius XI, including at least in Belloc’s case his Quadragesimo Anno (1931), marking forty years since Leo’s encyclical.

A third author featured in this discussion of distributism is presented as one influenced by the two English authors, who although not himself a distributist, exemplifies for Salter how the deficiencies of distributist thought (the minor claim) could be compensated for with a more thorough incorporation of economic science, specifically price theory. Wilhelm Röpke’s work is presented in two chapters. Chapter 8 surveys his The Social Crisis of our Time (1942) and A Humane Economy: The Social Framework of the Free Market (1960). Chapter 9 outlines his The Economics of the Free Society (originally published in German in 1937, the ninth edition of which was published in English in 1960). Salter shows how Röpke is motivated by the same concern as Belloc and Chesterton that predominant forms of economy are damaging humanity and preventing the realisation of human dignity and human fulfilment. Röpke points to the phenomena of proletarianization, and enmassment; against those trends he envisages property as the pillar of economic order, and advocates entrusting that order ‘not to planning, coercion, and penalties, but to the spontaneous and free cooperation of the people through the market, price, and competition’ (page 166). The importance of incorporating an economics based on price theory into the political economy of distributism is a conclusion flowing from Chapter 9.

What is the relevance of distributism, as a tradition of political economy, to twenty-first century concerns? Salter endeavours to situate the distributist themes of economic and political freedom, human dignity and the good society as the end of economic activity, within contemporary debates. Chapter 1 points to critiques of liberalism, advocacy for common good capitalism, and various attempts to integrate Catholic social teaching. Chapter 7 takes this concern further by suggesting how distributist thought might contribute to several directions of research already noted in the literature. Three projects in particular are identified. Investigation into state capacity, the link between economic and political freedom, and justice in exchange, could benefit from the distinctive distributist vision of economy serving human dignity and fulfilment.

These ideas of freedom, limitation of the state’s role, and common good, are not the preserve of distributism. As noted in this book, much needs to be done to clarify the relevant concepts and to articulate the vision of a humane economy, an economy ‘as if people mattered’. And then that vision and those concepts must be made politically significant by being disseminated to a wider constituency. I welcome and recommend this book as a valuable contribution to the task, drawing on one important strand in the tradition.


‘The Political Economy of Distributism: Property, Liberty, and the Common Good’ by Alexander William Salter was published in 2023 by The Catholic University of America Press (ISBN 978-0-8132-3681-0). 238pp.

Dr Patrick Riordan, SJ, an Irish Jesuit, is Senior Fellow for Political Philosophy and Catholic Social Thought at Campion Hall, University of Oxford. Previously he taught political philosophy at Heythrop College, University of London. His 2017 book, Recovering Common Goods (Veritas, Dublin) was awarded the ‘Economy and Society’ prize by the Centesimus Annus Pro Pontifice Foundation in 2021. His most recent books are Human Dignity and Liberal Politics: Catholic Possibilities for the Common Good (Georgetown UP, 2023) and Connecting Ecologies: Integrating Responses to the Global Challenge (edited with Gavin Flood [Routledge, 2024]).







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.








Richard Turnbull: “Business Ethics and Catholic Social Thought” edited by Daniel K Finn

Daniel Finn holds chairs in both Economics and Theology at St John’s University and the College of St Benedict in Minnesota. He is, therefore, both a representative and exponent of the intellectual tradition within Roman Catholic thought that seeks to apply Christian thinking to economics and business.

Finn has brought together 12 authors to contribute, singly or jointly, to this volume of essays which seeks to explore the moral assessment of business from a Catholic perspective and to do so in a deeper way than the more usual debates around personal integrity or assessments of capitalism and socialism. He argues that such an approach leaves fundamental questions unanswered, although the actual content of those questions is not entirely clear. Nevertheless, this volume presents a series of essays which seeks to address the morality of business within the tradition of Catholic social thought.

The book is divided into three parts. Part one consists of two useful chapters on the perspectives of CEOs and then a reflection on the history of commerce and communion in the history of Christian thought. Part two discusses the internal dynamics of business with three chapters dealing with matters such as agency and the technocratic paradigm. Part three looks at the wider responsibilities of business including approaches to business ethics, the idea of “good goods”, the moral ecology of business and the moral legitimacy of market decisions.

The first chapter gives fascinating insights into the perspectives of three CEOs of companies ranging from a family-owned manufacturing company to a more widely held investment and banking company, one of whom spent many years as a senior executive of a large public company.

These insights are wise, incisive and illuminating. The purpose of business lies at the heart of these senior leaders’ perspectives. Business is intended to meet real needs, profit is essential. However, trust, integrity and quality products are not by-products but central to the mission of their companies. Thomas Holloran noted that during his time with a large public company the shareholders all did very well and yet the company’s mission was not about maximising shareholder wealth. Unsurprisingly, all three opt for a stakeholder model. Although I largely agree with this approach one wonders whether we may have so caricatured the idea of profit maximization that we are in danger of missing some important aspects of the purpose of business. Mary Hirschfield, in chapter 5, dealing with the technocratic paradigm, undertakes a useful exercise in setting out the main arguments in defence of profit maximization as producing socially optimal outcomes in a logical and balanced way (pp95-98). We need more of this honest debate.

All three of the CEOs also emphasised personal responsibility, culture, virtues and the moral qualities of goods and services. Thomas Holloran points out that it is a misconception that most business people are greedy or dishonest. On the contrary, he argues, most are deeply moral (pp22-23). This is an important corrective to the notion that all business is exploitative and business executives are only interested in their own success and profits.

The remaining chapters are somewhat more of a mix tackling important individual subjects but it is not always clear how they relate to the wider picture. Too many of the chapters are stand-alone narratives (albeit with attempts to cross-refer). I would have preferred a more clearly articulated overall vision rather than Daniel Finn’s very brief introduction. However, this is a relatively minor quibble and does not take away from the importance of the collection as a whole.

The strongest chapters are those that reach out further into wider debate.

One example of this is Martin Schlag’s chapter on the responsibility of business for the moral ecology in which they operate (chapter 8). Professor Schlag engages critically with two recent critics of the market, Michael Sandel and Jean Tirole.  Schlag rejects the presumption that markets and morals are in opposition to each other, noting that for Thomas Aquinas, ‘it would be inconceivable to affirm that markets are amoral in their operations’ (p165). Schlag, then, is determined to make us work hard through involvement in the market rather than separation from the market. This is an important theological corrective to the points of view either that business is evil and to be avoided, or that our real calling is to Christianise business. Rather we should view business as part of God’s provision for humanity and a place to exercise Christian character and responsibility. Schlag also builds on Aquinas to remind us that private ownership entails obligations and this includes the owners and ownership of business. In this way business is an integral part of the wider ecology of economic life encouraging the flourishing of all.

Chapter 7, by Daniel Cloutier, dealing with “good goods” is a useful and interesting discussion around the nature of goods. The author identifies three categories of questionable goods, those that are defective, harmful or futile. However, these criteria are negative and not always straightforward (for example, in the case of weaponry). The criteria adopted for futile goods are more instructive. We might purchase futile goods for three reasons, according to the author, the pursuit of luxury, our own self-identification, or consumption as an end itself. The point is that they suggest, “an implied reversal about what is important in life” (page 151). This chapter also discusses the gig economy which sets up some interesting questions. Unfortunately, these are then not pursued leaving the reader feeling rather let down that the analysis had not been extended to a central feature of the modern economy.

One helpful feature of the book is the manner in which the authors of many of the chapters refer back to and locate their observations in the comments of the CEOs in chapter 1. This is a useful link of theory and practice.

I enjoyed this book and recommend it. The chapters were somewhat more disparate than I expected; all were interesting, some were outstanding. We can also give thanks that a group of theologically informed writers are both willing and able to engage with economics and business. Most of what was discussed was relevant to our common Christian tradition.

Daniel Finn asks an appropriate question in his opening sentence, ‘Can a religion whose founder taught love of neighbour as the most fundamental moral principle give moral approval to profit-seeking business firms in a global economy?’ (page 1). As James Heft noted in his Afterword, the CEO interviews reveal that all business leaders “face decisions that are often not black and white and who have to make practical judgments that involve inescapable trade-offs, situations where hard decisions have to be made” (page 222).

Elusive though the answers may remain we should be thankful for this group of scholars exploring these questions and dilemmas. We leave the last word to Professor Schlag:

‘The task of Catholic social thought is neither to be irenic nor cynical but realistic, with a realism that presents constructive, practical solutions not for the righteous but for reasonable people’ (page 174).


“Business Ethics and Catholic Social Thought,” edited by Daniel K Finn was published in 2021 by Georgetown University Press (ISBN: 978-1-64712-074-0). 245pp.

Richard%20Turnbullweb#1# (2)Dr Richard Turnbull is the Director of the Centre for Enterprise, Markets & Ethics (CEME). For more information about Richard please click here.






Andrei Rogobete: “Rethinking Poverty” by James Bailey


James P. Bailey is Associate Professor of Theology at Duquesne University. In his book entitled, “Rethinking Poverty: Income, Assets, and the Catholic Social Justice Tradition”, James Bailey explores the political, social, and economic reforms that are needed to promote the alleviation of poverty. As the title may suggest, the book also incorporates Catholic social teaching on this issue.

Although the book shares the same title as Barry Knight’s Rethinking Poverty, Bailey’s argument takes a markedly different approach. He starts from the premise that the role of assets and asset-building has been vastly undervalued in the development of public policy on poverty and addressing the needs of the most vulnerable in society. His central argument therefore is that poverty “must be conceived more broadly in terms of both insufficient income and deficient assets. A robust, effective, and morally adequate response to poverty must go beyond traditional income-enhancement strategies to include complementary efforts aimed at enabling asset development in the poor” (pages 1-2). The book is structured in five chapters and it would be useful to touch upon some of the main points in each.

The first chapter lays out the broader contextual framework for the lack and necessity of asset-building for the poor. Bailey presents two main paradigms: the asset and the income paradigm. He rightly argues that for too long the welfare state and poverty alleviation initiatives have been defined in terms of income – i.e. what ‘goes in’ to a household, and too little emphasis has been placed on what remains in the household – i.e. assets and savings. Bailey argues that the goal therefore, is “developing a more permanent and enduring remedy to poverty, […] distinguishing asset-building approaches from other policy initiatives over the last thirty or forty years” (page 13).

The second chapter looks at asset-building for the poor in light of Catholic Social Thought. Catholic teaching benefits from a rich tradition of thought and discussions on public issues and this shows throughout the chapter. For instance, Catholic teaching stresses the importance and virtues of ownership. From Pope Leo XIII to John Paul II there has always been an explicit defence of the right to private property and the expansion of private ownership across the social classes (page 27). Bailey also touches upon several key concepts in Catholic thought such as, human dignity (page 44), the social nature of the person (page 46), the common good (page 49), and human freedom (page 50).

The third chapter provides an interesting discussion on the relationship between assets and human capabilities. It starts from the Church’s premise that the dignity of the human being starts from a universal threshold of minimum material well-being – one that includes not only income, but also savings and assets (page 61). Here Bailey rightly points out that public policy that is asset driven is less about addressing short-term needs and more about developing an ability to withstand economic shocks in the long-term. This in turn enables households to “…secure adequate housing, to provide a stable household environment for one’s children, to benefit from educational attainment, to be able to devote one’s time and energy to a chosen vocation or speciality, to have the security take risks for those things which one values” (page 83), and the list goes on.

Chapter four looks at historical narratives of ‘asset discrimination’. From the onset Bailey affirms that “…the Church’s social teachings have rejected the idea that optimal economic conditions will be obtained so long as the market is left to its own devices; economies are not governed by impersonal and unalterable laws but are, rather, human institutions which need to be subordinated for the good of all” (page 85). This will no doubt prove to be a highly contentious issue for many readers. The remainder of the chapter builds upon the historical narrative of asset discrimination driven by race and class segregation in the US.

The fifth and final chapter concludes with strengthening the case for asset-driven public policy in combating poverty. Asset building should be a shared goal throughout society and not just reserved for the middle and upper classes. Bailey’s final two chapters are rather US-centric. He addresses US initiatives such as the Individual Development Account (IDA) and explores steps toward passing asset-driven policy through Congress.

To conclude: James Bailey’s Rethinking Poverty is a welcome addition to the body of literature that promotes the alleviation of poverty. It is clear and for the most part, well-researched. But its true strength lies in the rarity of its thesis – there has not been much literature that so clearly and explicitly argues for asset building as a means to fighting poverty. No doubt readers may take issue with some of Bailey’s more ideologically inclined statements (mostly found in chapters four and five), but for its larger message alone, the book is certainly a worthwhile read.



“Rethinking Poverty: Income, Assets, and the Catholic Social Justice Tradition” by James P. Bailey was first published in 2010 by the University of Notre Dame Press (ISBN-13: 9780268022235), 192 pp.


Andrei RogobeteAndrei Rogobete is a Research Fellow with the Centre for Enterprise, Markets & Ethics. For more information about Andrei please click here.

Kishore Jayabalan: “Aquinas and the Market” by Mary L. Hirschfeld


Aquinas and the Market: Toward A Humane Economy is a pleasant surprise because it takes both economics and theology very seriously. There are probably not many scholars who have doctorates in economics (Harvard) and theology (Notre Dame) and even fewer who can write an academic book that is almost entirely free of academic jargon. It is readable without oversimplifying the subject matter. Sensible and profound at the same time, Mary Hirschfeld’s work may be in a class of its own.

Even more surprising is that she began her career interested in feminist economics, admits to having learned “the wisdom of conservative and libertarian thought even though [she] never fully embraced it” and eventually converted to Roman Catholicism. Her dissertation director at Notre Dame, Jean Porter, steered her away from “pure theology” and towards theological, specifically Thomistic, economics.

Most theologians and philosophers tend to look down upon economics, but not Hirschfeld. She attempts to create a dialogue between theology and economics, something many religious leaders say is necessary but are themselves incapable of doing. How many of them would be able to see the economic downsides of rent control and the minimum wage as Hirschfeld does? The trick is in taking into account the objective reality of God and the subjective preferences of human beings expressed in the everyday operations of the marketplace.

Hirschfeld’s interest in feminist economics and especially theories of household consumption may have helped her bridge this divide. It is somewhat of an intellectual mystery how the ancient and medieval study of household management become the dominant, mathematical-laden social science of the modern age. While Christian concern for the human person and individual conscience had much to do with it, it is not a sufficient explanation.

If there is one shortcoming of this work, it is a neglect of the mediating ground between theology and economics, i.e. politics. Neither religion nor business is a completely private or individual affair; each takes place within a social context that at least implicitly aims towards some sort of common good. Hirschfeld is well aware of the need for a hierarchical ordering of goods in any kind of Thomistic economics. It seems unlikely that such an ordering can take place without some kind of authority behind it. Who this authority would be and how it would govern are matters of politics rather than economics. 

While theologians such as Thomas emphasized the need for order, modern political philosophers such as Machiavelli, Hobbes and Locke blamed them for its opposite and failing to deliver earthly peace and prosperity. Adam Smith described feudalism harshly in order to promote what he called the commercial society based on some combination of self-interest and sympathy. The Reformation and Counter-Reformation led to religious-political conflicts that eventually created the conditions for modern pluralism and tolerance.

Absent political mediation, the theological order of Thomas cannot coexist with the spontaneous order of the marketplace. Liberal democracy offers such one such form of mediation but, as our contemporary populist movements reveal, functions in an increasingly unsatisfactory way. As an economist, Hirschfeld knows the problems of command-and-control economies; as a feminist, she is a proponent of liberty and equality. One may ask if she does not also harbour a certain longing for a more aristocratic society that would be in tension with her liberal democratic preferences.

Like all modern rationalists, the economist tends to aim for mathematical precision precisely because theology and philosophy are so disputatious and politically utopian; the economist favours the practical over the theoretical. Modern economics has done much to raise material living standards all over the world, failing only where it has not yet been implemented. Such progress is real and ought to be celebrated, as Hirschfeld does.

Economists, however, cannot avoid theorizing in order to be able to predict human behaviour and influence public policy. They start to create “rational choice” models that are as abstract as those developed by the Scholastics minus the metaphysics. These models neglect virtue ethics as unrealistic if not hypocritical, never asking if some good did not come from at least pretending to be good. We are materially well-off but spiritually destitute. The result is what Leo Strauss called retail sanity and wholesale madness.

Hirschfeld the economist is aware of the costs as well as the benefits of modernity. Her theological training has given her the language and concepts to address these concerns. A convert’s faith makes her realistic about what may be possible here on earth and what is not. It is very rare to see such common sense and deep learning in one place.


“Aquinas and the Market: Toward A Humane Economy” by Mary L. Hirschfeld was published in 2018 by Harvard University Press (ISBN-10: 0674986407). 288pp.

Kishore Jayabalan is Director of Istituto Acton, the Acton Institute’s Rome office. For more information about Kishore please click here.








Richard Godden: “Managing as if Faith Mattered” by Helen Alford & Michael Naughton


Managing as if Faith Mattered” is the first volume in the Catholic Social Tradition Series, published by the University of Notre Dame Press in response to Pope John Paul II questioning how many Christians really know and put into practice the principles of the Catholic Church’s social doctrine. Its target audience is thus, first and foremost, Catholics in business, although the authors say that they are directing their book towards Christians as a whole and that its content will be worth considering by all people (page xvii).

At the time the book was published, in 2001, Helen Alford was Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at the Pontifical University of St Thomas Aquinas in Rome and Michael Naughton was Director of the John A. Ryan Institute for Catholic Social Thought at the University of St Thomas, St Paul, Minnesota. Unsurprisingly, they adopt a precise analytical approach to their subject and, as the 73 pages of end notes illustrate, seek academic rigour. None-the-less, the two questions that they pose in order to frame their discussion are profoundly practical: “What kind of person should I as a manager or employee strive to become?” and “What kind of organisational community should I as a manager or employee strive to build and maintain?” (page 8).

They suggest that two unhelpful paradigms foster a divided life in present day Western culture: first, the paradigm of the “secularisers” (typified by Tom Peters, co-author of “In Search of Excellence”), who suggest that religion and spirituality have nothing to say to business since religion is by its nature a private affair; secondly, the paradigm of the “spiritualisers” (typified by Andrew Carnegie), who may have strong personal faith and seek to live out this faith in personal virtue but who “avoid judging business policies in light of their faith” and who “fail to be true to a faith that does justice” (page 15). Alford and Naughton, asserting the relevance of faith to business, take issue with both paradigms, before analysing three models of linking faith and work: what they call the “natural law approach” (which seeks to find common ground in order to mould secular organisations); the faith-based approach (which is manifested by organisations founded explicitly on faith inspired values); and the prophetic model (which seeks to challenge organisations). They recognise weaknesses in all of these models but urge that they all be kept in mind.

Alford and Naughton then address the purpose of business. They severely criticise the suggestion that this is merely to make money or, indeed, merely to enhance shareholder value; they draw attention to the limitations of a stakeholder model of organisational purpose; and they conclude that the purpose of business is “working together for the common good” (the title of Chapter 2), defining “the common good” as “the promotion of all the goods necessary for integral human development in the organisation, in a way that respects the proper ordering of those goods” (page 70). This definition then leads naturally into the consideration of the concept of human development in a corporate community and, at the core of this, is a discussion of “virtue” and, in particular, the four Catholic Cardinal Virtues.

The book then moves from the theoretical to the practical in four chapters that are collectively entitled “Making the Engagement”. These consider, in turn, job design, just wages, ownership and marketing and, whilst continuing to analyse and develop theoretical concepts, seek to consider practical solutions to business problems. Thus, for example, the discussion of pay suggests that three basic tests need to be applied: whether something is a living wage; whether it is an equitable wage; and whether it is a sustainable wage (page 130). This theory is then applied to remuneration concepts such as ESOPs (Employee Share Option Plans).

Finally, the book turns to spirituality at work, considering the use of prayer, scripture, daily reflection and, perhaps more surprisingly, liturgy.

All of this provides much food for thought. The critique of modern professional education for its failure to address the “ends of business” (page 16) and its recommendation by default of a “privatised professional ethic” (page 18) is particularly telling and its fresh look at the objectives of job design and remuneration is challenging. Unfortunately, however, the book is heavy going in places and some of it could have been more simply expressed. For example, the book would have been more accessible to its lay readers had the authors expressed more pithily their points relating to the distinctions between “foundational goods” and “excellent goods” (page 42) and between “common goods” and “particular goods” (page 49). Similarly, the discussion of virtue would have been more accessible to modern businessmen had the authors not felt it necessary to tie it back to Aquinas’s teaching. More generally, there is a grave danger that the key points made by the authors become lost in a sea of detailed analysis.

It is also disappointing that, for all the care in the analysis, unsupported contentious statements from time to time leap off the page. For example, the quotation (with apparent approval) of Peter Maurin’s statement that “when everyone tries to become better off, nobody is better off” (page 92) suggests a naïve “zero sum gain” view of global economics and the quotation (again with apparent approval) of the assertion that “a manager’s first obligation is maintaining the company as a going concern for the benefit of the stakeholders” (page 149) seems contrary even to the purpose of business as contemplated by the authors. Furthermore, many Christians will raise eyebrows at various theological statements such as the statements that we are meant “through virtuous living to attain the possession of God” (page 64) and the quotation of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s statement that “God is inexhaustibly attainable in the totality of our action” (page 207).

Those who are not used to Catholic academic analysis may also find the frequent quotation of Thomas Aquinas, Pope John Paul II and other Catholic authorities a distraction rather than a help and the authors’ use of the terms “Christian Social Tradition” and “Christian Social Teaching” to refer to what is specifically Catholic teaching is irritating even though, as the authors point out, in recent years there has been some ecumenical convergence in relation to social teaching (page 247).

This book is worth reading but it requires time, determination and a degree of patience.


“Managing as if Faith Mattered” was first published in 2001 by University of Notre Dame Press (ISBN 0268034613, 9780268034610)

Richard Godden is a Lawyer and has been a Partner with Linklaters for over 25 years during which time he has advised on a wide range of transactions and issues in various parts of the world. 

Richard’s experience includes his time as Secretary at the UK Takeover Panel and a secondment to Linklaters’ Hong Kong office. He also served as Global Head of Client Sectors, responsible for Linklaters’ industry sector groups, and was a member of the Global Executive Committee.