I recently caught an episode of EWTN’s “Catholicism on Campus” where the subject was economics and a point was made briefly that I think bears reflection.
It is said that the wise know that they don’t know everything, which not only emphasizes the importance of humility but can also cause people to sneer suspiciously at claims of actually knowing something. The point was made in the show that economists basically know the answer to why most rich countries are rich and why most poor countries are poor, and it is little more than the reasons outlined by Adam Smith in his An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Since I’ve made the point exhaustively in about 50% of my CV posts, I’ll just give a one-sentence summary: economic freedom to trade (domestically and internationally) within an institutional framework of clear and limited laws and regulations leads to the greatest material growth than alternative systems.
My point here is not to defend that statement (indeed, it is not only my opinion, as the guest on “Catholicism on Campus” stressed). The history of economic thought shows battling schools of thought with some names (and their ideas) becoming commonplace (Keynes, Friedman) and some being consigned to historical footnotes (Robert Owen, Gustav Schmoller). The battle royale of economists has to be considered the twentieth century, where both socialism and free markets were attempted on relatively large scales (Cuba and North Korea being examples of the former; Hong Kong and Singapore the latter). Though you’ll still find random college students or documentary film producers praising the efficiency(!) of socialism, economists (the people who study this stuff for a living) by a great margin agree that markets work better.
So now what? The major economic questions that occupied most of our time in the twentieth century have been answered. But economics, like science, only concerns itself with material reality; and most economists and scientists will admit that reality is not limited to the material. While psychologists, sociologists, or anthropologists attempt to fill in the immaterial gaps in what it means to be human, CV readers likely presume that the theologian has some expertise in this matter as well.
What do theologians tell us? Relevant to a discussion about societal questions, some practical bits of advice include:
With the material questions mostly answered (though convincing politicians and despots to enact policies consistent with those answers may prove difficult), and with post-Christian society rapidly embracing atheism/agnosticism, the time seems ripe for theologians to step up with the truth of Christ and His Church.
I’m not sure what it says about humanity that we seemed to move from a time where the major questions were known (“Will living a moral life lead to happiness?” “Are men and women different?”) and we were ignorant of the minor ones (“How many species of frog are there?” “What is the 1,605th digit of pi?”), to a time now where we know lots of minutae but are ignorant about the major questions. We don’t know whether God exists or why it even matters to care about having an answer to that question; we don’t know what sex is for or where babies come from; we don’t know whether violence against innocent persons is wrong, etc.
Theologians have the comparative advantage in answering these questions; they’ve been doing it for a few millenia by now whereas our ignorance is only a few decades old. It seems fitting, then, that our recent popes have not only been great theologians, but have also had a very evangelical flair. This moment in history especially it seems necessary for St. Peter to again cast his nets into the sea, to work at the Great Commission. If some wondered whether 2012 would be the “Year of the Atheist,” I think it is much more likely that the twenty-first century will be the age of theology (perhaps preceded by the opening act of apologetics). If we worked out the economic questions in the twentieth century, let’s work out the God questions in this one.
P.S. That means you; we don’t have the luxury of being ill-informed on theology in a society that seems bent on discarding anything religious.