Theology enters into dialogue with economics

by Fr Massimo Lapponi

from the Eucharistic prayer (see: Mt 26:26-27)


Among modern economists there is a trend that we can define “anti-Malthusian”. In fact economists like Julian Simon and Bjorn Lomborg do not consider man as a mere consumer, but also as a resource, even as “the ultimate resource”. But the anti-Malthusianism of these economists is not consistent, because their knowledge of man is shallow and incomplete. If man is “the ultimate resource”, then we cannot be satisfied with commonplace knowledge of man; we have to admit that economics is not a self-sufficient science and has to be supported by other kinds of knowledge of man, theology included – why not?

1. The economic trend that was dominant especially since the 1970s – but was already widespread for well over a century – considered the resources available for human sustenance as simple “data” and man as simple “consumer”. Going against this trend, the economist Julian Simon (1932-1998) emphasized the fact that man is also a “resource” because the goods for his sustenance become such practically always and only through the knowledge and the work of man. For this reason he came to define man “the ultimate resource”. In emphasizing this undeniable fact, he probably, in the fervor of the controversy, ended up exceeding and not giving the right weight to the natural availability of resources – which, in any case, is a necessary prerequisite for the knowledge and work of man. This does not alter the fact that his intuition has been fruitful and has given rise to innovative trends in economic research.
The Danish economist Bjorn Lomborg (1965 -), who to a large extent was inspired by Simon, while correcting some of his views, is the author of frequent critical interventions against the most widespread trends in the economic field. He does not fail to emphasize how the intervention of the work of man, guided by an ever wider scientific and technical knowledge, profoundly changes economic scenarios. In this perspective, both Simon and Lomborg, among other things, have emphasized how the catastrophic predictions about the disproportion between population and resources made in particular since the 1970s have proved to be unfounded. [see:
Lomborg has recently intervened in the cost-benefit analysis of sustainable development measures. He substantially shares the primary objectives presented by governments and economists and taken up by the Sustainable Development Goals in the United Nations General Assembly in 2015, that is: fight against poverty, nutrition, health, drinkable water, schooling, equal opportunities, climate, environment. Nevertheless he stresses that of the 169 objectives listed in detail as primary, those that would deserve the greatest commitment, as being more advantageous, are only 19. He points out in particular: access to “family planning”, the healthy nutrition of children, which in turn would promote brain development and therefore education and training of productive members of society, and the fight against malaria or tuberculosis, widespread causes of mortality among working-age adults in poor populations. [see: and:
He regrets that, on the other hand, too much money is being spent on other, much less advantageous goals in terms of cost-benefit analyses, such as those relating to climate change, the impact of which is exaggerated in his opinion. [see:
If the tendency of Simon and Lomborg is to emphasize the economic value of the work of man, and thus to primarily promote man’s health, nutrition and education, it is clear that these objectives are in fact present in more widespread programmes. Certainly increase in schooling is at the forefront of international and national projects on sustainable development. It means that despite Simon’s work has been the subject of lively controversy, its definition of man as “the ultimate resource” has ended up imposing itself.
But here we have to ask a fundamental question. If, as I believe, we are substantially in agreement to give man a qualitative primary role in the life, including economic life, of nations, do we not risk – in considering man and his value – to have a superficial and uncritical view of man cloaked in high-sounding words? We speak of «widespread schooling», of «inclusive and equitable quality education», of «lifelong learning opportunities for all». What is meant by these fine words? It would seem that the most important thing is scientific and technical training necessary for making the best use of natural resources, and also to intervene on man, not only for the benefit of his health.
But aren’t we runnig a little too fast? If man is the main and fundamental resource, it may be appropriate that before giving priority to sciences of nature and techniques of exploitation, we should study man himself better! And what sciences will make us know him better? If we want to use an all-encompassing look, no contribution should be neglected. So why should we exclude theology, which not so long ago was considered the queen of sciences?
Let us try to put aside any prejudice and see if, by chance, the light that may come from it regarding the human condition does not prove essential also for a correct discourse on economics.
2. From the Book of Genesis we learn some basic data about human economy. We read:
«To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’
“Cursed is the ground because of you;
through painful toil you will eat food from it
all the days of your life.
It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
and you will eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your brow
you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
and to dust you will return”.»
(Gn 2:17-19)
The situation described here is the result of the Sin of man, after which he has lost something essential, leading to his decay from his original state. First of all, he found himself largely estranged from his companion «suitable for him» (Gn 2:18) whom the Lord had given him to sustain him in the fulfilment of his mission. The initial deep union was replaced on the one hand by the domination of man over woman, thanks to his physical superiority, and on the other by a contradictory relationship of attraction of woman towards man, despite her inferiority, and of reciprocal «shame» with regard to their sexuality. Thus it is a kind of love-hate relationship, which undermines the original collaboration through which they should have experienced, through mutual love, the fatherly face of God and perpetuated his fatherhood in human generations.
Now, since the relations of love, sexuality and generation have become problematic, man finds his first fulfilment in the work of procuring bread. Thus, it is no longer the love for the woman and her offspring that will regulate his life, but the work of his hands for the wearisome submission of the world.
If we take seriously the teaching of the Bible, we must say that the relationship of man with work has something unbalanced. It seems that his commitment to procuring bread renders him largely insensitive to the woman and her own children. Obviously this is not an absolutely dominant datum, because love for woman and offspring always remains. However, the Bible emphasizes the fundamental temptation to relegate these affections to the background in order to exalt in the first place his role as a worker.
But the Bible does not contain only the book of Genesis; the New Testament, whose precise purpose is to heal the fallen condition of man, supersedes and fulfills this. In the Gospel, Christ “the new man” is opposed to the “old” man. And therein is a page which reveals the inauguration of a totally new situation.
«Take and eat» says Jesus at the Last Supper. And he adds: «this is my Body».
Like Adam, Jesus too has the mission of procuring bread. But the bread he procures is totally transfigured compared to the one that Adam had procured by the sweat of his forehead. It is natural to make a parallel between an “old” and a “new” economy. For the old economy the first resource is bread, in the new economy it is man. But beware: not every man, but the new man, Jesus Christ! The true bread, which will nourish man, is his body and his blood.
It will be said that these are religious symbols, which are valid for spiritual life, but have nothing to do with economy, which must take care of feeding men with bread, and not of administering the Eucharist to the faithful.
Is it just so? If Christ imitated the old Adam in procuring bread and if he did so by totally changing its prospective, did he do so only for spiritual reasons or also to regenerate human economy itself? Is it not the case that spiritual regeneration becomes also the necessary condition for economic regeneration? Some words of Christ suggest this.
«Very truly I tell you» he says to the Jews, «you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him God the Father has placed his seal of approval». (Jn 6:26-27).
And shortly before, the evangelist had written:
«Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself» (Jn 6:15).
If Jesus wanted the good of men, and not only their “spiritual good”, and did not claim to be their king to give men only material bread, as the old Adam would have done, this means that the true good and bread of men is different from that of modern economists. And Jesus clearly told us what this bread is: «Take it and eat; this is my body».
So – one might ask– will economic problems be solved with the Eucharist? It would certainly not be a very suitable way to express oneself! Let us deepen the meaning of the biblical words. Jesus could not have said: «This is my body» if he had not had a body. Now, this fact opens our eyes to an infinite mystery!
We saw what the condition of human generation was after sin. The great mystery of the generation of life, which was to reflect the generation of the divine Word in the bosom of Divinity, had been polluted by the lack of true inner communion between man and woman and by the disorder of sexuality. The loss of the original union of love between man and woman had caused man to choose as his primary purpose the conquest of the world to obtain bread. In fact, the Son of God, «who is the radiance of his glory and the imprint of his substance, and who sustains everything with the power of his word» (Heb 1:3) is the foundation of all creation and his face was to be revealed to the conscience of man – destined to give meaning to all creation – through the face of woman, and vice versa. Thus the face of God would guide all the actions of man, woman and their descendants in the way of love. This, unfortunately, was seriously compromised by sin.
But in Christ the situation has changed. If we ask Mary: «turn then (…) thine eyes of mercy toward us», it is because in her face we find the revelation of God’s face, as it was originally in the divine plan for woman. If Mary consecrated herself to God in virginity, this was because her spirit was too absorbed by divine life and its sublime fruitfulness to be interested in the derived earthly fruitfulness. But in God’s plans, earthly fruitfulness had to be redeemed and brought back to reflect the generation of the divine Word. For this reason, it was necessary to bring the human generation closer to the divine generation, so that the latter might radiate wonderfully on the first and lead it back to its model. What more extraordinary means for this purpose than to make the human generation a part of the divine generation – as it was mysteriously programmed from the beginning? Thus Mary, in her virginity consecrated to divine fruitfulness, had to be fruitful for a human life too, but this human life would have been the life of the Word of God himself!
So Jesus, saying: «This is my body», on the one hand glorifies the presence of the divine generation in human generation, and on the other, overcomes the obstacle to love caused by sin. It brings back the model of human activity from the conquest of the world and from material bread to self-giving, which is the true bread for the life of the world.
But let us try to deepen this thought. The narrative of Christ’s history in John’s Gospel begins with a marriage, during which Mary says: «They have no more wine» (Jn 2:3).
It is not by mere chance that the story of redemption begins with a marriage! It is precisely the love between man and woman, in fact, that must be healed so that the whole life of the world is redeemed from evil. Now, isn’t the missing wine the symbol of the inner strength of man, which is closely identified in the Bible with blood?
«And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each human being, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of another human being» (Gn 9:5).
It is precisely this lifeblood that fails in the human marriage after sin. That is, the «good wine» is missing and the «worse» wine is served (Jn 2:10). That intimate union that was to draw the deepest core of man and woman was hindered by sin, that is, by the darkening of love and the primary commitment of man to conquer the world to assert his pride and to obtain material goods, reserving to woman, and to her offspring, more his own sensuality than his own love, and thus darkening the true face of God.
Thus the Eucharistic wine, which is the blood of Christ shed for purification from sin, is the «good wine» (Jn 2:10), preserved for the time of salvation. The true nourishment of mankind is in a life spent to overcome sin, in reaffirming the absolute primacy of love and in extending divine fatherhood to all human descent. Thus the Eucharist is not only a spiritual nourishment, but it is also the nourishment necessary for earthly life, if it is true that man is “the ultimate resource”.
Not only Christ, but every man, when he is regenerated by Christ in his image, is the true bread and wine for the life of the world. Therefore every man is no longer called to realize himself by procuring material bread with the conquest of the world, but to procure bread as Christ procured it: giving himself through love, in marriage or in the virginal consecration, in physical or spiritual fatherhood and motherhood, in the spirit of brotherhood brought back to all men.
So we can consider this well known passage of the Gospel not only as being of spiritual value but also as a scientific text of economics:
«So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well» (Mt 6:31-33).
3. What could economists learn from this knowledge of man – “the ultimate resource” – offered by the Bible? First of all, that scientific and technical knowledge alone, without the regeneration of man, will not correct the basic disorder of man, and therefore his tendency to replace, as a reason for his action, love with the desire to dominate and unleash his passions. The increase of science and power over nature will too often be a cause of oppression, discord, greed for domination and enjoyment, and finally waste and destruction of riches laboriously accumulated.
Secondly, and consequently, if it is true that man is the fundamental resource, this means that one must invest in him in a very different way to what modern economists generally think. In particular, contrary to what commonly happens – as is demonstrated by the universally accepted choice to place “family planning” among the main objectives to be achieved – the first concern of a truly scientific economist should be to enhance and protect from any degeneration that relationship between man, woman and their offspring that Christ and Mary renewed and consecrated with their presence among us «unto the end of the world» (Mt 28:20).
So Lomborg’s claim: «allowing women more control over pregnancy would mean 150,000 fewer maternal deaths and 600,000 fewer orphaned children, along with considerable economic benefits» has nothing really scientific to it. Indeed, death by maternity is not a consequence of motherhood as such, but of inadequate sanitary conditions, and these, not motherhood, should be combated, without diverting resources towards false goals. Moreover – and we must stress this point – what the economist neglects and ignores above all is the great mystery of love between man and woman, which is at the center of life and which, for the integral good, even economic, of man must be healed and not violated and upset.
We are not going to go into detail here, but we are merely observing that it should be clear from a non-superficial perspective how much artificial methods of birth regulation adversely affect both the female organism, the quality of marital relations, and the morality of youth. But the morality of youth does not seem to be as dear to Lomborg as its good nourishment and scholastic education; it is not clear to him that by a morally healthy youth, and from it alone, there derive solid marriages, happy families and well fed and cared for children.