Where’s the Economists’ Stephen Jay Gould?

The Apostolic Exhortation of Pope Francis: Evangelii Gaudium, is a remarkable document.  It’s by no means indicative of a radical shift in Church teachings, dogmas, or theology, but it displays an emphasis on those theological precepts to bear in a an imperfect world: “a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.” (parag. 49)

There has been a lot of reaction among the American political right wing over the Pope’s comments on economic justice in this speech.  Most famously: Rush Limbaugh called the Pope “Marxist” for “attack[ing] unfettered capitalism as ‘a new tyranny’.”  According to Limbaugh: “Unfettered capitalism?  That doesn’t exist anywhere.  Unfettered capitalism is a liberal socialist phrase to describe the United States.  Unfettered, unregulated.”  The Pope never actually used the phrase “unfettered capitalism” anywhere in his exhortation, so it’s not clear how Limbaugh’s effort to draw “Marxism” from that specific phrase has any merit.  The pope decried ideologies proclaiming the “absolute autonomy of the marketplace,” which “reject the right of states… to exercise any form of control.” But the Pope doesn’t say that unfettered capitalism does exist anywhere, only that there are those who are devoted to an idolatry of the marketplace that holds that as an ideal.

It’s possible that Limbaugh never read the Pope’s words directly, but only the account of them in other reports which did use the words “unfettered” and “unregulated.” There’s a history of papal statements being criticized for things they don’t actually say, but I’ll return to the history of misreading later on.

The Pope makes several statements about how the moral call of the church and its mission ought to focus on “the need to resolve the structural causes of poverty” (parag 202.) There’s is a quite substantial discourse about the way that social policies and political concern for the long term can bring about a greater expression of human dignity.  But in addition to making normative statements about how political economic and social change should be improved, the Pope also makes statements concerning the validity of economic theories.

…some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system (parag. 54)

Critics of the Pope, like Limbaugh, have effectively treated this statement as an incorrect ethical pronouncement, an assertion of moral order that they either find wrong or inconsistent with other moral teachings of the Church.  Some have found it hypocritical given the Church’s wealth.

But this isn’t actually an ethical claim, but a scientific one.  The statement of whether or not ‘trickle down theories’ are actually valid descriptions of economic cause and effect in the world is ostensibly a testable theory.  The Pope is not saying that trickle down economics must not be practiced because it is inherently unethical.  He is saying that those who would try to bring about justice and inclusiveness through the practice of trickle down economic policies should be aware that the theory has never been empirically confirmed, and may be scientifically (not morally) wrong.

In the past, people on the American political left, including many who welcomed this particular papal statement, have been particularly wary about Church pronouncements on science.  Perhaps the most famous example of this is Stephen Jay Gould who introduced the term “Non-Overlapping Magisteria” specifically to discuss the proper (as he saw it) demarcation between science and religion.  It is proper for religion to proclaim ethical judgements, to tell us what is good and evil, and to tell us what aims we might achieve; but wrong for religion to pass judgement on an empirical theory.

I think it’s fair to say that Gould’s NOMA has never been an accurate description of the way science and religion actually relate, but Gould’s essay ought to be seen as a prescription for a a resolution to science-religion conflict.  (It might not be a good one, but that’s a separate matter.)  Regardless, Gould’s framing of NOMA has been quite influential, with plenty of scientists, particularly, citing it as a way to keep religion and science apart, even when there are questions of bioethics or ethics of technology that might reasonably need to cross that boundary.  It has some similarities with older ideas of church-state separation.

Perhaps Gould has been too successful.  Readers of the Pope’s statement seem to have presumed that he was making an ethical statement, perhaps because of his identity as the head of the Catholic Church and because the Apostolic Exhortation is an ethical and religious document.  And perhaps because people believe that the Pope ought to be making religious statements, they interpret his statements on economics as normative.  It’s surprising to me that no one has made the criticism that the Pope has no business making statements about whether a scientific theory is true with respect to this claim about trickle down theory.

This has not been the case in the past: In 1951, Pope Pius XII, speaking to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, addressed the question of how Aquinas’s “Five Ways” of demonstrating the existence of God from Nature fared in light of recent discoveries in 20th century science.  This statement was widely misinterpreted (partly though mistranslations, partly because of the selective republication of excerpts) as the Pope “endorsing” the Big Bang (This misinterpretation persists.)  In that event, Pius was criticized by cosmologists on both sides of the Steady-State/Big Bang debate, who effectively claimed that he had no business speaking on the issue.  Gould’s essay was directly prompted by Pope John Paul II’s effective acceptance of biological evolution as the scientifically accepted account for the origin of the human physical form (though not the human soul.)

It would seem like the Pope could be criticized for making a definitive pronouncement on the state of a scientific theory of economics.  One could raise a NOMA-like objection to the papal pronouncement that trickle down economics is a theory that is unconfirmed by facts.  But the question remains as to who would make such a complaint?  It’s a trap there for the American political right—people like Limbaugh, because they can’t embrace NOMA for economic sciences and then reject it for other science-religion issues like climate change and evolution.  But there have been plenty of anti-religious scientists who scoff at the thought that the church has any place acknowledging science, even when it’s a position they agree with.  Gould related that some of his evolutionist colleagues had that mindset in response to John Paul II in 1996.  Will any economists who agree with the Pope’s economic conclusions still object that it’s not his place to make them?

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