Ecumenism and Economics

Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social WitnessEcumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church’s Social Witness by Jordan J. Ballor
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ballor explores the history of social economic statements by three ecumenical councils — the Lutheran World Federation, the World Communion of Reformed Churches, and the World Council of Churches — in light of two issues: a) the relation between the church statements and their underlying dependence on a particular view of political economy; and b) the question, for whom does the council speak? A third issue — the question of what it means for an ecumenical council to make such statements in a democratic society, both for the society and for Christ’s church, lies behind much of his discussion.

On the first issue, I have little to add to Ballor’s commentary, because I largely agree with it. The three ecumenical councils all treat the basic human problem as one of evil structures and institutions — reliance of markets allowing corporations to gain both economic and political power which enables the oppression of the poor and the elevation of the rich. The world exists, it seems, in a zero-sum condition; in order to fix inequity (which seems the be the surest sign, if not the definition, of the presence of sin) we must reverse the course of economic takings and ensure that all policy decisions are done for the direct benefit of the poor (oh, and of course, the earth — a late addition to the argument). Ballor correctly points out that the veracity of the ecumenical council statements all depends, not on their theological and moral bases, but instead on the extent to which the world actually lines up with the underlying political economy. Both Ballor and I argue that it does not: the world is not zero-sum, not even close, and that increased reliance on markets over the past twenty years has significantly improved the lot of everyone, most especially the poor of the world (see “The Age of Milton Friedman” by Andrei Shleifer in the Journal of Economic Literature for a brief summary of the argument).

I expect Ballor would agree with me that another erroneous aspect of the ecumenical councils’ statements does not, however, stem just from their adoption of a seriously flawed political economy. For the argument that the basic human problem is one of evil structures is also deeply flawed. I will not say that institutions are morally neutral — the rules of the game can often be made for evil purposes and lead to tragic consequences. But locating evil in institutions opens one to the Rousseauian notion that all we need is the perfect set of institutions in order to have a perfect human society (and the line between perfect and tragic is quite thin, isn’t it?!). Orthodox Christianity in all its versions has resisted that mistake, even while accepting in different ways that human sinfulness permeates our institutional life.

I’m more interested in Ballor’s examination of the question, for whom and to whom do the ecumenical councils speak? In a sense, he argues that the two aspects of this question are collapsed into one: the council statements are NOT made “of the church, by the church and for the church” but rather by an elite within church governing bodies to themselves or those like them. (One could go farther here and argue that my comment reveals the underlying problem Christianity has with democracy). Consider this: Christianity has expanded rapidly over the past thirty years in exactly the same places that what the ecumenical councils sarcastically call “neoliberalism” has expanded, and in both spiritual and economic terms, the poor are better off. But if you judged their economic and spiritual state by the ecumenical councils’ statements, they are still poor and oppressed by evil structures. A cynical economist might say — thank God for the evil of the market, which has clothed the naked and fed the hungry! All I’ll say is, go read some of “Aunt” Deirdre McCloskey’s work!

Back to the main point: Ballor’s analysis suggests that the ecumenical councils face a dilemma. Either they are the church, in which case they should stop making statements and figure out how to help cloth the naked and feed the poor themselves, or at least help Christians sort through general principles that can inform how we ourselves participate in solving social and economic problems, leaving the actual policy formulations to the hustling and higgling of politics and markets. Or they are just an interest group with a moral agenda — something like the Sierra Club or Mothers Against Drunk Driving — operating in a democratic society, in which case they cannot appeal to some special moral authority, and will end up looking just like any interest group.

If Ballor is right, and he is, then one of the things economists need to do is start examining the work of the ecumenical councils not as reflections of theological truth but instead as the creation through political action of a common benefit for the councils’ members, at the expense of others in society. Such rent-seeking behavior can usefully be examined using theories already in use in public choice theory. Frankly, I do not believe that economics can explain everything, but I am confident that it can explain the actions of this type of rent-seeking behavior, and if the councils have reduced themselves to interest groups, then we should use economics to explain their actions!

In his conclusion, Ballor does call the councils to take up for themselves tasks that churches cannot do for themselves (p. 110); namely, to help Christians work through issues like the relations among wealth, value and work. In this regard, Ballor echoes themes that are common themes of the Acton Institute: the fundamental dignity of the human person, the recovery of the natural law tradition, and the principle of subsidiarity, both in society and in the church.

Those concerned about the role of the church in the world today can learn a lot by reading and reflecting on Ballor’s excellent critique of the ecumenical movement’s political economy.

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One Response to “Ecumenism and Economics”

  1. […] Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church’s Social Witness are in. Ross Emmet says that, “those concerned about the role of the church in the world today can learn a lot by […]

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