Continuing the reflection on “An Economy for All”

It has been almost four months since the Dehonians’ international theological seminar “Towards an Economy for All; Inclusive, Sustainable, Just” took place in Madrid, Spain. Representing the North American Theological Commission in Madrid were Fr. John van den Hengel, SCJ and Fr. Gustave Lulendo, SCJ, from Canada and Fr. Ziggy Morawiec, SCJ and Fr. Francis Vu Tran, SCJ from the US Province.

Often when such a gathering comes to an end there is a feeling of “What next?” Will anything come of the presentations, and the conversations that followed them. Is it possible to create an “Economy for All?”

In an effort to keep the conversation going, members of the North American Theological Commission are preparing various reflections on the conference topics. The first is from Fr. John van den Hengel, the chairperson of the North American commission. He writes:

Léon Dehon wrote at least nine books on the social and economic situation of France toward the end of the 19th century.[1] Personally he had been born into a land-based aristocratic family in northern France. From his work in Saint Quentin and his involvement with the Third Order of St. Francis he became deeply aware of the immense social and economic changes that engulfed France in the century after the French Revolution. During the century, France moved from a land-based feudal structure to a capitalism based on money.[2] A new social class emerged – the liberal bourgeoisie – who controlled this new economy and created the new conditions for the working class.  A new relation of wealth and ownership led to the endemic poverty that characterized this era. France became more individually driven and less socially conscious.

Like many another writer in the latter part of that century, Dehon was deeply aware of the impact of the industrial revolution upon the poorer segment of French society but also upon the Church. As he wrote in Les directions pontificales : “Our century is above all a time of political and social agitation.” His social concern had begun when he was a law student in Paris. During his studies, Leon Dehon had become a member of the Third Order of St. Francis. It connected him with the plight of the new working class.

After starting the Congregation, he attended all their conventions and quite often spoke at them, much to the chagrin of the members of his home community in Saint Quentin. At some point Dehon came to see that the Third Order approach was too caritatively oriented to social issues. He saw the need for a more structural reform. Here the influence of Pope Leo XIII can be felt. Dehon was enthusiastic by the lead given by Pope Leo XIII and his social encyclicals, particularly Rerum Novarum (1891)[3]. Dehon’s world, so Francophile, also revolved around Rome and its leadership role in the world. Underneath it all, Dehon’s  perspective in the social and economic sphere was primarily ecclesial and only secondarily social. That is evidenced in his conflict with the Freemasons and the Jews. They were perceived as a counterforce. He became more and more convinced that the church required alongside the more doctrinal teachings a new approach to the world through a social teaching.

He understood it to be the task of the Church to engage this newly emerging social situation because it was having a disastrous repercussion on the participation of people in the life of the Church. Those who were most impacted were men and the children who were the primary working force of the industrial revolution. There were as yet no labour laws, no restrictions on working hours or working days. Dehon lived in a time of the excesses of a liberal economy. But what he feared most was how this was impacting the role of the Church. As he wrote in DPS 161:

“The true enemies of true Christian social doctrine are on the one hand socialism and on the other liberal or individualist economy. Both dismiss the action of the Church. Socialism exaggerates the action of the state, making the state a unique and tyrannical association; it suppresses free associations, personal initiative, private property and even the family. Liberal economy dismisses the action of the state or restricts it out of proportion; it limits private associations and worker initiative; it exaggerates property rights and gives priority to capitalism and the oppression of workers.”

For Dehon it was clear that France was dominated by liberalism. He feared that if liberalism was not kept within bounds that it may give rise to socialism which he seems to have considered a greater evil. He believed that workers were better protected in the older premodern worker associations. That is why Dehon favoured the confraternities and new worker associations as a counterforce to the attractions of socialism and liberalism.

A hundred and thirty years later the capitalism that had begun to dominate the economic scene of France has not abated. Today, as Branko Milanovic says in the title of his book: capitalism is the “System That Rules the World.”[4] But it has become less liberal and more unequal. And it is clearly ravaging the world and affecting how we can live democratically. Even though Dehonians may not necessarily interpret the social and economic situation along the same lines of concern as Dehon  – our concern is more the well-being of the world – they see the economic well-being of people as a spiritual concern. That is why the Dehonian theological committees met in Madrid (ESIC University) from May 7 to 11, 2023, to speak together about an economy that is for all: inclusive, sustainable and just.

Fr. John

Our main speaker, Gael Giraud, a Jesuit now teaching at Georgetown University, provided us some background regarding one aspect of global capitalism which over the last centuries has sought to privatize what humans consider their commons. Giraud provides the interesting example of such a privatization when in 2010 Greece defaulted and was forced to privatize all its public enterprises such as transport, electricity and gas distribution, its national petrol company, the water services of Athens and Thessalonika, the fourteen airports, the ports, the highway system and train service, the postal service, sport facilities, certain national properties, beaches, making them from res publica to res privata.[5] Greece’s plight is perhaps an extreme example, but Giraud points out that the urge to expand privatization is one of the main economic forces that are affecting the well-being of citizens. Hence, Giraud asks what are the limits of human appropriation or human privatization?  What can be owned? What must be held in common?

Giraud, in other words, examines the limit of the private, the limits of what can be capitalized, that is, transformed into a thing upon which a monetary value can be imposed? He explores in other words the limits of capitalism. He recognizes that the recent more primitive, neo-liberal capitalism that has subverted the social capitalism that ruled in the early post-war period such as Roosevelt’s New Deal or Canada’s universal health care system. Our time has corrupted capitalism, certainly the social capitalism which led to the post war welfare state. Our democracies have as a consequence become less liberal and more unequal. Milanovic identifies them as autocratic capitalist. It has created a cycle of reactivity in our post-modern societies that is best displayed in the extreme nationalism where these autocrats pose as populist champions of a “mystical people”. It has diverted the attention of people away from the concentrated wealth in the hands of a one percent and their political manipulations to keep this system intact. Our societies are run by rigged rules. Giraud urges us to try to create a world in common.

Fr. John van den Hengel, SCJ
North American Dehonian Theological Commission



[1] 1877 : L’Education / L’Enseignement selon l’idéal chrétien ; 1889 : Le Règne du Cœur de Jésus dans les âmes et dans les sociétés ; 1893 : Manuel social chrétien ; 1895 : Usure au temps présent ; 1889 -1895 : Œuvres sociales : Chronique du Règne ; 1897 : Nos Congrès ; 1897 : Les Directions Pontificales : politiques et sociales ; 1898 : Catéchisme social ; 1897 – 1900 : La Rénovation Sociale ; 1908 : Le Plan des Franc-Maçonnerie en Italie et France (Le clef de l’histoire)

[2] David Neuhold, Mission and Church, Money and Nation: Four Perspectives on Léon Dehon, Studia Dehoniana 65 (Rome: Centro Studi Dehoniani, 2019) p. 229.

[3] As Dehon writes in DPS 161: “On the social and economic question, the encyclical Rerum Novarum is on its own an almost complete code.”

[4] Capitalism Alone : The Future of the System that Rules the World, (Harvard University Press, 2019)

[5] Composer un monde en commun: Une théologie politique de l’anthropocène (Paris : Seuil, 2022) p. 84.