Finally, Mr. Richert takes exception to my characterization of the Middle Ages as impoverished compared to modern times. His response is that modern times are spiritually impoverished compared to the Middle Ages.

This is quite true. The faith among the Christian population was stronger then and suffused their culture in a way it does not today. This aspect of the Middle Ages is much to be admired and, if possible, duplicated at some point in the future (though B16 doesn’t see that happening any time soon).

Mr. Richert points out that there are values that transcend economics and that must be pursued, and this is also quite true. He tells a poignant story involving Mother Theresa, which is spiritually compelling and a powerful testimony to the value of compassion over money.

These points do not mean, however, that the economics of the Middle Ages were correct, that they should be applied today, or that the Church requires us to believe in them. ~Jimmy Akin

This was one of the few points worth commenting on from Mr. Akin’s riposte to one of Mr. Richert’s last posts on the just price debate. Rather than spending much time detouring down the side alley of Mr. Akin’s justifying his backhanded attack on the views of Father Eugene Cahill, S.J., which dominates most of Mr. Akin’s last post, I wanted to tackle Mr. Akin’s argument advanced against medieval economic practices.

Yes, Mr. Akin grants, medieval Christian man was generally more pious and lived in a far more consciously Christian and Christianised society than we do, and he also grants that, as I would put it, we are bereft of that spiritual illumination in our preoccupation with having effective strategies of capital management and working to maximise return, which conventional opinion regards more or less as essentially a good in itself. But medieval economics was just plain incorrect. By what measure are medieval economic practices (it seems somehow odd to refer to ‘the economics of the Middle Ages’) deemed incorrect? Again, by the measures of efficiency, maximising gain and “growth.”

Of course, when modern, capitalist economic standards are applied to past ‘economies’, all ages before early modernity will be found lacking, their economic “systems” deemed deeply flawed and retarded by cultural values that conceive of entirely different purposes for wealth and human life. But isn’t Mr. Akin’s acknowledgment of medieval Christian man’s superior spiritual and cultural life a tacit concession that, as far as the highest goods in life are concerned (the goods with which Christians should be most concerned), a meaningful and good life was realised far better in many ways under that economic regime than under our own?

Are Catholics obliged, and indeed might Christians in general be obliged, to “believe in” medieval economic practices, the “economics of the Middle Ages”? I should first note that we have been talking here primarily about guilds and price regulation of the thirteenth century and afterwards, which actually excludes most of the Middle Ages and the variety of economic life found across Europe during this extremely long period, and this does not begin to touch on questions of land tenure and social hierarchy that defined so much of medieval economic life. But the phrasing itself allows for an easy dismissal of the question, if not a hostile reading of the thinking behind it. In themselves, economic practices are not things in which one confesses belief (properly speaking, I think we should say that one only “believes in” revelation), and they are instead historical realities that one can accept as having happened or simply ignore. That Mr. Akin speaks of “believing in” one set of economic arrangements or other might suggest that economic arrangements and economic theories are ideological propositions to which one subscribes or not. Let’s assume that is not what he meant.

Setting aside the awkward phrasing for a moment, I think I know what he meant. I believe he meant that Catholics are not required to follow these practices and embrace a certain kind of economic thought that these practices embody. If that is a fair assessment, I might say that he is right to the extent that no specific set of economic arrangements is ordained by God and revealed to men in Scripture and Tradition–the Fathers do not counsel us to become corporatists, capitalists, syndicalists or anything else, but teach us to give each man his due and to provide for the poor. All Christian social doctrine, it seems to me, stems from those two basic imperatives of justice and charity.

But surely it cannot mean that the Church’s teachings would be indifferent to the virtues of medieval economic practices and economic thought, insofar as they may embody to a higher degree virtues of justice and charity that more recent economic arrangements by their very structures are incapable of possessing (in no small part because the theories on which they are based deem such virtues irrelevant or even positively harmful to the proper, i.e., most efficient, functioning of an economy). In the same way that political constitutions may be more in conformity with natural law than others, the same holds for economic arrangements. To the extent that we might show that the actual economic practices of medieval Christian man are more compatible with natural law and are more just, to say nothing of the spiritual benefits that might be reaped under such an arrangement, then we would show that Christians are obliged to adopt those practices. If we could show that such practices are more in conformity with natural law and that they are more just, there would be nothing for it but to apply them today.

It should go without saying that no one here is proposing, as far as I know, an exact recreation of medieval guilds, feudal land tenure or any of the other historically contingent phenomena from the Middle Ages. Besides the impossibility of recreating all the contingent circumstances that made these things possible in the first place, we could easily acknowledge that it would not be desirable to revive all those practices. But what I believe Mr. Richert has been arguing for instead might be an economics inspired by a medieval Christian ethos and modeled generally on the sorts of practices, informed by Christian social teaching, found in medieval Europe, including price regulation governed by a specific concept of just price that does not readily equate it with the price the market will bear.

It might look something like the old Catholic corporatism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which was a view of economics and society very much inspired by what the corporatists saw as the virtues of medieval guilds and social hierarchies in their maintenance of social solidarity, communal life and an appropriate ordering of each according to his station. It was a view supported in several respects, if not necessarily thoroughly endorsed, by the encyclicals Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno. Perhaps Mr. Richert would not go so far as to endorse corporatism of this kind, but I am guessing that it may be that sort of recovery of the virtues of medieval economic attitudes for use as remedies for our modern economic and social dislocations that Mr. Richert seeks and has been defending in his advocacy for the concept of just price.

Advertisement