REVIEW OF ROBERT G. SIMONS, COMPETING GOSPELS: PUBLIC THEOLOGY AND ECONOMIC THEORY (E. J. DWYER, 1995)
Catholic New Times, 17 March 1996; on the web by permission, August 2003
If you can tell a man, as the old saying goes, by the company he keeps, you can tell a book by its footnotes. The present book is rooted in two main traditions. One is the economic teaching of the Catholic Church, extending from the social encyclicals of Leo XIII and Pius XI to the documents of Vatican II, liberation theology, and recent statements of episcopal conferences in the U.S.A. and elsewhere. Simons cites theologians like Leonardo Boff, J. B. Metz, Gregory Baum and Charles Curran for elucidating the church's teaching, and spelling out its implications.
The other part of this book's foundation consists of some of the most incisive secular analysts of advanced capitalism, scholars so brilliant as to be able to place our current economic order in historical perspective, show how it works, and appraise its strengths and weaknesses. Foremost among them is Karl Polanyi, the emigré Hungarian economist who spent most of his later years in Canada and who still has a following here. For his first chapter, a lucid depiction of societies founded on market principles, Simons relies mainly on Polanyi's masterwork, The Great Transformation (1944).
Jürgen Habermas (The Theory of Communicative Action, 1988), Karl Marx (Early Texts, 1971), Robert Bellah (The Good Society, 1991), and Robert Putnam (Making Democracy Work, 1988) are among the other first-rank scholars on whose thinking Simons builds his own.
What do you get when you cross the church's social gospel with the best research available on transnational capitalism? With this learned Australian theologian as a guide, you get a rich, readable, powerful analysis of what is wrong with our world, and a moral, reasoned program for reform. The foundation on which this book rests is as sturdy as they come. But so is the superstructure Simons himself has built: a synthesis of critical thought about contemporary global capitalism, an exposé of its faults and limits, and a practical guide for change.
This book's key distinction, to which it returns from different angles throughout the first 150 pages, is between the market economy and the human community. This distinction easily escapes those of us immersed in the mainstream order. By now, the market has covered so much of the planet and penetrated so many aspects of our lives that we tend to identify it with society itself. We begin to think people really are as rational and self-interested, that the good things in life really are as scarce, and that efforts to maximize utility really are as natural, as the market assumes they are. We begin to see our own choices as occasions to calculate costs and benefits, as if humanity and the Earth were one big commodities bazaar.
Simons shows that this is not the case: that life is prior to and bigger than the market. As Simons understands it, the doctrine of the Trinity captures the basic truth, that the ground of all being is relationship, the bond of pure, self-giving love. The market—however wondrous its products or myriad its forms—is but a competitive game people play within their larger intersected lives. From this point of view, our challenge now is how to put the market back within political and cultural boundaries. Simons believes the church has an important role in this task. Its theology must be public, engaged with the world.
The book becomes blessedly practical in its last 50 pages, identifying strategies for change. Decentralization of economic power, a guaranteed minimum income scheme, reduction of wage inequalities, progressive taxation of income and inheritances, and programs of community economic development: these emerge as priorities from the earlier, more abstract analysis.
For most readers, another practical implication hits closer to home. Simons complains about a paradigm of teaching in the Catholic tradition, according to which there are some who teach and some who are taught. As a result, he says, "the credibility of the Church's liberating social message is greatly handicapped when the latter does not appear to be applied in the same manner within the Church as it is to situations and issues in society." Simons applauds Rosemary Radford Ruether's proposal of feminist ecclesial communities apart from the patriarchal structures of the institutional church.
This is not a charismatic, prophetic book, in the way the gospels are. Simons does not call readers to a new way of life in the manner of Moses or Martin Luther, Moses Coady or Martin Luther King. This is a work of systematic theology, joining to revelation and church teaching the very best of available secular thought. It deserves as much discussion and respect in our time as the Summa of Thomas Aquinas enjoyed in the thirteenth century.