THERE is widening international discontent with the current manifestations of Capitalism and the financial markets. It is reflected in protests, academic commentaries, and books that either mirror the movement or inspire it.
At first sight, this title might be one of them. The author is a professional economist, an experienced practitioner who has been chairman of several financial institutions. He is also a Roman Catholic, chairman of the French Association of Catholic Economists. The book is a translation of the text in French first published in 2013.
It is detailed and comprehensive. Pierre de Lauzun’s Christian perspective begins by grounding what he calls the strange affinity that connects Christianity and economic life in the four Gospels. They are the starting point, he says. But it was only in the Middle Ages that thinking about what eventually became economics reached a climax. The active redistribution of wealth was seen as a virtue, and charging interest on loans was akin to hoarding, a sterile activity. A significant part of the book is devoted to the debate about usury.
The Church’s influential teaching on the economy waned from the 16th century, with the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. It was only revived — he writes — by the rise of Catholic Social Teaching in the late 19th century, developed from papal encyclicals. At this point, the book’s texture changes, with chunky quotations rather than the signposts from medieval teaching which we have had until this halfway stage.
The common good cannot be achieved through competition arbitrating between selfish objects, de Lauzon writes. He then extends the ideas of the social doctrine to the financial markets, including the notion of greed, the disparity of pay and reward in companies, and the bruising impact of the crisis of 2008.
The conclusion of this wide-ranging survey is uncompromisingly a religious one: only a robust level of faith can give the strength to overcome the temptations of the marketplace.
Yes, this is an important book, but it is not easy to read. Academic in style, much of it reads as a translation not from French (which it is), but Latin (which, in the case of the encyclicals, it probably is). Hard going.
And the academic style makes it seem very detached. The writer may be an insider in the financial markets, but few of his observations seem derived from the way in which he has seen the financial world actually working, and how a morally aware individual might practise his profession in the marketplace.
There is much about influences, but not so much about how to go about putting Christian morality into practice in what seems to be a naughty world, in which decent behaviour has been replaced by rules and regulations, ethics by compliance departments.
In the face of rising discontent, something urgent is needed to restore a sense of decency to the world of wealth and finance. This book is a plea for that to happen from a Christian economist. But I fancy he is preaching to the unconverted.
Peter Day is a former BBC News business correspondent, and presenter of In Business on BBC Radio 4.
Finance: A Christian perspective
Pierre de Lauzun
Angelico Press £14.50
Church Times Bookshop £13.05