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Political Economy at Christendom College

May 15, 2024  |  1,015 words  |  Economics, Education

Christendom College is a small liberal arts school whose rural campus is located just outside the sleepy little town of Front Royal, Virginia.  It prides itself on not taking any government funding, which allows it to dodge unwanted federal mandates on curriculum.  In the words of its outgoing president, Dr. Timothy O’Donnell, this lack of interference is what frees every aspect of the college – both academic and social – to be directed toward nothing less than the consecration of the intellect and will to Christ.  

The incoming president, Dr. George Harne, is of the same mind, and was recently quoted as saying “I truly believe Christendom will play a leading role in the renewal of the Church and of Catholic higher education in the next fifty years.”

As you might imagine, such religious fervor is catnip to a certain breed of conservative Catholic philanthropist who yearns for the chance to open their checkbook for an out-of-the-way institution of higher learning considered by some to be an oasis of Christian culture and education in a sea of confusion.

Yet despite this professed allegiance on the part of administrators and faculty to the hallowed concept known as “The Kingship of Christ,” I have noticed a certain incongruity in one area of instruction.  When it comes to the teaching of economics, the Political Science and Economics Department at Christendom College operates in a decidedly secular manner, eschewing Catholic thought in favor of a conventional free-market take on the subject.

Why this is and how it has come to pass is a mystery to me.  The college’s principled refusal to accept government money has obviously forced it to rely solely on tuition fees and private donations.  It could be the only benefactors who can afford to subsidize the continued expansion of this bucolic campus are those who have achieved a notable measure of success in our dog-eat-dog business world.  That success may well have required a suspension of their Christian ideals on occasion.  Not wanting to bite the hand that feeds it, the administration may have decided to stick with the conservative status quo when teaching economics, to avoid drilling down and possibly alienating its “Americans for Prosperity” donor base.  Of course this is just wild speculation on my part.

What we do know for certain is that Christendom College is forever praising the work and teaching of two recent popes – Benedict XVI and John Paul II – while sidestepping any mention of the loose cannon who currently holds down the job, Pope Francis.  The inference is clear.  This renegade shepherd has demonstrated time and again he is doctrinally unworthy to occupy the Chair of St. Peter, at least in their eyes.  It is as if the Christendom crowd is holding its collective breath, waiting for Francis to die (or retire), so a papal enclave can elect someone more in line with their sense of orthodoxy. 

That would not necessarily bother me – everyone is entitled to their opinion, and no pope is going to please everyone –  if it were not for the way this school is forever misrepresenting the teaching of Benedict XVI and John Paul II regarding economics.  And failing to see that when it comes to the ‘dismal science’ Francis has in fact been quite the faithful servant, echoing not only the thought of these two immediate predecessors, but that of every other pope since Leo XIII. 

For reference, it is Leo who kicked off the Catholic Church’s modern-day economic teaching with his encyclical Rerum Novarum (On the Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor), promulgated in 1891 in response to the excesses of the (first) Gilded Age.  Though I will admit Francis does occasionally use saltier language than any of his predecessors saw fit to employ when calling attention to unfettered capitalism’s somewhat obvious shortcomings.

A new course at Christendom, “Political Economy,” introduced in the fall semester of 2023 by a young Adjunct Professor by the name of Dr. James Bergida, would appear to continue the unfortunate trend of emphasizing a free-market approach to economics, at the expense of foundational Christian precepts.  I base my judgement on the course’s reading list as shared in a recent promotional blurb.

In that blurb Dr. Bergida informs prospective donors his new course “follow(s) the lead of Aristotle and Adam Smith in exploring the connection between politics and economics. We discuss this connection in terms of a three-way relationship between humans, goods, and governance.  Our discussions cover various topics such as private property, public goods, common-pool resources, factors of production, taxation, and international trade.”

“Students in the course engage with the ideas of a broad range of thinkers, including Claude Frederic Bastiat (1801-1850), Karl Marx, Henry George (1839-1897), Aldous Huxley, and Ludwig von Mises, as well as Nobel Prize winners in Economics Fredrich Hayek, James M. Buchanan, and Elinor Ostrom.”

All this sounds fine.  In looking up two of the lesser-known (to me) names on the list I was interested to learn something of Bastiat’s famous parable of the broken window.  And to encounter Henry George’s 1879 best-seller Progress and Poverty for the first time, which apparently inspired a generation of progressive reformers.

But my problem is how the extensive intellectual framework Dr. Bergida has assembled would seem to lead students to the conclusion an unregulated free market is the only economic system able to preserve human dignity and promote individual flourishing.  If my hunch is correct, this new course is maintaining a tradition in which Christendom College essentially contradicts what every Catholic pope since Leo XIII has taught about economic behavior.  And continues to dismiss an elaborate body of related Catholic thinking that has been steadily developing over the course of the last 133 years.

To me the tragedy is this:  Most American Catholics who consider themselves “conservative” and reliably vote Republican are doing the same thing.  And I am saddened that an otherwise praise-worthy institution of higher learning that presents itself as being more Catholic than the current pope is unable to see the error if its ways in this important area of human endeavor.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.

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