Finished Work

Three faculty editors complete Bernard Lonergan's unfinished book linking morality and economics

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

The way Jesuit philosopher and Boston College faculty member Bernard J. F. Lonergan, SJ, saw it, Catholic proponents of the "just" wage may have had their hearts in the right place, but they weren't much on economics.

According to Assoc. Prof. Frederick Lawrence (Theology), Fr. Lonergan (1904-84) felt industrialists who obeyed Pope Leo XIII's doctrine that employers are morally bound to pay workers a just wage would go out of business, while the unscrupulous reaped a profit. Fr. Lonergan believed it ineffective for Church theologians to decry abuses in the capitalist system without offering technically specific alternatives.

Associate professors Frederick Lawrence (Theology), Charles Hefling (Theology) and Patrick Byrne (Philosophy), from left, with a portrait of Bernard Lonergan, SJ. Said Hefling, "Lonergan says more than once that an economy is an ecology, in which lots of different processes are interlocked." (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)
"Lonergan realized Church economic teachings, ungrounded in economic reality, were just vague moral imperatives," said Lawrence. "What was needed was the economic analysis that could ground the moral and democratic economic order."

Fr. Lonergan set out to accomplish this in an essay that sought to find moral norms in economics by first determining, in a technical way, the norms of economics itself. He described a "pure cycle" theory that recognized a more complex economic ecology than mere cycles of boom and bust.

Although Fr. Lonergan wrote and revised the essay for many years, he was never able to complete it before his death. But three of his successors have taken the late philosopher's unfinished work on macroeconom-ics, comprising some 800 pages in seven different versions, and edited it for release as a book. Macroeconomic Dynamics: An Essay in Circulation Analysis , edited by Lawrence, Prof. Patrick Byrne (Philosophy), and Assoc. Prof. Rev. Charles C. Hefling Jr. (Theology), will be released this spring by University of Toronto Press as the latest volume in its Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan .

A Canadian Jesuit regarded by admirers as one of the finest Catholic thinkers of modern times, Fr. Lonergan sought to adapt methods of inquiry from the natural sciences to bring to bear on questions of philosophy and theology - and in this case, economics.

"His view was that economics had its own intelligibility, like mathematics, or zoology," said Prof. Emeritus Frederick E. Crowe, SJ, of Regis College in Toronto, co-editor of the Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan . "If, as Francis Bacon said, we conquer nature by obeying her, we conquer the economic process by getting hold of it and working in harmony with it."

As a Canadian, Fr. Lonergan took interest in the political movement that arose in that country in the 1930s around the theory of "social credit," which maintained that government should grant subsidies to citizens to make up gaps between wages and the price of consumer goods.

While many Catholics endorsed social credit on the basis of papal doctrine on the just wage, Fr. Lonergan saw the program as economically unrealistic.

"Lonergan realized the basic idea of social credit, while well-intentioned, would yield inflation that would harm the working people," Lawrence said.

If Catholic social teachings were to be applied in the economic arena, it was first necessary, in Fr. Lonergan's view, to understand the ground rules of the playing field.

"You can have all the good will in the world," said Rev. Hefling, "but it will amount to vague moral precepts and nothing more if you don't understand what it is you're dealing with."

In his "pure cycle" theory of production and exchange, Rev. Hefling said, Fr. Lonergan described economic systems as complex organisms with overlapping layers of activity not readily classified by either the laissez-faire classicists or statist economic planners of the day.

"Lonergan says more than once that an economy is an ecology, in which lots of different processes are interlocked," said Rev. Hefling.

Fr. Lonergan hoped his technically detailed study of economics would be useful in building a more just and democratic society, the editors say.

"Lonergan was aiming for an economic system where widows and orphans don't starve," said Byrne. "He thought it was possible to have that. He sought to set out a responsible economic analysis that would make that possible."

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