Debating God's Economy: Social Justice in America on the Eve of Vatican II

Penn State Press
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What would a divinely ordained social order look like? Pre–Vatican II Catholics, from archbishops and theologians to Catholic union workers and laborers on U.S. farms, argued repeatedly about this in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Debating God’s Economy is a history of American Catholic economic debates taking place during the generation preceding Vatican II. At that time, American society was rife with sociopolitical debates over the relative merits and dangers of Marxism, capitalism, and socialism; labor unions, class consciousness, and economic power were the watchwords of the day. This was a time of immense social change, and, especially in the light of the monumental social and economic upheavals in Russia and Europe in the early twentieth century, Catholics found themselves taking sides. Catholic subcultures across America sought to legitimize—or, in theological parlance, “sanctify”—diverse economic systems that were, at times, mutually exclusive. While until now the faithful—both scholars and nonscholars—have typically spoken of “the Catholic Social Tradition” as if it were an established prescription for curing social ills, Prentiss maintains that the tradition is better understood as a debate grounded in a common mythology that provides Catholics with a distinctive vocabulary and touchstone of authority.
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About the author

Craig Prentiss is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Missouri, and editor of Religion and the Creation of Race and Ethnicity: An Introduction (2003).

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Additional Information

Publisher
Penn State Press
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Published on
Jun 2, 2008
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Pages
280
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ISBN
9780271056548
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Best For
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Language
English
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Genres
History / Americas (North, Central, South, West Indies)
History / United States / 20th Century
Philosophy / Political
Religion / Christian Theology / Ethics
Religion / Christianity / Catholic
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Content Protection
This content is DRM protected.
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In 1895 an English farmer diverted the course of a stream that was flowing through his land, thereby cutting off the supply to the water reservoir of the neighboring community. The courts established that it had been his purpose to "injure the plaintiffs by carrying off the water and to compel them to buy him off." Regardless of what the law says, most people will feel that the farmer's intentions were morally unjust; he was trying to abuse his property rights in order to take advantage of others. Yet, as Gijs van Donselaar explains, the major traditions in the theory of economic justice, both from the libertarian right and from the egalitarian left, have failed to appreciate the moral objection to exploitative behavior that this case displays. Those traditions entertain radically opposed views on how private property should be distributed, but they do not consider the legitimacy of constraints on the exercise of property rights--however they are distributed. The second part of the book demonstrates how this failure clears the way for a recent egalitarian argument, gaining in popularity, for a so-called unconditional basic income. If all have an initial right to an equal share of the resources of the world, then it soon seems to follow that all have a right to an equal share of the value of the resources of the world, which could be cashed in as a labor-free income. That inference is only valid if moral behavior similar to that of the farmer is tolerated. Van Donselaar argues that, ultimately, a confusion about the nature and value of freedom of choice is responsible for the odd conception of private rights in resources that would justify exploitation.
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